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Meet the powerhouse women leading Brazil’s new era of feminist activism

We spoke to a sex worker, an editor at Marie Claire Brazil, and a singer-songwriter to get a full picture of what feminism under Jair Bolsonaro looks like.

It’s hard to say that 2018 treated Brazil worse than any other year. From military dictatorship to technically-democratic coups, the country has seen its fair share of wild and controversial politics. What makes the recent Brazilian election cycle stand out are the uncanny parallels with the 2016 American elections. In particular, the elected candidates and the protests against them.  

In fact, newly-inaugurated Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro was dubbed “Tropical Trump” long before he took office. The similarities are seemingly countless: inflammatory comments about women and minorities, campaign promises to “drain the swamp”, disregarding the environment for the sake of development, and the list goes on. Bolsonaro’s comments rival that of Trump, in both audacity and ignorance. In his most infamous comment, directed at colleague Maria do Rosário, he stated that she is “not worth” being sexually assaulted. This verbal attack occurred not in a locker room, but in parliament.

[bctt tweet=”Both Bolsonaro and Trump have ignited the fury of women worldwide.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Thankfully, another similarity is that both men ignited the fury of women worldwide. On September 29 of 2018, Brazilian women took to the streets declaring #Elenao (#Nothim) in protest of Bolsonaro’s candidacy. Women organized protests in 114 cities, both in and outside of Brazil. While it did not reach the numeral success of the Women’s March, which is the largest protest in American history, the #Elenao movement signaled a significant rise of pro-woman consciousness. According to the BBC, it is the largest protest held by women in Brazilian history and one of the largest protests against a single candidate.

Unfortunately, the protests did not prevent Brazil from joining the list of countries swept up by political polarization and the conservative wave. Bolsonaro was sworn in as president on January 1st, 2019.  Now, the question becomes how Brazilians will respond. Institutions like SESC (Social Service of Commerce), are providing platforms for women and feminists from all over the globe to discuss the position of the modern woman in today’s international political climate. The Tempest sat down with three Brazilian feminists at the event “Nós Tantos Outras” to discuss the new administration and the future of feminism.

“We’re stepping on completely uncharted territory,” warns author, sex worker and activist, Monique Prado. She explains that this “violently conservative” administration could threaten a number of laws and institutions that protect vulnerable groups. Because the active belittlement of women, LGBTQ, black, immigrant and poor populations fueled Bolsonaro’s campaign, there is a very real fear that many of the gains made in the last two decades will be reversed. Marriage equality, the Landless Workers Movement, and police violence prevention are just a few issues on the proverbial chopping block. The problem, according to Prado, is that “we cannot predict with the least bit of certainty what lies ahead.” Bolsonaro is known to backtrack on proposed ideas, and it is difficult to anticipate where his administration will follow through.

Do the parallels between the USA and Brazil offer us any predictions for the future? Not really, says Adriana Ferreira Silva, the executive editor at Marie Claire Brazil. According to Silva, Brazil “doesn’t have a stable democracy and our institutions are not as strong [as American ones]”. She references Brazil’s two military dictatorships, the most recent ending in 1985, and the frequent corruption scandals that litter the country’s presidential history. The good news, Silva offers, is that women and minorities fought for their rights throughout every administration, regardless of the president. Silva believes that while the global conservative wave has ignited fear, it has also prompted women to reach across social, political, and national boundaries and stand in solidarity with the plights of others. “For the first time,” Silva observes, “we realize we have to unite ourselves to maintain our rights.”

This may be harder said than done, points out singer-songwriter Luedji Luna. In Brazil’s case, just looking at a map of the election results shows a startling regional divide. The north and northeast overwhelmingly voted for leftist candidate Fernando Haddad, whereas the south, southeast, and central-west favored Bolsonaro.

“I consider myself a baiana first, and a Brazilian second,” Luna maintains. Baiana is a Portuguese term that refers to someone originating from the Northeastern state of Bahia. Nearly 80% of the state identifies as non-white and it is the 7th poorest state in the country. The lived realities of those residing in Bahia differ greatly from that of São Paulo, for example, where 60% of the population identifies as white and the GDP surpasses that of whole countries (you read that right, whole countries). As a black baiana living in São Paulo, Luna admits that it can be difficult to live in a state that backed a candidate that spoke so openly against her well-being. At the same time, she knows that her ancestors survived tougher times, and she calls upon that strength for guidance. “As much as I’m aware of the danger,” affirms Luna, “I know I can fight it, so I’m not afraid.”  

Due to a history of forced and voluntary immigration, Brazil is one of the most diverse countries in the world. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most unequal. The key to confronting the uncertainties of the future lies in activists’ abilities to debate with and learn from diverse experiences. “We need to be attentive about how our own discourses legitimize that of [the conservative wave],” affirms Prado. Silva and Luna agree, confirming that dialogue across social, economic, and political groups is essential for the future of Brazilian feminism.