Gender Politics in Brazil

This week in North Philly Notes, Pedro A. G. dos Santos and Farida Jalalzai, coauthors of Women’s Empowerment and Disempowerment in Brazil, address how the election of the first female president of Brazil triggered a gendered backlash culminating in her impeachment and ushered in a new era of male political dominance.  

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva recently had several criminal cases against him dropped, positioning him to possibly run against President Jair Bolsonaro in 2022. Lula’s immense popularity and support helped Brazil elect its first female president in 2010, Dilma Rousseff. Rousseff’s presidency is noted for three years of high popularity and a strong economy followed by three years of economic and political chaos and eventual impeachment in 2016. While she was never found guilty of corruption in a criminal court, the political crisis ensnared several politicians: Lula was arrested in 2018, and President of the Chamber of Deputies Eduardo Cunha was impeached and arrested. Since Rousseff’s impeachment, the country is facing its worst economic recession, elected far-right populist Bolsonaro, and has been recognized as one of the countries hit hardest by the pandemic.

Bolsonaro’s election and Lula’s possible presidential run are the latest developments in Brazil’s male-dominated presidential history. Women’s Empowerment and Disempowerment in Brazil: The Rise and Fall of President Dilma Rousseff, examines the six years a woman led the country. Based on a decade of fieldwork and over 150 original interviews with politicians and political experts in Brazil, findings suggest that the ascension of a woman to a powerful and historically masculine institution can affect women in various ways, including triggering vicious backlash against women’s empowerment.

Technically speaking, Rousseff was impeached over a common but questionable budgetary procedure used by previous presidents such as Lula (2003-2010) and Cardoso (1994-2002). Currently, Bolsonaro’s presidency has been riddled with political scandals and possibly impeachable offenses, including a disastrously incompetent response to COVID-19. And while Rousseff is now out of the political spotlight, Lula is being welcomed back to politics with open arms.

As we think about 2022 and the electoral fight between two “strong men,” we must remember the role gender played throughout Rousseff’s presidency. While misogyny was not the sole reason why President Rousseff was ousted, it was an important element in attempting to disempower the Presidenta and consequently disempower women seeking to enter masculine spaces in Brazilian society. 

The economic crisis that deepened significantly in 2013 was a consequence of falling commodity prices and questionable polices from both Lula’s and Rousseff’s administrations. Yet most blamed only Rousseff for the country’s current history-setting recession. As the institutional crisis intensified in 2014 and 2015, questions regarding Rousseff’s intelligence and leadership became a common thread. Many interviewees saw these intensifying at the height of the crisis and an “incompetence” narrative with an overtly gendered tone took hold. Some recalled Rousseff opponents argued that, as a woman, she needed to be removed from power and that this was a cautionary tale about what happens when women are in charge.

Misogyny was present in the impeachment process in both covert and overt ways. In the ten-hour long Chamber of Deputies session voting to start the impeachment process, very few references were made to the actual fiscal crime Rousseff allegedly committed; other reasons proved far more salient. Deputies said they cast their vote to impeach because they wanted to protect Brazil, their constituents, and their families or even to serve God. Many held green and yellow signs stamped with the expression Tchau Querida, which means “goodbye dear.” The condescending use of the word querida goes beyond mere political satire and into the world of misogynistic tropes against women in power.

Sexism and misogyny went beyond subtle jokes. One Deputy called Rousseff a jararaca, a venomous snake. In Brazil, this is a sexist term to describe women. Making no attempt to hide its misogyny, the speech met applause on the floor. The use of this derogatory expression, combined with the expression Tchau Querida shows that the deputy and his supporters were not just interested in Rousseff’s alleged impeachable offenses, but in degrading the President because of her gender.

Attempts to disempower Rousseff occurred long before the impeachment. The most infamous example was a car decal popularized the year the proceedings. It simulated sexual assault against the president. The decal was meant to protest another increase in gas prices. Such protests have happened before and after Rousseff’s presidency, with the difference being that male presidents such as Michel Temer or Jair Bolsonaro never saw their faces featured on a car decal simulating a sexual act.

The current conversation surrounding the 2022 presidential election feature as front-runners two men: one a former president who can still have his political rights stripped if the decision to drop charges against him is reversed; the other is the current president whose administration is marred by political scandals and a complete failure to protect the country from the pandemic. At least they can rest assure that their gender identity will not be used as a weapon against them.

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