Law school and sexual harassment
International law was my favorite subject, because it allowed me to shine. It enabled me to use my vast repository of history and current events culled from years and years of reading history, literature, and global news.
I could easily correlate what I knew of these things with the legal concepts in our law textbooks, so I had less difficulty than with my other subjects. And because of this, I could recite international law concepts with relative ease and more confidence than in my other classes, where I was timid and unassertive.
One night in class, we were discussing what made a State.
I was wearing an apple-green dress with a kilted skirt. Over it, I wore a black blazer. I was also wearing moderate heels, and some makeup and dark red lipstick, which was in vogue that season.
Our professor was talking about the Montevideo Convention, and what made a State. Then he asked if there existed a sovereign state that was also led by a purely religious group.
I volunteered to answer, as this was a topic I was rather familiar with: Vatican City. The Pope, the bishop of Rome, the Vicar of Christ on earth, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, is also the head of state of Vatican City, which is a sovereign state of its own.
The professor and I had a lively exchange. Then he asked why the Holy See was called so. This was his only question that night that I could not answer.
He explained that it was because of “sedes,” or the Latin word for “chair,” pertaining to the seat of government of the Church and that State. “Sancta Sedes,” to be precise: the holy seat of government of that State and the Roman Catholic Church.
Then he bid me sit down, and commended me for such a good discussion. He was in jovial voice.
I smiled, proud of myself for what I thought was a brilliant recitation. I wasn’t this good quite often in law school. But as I fixed the kilt of my skirt, he said something that, to this moment, haunts me.
“Si Ms. [redacted], parang mansanas, ang sarap kagatin.”
He was referring to the apple green dress I was wearing. I could not look him in the eye as he said those disgusting words.
Suddenly, I felt so dirty. I felt so inadequate. Was I not a good student who could potentially be a good lawyer? Why such a blatant sexual statement?
I blamed myself for being pretty and feminine, for wearing a dress and red lipstick.
After the class, I met him at the stairs going to the exit. He had the gall to invite me to his car, and asked if he could take me home. Dear God. I froze in fear, but I did not break down. What could I do? I refused as politely as I could, and rode the train home that night, alone as usual. And it was there that I processed what had happened and tried not to cry.
For the next classes of international law, I did not wear dresses anymore. I consciously chose clothes that would hide my femininity whenever I knew he might be seeing me. I did not apply makeup. I lay low and did not volunteer as much—though I still did, from time to time, because I genuinely liked international law.
But he continued to give compliments about my pretty face, from time to time. I learned to ignore those. Later, I would also learn that that was his norm for many female students who caught his eye, not just in that particular law school but also in others.
I hated myself for being noticed by him in that way. I hated myself for being offended at a sexual joke directed at me right in front of my classmates.
He would eventually be my teacher again, during bar review, though for a different subject altogether. I sat through his classes, thankful that he never again noticed the girl he once compared to an apple he wanted to bite. I was lost in a sea of nervous bar reviewees. And I hated that I continued to learn from him—at the cost of a memory that I still question whether I have a right to feel hurt from.
In time, I became a lawyer. All things considered, I can even say my love for international law helped me pass the bar, because there were questions on the subject at the political law exam of 2017. And begrudgingly, I have to admit that man was part of my learning process and path that led me to where I am now.
Many years from that moment with the professor and my apple-green dress, I am now an associate for two partners who would teach me and encourage me to use everything at my disposal—my wits, my charm, and my legal knowledge—in doing our work. I thank these two men, because with them I have learned to be comfortable being beautiful. And they have never made me feel ill at ease with their occasional comments on how pretty I looked, or their approval of my sartorial choices.
But for every few men and women I would smile sweetly at so that working with them would be easier, there would be one man who would construe my charm as flirtation that might lead eventually to the bedroom. And I would start blaming myself, as I had when I recited in class why Vatican City was a state.
I hope that finally acknowledging this might make me forget the hurt I felt at being reduced to a mere sexual object, despite everything that I was and everything that I am—and even if I continue to question if I have the right to be hurt or be angry at the man.
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Sinag, 29, is a practicing lawyer with a lot of self-doubt regarding her looks.
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