Mass Rape And Rousseff’s Impeachment Reveal Brazil’s Ugly Misogyny
In the weeks running up to the suspension of my country’s first female leader, I watched as the news and social media spewed a growing amount of misogyny toward President Dilma Rousseff and her alleged manipulation of the government budget — a crime, of course, committed by her male predecessors, who were never persecuted.
I have always been acutely aware of the machismo that is pervasive in Brazil, but I could not have imagined such overt hatred directed at my gender.
In the conservative party’s campaign to remove Rousseff, the sexist slogan “Goodbye, darling” was widely used. Rousseff was continually called a whore and a prostitute; I’ve seen people say they will never again elect a woman president. Repeatedly, Rousseff’s mistakes were related back to her gender and how she transgresses gender imperatives: She is a butch woman with tidy short hair, often branded a lesbian and a communist, who carries a perpetual scowl on her face and was one of the most powerful people in Latin America.
She is not what Brazilian society expects or wants of women, and that has angered conservative swaths of the population. (Americans, does this sound familiar?) And now, these conservatives have seen their leadership revert back to what it’s always been: male and white.
As soon as Rousseff was suspended, the conservative interim president Michel Temer installed a cabinet made up of exclusively middle-aged white men. Moreover, he dissolved the Ministry for Women, Racial Equality and Human Rights, which has been absorbed by the Ministry for Justice and Citizenship. The ministry was responsible for the development of inclusionary policies that seek to achieve equality in Brazilian society. Here, the message was clear: Women and people of color should not be in government, and women and people of color’s voices do not matter.
A couple of weeks after this sexist usurping and reinstatement of male leadership, a gang rape case surfaced on social media. The rapists filmed themselves and an unconscious 16-year-old girl lying on a mattress on the floor, while touching her bloody private parts and cracking jokes about how she had been raped by 30 men. Then, they posted the video to Twitter.
There was a public uproar and the police was called to investigate. Yet despite the existence of the video and the fact that these men touched the girl’s vagina and anus while she was unconscious, the policeman in charge of the case said he wasn’t sure if sexual assault had even occurred.
Thankfully, this man has now been suspended from the case after a public uproar and a request from the victim’s lawyer. But as details of the crime surfaced, even leftist men I know indulged in blaming the victim because it turns out she likes having group sex and is a teenage mother. Social media was a constant minefield of slut-shaming, victim-blaming, and rape apologists.
For weeks, I’ve been trying to process what happened to that girl. For at least a week, I felt disassociated from my body after I read the news, which bears scars of my own experiences with sexual assault.
More and more, I realize that part of what’s upsetting me is the fact that this case, like so many, does not exist in a vacuum. Many people rushed to blame the economic class the rapists belonged to, implying this violent crime would not have been commited if they were properly educated, but this severely misses the point. If Rousseff’s ousting has shown us anything, it’s that misogyny is pervasive across all classes of Brazilian society — and while what happened to that girl was atrocious, it’s simply a different manifestation of the misogyny that is intrinsic to Brazilian culture.
We already know that female leaders are punished more severely for bad calls than their male counterparts. But in pushing out Rousseff, Temer and his supporters went beyond this: They popularized a violent brand of misogyny. Misogyny, the silencing of women in the political landscape, the dehumanization of women who aren’t modest and don’t fit the conservative ideal of “woman”; these are all forms of violence against women that Temer has not only endorsed, but made more acceptable in society.
Like Rousseff, the gang rape victim didn’t fit into what we expect from women: She went out at night, she took drugs, she drank, and she had sex. She was a teenage mom who people claimed was promiscuous. And she was punished for it, during the rape and after.
This case was harrowing on several levels, but the statistic that a Brazilian woman is raped in Brazil every 11 minutes has been widely available since 2014 — and these are only the reported assaults. Some experts claim the numbers could be much higher; it is estimated that only 30 to 35% of rapes are reported to the police.
Nevertheless, the public nature of the rape was so shocking that even the interim president said something must be done. Temer remarked that there’s an “increasing wave of violence against women” and promised to help Brazilian states in combating “this type of violence.”
Yet despite this public show of support, Temer’s newly instated government has tacitly endorsed the kind of sexism that enables rampant sexual abuse. There has been no apology for dissolving the Ministry for Women or for shunning women from his cabinet. There has been no mention of the misogyny evident in his party’s campaign to remove President Rousseff. There has been no recognition of the violence against women the interim president and his supporters are guilty of: the silencing of women in politics by mentioning the importance of the “traditional family” in ousting Rousseff; the tactics used to go around female candidate quotas during election years; the violent endorsement of Rousseff’s torturer during the military dictatorship by representative Jair Bolsonaro, the aforementioned use of the sexist impeachment tagline “Goodbye, darling” — I could go on. It is impossible to deny that these aggressions result in the devaluation of women’s lives, bodies, and intellects, and that this is what results in violence.
Since Rousseff was suspended, it has emerged that ousting her was a plot to stop corruption investigations by the federal police. But the discourse surrounding her removal has been, excessively, about what a woman should be and what a woman shouldn’t be.
During the same week that Rousseff’s impeachment was voted on in Brazil’s lower house, a feature about interim-president Michel Temer’s wife Marcela — now the Brazilian First Lady — was published in the right-wing magazine Veja with the front-cover headline, “Beautiful, Modest and a Home-maker.”
The feature is entirely bizarre. After normalizing the shocking revelation that Marcela is 43 years her husband’s junior, quoting Marcela’s hairdresser saying she could be the Brazilian Grace Kelly, and including a (terrible) poem written by the interim president about his wife’s body, the author concludes that her husband is “a lucky man.”
Veja’s total audience, counting online readers, amounts to around 20 million people. The message of how a woman should be — beautiful, modest, a homemaker — in contrast to how a woman shouldn’t be — political, butch, president — was so blatant that feminist women across Brazil reacted by posting to Facebook glorious pictures of themselves being rebellious — dancing in skimpy outfits, drinking beer straight out of the bottle, smoking, protesting — alongside the offending Veja headline.
Violence against women has always been an urgent issue in Brazil, but it’s clear to me that Temer and larger swaths of Brazilian men don’t see women and girls as valuable humans. The bodies that are given to us do not belong to us: We cannot do as we please without being punished for it. Temer’s statement about violence against women don’t erase his guilt and complicity in a system that silences us, abuses us, and limits our lives.
Lead image: Wikimedia Commons