It began a quarter of a century ago. To this day, I have yet to find the word to capture this process of cultivating one’s longing to be someone older than the teenager and the young woman in her 20s and 30s that I was at different periods in my life. Back in the day, my wish was to be in my 40s and decisively deal with the world, without having to apologize for my liberties and capacities.
This is not another triumphalist take on women’s empowerment experienced on an individual level. For no matter how I re-tell, re-make, or re-invent the story of my life so far, it can only be a story against something as opposed to it being a story about my liberation. What it has been so far is a story against death and other grave violations. It is a story of quietly overcoming even the most brutal of tyrants. And I share it with a generation of Filipino women whose coming-of-age was marked by the brutal rape and murder of Eileen Sarmenta.
College life welcomed 16-year-olds like me with a very strong message: Don’t get raped. It was one of the most difficult rules I had to observe. The rule was being circulated on television (news, talks shows, documentaries) at home, in family gatherings, and in churches. Don’t get raped meant observing curfews and dress codes, avoiding boys and men, not sleeping in public transportations, not ingesting alcohol in gatherings. In other words, not getting raped means being responsible enough to NOT invite or provoke rape.
We were also following the news on our fellow students, Eileen and Allan, whose violent deaths had already been confirmed. Yet there was something about the situation that made us felt like something can still be saved: Justice for Eileen and Allan! But as the narrative of their brutal murder unfolded, with the detailed account of how Eileen was raped by Calauan Mayor Antonio Sanchez and his men, Gen X instantly became a pained generation.
It took a year before Mayor Sanchez was sentenced to nine penalties of reclusion perpetua. In jail, the mayor would be featured on national television with his statue of the Virgin Mary that he brought with him as a devotee. They would cover him touching the statue and praying before it. I thought back then that nothing could be sicker. But then again, there was no time to ponder on the rapist and murderer, much less on one of the most terrible crimes on earth that happens on an every day basis. We were being told to focus our attention on defending ourselves from rape and death. But there was no way to focus my attention on something that is beyond my control.
Hence, there was really just one lesson to be internalized from the rape and murder of Eileen: Fear rape and death. Fear the clear and present danger of being a flightless, lifeless body who failed to soar high and away from her predators. The predator, in this case, is a corrupt politician who had the police functioned as his private army. This equally brutal government is about to set him free. We have all the reasons to fear rape and death to this day.
That very dark alley implanted in my head twenty six years ago is also this government’s road map to brutality. I have been reading the accounts of Eileen and Allan’s death since the news on Sanchez’s imminent release came out yesterday. And I do not feel a day older than I was when they raped and killed Eileen. A dear friend asked me this morning whether I knew her personally. I never did. But each time her case comes up, it feels like she is someone I left in that very dark place in my head. Her memory unleashes a dimension of my life shared with precious women friends with whom I am recognizing that part of ourselves that has never stopped to fear rape and death, all these years. There is just no amount of empowerment, gainful employment, and a well programmed future that can suppress a chunk of ourselves, which continues to suspect and confirm that the Mayor raped our minds, too.
Sarah Raymundo is a full-time faculty at the University of the Philippines-Diliman Center for International Studies. She is engaged in activist work in BAYAN (The New Patriotic Alliance), the International League of Peoples’ Struggles, and Chair of the Philippines-Bolivarian Venezuela Friendship Association. She is a member of the Editorial Board of the Journal for Labor and Society (LANDS) and Interface: Journal of/and for Social Movements.