A Muslim Woman Is Shaking Up Philippines' Senate Campaign Samira Gutoc, a women's rights advocate, is fighting an uphill battle in Monday's election. But she has already won a loyal following.

In Largely Catholic Philippines, A Muslim Woman Shakes Up Senate Campaign

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It's Election Day in the Philippines Monday. Half of the Senate and all of the House of Representative seats are up for grabs. And the outcome will be a test of President Rodrigo Duterte's grip on power. NPR's Julie McCarthy profiles the only woman running for the Senate on the opposition's slate of candidates. She's a Muslim lawyer and a women's rights advocate.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Wearing a white headscarf wrapped turban-like, Samira Gutoc is a live wire in this campaign.


MCCARTHY: She's at ease whether she's slurping noodles from a banana leaf with farmers or swaying to the music at a rally, which delights crowds in the Philippines' song-and-dance political culture, or mustering a spirited defense against President Duterte's maligning of opposition parties.

SAMIRA GUTOC: Election time, character assassination time.

MCCARTHY: Duterte accuses the opposition of plotting to oust him and claims politicians of all stripes are involved in illegal drugs. Instead of hurling accusations, Gutoc asks, why don't you figure out issues like poverty? She gently jabs Duterte for not confronting China over its aggression in the South China Sea, which has hurt Filipino fishermen and which Gutoc calls a sellout. Riding along as she travels, Gutoc tells me...

GUTOC: If you are bowing to China, you should bow more to your fisher folk or farmers. People who are prejudicing our future are in the other side.

MCCARTHY: The opposition senatorial slate careens between farmers beneath coconut trees, social service groups at a local cathedral and a serenaded lunch.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in foreign language).

MCCARTHY: Between stops, Gutoc ducks into her van to reapply lipstick and rearrange her headscarf. She's a Muslim in a country that is 92% Christian, and her race is nationwide. But Gutoc's religion does not appear to be an issue. She generates more of a stir as the only woman among the male-dominated lineup of opposition senatorial candidates known as the Straight Eight, which is how they'd like voters to mark their ballots. But rally after rally, Gutoc is the fiery fresh face who can break out into song about the loneliness of Filipinos who work overseas.


GUTOC: (Singing in foreign language).

MCCARTHY: Gutoc has been tested, not in high office but in war. Her hometown of Marawi on the restive southern island of Mindanao was laid waste in 2017 when Philippine government troops battled ISIS-linked militants who had dug into the city. Gutoc led volunteers in rescuing residents trapped during the five-month-long siege and is displaced herself. The experience animates her belief she can serve.

GUTOC: Because I can talk about their struggle. And it's also the struggle of anyone, to try to find a house and shelter and safety.

MCCARTHY: Duterte jokingly exhorted soldiers to commit rape during the Marawi siege. Gutoc called the remark offensive and quit a local peace panel to which Duterte had appointed her. In the campaign, she sounds the alarm about rape in a country where data show a woman is sexually assaulted every 72 minutes.


GUTOC: We have got to band together, join together and file a claim against that bastard who did it to us.

MCCARTHY: Her call to report rape resonated with 21-year-old coed Michele Orbeta.

MICHELE ORBETA: When she opened up about that during the forum, I could tell, especially amongst my fellow students, it really got everyone's attention.


MCCARTHY: Women of all ages literally embrace Gutoc and eagerly snap selfies with her. Her biggest hurdle in Monday's election may be name recognition. But beside each candidate's name is a number. Gutoc is 36, which she's used to good effect.


GUTOC: (Speaking foreign language).

MCCARTHY: Thirty-six is my ballot number, the stout Samira Gutoc tells audiences, and my waistline.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Manila.

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