Black Brazilian Feminists Say: "Autonomy is the Only Way."

by Veronica Maria Brown-Comegys

Many years ago I found myself in the midst of a throng of women at a celebration of International Women’s Day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Every now and then I wondered why Vanda Lucia Gomes, Gloria Maria, a television news reporter, and I were the only black women present.

I was unaware that around that time there had been a rupture in the relationship of black Brazilian feminists and the white middle-class Women’s Movement. Moreover, even earlier many black women had abandoned the Black Movement.

“Today black feminism is getting stronger because we realized that white feminism does not speak for us, and neither does the black movement,” said Fernanda Carvalho, 35, journalist on TV Brasil. About 50% of the Black Movement members are women. “But the Movement still does not necessarily fight for the black woman as it should,” said Ms. Carvalho.

Despite the controversy and rancor black Brazilian feminists continue helping the female population. About six months ago Sandra Helena Figueiredo Maciel requested my assistance in locating a funding source for a project of Maria Mulher Organização de Mulheres Negras in Rio Grande do Sul. I directed the group to the New York-based Virginia Gildersleeve International Fund. The fund finances grassroots projects for women and girls abroad. The feminists are awaiting response to their application.

Maria Mulher began on March 8, 1987. Since 2000 the group has focused on adolescent sexual abuse victims, creation of leadership groups for black girls, health of the black female population, and inclusion of black females in various sectors within the state. Between 2006 and 2012 Maria Mulher has produced publications regarding: domestic violence and the black woman, pregnant adolescents, general health, prevention of sexually transmitted disease, HIV, Aids, and hepatitis in the lesbian and bisexual community

Black female activists walked away from the Women’s Movement because white women resisted their attempts to address racial injustice. Likewise black men opposed giving attention to gender inequality. In Race in Contemporary Brazil: From Indifference to Inequality, black Brazilian feminist Sueli Carneiro described black male activists as “still barely conscious of sexual discrimination.” Most women who participated in the Black Women’s Movement have also been involved in at least two of the following areas: the Black Movement, the Women’s Movement, political parties and labor unions. However, past activism and leadership experience were disregarded by male activists.

“I have studied and seen that black men do not like to be led by a woman,” said Ms. Maciel, consultant to Maria Mulher Organização de Mulheres Negras. “Men always manage to belittle women’s struggle, along with our battle to occupy a space,” she said. Sinha Cinthya Cristinah Gomes, 35, of Rio Claro, São Paulo, asked, “Will we always have black male activists who diminish the importance of black feminism?” On the other hand, in addition to calling black feminists “racists,” white Brazilian feminists would not acknowledge and denounce sexual exploitation of black women. “Most white women know about it, but they will not speak out,” said Ms. Carvalho. “This is separating feminism around here.”

“When will white feminists acknowledge that black women were victims of sexual exploitation in the past, and that it continues in the present?” I posted that question on Facebook. Tatiana Oliveira, of São Paulo, said, “In order for white women to acknowledge sexual exploitation of black women, they must concede their own privileges. It is very difficult for them to do that.” Marcelo Martins Correa said, “The little ma’am’s, [massa’s wife] know about the sexual exploitation of black women, but unfortunately they will not acknowledge it.” Ms. Maciel said, “However, there are many ways that white women can assist in the struggle. They only have to be conscious of how much they are privileged by being white, and discuss it.”

There are drastic differences between the oppressions of white and black women. For example, participation in the electoral process began for women in 1934. However, the “immense majority of blacks were illiterate.” It was not until 1988, that a Constitutional amendment allowed illiterates to vote. Moreover, poor black women receive substandard health treatment all over the country. Some diseases are more common in black women, according to Ms. Carvalho. She said, “Some doctor’s will not touch them. They don’t do the exam as they should. They think it is disgusting to put hands on them. Nobody examines them. The doctors guess the disease, and are wrong most of the time. It is unprofessional and cruel.”

Although the two feminist groups have different agendas, all women in Brazil have endured restraints imposed by machismo and patriarchy. “Machismo is VERY strong in Brazil,” said Carlos Marques, 56, who is a white member of several black empowerment groups. “Men are very jealous and controlling,” he said. “We still have much violence against women,” Marques said. I asked him if men in the black groups are less “machista” due to the oppression both black men and women face. He said, “They say they try to be and are. However, my understanding is that black male activists struggle to eliminate racial discrimination, but do not care about the black woman’s situation.” Angela Maria agrees. She said, “Black men do not value black women. They think to remain with a black woman is to feel inferior. The black woman stays alone in the struggle, and alone to honor her ancestors.”

Brazil remains a difficult place to be a woman, according to Vanessa Barbara, a white Brazilian São Paulo newspaper reporter, who also writes for the New York Times. Ms. Barbara, 31, said, “Our society is immensely patriarchal. Men can do everything. They are possessive and egotistical. It is left to a woman to have a good body and be abundantly submissive.” Ms. Barbara related the following Brazilian saying: “When a man is in jail, his wife hires a lawyer to get the penalty reduced or absolved. When a woman is in jail, her husband hires a lawyer in order to obtain a divorce.” Professor Maria Cristina Teixeira, an Afro-Brazilian, said, “I don’t know this saying, but really, this is what happens in our society.”

Another common impediment to all women’s quality of life is domestic violence. Dr. Clemilda Barbosa de Souza, a white psychiatrist in Rio de Janeiro, said, “The number of violent men, and the rate of domestic violence is still very great. There is impunity in all social classes.” Yet, in spite of laws, domestic violence is still all too common, according to Geledes Institute of the Black Woman. Geledes reported that, “In this day and age Brazil possesses one of the major rates of this type of aggression.” In addition, black women seem to suffer the most, according to data cited at a 2013 Conference on Violence against the Black Women. Congresswoman Maria do Carmo Alves said according to Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada, (IPEA) more than 60% of women murdered in Brazil between 2001 and 2011, were black. “Actually, it is only violence when the woman is white,” said Tudizola Matias, of Luanda, Angola. “We should raise our voices on behalf of general indignation.”

In 2014, at the time of a domestic violence death, Dr. Dennis de Oliveira, 51, an Afro-Brazilian professor of Journalism, said, “Unfortunately, after years and years of struggle the practices of ‘machistas’ are seen with complaisance in the mass communication milieu. They arrive at the point of denying a woman’s right to life.” Dr. Oliveira, who teaches at the University of São Paulo, earned a Ph.D. in Mass Media and Popular Culture and Social Movements.

When the military regime, which ruled from 1964 to 1985, initiated political liberalization, there was an increased demand for participation by marginalized groups, including the Women’s Movement and Black Movement. In the early 1980s, white psychologist Dr. Norma Cavalcanti said, “We have a lot of complaints.” The following challenges were detailed in Feminist Agendas and Democracy in Latin America. For instance, until 1962, a married woman needed her husband’s authorization to work. Moreover, until the late 1970s, the law prohibited women from certain sectors of the labor market. This practice was for the women’s “protection.” In 1995, legislation prohibited employers from requiring women to present pregnancy and sterilization certificates, or any other discriminatory practices, for hiring or continuing employment.

Nevertheless, in spite of some common impediments Stephanie de Araujo, of São Paulo, favors distance between the two feminist groups. She said, “Many black women want to have a sisterhood with their ‘ma’am’s.’ A black woman, who attacks black men and defends white women for the feminist cause, is not my sister. It is pure treason against our ancestors.” Andre Bueno, 48, Afro-Brazilian English teacher in Rio de Janeiro, said, “Many Brazilians don’t understand the nature of the beast. So many so-called black feminists have white female friends. It sickens me.” Angelo Rastafari Kassama, of Cape Verde said, “The system has a pure intention of infiltrating our black women. Our women will not have protection. It will be a hard fought coup to reach our objective.”

Recently, on social media male activists launched attacks against “feministas negras.” Some men said that black Brazilian feminists are breaking up the family. Others said that the black feminists hate black men. One post stated: “Behind every black Brazilian feminist is a white man.” The post included a photo of a white man who was standing behind a black woman embracing her.

We, black women and black men, need to support each other to become empowered as a race. Empowerment of half of the race is not acceptable. Black men must not emulate the white man’s patriarchal system that keeps women in a subordinate position. To do so is to leave black women and children vulnerable to degradation by the same system that has always oppressed us all.

Photo: Shutterstock

Veronica Maria Brown-Comegys fell in love with Brazil at the age of 12, while corresponding with a pen pal. Veronica was a recipient of an Inter-American Press Association Scholarship, which funded study in Rio de Janeiro. Veronica has more than 300 Brazilian Facebook friends. She has earned a degree in journalism, and for three years attended graduate school at the Department of Anthropology, Michigan State University. Veronica may be contacted at:

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