Experiencing Feminism in Brazil
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I spent last year in Brazil, and for one month of that year I worked with Grupo Mulher Maravilha (GMM), an organization of women (and men) who live on the periphery of the city Recife, in a neighborhood called Nova Descoberta. I stayed with Lourdes Araujo, one of the founders of the organization. Lourdes, along with the other women and men in the organization, forced me to rethink what it means to be a feminist working for social change. This experience made me contemplate definitions of feminism and fears that are associated with identifying as a feminist; the necessity to work for change within the community's specific social context; the multiple aspects of a person's identity and different levels of political consciousness that can be incorporated into a vision of feminism; and the relationship between change that affects everyday lives and change that affects worldwide societal structures.
The organization calls itself "Grupo Mulher Maravilha: A organização das mulheres construindo uma nova sociedade"—"Group Wonder Woman: The organization of women constructing a new society." The name reveals a lot about the type of "woman" that members of GMM admire. As the story goes, one night in the mid-1970s a group of these women were watching the TV show "Wonder Woman." Afterward, the women had an impromptu discussion about what it means to be a "wonder woman." They decided that a "wonder woman" is not someone who suddenly appears in a bad situation and magically makes everything better. She is someone who cooks, cleans, sweeps, irons, looks after the kids, and is still able to find time to organize her community for social change. From this discussion emerged the name Grupo Mulher Maravilha, along with an illustration that depicts their concept of a "wonder woman."
GMM was born in a climate of poverty and repression in northeastern Brazil during the 1970s. In 1964 a military coup installed a dictatorship that would last approximately 20 years. This dictatorship silenced the majority of social movements through jailings, exile, torture, and fear. Any political organizing at that time had to be underground. However, by the mid-1970s, the new government of General Ernesto Geisel started to move away from the previously unyielding political repression, opening up space for some voices from civil society to be heard. Among these first voices speaking out openly against the military regime was the Catholic Church. Within the Catholic Church there was a rapid growth of Ecclesiastical Base Communities, community "Bible-study groups" that discussed important political issues.
The majority of women in GMM have very little formal education; many never completed high school. They all stressed the importance of the Catholic Church during the initial organizing of GMM. Their city, Recife, is located in northeastern Brazil, one of the poorest regions of the country. The women there have little access to money, education, health, and land. Ironically, the oppressed situation of these poor women actually meant that in the mid-1970s the government was not overly worried about their political organizing.
When I went to work with GMM in November 2004, the organization was composed of a core group of about 20 women and five men who participated daily, along with about 50 other community members who were involved in GMM weekly activities. The first thing I noticed walking into GMM's office were the quotations from Paulo Freire hanging on the walls. Paulo Freire, a Brazilian born in Recife, is known worldwide for his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. GMM is based on Freire's pedagogy, specifically its use of "dialogical education" to raise people's critical consciousness and make them realize their ability to be actors in changing their own realities. GMM is best known in the community for the free classes it offers on music, computer skills, cooking, dance, and crafts. The people who attend these classes, which meet three times a week, are from seven to 70 years old. To enroll they are required to take a "Citizenship" class; this is where the real work of GMM takes place. In these Citizenship classes community members discuss issues such as community access to resources, human rights, racism, sexism, the government, health issues, and even human biology. Beyond these classes, GMM also organizes community members to participate in large citywide protests and region-wide political conferences.
I heard many women from the community express concerns about identifying themselves as feminists since they felt this connoted working apart from or against men. A continual theme of discussion was the necessity of community solidarity for survival. One woman explained to me, "I am not a feminist that fights against men. I am a feminist that fights for equality. For changes, for improvements, so men and women can be happy together, so that they can have a family." Most women in GMM talked about the existence of "two types of feminists": one type of feminist fights for community change along with men, while the other, often identified as a "middle-class feminist," works against men. Survival during hard times in Nova Descoberta is based on a complex network of relationships where women and men are mutually dependent. Within this social survival network, the women in GMM did not see themselves as having the privilege (or the desire) to be the latter type of feminist.
Lourdes eloquently told me that "a feminist is a woman who has clarity of her role in the world as a transformer and fights for this, someone who fights for societal transformations." For Lourdes, this means working with "grassroots" populations, the poor and the oppressed. The starting point for change has to be the concrete realities of those with whom one is working. The majority of women in Nova Descoberta were not politically conscious when GMM was founded, and most women in the neighborhood still do not have this consciousness. Rather, the majority of women in GMM joined so they could attend a cooking class or a workshop on making Christmas candles offered by GMM. During these classes and meetings, however, Lourdes and others bring up more serious topics. When attracting women to the organization, GMM members cannot start off talking about politics and empowerment, because these issues are out of the realm of the women's previous experiences.
Lourdes told me once about a woman who came to work with GMM who did not want the organization to offer traditional "women's" classes like cooking. "She did not fit in with our group. Change has to be slow. We are still working to change these women, but if you do not find something they are interested in they will never come, so you can never work with them . . . change is like a light rain." I think this reflects the flexibility of feminism to work for change within a community's specific social context, which in Nova Descoberta means the context of a poor, urban Afro-Brazilian community.
Thus, the inclusive feminism that GMM practices speaks not only to multiple levels of political consciousness, but also to multiple aspects of personal identity. In Brazil, racism is a major problem; often the darker a person is, the more discrimination she or he faces. One of GMM's main campaigns fosters knowledge of and pride in the community's African heritage. When walking around Nova Descoberta, I saw many community members proudly wearing GMM produced T-shirts that said "Orgulho de Ser Negro"—"Proud To Be Black." One member of GMM told me, "I am not only a woman or only a black. I am both, I have united them, and the movements have united them. . . . The feminist movement in Brazil is much stronger than the black movement, because it began much earlier, but we have begun to realize the specificity of race within gender." Many GMM activities in which I participated were centered around raising Consciência Negra—"Black Consciousness." Although GMM is an "organization of women," the intersection between members' identity as women and their identity as Afro-Brazilian is extremely important.
The feminist activism of GMM is immediate and tangible, helping people change their own everyday lives. Several women in the organization found the courage to leave violent situations in their homes, while others were able actually to change the gender dynamic in their houses. One woman's description of how GMM had changed her life was typical: "I did not know about anything, I was embarrassed about everything. Sometimes I would talk to people, but I would keep my head down, I did not think anything of myself, I thought I was nothing, I thought I was of the kitchen. But after I started to participate I began to realize what I was, and what I could be."
At the same time, GMM locates itself as part of a bigger worldwide struggle. In many poor areas of Latin America, organizations of women called "mothers' clubs" exist that fight for specific community concerns such as access to water and electricity. Lourdes knows about these organizations, and she defines GMM differently. She says that these "clubes de mães" are different from GMM because they only work for "existence causes," while GMM works on global issues as well. This is why GMM calls itself "A organização das mulheres construindo uma nova sociedade"—"The organization of women constructing a new society." Many of the women in GMM, even those who entered the group with little to no political consciousness, talked to me about this global vision. Lourdes said, "You cannot separate life from the bigger system of what is happening in the world. This makes us different from other organizations that only work within the community, that have this isolated vision, to better their own communities only. . . . This is why I say that Grupo Mulher Maravilha started with the purpose of changing the world. That is our purpose."
And for me this makes sense, this is feminism. My work with GMM and discussions with Lourdes have helped me see feminism in all its inclusive power. It is about finding creative ways to better one's community based on that community's context. Feminism is flexible; it can include multiple aspects of a person's identity, and respect a person's level of consciousness and the speed of her or his growing understanding of the world. Feminism supports and helps people to change their personal lives, value themselves as individuals, even leave situations which put them in danger. Yet, at its best, feminism is also part of a worldwide vision of structural change for the good of all.
Rebecca Tarlau is an undergraduate majoring in anthropology and Latin American studies at U-M.
Although members of Nova Descoberta define feminism "against men" as "middle-class" feminism, it is interesting that this same concern also arises in middle-class communities in the United States. For example, I call myself a feminist, but am also very quick to say that I am not the type of feminist who hates men. However, if both the members of GMM and I hesitate to call ourselves feminists, what exactly does that term mean?