‘Bastos’ and safety
Sending “romantic” texts like “luv u,” “mis u.”
Teasing someone by saying she looks like a naked woman in a photo.
Asking a woman to say “Sir, come again” to request the repetition of a question.
These were the basis of sexual harassment complaints of three women law students in Xavier University against Cresencio Co Untian Jr., their professor.
Xavier University responded quickly by not renewing the teaching contract of Untian, but the case was brought to the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), where the decision was to suspend Untian from practicing law for two years. The case was then elevated to the Supreme Court, which suspended Untian from the practice of law for five years and from teaching law for 10 years.
The case was first filed with Xavier way back in 2002; the Supreme Court decision was penned in April but made public only a few days ago. It will be considered a landmark case for law schools—and, I hope, for our courts, our schools and professional associations like the IBP.
By coincidence, but most appropriately, another delayed announcement last week will, together with the Untian case, redefine not just sexual harassment but the very definition of bastos.
In March this year, the House of Representatives and the Senate approved a bill with the long name “Safe Streets, Public Spaces and Workplace Act.” Risa Hontiveros was its principal sponsor. The bicameral bill was then forwarded to the Office of the President, and on April 21, or 30 days after receipt, it became a law even without President Duterte’s signature. The announcement of the new law came out only last week.
A short name—let’s call it a street name because it’s not official—will probably become more popular: the “Bawal Bastos” law.
The most basic definition of bastos is “disrespect,” but of a form that is serious because it is strongly felt as an assault—physically, emotionally or even on one’s sensibilities.
The term is used especially in relation to sexuality, where we are seeing a rapid expansion of what constitutes “bastos.” The Bawal Bastos law has a long list of punishable offenses ranging from milder offenses like “wolf-whistling,” “leering and intrusive gazing” and “unrelenting requests for personal details” to graver offenses like “offensive body postures” and “exposing private parts” to “stalking” and online harassment, such as the posting of photos and videos without consent.
The offenses are punishable by fines (P1,000 to P500,000), imprisonment and community service.
Implementing the new law will require massive public education and “test” cases, including citing the Supreme Court ruling on Untian as a precedent.
The battle arenas will be mainly cultural, because so many of the now punishable offenses are still considered acceptable by many Filipinos, men in particular. Untian, for example, argued that he was just “injecting humor” with his “come again” order, while apologists for Mr. Duterte (who will be immune from prosecution) keep arguing that Mr. Duterte’s remarks against women are “joke only.”
We have had an antisexual harassment law since 1995. Many schools have antisexual harassment codes, too, but when cases are filed, deliberations can be protracted because so many forms of harassment have emerged through the years, including online assaults.
I do worry about the name “Bawal Bastos,” because we lose sight of why certain behaviors are wrong in the first place. We will need to translate the offenses, especially terms like “misogynistic,” “homophobic” and “transphobic,” into our major languages.
Moreover, the key to discussing bastos behavior is not just the way it hurts people but also by the way—and this is where the official English name of the new law comes in—it makes someone feel unsafe afterward, in serious cases, feeling traumatized and fearful. Think of the women who make their way home in the dark of night knowing there are gauntlets of men drinking and staring at women and wolf-whistling.
Think of the young transgender going home and finding a father or elder brother waiting in the street, cursing and shouting, “Bakla!” The transgender knows this can be a prelude to a beating.
In UP Diliman, we have to give orientation workshops to new construction workers and security guards on sexual harassment, and there are always reactions of incredulity when lecturers point out that even a remark like “Morning, Miss Ganda” will be considered offensive by many of our students and faculty, especially when accompanied by body gestures and even a “look.” The workers and guards understand, though, when we follow up with a question: “How would you feel if that was done to your daughter, your wife or your sister?”
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