“More and more women are making themselves heard”

The battle for women’s rights in Brazil is entering a new round

March 09, 2019

Since January this year, Jair Bolsonaro - who has made frequent misogynist statements - has been the new President of Brazil. This is much to the annoyance of many female Brazilians, who have long fought for gender equality. As early as during the colonial rule, women suffered from laws imposed by the Portuguese colonial rulers, and much inventiveness was needed to circumvent these regulations. Luisa Stella Coutinho from the Max Planck Institute for European Legal History is looking into the past and present of women’s rights in Brazil. She has found examples of strong women throughout the ages, who have stood up for change.

"Ele não!" - "Ihn nicht": Zehntausende brasilianischer Frauen demonstrierten vor den Präsidentschaftswahlen im September 2018 gegen den frauenfeindlichen und rassistischen Kandidaten Jair Bolsonaro. Trotzdem stimmte eine Mehrheit der Wähler für ihn. Für die Gegnerinnen geht der Kampf nun in die nächste Runde.

In Germany, we are celebrating 100 years of women’s suffrage this year. What was the development like in Brazil?

Luisa Stella Coutinho: Generally speaking, the history of Brazil is closely linked to the history of Portugal as a colonial power, even though Brazil gained its independence relatively early on: In 1822, the son of the then King of Portugal declared Brazil to be independent and took over the government of the country. In 1891, Brazil became a republic.

Much as in Europe, the early 20th century was the key period in the development of women's suffrage. As early as the end of the 19th century, women in Brazil had increasingly joined forces to fight for their rights, especially in the battle against slavery.

Luisa Stella Coutinho wurde in Brasilien geboren. Sie studierte dort Jura und arbeitete als Rechtsanwältin, bevor sie für ihre Promotion in Rechtsgeschichte nach Portugal ging. Seit 2018 forscht sie als Post-Doc am Max-Planck-Institut für europäische Rechtsgeschichte in Frankfurt am Main. Zu ihren Arbeitsschwerpunkten gehören die Geschichte der Frauenrechte, die Rechtsgeschichte der portugiesischen Expansion sowie das Kolonialrecht in Brasilien.

Biologist Bertha Lutz played a key role in the Brazilian women’s movement: A descendant of Swiss immigrants, she studied in Paris and Rio de Janeiro and in 1922 founded the first women's movement "Federação Brasileira pelo Progresso Feminino". The same year, she also organized the country’s first international feminist conference. And she sat on the committee writing the new constitution. Women were granted suffrage in Brazil in 1932.

Bertha Lutz also played an important role when the United Nations were founded in 1945: She was a member of the Brazilian delegation who signed the Charter of the UN: 156 men and only four women from around the world signed the document, and one of these women was the Brazilian Bertha Lutz.

You are from Paraiba, a federal state in the North-East of Brazil, and you are researching how Portuguese colonial law impacted women...

Legal history cannot deal exclusively with the history of written law. We must also look at how the law was implemented in practice - this is also apparent in files and documents.

To give an example: In the 17th century, the colonial power of Portugal prohibited the construction of convents for women. This was partially based on the idea that white women who were members of the European top layer of society should be available on the Brazilian marriage market.

But the women in Paraiba developed an avoidance strategy and set up so-called “Recolhimentos”, a type of community housing for and by women. These were places where women could e.g. find shelter in the event of a divorce or live safely while their husbands were travelling.

The archives are full of documents, requests by women from Paraiba to the King of Portugal for a special permit to set up such community housing or for donations. So the women of the white European upper layers did not just stay at home and wait to be married off, they took action themselves.

And what about the rights of the indigenous population of Brazil historically, such as the rights of Indian women?

That's where the traces of the colonial past are still apparent. One of the methods used by the Portuguese to colonize the New World was to try to convert the indigenous population to Christianity. Different tribes were forced to live together in “aldeias” or villages, and the land was divided up between the Portuguese. In 1755, the King issued a law on "Miscigenação", which roughly translates as “racial mixture”: He allowed Portuguese men to marry indigenous women and promised not to discriminate against the children from these marriages. This power strategy enabled him to split the Indian population into ‘good Indians’ who were willing to cooperate, and ‘bad Indians’ who resisted and against whom a ‘just war’ must be fought. And of course this was also a way to gain ownership and keep control of the country. Up to the present day, the recognition of the land rights of indigenous Brazilians is a very complicated matter in the Brazilian parliament.

And the racism of today can also only be understood if we look at the past. Officially, slavery in Brazil was abolished in 1888. But even very recently, a photograph from the birthday celebrations of the head of the Brazilian version of the fashion magazine “Vogue”, a white woman, appeared on social media: She is seated on a chair surrounded by black women in white dresses resembling the clothes of black house slaves during the colonial era. This led to angry protests, because many people were reminded of the slave era.

And it is anything but a coincidence that this is the first year in which a black woman has hosted the most important Brazilian TV news show. She received a lot of hateful comments!

And how do you see the situation today? The new Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has made a lot of misogynist statements....

Jair Bolsonaro embodies everything that the Brazilian women’s movement has fought against and is still fighting against. For instance, he publicly said in parliament that he found a female member of the opposition party "Partido dos Trabalhos" so ugly that he wouldn’t even rape her. For this comment, he was charged and made to pay damages.

During the election campaign, he maligned black people and Indians by e.g. claiming that black people in “Quilombolas” - communities made up of the descendants of slaves - only sit around getting fat. He claimed that they did not deserve to procreate. He recommended that parents should beat their children. This would teach them not to start a relationship with a black woman.

Women led the protests against Bolsonaro during the election campaign, using the slogan: "Ele não!" ("not him"). There was a massive mobilization against him. But some women also voted for Bolsonaro, in the same way that some women voted for Trump in the USA.

But not everything is desperate in Brazil, there is still some hope: For instance, during the last election, for the first time an indigenous woman was elected to parliament, Joenia Wapichana. In addition, more and more black women from poor circumstances were elected to parliament. More and more women are making themselves heard against poverty, oppression and violence.

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