EssaysSex & Gender

Hard Lessons on Rape Culture: Dispatch from Brazil

“I don’t deserve to be raped! No one deserves to be.” These were the words printed on the signs made by thousands of Brazilian women who decided to join a massive online campaign launched through Facebook some weeks ago. The campaign aimed to protest against the highly misogynist views made public in a recent survey conducted by the Institute of Applied Research and Statistics (IPEA). The data showed that 58% of the interviewed either completely or partially agree that if women knew how to behave, there would be fewer cases of rape, 65.1% agree with the statement that “battered women who stay with their partners like to suffer violence,” and 26% of Brazilians agree with the statement “women wearing clothes showing their bodies deserve to be attacked.”

While methodological problems with the survey were pointed out at the time and IPEA recognized faults with data presentation, we believe that attempts at qualifying the scientific value of the research should in no way curtail the more structural issues it raised. That is to say, the data and the ensuing sexist reactions to the online campaign, show such beliefs not only point towards the naturalization of violence, particularly on gender matters, but also to the possibilities of a conservative backlash in the country. Indeed, the stronghold of patriarchy is all too clear by the overall opinion captured from IPEA’s study, as well as from previous surveys.

According to another survey conducted by Fundação Perseu Abramo’s (FPA) in 2010, when prompted to answer if they had suffered any type of violence, 40% of the women claimed they had. Corroborating such findings, in 2012, the Brazilian Forum of Public Security claimed that rapes have been rising increasingly. In 2013, the Secretary for the Ministry on Women’s Policies (SPM), Eleonora Menicucci divulged that every 12 seconds a woman suffers from violence in Brazil. In FPA’s survey, there were echoes of the same beliefs articulated by IPEA’s. These beliefs support a culture of blaming women for their own victimization. It is as if we are constantly challenged to fulfill the duty to protect ourselves.

While most of us who know a little about the contemporary social landscape in Brazil agree that we are far from a scenario of deep transformation in gender relations, we were still surprised by the data mentioned above, particularly those of us who have been closely following the struggles and achievements of the feminist movements in the country. The surprise is derived from what we identify as a gender mainstreaming paradox. On the one hand, we have witnessed and are still witnessing an expansion of feminist discourses and subjects, the mainstreaming of gender in public policies, the amplification of spaces of feminist intervention, as well as a greater participation of women in the public spheres. We have a woman occupying the presidency of the country. This scenario supports our claim that an ongoing challenge to the main tenets of patriarchy is taking place. On the other hand, research such as the ones cited above serve to remind us that the growing rate of violence against women (and other historically excluded groups such as blacks and LGBTQI) and the widespread misogynist discourses in the media reveal a wave of conservative and sometimes even reactionary forces. These forces work towards not only impeding further achievements, but also reversing what feminist and other emancipatory struggles have accomplished thus far. Our question then is how do we make sense of this gender mainstreaming paradox? What are the features of the Brazilian contemporary socio-political horizon from which both forces of liberation and traditionalism spring forth? Finally, what role should the feminist movements play in such a context?

A cycle of protests erupted in the country in June 2013, starting off with Movimento Pelo Passe Livre’s demands for reversing the increase in bus fare in São Paulo. The protests that ensued took social movements, the government, media, academics and society at large by surprise given their rapid expansion to various cities, the array of issues being brought forth (from the left to the right of the political spectrum), the use of social media to increase participation, and the alarming violence used by the police forces. While many scrambled to make sense of the protests, unseen in such numbers since the call for the impeachment of former President Collor in the early 1990s, what they signaled was a growing dissatisfaction with ever present inequalities despite the past two government’s claimed efforts to target them through compensatory policies. The forms of protests escalated to incorporate the claims of those targeting the so-called mega events, housing movements and occupations, unions, student movements, and various articulations of feminism, all in an environment in which traditional and new social movements met the new “new social movements.”

Amidst such diffusion of struggles, the feminist movements played a central role leading up to the recent protests. Not only were women of all ages present at the demonstrations, but so was the focus on the varying dimensions of gender oppression. Issues such as the right to abortion and the alarming rates of sexual violence were explicitly part of the debates generated in the context of the June Protests. But the fight against patriarchy did not happen overnight. While during the military dictatorship and the struggle for redemocratization the feminist movement remained very much grassroots, at the margins of the institutional arena and, at times, underground, from the 1990s onward, it was confronted with a dual shift in strategies. The democratic state allowed for greater dialogue and collaborative work, paving the way for a growing institutionalization. Neoliberal reforms, on the other hand, propelled the process of NGOzation, as feminist organizations became instrumental in providing expert gender knowledge required by international agencies. In our view, these transformations provide a key for understanding the gender mainstreaming paradox that characterizes contemporary Brazilian society.

Indeed, the feminist movements can now be mapped out on two spaces. First, there is what we call an institutional domain. Within this domain, not only have historical agendas of the movements been incorporated into the discourse and the policies of the state, but leading figures have also come to occupy relevant positions within the state’s bureaucracy, generating our version of femocrats. At first sight, it seems that feminism has finally achieved some of its historical goals, by securing a permanent space within the structure of the state, from where it can influence decisions towards gender justice. Second, there is a social space, where feminists from different backgrounds and age groups, educational and economic levels come together to challenge the patriarchal forces and androcentrism that pervade everyday life in Brazil. While this social domain can be traced back to most of our history, when feminists did not have access to state and organized themselves primarily at the grassroots, we sense, nonetheless, that the very feminist movements in Brazil are experiencing a moment of transformation, characterized by the expansion and diversity of claims, actors and spaces of intervention.

Nonetheless, no matter the diversity of new issues, strategies and discourses brought forth by feminists, and the strength of the actions stemming from both these two spaces — institutional and social, the dismal fact is that they are dealing with the same kind of stereotypes their sisters of the past experienced as early as the so-called first wave in Brazil. This is the gender mainstreaming paradox. And that is why we should not underestimate how a political culture, sustained and reinvented by new forms of patriarchy, still configures a social imaginary built upon conservative values regarding women’s autonomy. Feminists continue to be labeled as socially and morally deviant, lesbians and angry women. Domestic violence is still framed as a private issue. Women’s moral character is still valued by the way they dress, move their bodies and present themselves in public. And our objectification continues to be the best selling market strategy. All these formulations continue to resonate and are captured not only by the data with which we opened this essay, but also by advertisement campaigns (such as the 2014 Adidas shirts for the World Cup) and speeches given by public representatives.

Take, for example, the statements made by the then President of the House of Representative’s Committee on Human Rights and Minorities, Marco Feliciano, who claimed in 2013 that the feminist movement has led to the prevalence of homosexuality and the demise of family values in Brazilian society. Behind this argument is the centuries old belief, strongly articulated by religious groups, that a woman’s primary role is that of a care-taker within the family and heterosexuality is not only natural, but the norm to be strictly followed. Despite the fury such statements provoked among activists, the moral panic with which such politicians and religious leaders masterfully evoke when discussing gender issues has been the perfect backdrop for reactionary forces.

So what exactly is happening when women and girls claiming their right to freedom, autonomy and control over their bodies are met with discourses that legitimate the very violence they are fighting against? We believe that in order to answer this question, we need to revisit the idea of patriarchal masculinity or, in other words, the construction of a model of masculinity that not only relies on fixed gender roles, but also places them on a hierarchy. When this type of manhood is put into question and shamed, both through the various gender policies implemented by the state and the occupation of the streets, internet and other public spaces by new feminist bodies, violence erupts, in its discursive, visual and physical forms, as a mechanism of protecting patriarchal forms of authority, which work concomitantly in the public and private spheres.

The data, which has stirred much public debate recently, should be a constant warning to the feminist movements that in some form or other, as historian Dipesh Chakrabarty has affirmed, we are never completely disassociated from the past as we continue to inhabit and reproduce many of its beliefs and practices. The challenge posed by the gender mainstreaming paradox is then to articulate new forms of struggle against our very old enemies. In order to do so, we believe two strategies are necessary. First, and despite the gains achieved with the incorporation of some of our demands by the official policies, it is necessary to take a step back from institutionalized arenas and reclaim our autonomy vis-à-vis the state. Only by doing so will we be able to critically examine and oppose the limited responses given to issues we have historically addressed. Second, we need to engage with women, at the grassroots level, on an everyday basis, hearing their concerns and building strategies for collective action. If new feminist interventions, such as the Slut Walks and their presence in the blogosphere expand actions to domains previously neglected, it is necessary to acknowledge that they reach out to very specific groups of Brazilian society. In contrast, the gender-based violence we confront on an everyday basis is pervasive, which is why our struggles need to be as well.

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Mariana Prandini Assis

  • A great, albeit very depressing, piece. Although you alluded to the “centuries old belief, strongly articulated by religious groups” and the idea of “moral panic” used by some political leaders, I suspect there is actually a much more important story behind this story that needs to be addressed, which is the rise in recent years of Pentecostal and other charismatic religious movements with a very conservative, even reactionary, socio-cultural politics, akin to the new right or moral majority in the US 1980s. As just one example, a recent Pew-Templeton report on religious trends in Brasil showed a significant rise drop in Catholicism, with an important rise in Pentecostal and other conservative Protestant sects. (Study here).

    It strikes me that this is part of a larger global trend in growing social conservatism linked to religious revivals of reactionary religious adherents–culture war rhetoric and such–and in that sense this growing social conservatism if not unique to Brasil at all. I’d be curious to hear more about how you see changing religious trends in Brasil playing into these dynamics.

    • Mariana Assis

      Hi Chris! Many thanks for your great and important point. Indeed, there is a recent rise in Pentecostal and other conservative Protestant sectors in Brazil. And while the dominant sectors of the Catholic church, which dominated the national religious scene for centuries, is not more progressive in gender issues than these new groups, it is certainly more diverse and leaves open a space for contestation. For example, there is the Liberation Theology and even the feminist group Catholics for the Right to Decide, which contribute to the discussion (and disruption) within the structure of the church itself. In the case of these new religious groups, there is simply no space for such dissent. The question that haunts me though is why this rise in the last few decades? I do not have the answer, but I cannot help think about the links it may have with the uncertainty and sense of displacement generated by neoliberalism.

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