The matter of 60-year-old musician Freddie Aguilar’s marriage to his 16-year-old girlfriend has courted a firestorm of both defenders and critics. Indeed, the knee-jerk reaction to an intimate relationship with such an age gap would often be disgust. Granted, such initial feelings are seldom rational, given their strong emotional motivation. What Aguilar defenders seem to miss, however, is that there is much more cause for concern here than just the private relationship of a public figure. Exempting themselves from secular Philippine law, Aguilar has decided to convert to Islam, despite describing himself as a “born-again Catholic,” to marry his underage girlfriend.
Negative reactions to Aguilar are commonly rebuffed by pointing out the shallow and tabloid nature of the issue. This defense is only supported by the crass and insipid nature of Aguilar critics painting him as a pedophile or a “dirty old man.” Both apologists for Aguilar and his detractors completely miss the far more nefarious implications of Aguilar’s marriage.
However simplistic it may be, Philippine law requires that marriage involve persons aged 18 and above. Given this, Aguilar and his lover have chosen to enjoy the special laws and privileges given to Filipino Muslims by Ferdinand Marcos’ Presidential Decree 1083—the Code of Muslim Personal Laws of the Philippines.
This special law so deeply controverts the Constitution’s principle of secularism that it overbearingly points out that “The provisions of this Code shall be applicable only to Muslims and nothing herein shall be construed to operate to the prejudice of a non-Muslim.” Not only that, should any conflicts (such as those regarding marriage and divorce) arise between secular law and this special law, the Code shall prevail and that secular laws should be “liberally construed” in order to accomplish the provisions of the Code. The Code establishes special Shari’a courts that are appointed to adjudicate and mete out the appropriate punishment for violations of Islamic laws, as recognized by the Code. Between a Constitution that declares that “No religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights” and a law that literally requires belief in Islam, something has to give. Unsurprisingly, in the good old Republic of the Philippines, religious privilege wins out.
Among other provisions, the Code also includes the sexist decree—a belief shared by Catholic opponents of the RH Law—that it is the male in a heterosexual marriage that must exercise authority over the family: “In case of disagreement, the father’s decision shall prevail unless there is a judicial order to the contrary.”
Non-Catholics in the Philippines have long suffered under the tyrannical majority of the Catholic Church and these special rights for Muslims are, ironically, a side effect of this tyranny. While masking as benevolence, these special rights are rooted in the same xenophobic entitlement as the common patronizing expression, “mga kapatid nating Muslim (our Muslim brothers).” This saying paints Muslims automatically separate in any discussion.
Instead of fully recognizing the diversity of religious belief and non-belief, the Philippine state instead split the baby and framed much of our laws under Catholic prejudice, while creating these special exemptions for Muslims—leaving everyone else out of the social contract. This flies in the face of any expectation of justice and the belief, however naive or clichéd, that the law applies to all, or none at all.
The secularist indignation against Aguilar is only inflated by just how insincere Aguilar seems to be in his conversion. It’s bad enough for one religion to enjoy rights not afforded to all Filipinos. Here we have what appears to be the disingenuous and opportunistic exploitation of an already unjust and backward legal system.
Image Credit: Christopher Sundita