Hard Lessons on Rape Culture from Brazil

“I don’t deserve to be raped! No one deserves to be.” These are the words printed on the signs made by thousands of Brazilian women who decided to join a massive online campaign launched through facebook last week. The campaign was organized after the Institute of Applied Research and Statistics (IPEA) made public the results of a survey which showed that 58% of the interviewed either completely or partially agreed that if women knew how to behave, there would be fewer cases of rape; and 65.1% agreed with the phrase “women wearing clothes that show off their bodies deserve to be attacked”. Many have come to question the methodological problems with the survey since the report was published and, in fact, IPEA acknowledged a serious mistake in the presentation of the data. At the moment of publication the finding on whether women deserve to be attacked was in fact regarding another question. The Institute misread two sets of questions. Now IPEA is confirming that, in fact, only 26% of Brazilians agree with the statement “women wearing clothes showing their bodies deserve to be attacked”. The previous finding refers to the 65.1% of Brazilians who agree with the statement that “battered women who stay with their partners like to suffer violence.”1

Nonetheless, we believe that diminishing the scientific value of the survey or even realizing that not the majority but one fourth of the interviewed legitimate women’s attack for their clothing, should in no way curtail the more structural issue raised by this research. 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 on all of its dimensions beyond gender matters, but also to the possibilities of a conservative backlash in the country. Hence, the gravity of the error may fall on delegitimizing a cause that feminists have long sought to bring onto the public agenda. In other words, does this change reflect the fact we do not live in such a sexist and violent society? We beg to differ. In fact, 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 Fundação Perseu Abramo’s (FPA) survey 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, paving the path towards the consolidation of a culture of blaming women for their own victimization. It is as if we are constantly challenged to fulfill the duty to protect ourselves.

Despite the fact that anyone who knows a little about the contemporary social landscape in Brazil would agree that we are far from a scenario of deep transformation in gender relations, most of us were surprised by the data mentioned above, particularly those 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 socio-political 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. Therefore, an ongoing challenge to the main tenets of patriarchy is clearly taking place. On the other hand, research as the ones pointed 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 reflect 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 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 June 2013 calling national and international attention to the vindications being made, starting off with Movimento Pelo Passe Livre’s demands for reversing the increase in public transportation fees in São Paulo. The protests that ensued took classic social movements, the government, media, academics and society at large by surprise given their rapid expansion to various cities in the country, 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 such mass 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, various articulations of feminism, unions and student movements, all in an environment in which traditional and new social movements met the new “new social movements”. Nonetheless, it should be made clear that it is not as if traditional social movements had been absent from the streets, but rather that the June Journeys opened up a space in which new forms of mobilization flourished, forming alliances with the “old” ones.

Amidst such diffusion of struggles, it is worth highlighting that the feminist movements also played a central role leading up to the recent protests. Not only were women of all ages present in the recent protests, but so was the focus on the varying dimensions of gender oppression. But the fight against patriarchy did not happen overnight. From the 1990s onward, the feminist movements in Brazil were confronted with a dual shift in strategies: the process of NGOzation, very much connected to the neoliberal reforms of the state, and institutionalization Much has been debated regarding the presence of more feminist activists within the structure of the state. While we choose not to reinforce a dichotomous outlook here on the positive and negative aspects of such approximation (and for some feminists the fear of cooptation or, at least, a lack of autonomy which the movement had always sought out), it is worth critically examining how this has impacted the feminist movements of nowadays in light of the data on violence.

From our understanding, the feminist movements can be mapped out on two dimensions. As mentioned above, there is clearly an institutional route. Within this route, not only have historical agendas of the movements been incorporated into the discourse and the policies of the state (the well known gender mainstreaming), but leading figures have also come to occupy relevant positions within the state’s bureaucracy, generating our version of femocrats. Second, there is a social route, with feminists from different backgrounds and age groups, educational and economic levels coming together to challenge the patriarchal forces and androcentrism that pervade everyday life in Brazil. While this social route 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 vindications, actors and spaces of intervention. Some feminist scholars present this as the emergence of a fourth wave, which accompanies the process of institutionalization and mainstreaming of gender, identified by us as the first dimension.2 Other analyses point towards the idea of sidestreaming of feminism beyond institutional politics,3 which we link back to the second dimension, well represented by the Slut Walks (Marcha das Vadias) and World March of Women (Marcha Mundial das Mulheres) which have taken place in numerous cities across Brazil, as well as by the intervention of feminist activists in the blogosphere.

If this can be characterized as a fourth wave of feminism in Brazil is a question open to exploration. However, no matter the diversity of new issues, strategies and discourses brought forth by feminists, 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. 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 resonate until today 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 to 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, imaged 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 then is 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 events such as the Slut Walks and the interventions of feminists in the blogosphere expand feminist actions to domains previously neglected, it is necessary to acknowledge that they reach out to very specific groups of Brazilian society. Contrastingly, the gender-based violence we confront on an everyday basis is pervasive, and so needs to be our struggle.

  1. For the correction of graphs and data. []
  2. See, for example, Marlise Matos. []
  3. See, among others, Sonia Alvarez. []

Mariana Assis is a Ph.D. student at the Politics Department at the New School for Social Research. She holds a J.D. and a MA in Political Science from the Federal University of Minas Gerais/Brazil. While in Brazil, she served as a lawyer for various social movements. Currently, she explores the potential of international human rights courts and commissions in promoting progressive interpretations of women's rights and gender issues. Ana Carolina Ogando is a Doctorate in Political Science and Researcher at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. Read other articles by Mariana Assis and Ana Carolina Ogando.