Two Generations of Afro-Brazilian Women Reflect on Changes

by Zaneta Denny 

In such a diverse population, can one interpretation of feminism prevail, or is it a case of divide and rule?

For 30 years, Latin American and Caribbean women have gathered together for Encuentros to discuss feminist issues in the region. Last November 1,500 women gathered in Lima, Peru for the 13th Encuentro Feminista.

Shirley Villela
Shirley Villela

Latin and Caribbean women share painful histories of colonization, dictatorship and drug-war violence. In this multiracial, multilingual, pluriethnic region, feminism has had a troublesome, non-inclusive history. The Brazilian feminist movement is a paragon of these fissures.

White Brazilian Shirley Villela — a former Gender Responsive officer for the UN Women’s Agency — explains how white feminists found it hard to embrace intersectionality at the birth of the movement in Brazil, “I guess it’s because of history, how the first feminist wave began with white, middle-class women here and in other countries.”

“But how did feminism arrive in Brazil? Of course it started with middle-class white women, but at the same time as the Movimento Negro – the Black Movement of Brazil.”

Afro-Brazilian feminists began to discuss their place in society, organising themselves in “collectives” such as Nzinga Coletivo de Mulheres Negras, and founding organisations like Geledés. Feminists such as Sueli Carneiro, Maria Lucia da Silva, Edna Bolam, Solimar Cordeiro, Theresa Santos, Sonia Maria Pareira do Nascimento, and Lélia González were leading figures in the feminist movement from the ‘80s onwards.

“The women couldn’t be in the space of [white] feminism because the space of the feminism couldn’t embrace the same fight, the same demands of these women.” Villela ruminates. “They couldn’t get it, the demands of the black women in Brazil are very different, deeply, they are more specific as in other countries also, it’s not a specific Brazilian situation but of course the black women suffered different kinds of things.” Carneiro and Santos realised the dangers inherent in the assumption of such a “hypothetical feminine identity” in their book, Mulher Negra (Black Women).

In Brazil, the popular western equation of “more education + capitalism = less faith” may not necessarily match the herstories of the region. For the author, of Caribbean and South American descent, an investigation into feminism in Brazil was, in part, a personal affair. Her grandmother, a Catholic at the time and the mother of six children in Guyana – a country at the cusp of independence – was vilified for keeping her seventh child, her father. Abortion is what her friends advised.

This seems to be the logic regarding marginalised black populations that dominates most aspects of feminist thought. My goal, to understand Afro-Brazilian feminism for my Beyond Your World investigation.

We’re all Jandira! We’re all Elisângela! Legalize abortion for women’s lives!” cried a group of protesters during a demonstration in honour of two women who died trying to obtain clandestine abortions. The protest was organized by Frente Nacional de Luta Contra a Criminalização Mulheres e Pela Legalização do Aborto (National Front for the Fight Against Criminalization Women and For the Legalization of Abortion”) held in Rio de Janeiro’s historic Cinelândia Square. Although they make up 25% of the Brazilian population very few Afro-Brazilian women attended the protest; neither did many march on the Day for the Decriminalisation of Abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean later that week.

7. Rejany Ferreira, Teacher and Feminist
Rejany Ferreira, Teacher and Feminist

Rejany dos Santos Ferreira from Organização Mulheres de Atitude (“Women of Attitude”), a favela feminist organisation, had a lot to say when we spoke to her, “I do not know what motivates you to be a feminist,” she said, “the [feminist] experience begins inside my house.” A young woman from Tuiuti, a favela in São Cristóvão, she passed Brazil’s ruthless pre-entrance university exam to become a geography teacher and researcher.

Racial divides in Brazilian feminism can be traced to a foundational chasm in relationship to work. “We speak of the issue of the ditch,” dos Santos explained, “we realise the feminist movement is by white middle-class women and that these white women are demanding their right to go to work, while the poor black women, have been in the market ever since.”

“A black woman and a poor woman never stopped working,” she continued. “Before she was a slave and when she became free she continued working.” The asymmetries of power persist: “And who is working in the house of these white middle-class women who want to go into the labour market?” Most of the cleaners at my hostel were preta or mulata.

As seen with the Sexo e as Negas scandal, they face explicit discrimination. “When we talk about the representation of women, it is to think we live in a sexist country.

“So when we put people on a scale, the white man in the pyramid and after you have the black man, then the white woman because gender is strong but class also. Then again you have the black man and the black woman at the base of the pyramid.”

These intersectional discriminations – triple oppressions of race, class and gender – affect poor black women’s ability to participate in traditional activism.

“Why do we have very few black women in the act [movement] today? They’re working, supporting their children right. Actually black women of the favela mostly have uni-parental families.

“It is these women, often abandoned by their partners, they have to support their family. Then there are those who are heads of households. Then you will have much more difficulty having black women in these spaces of struggle.”

Favelas in Rio were places where ex-slaves and dispatched soldiers settled. Discriminatory forces kettle women into this “modern slave quarter.” Dos Santos cites Carolina Maria de Jesus, author of O Quarto de Despejo (The Storage Room): “She says that the favela is a storeroom where the state puts all of those it does not want.” Added to this sense of exile from the rest of the city, many established black women with favela roots do not identify with feminism.

When Dona Anna Marcondes Faria “Dona Anna” arrived in Morro dos Macacos, Vila Isabel favela, in 1958, “Everyone lived with a bucket of water on their head.” Residents were only able to access light illegally from the local Zoological Garden.

Honoured as a Woman of Impact at the Women in the World Summit in São Paulo 2012, Anna is one of Brazil’s leading community organisers, “I do not carry the flag of feminism.” Her NGO, Centro Comunitário Lídia dos Santos, a daycare and community centre, now caters to over 500 young people. She has an alternative perspective on her mission. “I carry the flag for women in the community; women who are female heads of household are the vast majority of the community here.”

Yet she does not see herself as an activist. “I do not have a fight, well, outside the community, I have an internal struggle to value the woman, giving, empowering these women.”

Feminism is seen as separate movement despite its attempts to remedy national inequity. Perhaps “womanism”: “a social change perspective rooted in the everyday experiences of black women and other women of colour” (Layli Phillips) is a more appropriate term here.

Black favela women have to pick up the pieces when violence strikes or when they are victims. Blacks are 146.5 percent more likely than whites to die of violent deaths. This violence is systemic, often police-related, and is evidence of a progressive Genocído do Povo Negro: genocide of black people. Women-centred activist groups like Mothers in Manguinhos are responding to this.

With the genocide in mind, as a foreigner, the question arises: how could Afro-Brazilian women trust the state to install a selective abortion policy when there is evidence the state dislikes their existence?

Dos Santos is vocal. “The state prohibits the legalisation of abortion, but legalises the death of this population in some way. That is the question of the police, how the armed wing will enter the favela and will kill people.

“Abortion, it’s done whether it is legalised or not. Those who will die doing illegal abortions are mostly black women. In Brazil, poverty is related to colour, and those with money also have colour.”

That said, would she personally consider abortion? “I’m Catholic,” she answers, “so if I get pregnant I would not have an abortion. In my view this is a particular decision and I think it does not have to be a matter of state. I favour the legalisation of abortion.”

Politicians like Benedita da Silva, the first black woman in the Senate, are ridiculed by feminists despite claiming feminism. Silva’s Association of Women from Chapéu Mangueira connects favela women to middle-class feminist institutions.

In the Final Declaration of the Encuentro Feminista, women acknowledged the multinomy – the coexistence of many possibly divergent norms – of the region “the challenge of the pluralisation of feminisms.”

9.Feminist graffiti in Rio
Feminist graffiti in Rio

Generational divides also influences the adoption of the “feminist” label.

Dona Anna’s views on black feminist radicals: “I think it’s cool! I’m very happy my daughter is a participating in black feminist movements.”

She summed up the moment for Afro-Brazilian women: “We need someone to defend blacks have, have be from the root, it has to come from us. If we do not value ourselves, who will appreciate us? With them, they have to fight.”

Photos by @zanetadenny

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Zaneta Denny is a London-born writer and poet of Caribbean-Guyanese origin. She studied European Studies with French at King’s College London. Her blog, Creolita Culture, explores hidden narratives from the African and Indian Diaspora. Through her work she hopes to halt the negative patrimony of colonialism and open the eyes of those in the West to injustice. In her spare time she consumes spoken word, bubble tea and foreign film. She works for a global publishing house. Follow her @zanetadenny

This piece was edited by Désirée Wariaro

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