Note from BW of Brazil: Black women in Brazil face and continue to face a number of issues that point to Brazil’s vast social inequalities. Unsafe abortions, racism, loss of their children due to everyday violence and police brutality, lack of health care, income inequality, invisibility and stereotyping in the media and many more issues. As such, many black women who become conscious of the cross sections of discrimination based on gender turn to the feminist movement to fight back and gain their rightful place that society owes them only to find that within the feminist movement, among white women, they come across the specificities of race that white women often simply don’t know how to deal with. In the piece below, Bianca Santana touches upon many of these issues that have been covered consistently here at BW of Brazil.
Black women and feminism in Brazil
I intend to speak here about the relationship between gender and race in Brazil, which is also, inevitably, a class issue. Using the needs of black women as a starting point, I will try to sketch a general, albeit simplified, view of the disparities that are in Brazilian feminism.
Brazil has more than 200 million inhabitants, of which 50% are women. While our president is a woman, who is running for re-election against another woman, we are still under-represented in politics. In our Câmara dos Deputados (House of Representatives), less than 9% are women.
Fifty percent of all Brazilian women are black, which means that there are 50 million black women in the country – ten times the population of Norway.
Although we have made great strides in recent years, Brazil is still a very unequal and racist country. And the history of black women in Brazil is also the story of my life – with differences important enough to bring me here today, while many don’t have that opportunity.
The women of Uneafro, a social group originally invited to be at this conference, don’t speak English. Not even basic English, like me. They have much to share about how being black, feminist and activist in Brazil, but the lack of opportunity that followed them throughout life manifested itself again and they had to decline the invitation, recommending me in their place.
I studied English at a small school in suburban São Paulo, thanks to my mother. She was a maid and managed to attend college in the 1970s thanks to a scholarship. My mother and I are part of a small group of black women who have access to higher education. Today, black women still make up only 20% of the university population.
My grandmother was a maid all her life. And her mother was probably a slave. In 2008, of every 100 women who worked in Brazil, 22 were maids. Ten years earlier, it was 48%. Until last year the maids did not even have the same rights as other Brazilian workers. Only in 2013 were they guaranteed 44 hours a week, pay for overtime, extra pay for night work and unemployment insurance – thanks to the organized workers’ struggle.
My mother and my grandmother raised their children alone. My grandfather left the family when my mother was two months old and my father left us when I was two months old. This is not an isolated incident, either. About 35% of the heads of Brazilian families are women.
My mother, like my grandmother, never had a new relationship or marriage. Several researchers say that the subjectivity of black women, especially with regard to their self-esteem, her affection and her sexuality is severely compromised by the “brancura” (whiteness) of our social model. Add to that the experience of many women with abandonment and violence, and you will see that the image of being alone is not an option.
After divorcing my mother, my father remarried and had a son, with whom I lost touch when our father died. I was 11.
Like many other black men, my father died young, after spending his life earning money in the betting game, which is illegal in Brazil. He was smart and ambitious and invented a way to make money. It ended badly, as happens with most young blacks. In 2012, nearly 150% proportionally more black men than white men died in homicides, car accidents or suicides, like my father.
I need not point out how much pain I felt and still feel because of this story, and how difficult it is to talk about it. After years of studies and therapy, I decided to look for that brother, and I discovered last year that he is also an intelligent and ambitious young man. And who is in jail. Nearly 550,000 people are imprisoned in Brazil today, and almost 60% of them are black.
I thought I’d look my brother in prison, but I didn’t have that kind of emotional strength, but also could not bear the oppressive and shameful body search. In Brazil, most people who visit their loved ones in prison suffer abuse. They have to remove all their clothes, squat and sometimes undergo invasive clinical examinations. This happens even to children.
The situation of women prisoners is also terrible. In prisons of São Paulo, the richest state in Brazil, each woman received on average half a feminine absorbent per month. Half. And about 40% of them never receive visits in prison.
Young blacks in Brazil are victims of genocide. And we, black women, feel it in our hearts and on our skin. The majority of black women live alone, working for very low wages, taking care of the children alone and seeing their sons, fathers and brothers being killed or imprisoned.
I partially experience this reality. Despite the pain and memories, today I am a teacher and journalist, I got married and live in an upscale, downtown neighborhood. But this puts me in a very close connection with what we call “embranquecimento” (whitening). Well, my name is Bianca, which means “branca” (white) in Italian. This whitening manifested itself since I was a child, when there was nobody to talk about skin color, hair or ancestry – not in my house or at school. This manifested itself especially in how I take care of my hair.
The women in my family always straightened their hair, like most women with afro hair in Brazilian urban centers. With my afro hair I was always asked to “fix it”. I let my hair down there less than a year ago, and started wearing colorful, large turbans that seem strange to most people. Many stop me in the street and ask if I’m an artist, because “only an artist would wear their hair like that.”
Considering cabelo negro (black hair) ruim (bad) and branco bom (white good) is, as we know, an expression of racism and racial inequality.
White women are considered fragile. Black women, on the other hand, are often considered strong. Our naked bodies are exposed on TV before, during and after Carnival. We were always workers. And we have no access to justice. Justice in Brazil has a very specific color – branca.
Not always does feminism consider these differences. Because of this, many black women’s movements suggest that various approaches toward feminism are white, Eurocentric, academic, rich and even racist.
One point of divergence evident in feminism in Brazil’s is women’s autonomy over their bodies. The more liberal feminism, for example, gives a new meaning to derogatory terms like “puta” (bitch), for example, and they expose their naked bodies as an affirmative behavior.
For many popular movements for black women, however, it is not possible to give a new meaning to terms that have been used to oppress women, especially poor and black women. The bodies of black women, used as sexual objects by the media, are naturally exposed. Therefore, interpreting body autonomy as a personal right to be a prostitute and explore nudity is a conflict of Brazilian feminism.
Abortion, on the other hand – which is a crime in the country – seems to unite the movement. Women who have money in Brazil abort with medical assistance in private clinics. Meanwhile, poor women end up having to resort to unsafe practices to abort. Many of them die in the attempt; others are neglected when they arrive at the hospital with hemorrhage. Abortion is still a major cause of mortality in Brazil.
Transsexualism is a point of conflict. Some movements fighting for inclusion of transvestites and trans women in the feminist agenda, seeing the problems of gender as an issue of identity. Other movements endorse that the submission of women should be the main agenda, understanding gender as a social-historical relationship between men and women.
Finally, the regulation of prostitution is another significant point of difference. Some groups fight for regulation to ensure that prostitutes have rights, since everyone can choose what to do with our bodies. But there are groups that put prostitution in a more complex context of vulnerability, more than the woman’s option; regulation therefore would be formal oppression.
Casa da Lua (House of the Moon), the feminist collective in which I participate believes in diversity and dialogue as necessary values for the feminist agenda. We try to embrace the internal differences within our own group, seeing them as motivation for individual and collective empowerment. We believe in internal revolutions constructed as a group, becoming social transformation. Each activity performed in our space ends with a short ritual in which, in a circle, we say three times: “I put my hands over her so that together we can do what we cannot do alone.”
Thank you for the opportunity of this meeting. I believe we can bring about change by joining our hands. Thank you.
BAIRROS, Luiza. Lembrando Lelia Gonzalez. Em WERNECK, Jurema; MENDONÇA, Maisa e WHITE, Evelyn C.O livro da saúde das mulheres negras – nossos passos vêm de longe. Rio de Janeiro, Criola/Pallas, 2000. Disponível em: http://www.afroasia.ufba.br/pdf/afroasia_n23_p347.pdf
CARNEIRO, Sueli. Mulheres em movimento. Estud. av. [online]. 2003, vol.17, n.49 [cited 2014-08-31], pp. 117-133 . Available from: . ISSN 0103-4014. http://dx.doi.org/10.1590/S0103-40142003000300008.
MARCONDES, Mariana. PINHEIRO, Luana. QUEIROZ, Cristin. QUERINO, Ana Carolina, VALVERDE, Danielle Valverde (org). Dossiê Mulheres Negras retrato das condições de vida das mulheres negras no Brasil. Brasília, 2013. Disponível em: http://www.ipea.gov.br/portal/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=20978
Source: Brasil Post