A charge of sexism was voiced by Dilma Rousseff last week as she spoke to the international media during her visit to the United Nations. Thus, Brazil’s embattled President laid bare the underlying issues of gender and class in the current political crisis in Brazil, in which she stands to lose office through impeachment. Brazilian women are now rallying around their Presidenta in the hopes of saving her threatened tenure.
In 2013, I traveled to Brazil to interview members of the social justice movement, workers party, and women’s rights communities who had worked so hard to elect their first female president. It was a special time for Brazil.
While Western powers had experienced drastic economic recessions and high unemployment after the 2008 financial meltdown, Brazil was still enjoying unprecedented economic growth. As a member of the BRICS, a trade and political alliance, Brazil’s commercial ties with China had become stronger. While Europe and the U.S. were implementing austerity measures, slashing public programs and social services, Brazil’s social democracy, led by Dilma’s party, the PT, was reducing social inequality by making increased investments in housing, education, energy, and food assistance for the poor. The notorious Brazilian economic income gap began to decrease. The country that had had one of the highest debts to the IMF became a lending member of that institution.
While in Brazil filming my documentary, Madame Presidenta: Why Not U.S.? I interviewed dozens of women, including small business owners and mothers living in the favelas of Rio De Janeiro; college students and domestic workers in Sao Paolo; elected officials, including Benedita Da Silva (herself the daughter of a domestic worker); indigenous leaders like Eliane Potiguara; and Eleonora Menecucci, a member of Rousseff’s cabinet who had served in prison with Rousseff while they worked to topple the military dictatorship in 1985. In 2010, these women had worked collectively to elect their first female president.
This past week, it has been sobering to speak with Brazilian women about the current political climate in Brazil, with Rousseff on the brink of impeachment for alleged corruption and financial mismanagement. She and her party dismiss the allegations as politically motivated, and the impeachment process as an attempted “coup.”
“It is clear that President Rousseff, a strong, valiant and principled woman, is the victim of a virulent sexist campaign,” said Miriam Ayres, senior lecturer in Portuguese and Spanish at NYU and a native of Brazil.
Continued Ayres: “In Brazil, the pro-impeachment camp is predictably formed by the apolitical middle and upper middle-classes, industrialists, bankers, that is the elite that identifies itself as ‘white.’ Whereas the groups defending the democratic order and the Presidenta are the poor, the workers, artists, intellectuals, and activist groups that include the racial minorities that make up the majority of Brazil’s population.”
It is especially heartening to see that women from all walks of life—feminists from the favelas, actors, and film directors, even those who originally opposed Rousseff’s election—are beginning to step forward as women to oppose a process they believe is fueled in large part by sexism and misogyny. The voice of these women was made manifest in a recent post by Maria Gabriela Saldanha that went viral. A staunch feminist and activist who runs a center for battered and abused women, Saldanha denounced the abuses directed against Rousseff and expressed the support of women about her plight. Under the hashtag #mulherescomdilma (women with Dilma), she writes:
“What they are doing to her is not different from what they do to us when they try to kill us sexually, socially and politically. This woman (President Dilma), who had cancer, was tortured with electric shocks and abused in the dungeons of the dictatorship, has been called a whore by the elites, had images of her transposed to rape scenes in car stickers and is still standing. Dilma is still standing. And we are standing by her, I wish I could tell her so in person.”
A Congress in which 90 percent of the members are male and 50 percent have been indicted approved the impeachment process against President Rousseff. They accuse her of manipulating government accounts– a practice known as “creative accounting” that involves transferring funds between federal banks—this same practice was used and accepted during her predecessors’ tenures.
Ironically, it was President Rousseff, who appointed an independent prosecutor, equipped the federal police and created anti-corruption laws that made the fight against corruption a government priority, whereas her former ally and possible replacement, Vice-President Michel Temer, is under investigation for accepting tens of millions of dollars from illegal contracts. And while there is no evidence or any allegation that Rousseff in any way gained monetarily or personally from any corruption–nor that she was directly involved in the larger scandal at Petrobras, the state oil conglomerate–it is Rousseff who has now been thrown under the bus.
As Glenn Greenwald, David Miranda, and Andrew Fishman wrote in a recent article in The Intercept, “Put simply, this is a campaign to subvert Brazil’s democratic outcomes by monied factions that have long hated the results of democratic elections, deceitfully marching under an anti-corruption banner: quite similar to the 1964 coup. Indeed, much of the Brazilian right longs for restoration of the military dictatorship, and factions at these ‘anti-corruption’ protests have been openly calling for the end of democracy.”
It is in this context that last week women began to rally to defend Rousseff, staging gatherings of support outside the president’s office and taking to social media to expose Brazilian media’s sexist coverage of recent events.
The current state of politics in Brazil is a depressing reminder of another high profile leader who battled misogyny: Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who was sabotaged by her own political party.
In an interview with The Independent, Gillard shared that she first tried to ignore the “gendered” criticism, which included viciously pornographic cartoons circulated on social media aimed at her, similar to cartoons that one can now find online focused on Rousseff. “My essential view was that it was because I’m the first woman, I’m unusual, and it will wash itself out of the system,” Gillard told The Independent. “I think as a nation, and this is also true of countries like the UK … we’ve not yet culturally embraced women and leadership. Somehow we’re finding it difficult to correlate female leaders and likeability.”
The world now watches to see if a woman who fought against a military dictatorship and oligarchy with such conviction that she was tortured and imprisoned for her commitment to democracy, will be impeached by those same anti-democratic powers. The hope remains that the women of Brazil are able to rise up and defend their Presidenta and their democracy.
Here in the United States, where we also struggle with correlating female leaders with likeability, we should pay attention to the countries that have already elected female heads of state. As we learned with our own President Obama, electing a person representing a marginalized group to high political office does not in and of itself eradicate hundreds of years of systemic discrimination. What these firsts do, however, is begin to threaten the patriarchal oligarchy. What happens next is up to the people of Brazil.
Heather Arnet is the writer/director of “Madame Presidenta: Why Not U.S.?” a documentary exploring Brazil’s election of its first female president.