As the international community celebrates International Women’s Day, it is a pivotal moment to reflect upon the future of women’s parity in political representation in Brazil. With the far-right movement expanding, the question of gender biases strengthening in Brazilian society are real.
During the October elections, Brazilians cast their votes for president as well as for members of Brazil’s Congress. In cataclysmic elections for Brazil’s democratic future, the far-right leaning president Jair Messias Bolsonaro from the Liberal Party (PL) lost his re-election bid to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the Workers Party (PT). This was the tightest presidential race in the Brazil’s political history. Although Bolsonaro had his re-election bid frustrated, far-right Bolsonarista candidates from Brazil’s PL achieved their best election results, moving from holding 76 seats to a comprehensive 99 seats in Brazil’s lower house – the highest number of elected officials achieved by one single political party in the last elections.
For women representation in Brazil, while numbers have been historically very low, they have just had their best electoral performance. Female candidates secured 18 percent of congressional seats, with numbers significantly increasing in Brazil’s lower house, but shrinking in the upper house. Although women’s seats in congress are at high, representation still lags in comparison to the global average. Brazil is a country where traditional views on gender and family are still aligned with strong cultural values, often consolidated through Catholicism. How will an increased female representation in Brasilia impact women’s causes and rights in the years to come? The resurgence of ultra-conservative views in Brazil’s far-right might be yet the greatest challenge for furthering gender equality and breaking down the glass ceiling.
Women’s “empowerment,” ultra-conservatism, and religion
In Brazil, the broader women’s movement is manifested predominantly in a “well-behaved” feminism, where Catholic tradition and family life (with notions of womanhood) are forced to reconcile with women’s activism, political participation, and representation. Brazil, one of the largest Catholic nations in the world, has seen the number of Christian Evangelical Churches (Pentecostals and Neo-Pentecostals) skyrocketing in recent years. Most Evangelicals interpret the Gospels rather literally, which can lead to even stricter codes of conduct for women, which are pronounced in codes of female submission to male “headship.” Brazilian women’s agency is deeply influenced by such views.
Although there are several feminist waves and movements supporting women’s empowerment, in Brazil there is significant social resistance towards radical feminism. There is strong stigmatisation attached to the word “feminist,” with Brazilians associating it with women who “lack femininity” or are “ugly” and “unloved.”
Brazil’s most recent feminist wave is technological feminism, regarded as a fourth wave of feminism. In this new movement, social networks and digital activism play a central role in the fight against sexual harassment, violence against women, femicide, freedom of choice, and the female body. Digital networks create platforms for dialogue and awareness raising, as well as organising political protests. In 2018, these platforms were instrumental in circulating the hashtag #EleNão, taking millions of women to the streets to protest against Bolsonaro’s misogynist views.
In 2022, approximately eight million women joined protests in the fight against violence towards women and in support of the “Out Bolosonaro” (Fora Bolsonaro) movement. As a coutnerpart, ultra-conservative, right-leaning women launched the hashtag “Women For Bolsonaro” (Mulhers Com Bolsonaro), generating over 440 thousand followers. While the fight for rights and participation in the political arena is often manifested through left-leaning and ultra-conservative groups, the number of women supporting far-right ideals is on the rise.
Brazilian women and Bolsonarism: compromising the fight for freedom and gender equality?
With the rise of the far-right, it is not surprising that, in Brazilian politics today, most women in parliament support a far-right political platform. The leading politicians from this movement are Carla Zambelli, elected for another term in the chamber of deputies, and former Minister for Women, Families and Human Rights Damares Alves, elected for Brazil’s Senate. In the past Zambelli was part of the feminist group Femen, but with her politics recalibrated, now supports radical anti-feminist views and anti-LGBTIQ+ rights. She has also rolled out a strong anti-reproductive rights agenda. Zambelli understands that creating more opportunity for women, who have been structurally disadvantaged, makes them feel “inferior to men.”
Alves, an Evangelical pastor and a former attorney, holds strict views regarding the role of women and men in Brazilian society. She is well known for past controversial statements towards diversity, gender parity, and inclusion. Alves sees herself as an “anti-gender ideology” warrior. During her inauguration in 2019, a video circulated online of Alves, now famously, stating that “a new era was starting in Brazil…where boys wear blue and girls wear pink.” She continued declaring that “although there is the separation between church and state in Brazil… she is immensely Christian.” For Alves, “women are born to be mothers,” as she declared during her time in office.
The growing numbers of far-right female members of congress, along with the “Women For Bolsonaro” movement, raises concerns about the future of women’s empowerment in Brazil. According to Reuters, women in Brazil earn 20.5 percent less than men. COVID-19, to be sure, has only widened gender inequity in the country and exacerbated violence against women. Needless to say, Brazil still has much to do in bridging the gender pay gap and solving the huge social inequality experienced by women of colour.
What is yet to be seen is how gender views supported by far-right female politicians can be reconciled with the rights of women to be fairly treated in Brazilian society. If these female politicians continue to ignore structural inequalities faced by women, this will only aggravate social maladies, widening Brazil’s abyssal gender gap. Bolsonaristas’ female politicians and their claims regarding the role of women as care givers, wrapped up in strict religious views, seems as one of the greatest socio-political chimeras of our times. In free democratic societies women and men should choose whatever views they wish. In Brazil, gender biases within the far-right movement have for now consolidated the disadvantages experience by women since they fail to challenge social reproduction and structural inequalities.
Brazil’s new political trends look to hijack female empowerment through political representation in congress. The great concern is that real women challenges may become increasingly tokenistic and simplistic in nature. These women seem to be instrumentalised, in many ways, to embolden male authority and power. It seems a hard political exercise to reconcile blatant gender biases with progressive gender policies, which Brazil so desperately needs.
Dr Flavia Bellieni Zimmermann is a Lecturer at the University of Western Australia, School of Social Sciences. She is a Brazilian political analyst and has written extensively in this field. Her research interests include Brazilian politics, society, and policy, Latin American politics, populism and nationalism, women in the global south, gender, and politics and religion.
This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.