The Filipino knows he is worth dying for, but not why. Would we die for a student’s right to have a bikini photo in a private Facebook account?
My greatest disappointment with my beloved Ateneo de Manila came shortly after my graduation from college in 2001. Then a UP Law freshman taking his first human rights class, I was shocked that the Ateneo banned a Filipino performance of “The Vagina Monologues.” I told the student director it was ironic that he was old enough to vote, enlist in the armed forces and die for the country but could not stage a play. I shared the classic US Supreme Court quote: students do not “shed their constitutional rights… at the schoolhouse gate.”
Several UP Law classmates and I watched the performance in a building rooftop across the street from the Blue Eagle Gym. It was a magnificent interpretation, with the Filipino translation’s gentle melody contrasting with the edge of lines like, “My short skirt is not a legal reason for raping me.” By the way, everyone was fully clothed.
If the Ateneo, with one of the Philippines’ greatest traditions of art and humanities, could suppress a play, perhaps this explains why St. Theresa’s College (STC) brazenly defied a court order to let the “bikini girls” attend their graduation. The school unfriended them after photos of them, allegedly in bikinis and holding liquor and cigarettes, surfaced on Facebook. Many simply say that STC should have been merciful. Others attempt to define just how much skin should be acceptable under the STC handbook.
Why has no one asked whether the “bikini girls” have anything at all to apologize for, beyond poor judgment, in allowing the photos to be posted? Their parents publicly stated that the photos were taken at a family activity and saw nothing offensive with teenage girls being teenage girls, and they even went to court for their daughters. With what impunity, thus, do teachers claim to know morality better than these parents to the point of defying a court order?
STC is accused of violating the rights to expression and privacy. The privacy violation here is not the superficial kind involving a nun hacking into a student’s account in search of compromising photos. (Facebook friends allegedly sent the photos to STC.) The right to privacy in its deepest sense protects an intimate zone in which a human is free to make fundamental decisions about oneself. A parent’s right to raise a child and educate her on morality is among the most strongly protected of these fundamental decisions. Perhaps the most fundamental decision in the Facebook age is how one shapes the identity one presents to the world, including one’s sexuality. As Dean and Justice Irene Cortes put it: “The stand for privacy need not be taken as hostility against other individuals, against government, or against society. It is but an assertion by the individual of his inviolate personality.”
The “bikini girls” are not being punished for a lighthearted teenage moment immortalized on the Internet. They are really being punished for transgressing the unspoken stereotype of the Filipino woman straitjacketed as a Maria Clara who should not bare even her ankles. This stereotype is as outmoded as the idea of educating girls just enough to allow them to pray. Teenage girls worldwide now admire the new stereotype of strong, smart and independent women, from modern characters such as Hermione Granger and Katniss Everdeen to Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet. They embrace “Sex and the City’s” message of equal footing in relationships. And they believe one is free to revel in one’s own beauty for its own sake. As “The Vagina Monologues” put it: “My short skirt, believe it or not, has nothing to do with you.”
We must protect the deeper right to privacy from intellectual impunity where schools defy courts and diverge from human rights standards protected by our Constitution. We must protect the idea that rights leave certain decisions to individuals (and in this case, their parents). We must protect the idea that our national values cannot be imposed but are shaped by an evolving consensus emerging from the exercise of these rights, including by teenage girls.
Beyond STC, we must curb intellectual impunity in the name of “morality” or “values” in our national decisions. With the same intellectual impunity, some bishops floated the idea of excommunicating President Aquino if he pursues reproductive health legislation and called for People Power against him in a colorful sideshow to the ongoing impeachment trial. With the same intellectual impunity, some vandalized and eventually forced the closure of Mideo Cruz’s allegedly blasphemous art exhibit instead of staging their own and allowing the public to judge. With the same intellectual impunity, Comelec blocked a homosexual party from participating in the party-list elections until the Supreme Court noted that its members’ alleged immorality was not punished by Philippine law. Justice Mariano del Castillo wrote: “[O]ur democracy precludes using the religious or moral views of one part of the community to exclude from consideration the values of other members of the community.”
Gauging values, the “bikini girls” might take heart that the University of the Philippines is symbolized by a naked man and condones the annual Oblation Run. Harvard University condones “Primal Scream,” where undergraduates run naked around Harvard Yard on the eve of final exams, even during winter. Neither school is currently a global laughingstock.
Oscar Franklin Tan (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an international corporate lawyer and president of the UP Alumni Association (Singapore). His article “Articulating the Complete Philippine Right to Privacy” (82(4) PHIL. L.J. 78 (2008)) has been cited in jurisprudence.