On Politics, Women, and Inequality in Brazil

Taylor Barnes points to this troubling report that reveals that, in terms of percentage of the legislative body, Brazil has fewer women representatives in Congress than (9.9%) than the average of the Middle East (16%). With women making up only 9% of the (larger) Chamber of Deputies and 13% of the (smaller) Senate, Brazil ranks 116th out of 190 countries in the world in terms of the presence of women in national politics.

As I commented in that thread, while the myth of racial democracy is one of the biggest issues that Brazil continues to contend with, the narrative that Brazil is a relatively egalitarian society for women is an equally insidious, if not as public, myth.

Certainly, among many in Brazil, there is a sense of gender equality, perhaps most visible currently in the fact that Brazil has elected (and re-elected) a woman as president (which is more than the US and many other western nations can say). This is certainly not the only component of such a belief; marriage equality in Brazil also predates that of other western nations, which is undeniably a question of social equality based on gender and sexuality. And as Taylor points out, the notion that women do not face formal restrictions on behavior and dress also reinforces this public perception (in Brazil and internationally) of greater position for women.

Such a perception should be visibly problematic beneath the surface for any number of reasons. While the images of women on Rio’s beaches or in Carnival do suggest a lax approach to the regulation of women’s bodies, abortion laws serve as reminders that women continue to lack control over their own bodies (to say nothing of the objectifying gaze, domestically and internationally, surrounding the fetishization of bronzed or brown bodies on beaches or in Carnival parades). That the country’s legislative body has 50% of its population represented by 9.9% of Congress is also a case of the lack of representation of women in the country’s legal and political system. [This underrepresentation also applies to non-whites, as Brazil’s Congress is overwhelmingly “white” in a country where over half of the population identifies as having at least some African ancestry.] And while it’s counterfactual and impossible to say with certainty, one cannot wonder if the poisonous rhetoric directed toward Dilma in recent protests might have differed or been less personal had the current president been a man.

It seems worth questioning whether this lack of women in Congress has allowed corruption to become even more institutionally embedded – not because women are somehow less “corruptible” than men. Rather, the absence of new political actors in Congress has allowed for the institution, which was elite from its inception, to further stagnate. The reality remains that Congress is a literal old boys club, and has been since Brazilian independence. Just as landholding and business elites and their families had a virtual monopoly on access to national political office in the Brazilian empire, so too do the landed and fiscal elites continue to benefit from their wealth, background, and family histories to gain office; once there, they continue to represent their own interests and ensure their power. [One need only look at Fernando Collor, whose father, Arnon Affonso de Faris Melo, was a senator who actually murdered a colleague on the floor of the Senate in 1963 – and yet remained a senator until 1978, without ever facing charges. Of course, Collor himself was stripped of political rights for his own massive corruption scandal in 1992 – and yet he continues to serve as a senator again today, evidence of the infinite opportunities and access to national politics for those with a family history and wealth.]

This social, economic, and political insularity of Congress was one of the key structural issues behind the 2013 protests, and while those protests temporarily halted the further entrenchment of elite privilege (notably in the rejection of PEC 37), the protests did not (and likely could not) transform structural issues that cross regimes in the past 191 years. The inclusion of more women (and more non-white politicians) in Congress would not necessarily erode corruption, but it would encroach upon the traditional power blocs, dominated overwhelmingly by rich white men, in Congress, even while improving Congress’s ability to actually represent all Brazilians.

Sadly, with national elections not for another 3 years, there is little likelihood of that transformation happening soon. As a result, the notion that women are somehow more equal in Brazil than elsewhere is, like racial democracy, a myth  – a nice idea, but one that obscures what are very real challenges for, and limitations on, women in Brazil, politically and socially.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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