'Bye, dear?' Why Rousseff impeachment raises sexism questions in Brazil

Brazil's Senate votes today on her impeachment. The highly politicized process has placed gender and the role of women in the national spotlight.

Congressmen, who supported the impeachment or President Dilma Rousseff, demonstrated during a session to review the request for her impeachment, at the Chamber of Deputies in Brasilia April 16, 2016. The placards read "Impeachment now" and "Bye Dear.

Over the course of President Dilma Rousseff’s six years in power, she’s rarely let her role as the nation’s first female in the top office take center stage.

But over the past month, the role of gender and what it means to be a “proper” woman in Brazil has come under the microscope – and risen to national debate. A highly politicized effort to impeach President Rousseff has made her gender a salient theme – from the dozens of congressmen holding up signs that read, “bye, dear,” when voting in April to initiate impeachment proceedings in the lower house to the magazine stories that underscore gender-stereotyped behavior, including that she allegedly “loses the emotional control to run the country.”

When asked about sexism during the process, Rousseff responded that “there are attitudes toward me that wouldn’t exist toward a male president.”

Impeachment proceedings over alleged budgetary misconduct were chaotic this week, with the newly appointed lower house speaker signing, then reversing, a nullification of impeachment, and Rousseff launching an appeal in the Supreme Court. Today, the Senate votes, with an expected outcome that Rousseff will step down and Vice President Michel Temer will become interim president amid a six-month investigation. 

Aside from raising deep questions about Rousseff's political future, the impeachment drive has exposed two very different visions of womanhood and gender here – and concerns about whether it portends a backward shift for women's political and societal rights.

In the media, Rousseff has been characterized as abrasive and hysterical, while the likely incoming first lady, Marcela Temer, has been described as “beautiful, modest, and a homemaker.” But it’s not just a clash of perceptions of femininity, observers say. Women have made great strides over the 15-year rule of the Worker’s Party, which has directed welfare payments and land titles to women, strengthened domestic worker’s rights, and reduced maternal mortality. Some fear that recent initiatives – like restricting already narrow permissions for legal abortions – pushed by the same conservative politicians angling for Rousseff’s impeachment could have long-term effects.

The gendered descriptions of Rousseff are part of a growing polarization between Brazil’s growing religious right and a developing feminist movement, says Maria Abreu, a political scientist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

“Feminism was never so represented in the corridors of universities and in the streets as it is now in Brazil,” says Ms. Abreu. “It’s become an obligatory part of political discussions. And that always comes with a reaction.”

'Model of womanhood at risk'?

In November 2015, tens of thousands of mostly female protesters flooded city streets across the country, demonstrating repeatedly against a proposal by the conservative congress to clamp down on legal abortion. It was one of the most dramatic series of protests related to women’s rights in recent years.

Abortion is allowed in the case of rape, life-threatening illness for the mother, or some limited birth defects in the child. But the bill, pushed by then-House Speaker Eduardo Cunha, who played a key role in pushing for Rousseff’s impeachment, required onerous steps to become “eligible” for an abortion. Women would have to go through a lengthy police registration process and body exam before being deemed qualified for treatment, for example.

The bill has stalled amid the country’s all-consuming “car wash” corruption crisis and the impeachment drive, but the energy and frustration from last year’s protests have remained.

This anger bubbled to the surface again in recent weeks. A glowing profile of the presumed first lady – should the Senate officially launch an investigation tonight – seemed to praise everything that the sitting president is not. The feature in the leading Veja newsmagazine emphasized Marcela Temer’s time spent planning family vacations and her trips to the beauty salon – quoting her hairdresser, who said, “She has every quality needed to become our Grace Kelly.”

In reaction, tens of thousands of women took to social media to post photos of themselves traveling solo, working in different professional capacities, and doing a range of activities in public that, by Veja's metric, could be described as “immodest.”

But those in support of Mrs. Temer had their say, too. Elizete Malafaia, the wife of one of the nation’s most influential Pentecostal pastors, began an Internet campaign using the hashtag #HappyToBeAWifeMotherHomemakingWoman. Scores of women posted their retort via photos of themselves happily attending family events, or in the kitchen.

“It’s not just a model of womanhood that is at risk, it is society that is at risk,” wrote Ms. Malafaia via e-mail, criticizing the feminists who spoke out against the Veja piece.

“People who want to ridicule women for being wives and homemakers are trying to deconstruct the model of the family.…There is a ‘war’ of empowerment going on,” she says.

Abreu, the professor, compares this moment to the late 1960s, when some women sent a message of independence to Brazil’s young military dictatorship  by introducing revealing Carnival costumes. She sees similarities in how Brazilian women then and now tried to take a stand against what they saw as governments trying to impose restrictions on their bodies and their life choices. But, “what we’re seeing today is a much more racially diverse” and inclusive movement, she says.

“We’ve done a good job at cultural consciousness-raising and occupying the streets,” says Iara Amora, program director at the Rio women’s rights group Camtra. “But while we have made our bet on pressure from the outside, versus occupying Congress itself, now we see [that Congress is] occupied by political forces that oppose our goals.”

A challenge from the start?

The current culture war was not on most observers’ radars when Brazil’s first female president took office in 2010.

“Dilma’s election came with an expectation of a concrete advancement of women’s rights,” says Abreu. 

Still, late in her campaign, a moment of conflict raised questions about how far Rousseff might be able to push on gender policy. Her top opponent, José Serra, attacked her, saying she would try to legalize abortion.

“Part of the Worker’s Party base was and continues to be evangelical groups who are strongly opposed to this,” says Abreu. “So she had to make a big public assurance that she would not.”

Rousseff made good on her campaign promise to boost the number of female ministers in her first government, and ensured that payments in a basic cash transfer welfare program were directed toward women, a key step toward promoting gender equality in development. She also worked to guarantee that domestic workers gained basic labor rights through a 2013 constitutional amendment.

Yet women still make up only an estimated 10 percent of Congress, 30 percent of leading newspaper columnists, and 6 percent of corporate boards.

“Her [administration] still did not do as much as the Lula government at advancing women,” says Adriana Mota, a gender consultant for the think tank IBAM. Socially conservative Pentecostals increasingly entered politics, as well as her governing coalition.

“If Rousseff were to move some important initiatives forward in terms of sexual health and reproductive rights, she was going to have to make the Bible block uncomfortable. That’s something her government did not choose to do,” Ms. Mota says. 

Her presence alone was enough to irk some, observers say. And the blowback can be seen through crude chants targeting Rousseff's femininity throughout the impeachment process. 

The factors that stalled women’s advancement during the Rousseff administration are due to Rousseff’s own concessions as well as the alliance-based governing system in Brazil, says Mota. If Rousseff is impeached, Mota suspects the federal government’s office for policies on women will be downgraded yet again.

“We’re facing a reaction from [people] who want to put us back in the domestic and private sphere,” she says. “To them, [women] never should have come out from there.”

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