What’s sex got to do with it?
It won’t have escaped notice that the president impeached by Brazilian legislators last year was a woman.
How much Dilma Rousseff’s gender had to do with her removal from the highest office is moot. But academic and citizen lawyer Heloisa Melino has no doubts: ‘I see this coup as a very strong backlash against women,’ she tells me as we chat in a café in Rio. Melino is young, forthright and drinks her coffee espresso.
‘In Brazil, we have gender norms that say that women are for the private spaces and men for the public. Then what happens? A woman gets to the highest place in public life, as president of the republic. From her first term, Dilma was constantly criticized: for her clothes, for not having a husband, for being a lesbian… Is she a lesbian? I don’t know. I would like it if she was… Anyway, she was called bossy, harsh, a bitch. When men are in high office, they aren’t criticized for “not being soft” – but she was, even by people in her own party.’
In Rousseff’s second term the criticism intensified. Support dwindled and she was suspended on a technicality in May 2016 – for breaking budgeting rules.
When Michel Temer, Rousseff’s vice-president and coalition partner turned coup-monger, took her place on an interim basis, he made his attitude towards equality and diversity clear.
The centre-right Brazilian Democratic Movement leader formed a cabinet that was entirely white and male – the first since the 1964-85 dictatorship and a far cry from the diverse and inclusive presidential style of his Workers’ Party predecessors.
Temer scrapped the Ministry of Women and the Ministry of Racial Equality along with four others to ‘save costs’. Later, he relented (somewhat) and put a conservative, black woman in charge of human rights.
In March this year, on International Women’s Day, Temer shared his ideas about womanhood by praising women for their prowess in shopping and home economics.
A few weeks later, Veja, a popular conservative magazine, reinforced this with a feature about Marcela, the president’s wife. ‘She was praised for being young, beautiful, but most of all “domestic” – a woman who knows her place,’ recalls Molino.
She adds: ‘We have a new Right in power that has a problem with women and minorities. They say we do not need feminism any more. They are comfortable about being homophobic and transphobic – and that is echoed in the population.’
Violence against transgender women has, for some time, been extreme. Brazil accounts for 40 per cent of trans murders in the world since 2008. But, says Molino, today it’s become ‘normal’ to share videos on social media of trans women being murdered.
A recent report prepared by Sempre Viva Feminist Organization and two other NGOs expresses concern over the dismantling of government structures to protect the human rights of LGBT+ people. More than 32 per cent of LGBT+ people surveyed reported experiencing physical, 42 per cent sexual, and over 70 per cent psychological violence. Progress on LGBT+ rights is actually going backwards, the report says.
Misogynist, homophobic and transphobic tendencies find their most egregious political embodiment in the figure of congress member Jair Bolsonaro.
A presidential candidate for 2018 (second only to Lula in the polls), the former soldier dedicated his vote in favour of Rousseff’s impeachment to Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ultra – the colonel who headed the infamous Doi-Codi torture unit in the 1970s.
Rousseff was tortured during this time – Bolsonaro was honouring her torturer.
The Rio rightwinger has also volunteered that he would rather his son died in an accident than he were gay, and told a congress member and anti-rape campaigner that she was ‘too ugly to rape’.
Brazil has a high rate of rape – some 47,000 cases reported a year: that’s one woman raped every 11 minutes. Alarmingly, since the coup, the rate of recorded rape in São Paulo state has leapt by 38 per cent.
‘Brazil is an unequal country that is very violent with women,’ says Esther Solano, who teaches sociology at the São Paulo Federal University. Thirteen women are killed every day – a third by current or previous partners. Before leaving office, Rousseff increased penalties for men who murdered women.
Violence against women in Brazil also takes other forms. For example, the emboldened, socially conservative, evangelical lobby in Congress is pushing to criminalize abortion.
Discrimination is also economic. It is already harder for women, even if they are university educated, to enter the labour market, says Solano. The coup government’s key aims, to gut labour and welfare laws, hit women and minorities hardest as they are more likely to be in low-paid or part-time work. The labour reforms, which passed their first stage in July, will return the country, critics say, to a system of ‘legalized slavery’.
More than 100 changes are involved. For example, rights to holiday and sick pay are to be withdrawn from ‘intermittent’ or seasonal workers. Employers can terminate contracts more easily and/or reduce wages while increasing hours of work. Workers will no longer be able to choose which union they belong to, and their safety and compensation for injuries will be valued according to how much they earn, rather the injury sustained.
Race and class
For women who are poor or black or both, it’s worse still. Traditionally, black women in Brazil have had low-paid jobs as domestics or nannies. Their voices are rarely heard in the media or in public office and where they are represented, say in advertising, the preference is for women who are ‘not too black’. In the mass media, black women’s bodies are often hyper-sexualized and objectified.
But there is a growing cultural movement of women of colour shaping their own identities and expressing themselves using rap, art, blogging and social media. Mothers of black youth targeted by police (see ‘We have a lot to teach the city’, also in this magazine) are organizing and resisting.
And a small number of black women have entered spheres that are male- and white-dominated. Djamila Ribeiro, a philosopher at the Federal University of São Paulo, is one of these. Through her work and activism, she is keen to dispel myths of homogeneity and universality in the women’s movement. She also works to develop a better understanding of intersectionality; that ‘oppressions act in a crisscrossed and combined way, that a black woman, for example, suffers from two structural oppressions, and therefore she can’t choose against which she will fight, because both reach her’.
The women’s has been one of the social movements most ready to mobilize against Temer, with thousands taking to the streets to protest against the coup in the past year. Some women from marginalized groups have also been successfully entering politics at a local level, despite being dramatically under-represented in high office.
Indianaria Siqueria, a trans activist and sex worker who helps run a night shelter in Rio, won an ‘alternate’ seat in the municipal elections of October 2016. She stood for the leftwing Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL) and her campaign slogan was ‘a whore for councilwoman’.
Her route to political power was harsh to say the least. Having left home at 16, she became a sex worker and, on one occasion, found herself tied to a post by a police officer who put a gun to her head and started playing Russian roulette.