Leila de Lima, free on bail, continues to tell her stories

Leila de Lima, free on bail, continues to tell her stories
Leila de Lima speaks at the 2024 Adrian E. Cristobal Lecture Series organized by the Unyon ng mga Manunulat ng Pilipinas (Umpil) and the Adrian E. Cristobal Foundation. —PHOTO COURTESY OF UMPIL

It’s almost as if where there’s lawyer Leila de Lima—former senator, justice secretary, human rights commissioner and, until late last year, the Philippines’ most prominent detainee—one could expect blistering commentary on any of the day’s hot-button issues, such as Charter change or the imminent move of the International Criminal Court against her chief jailor’s scandalous “war on drugs.” 

But De Lima’s voice carried more softly now than the last time the nation heard her denouncing the bloody excesses of Rodrigo Duterte’s administration. She looked frailer as well, overwhelmed by greenery and a colorful collage that served as backdrop on the Gimenez Gallery stage at the University of the Philippines Diliman, where she was guest speaker at the 2024 Adrian E. Cristobal Lecture series organized by the Unyon ng mga Manunulat ng Pilipinas and the Adrian E. Cristobal Foundation, on Feb.20. 

The day was also the World Day of Social Justice, an international observance that recognizes the need to promote social justice, including efforts to address issues such as poverty, exclusion, gender inequality, unemployment, human rights, and social protections.

Exhibit A

De Lima, now 64, admitted that she had thought she’d be invited to speak on the news du jour. But she welcomed the opportunity to instead “have a conversation” on the intersection of “Gender and Political Oppression”—a subject in which she’d be Exhibit A, a sort of subject matter expert, a survivor. 

Released on Nov. 13, 2023, after the Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court granted her petition for bail on her third and remaining drug case, De Lima is finding her footing anew.  She is now spokeswoman for the Liberal Party and has taken up teaching human rights law at De La Salle University. She says she’s starting over, her unjust captivity having depleted her financially as well. 

These days, she’s getting used to the idea of freedom again, and the anxiety over what she calls “life outside” is real. As she told the New York Times months before her looming release from the Philippine National Police Custodial Center in Camp Crame, “I know there is no substitute for freedom… But I ask myself: Am I ready for life outside? This has been my home for years.”

Weaponized stereotypes

In all those years in a 5×8-square-meter detention cell, she found herself smack in the middle of that intersection where, in her words, “gender stereotypes and societal expectations [were] weaponized against women who dare to challenge the status quo.” Misogyny and sexism in the face of political dissent? Check. The daughter, lawyer, sister, mother, and grandmother had also been labeled “drug queen,” “mother of drug lords,” “an immoral woman,” among other things, as Duterte’s state machinery worked overtime to make the drug charges against her stick. She had called for an investigation of violations committed in the name of the brutal war on drugs, including the extrajudicial killing of thousands of suspected drug pushers and users.

There has been near-zero justice or accountability for the victims of these abuses and their families.

During her lengthy detention, the wheels of justice turned at snail’s pace and often ground to a standstill, driving home the true state of the country’s justice system: If the authorities could treat a lawyer and sitting senator this way, trotting out a parade of convicts to testify against her, what options did ordinary citizens/women have? 

And while it is also true that De Lima’s imprisonment garnered considerable local and international attention because of who she was, her being a woman drew stereotypical—and unkind—responses from all around. Many wondered: What was she thinking, going up against an alpha male of a president? Was she really expecting to win this one? (I recall one time, midway into De Lima’s captivity, when I asked to be let off a taxi whose driver was regurgitating the salacious propaganda against her as we stewed in Edsa traffic. The driver’s inordinate interest in De Lima’s “sex tape” and his appalling certainty that it existed, though proven fake, revealed the inky depths in which the previous administration had wallowed to get its way.) 

In her speech De Lima noted the double standards and the double binds that plague gender discourse: “‘Kung anong kaya ng lalake, kaya rin ng babae (anything men can do so can women)’…[or] Fight it out like a man’ and ‘Huwag kang lumaban, babae ka (don’t fight back; you’re a woman)’ two seemingly different notions of gender expectations—one …encourages women to succeed in male-dominated spaces and [the other] discourages women [from fighting it] out in male-dominated spaces: Both reinforce harmful gender norms and perpetuate inequality.

Getting out of these binds is possible only through concerted, collective effort she said. “Forgive…motherhood statements like these. But really, it is because of collective action that I am here now rather than just through a written message from Camp Crame,” she said. “I used to believe that my upbringing and my professional titles were enough to shield me from the abuses of power. But I have learned that true strength lies not in individual accolades, but in our ability to come together as a community and demand accountability for injustice.”

Humanizing the struggle

De Lima’s “Dispatches from Crame”—now a collection of her handwritten notes and commentary through the years in detention—kept her sane, as did the support of women’s groups like #EveryWoman, launched in 2017, and #Women2022, which decried her systematic vilification and oppression by the state. Books from friends, and specifically “intellectual” books from Filipino academic and former congressman Walden Bello, kept her company. Stray cats she adopted and becoming a “plantita” especially during the pandemic helped her keep time and observe a routine that resembled normalcy. But especially heartening was the fact that her minders and guards thought she shouldn’t have been there in the first place, that they knew a grievous wrong had been committed. This, along with continuous prayers, kept her faith in both humanity and the Divine strong. 

That’s why I never stop telling my stories … be [they] about … my strict daily routine for seven years … the visits of the mothers and daughters who were orphaned by the drug war, and even my harrowing ordeal with a hostage taker [in 2022],” she said, adding that she’s doing precisely that when she fulfills speaking engagements in schools and organizations.

“We humanize the struggle,” said De Lima. “Statistics, while important, are not enough to capture the human dimension of injustice. Stories, on the other hand, put a face to the struggle. They allow us to connect with the individuals impacted by injustice and understand their experiences and feel their emotions. Our stories also serve as vital historical records, documenting the struggles and triumphs of those who fought for justice. By preserving these narratives, we ensure that future generations learn from the past, are inspired by the courage of those who came before them, and continue the fight for a more just and equitable world.”

In the end, the room burst into lusty applause when De Lima announced that she and her legal team are preparing to file charges against Duterte et al. As they should.

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