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"We're Beautiful, Powerful And Political": Brazil's Feminists Are Taking On The Olympics

Do you remember the crowd protesting against the World Cup in Brazil in 2014? Well, I was one of them. I was truly enraged by the way the Brazilian government spent money on things that were more cosmetic than long-term improvements to be enjoyed by the Brazilian people, such as solid public transportation and improvements to public hospitals. I was terrified with the rise in child sexual exploitation and the forced removals of poor people. I was mad with the way we were marketing Brazilian women as sexual objects.

But this year I am facing the Olympic games with a different perspective and I will tell you why: We, Brazilian women, are planning to make this a feminist Olympics!

Photo: Courtesy of João Fellet
Nana Queiroz, "#IDon'tDeserveToBeRaped"
For two years, Brazilians have been watching the growth of a movement that's being dubbed by experts and the media as the country's "Women’s Spring". Just as the "Arab Spring" happened in the Middle East, this wave is led by young people, was born on the internet and then spread to the real world. Suddenly, Brazilian women realised they were oppressed and started using social media to organise. Hashtags such as #MyFirstHarassment and #IDon'tDeserveToBeRaped went viral from one day to the next. Protests in the streets, whether with feminist demands or not, were led by women. Even school girls started demanding uniforms equal to the ones that boys wear. We became a political group to be feared and listened to.

Hold on, you say, was there no feminist movement in Brazil until then? Of course there was! It was a very inspiring one, by the way, but the internet helped us make feminism pop, make it accessible, make it democratic. And so we are reaching the Olympics with the level of maturity that finally gives us not only the institutions and leadership necessary to make change happen, but the numbers.

Women have historically been denied attention in the sporting world, but the Rio Games are so far showing promising signs that we'll be placed at the forefront – that we'll be made the protagonists. Juliana Faria, founder and director of Think Olga, a feminist think tank that has helped boost the Women's Spring, was invited to carry the Olympic torch with Maria da Penha, an iconic figure in our country’s fight against domestic violence.

"With the torch, Maria and I carried the Women's Rights flag", says Juliana. "In addition, that same day, a famous Brazilian singer called Biel was forbidden to carry the torch after he was caught sexually harassing a reporter. In my view, this decision was very coherent."

Stephanie Ribeiro, a sparkling and influential black feminist who is 23, believes that the feminist impact we will see in this Olympics will be more symbolic than anything else – but this is a first step.

"We will not actually see transformation happening in these games, but at least we will have more power to fight for the leading narrative. We will not take it easily if female athletes (especially black ones, such as Serena Williams) do not get media attention. We will not take it lightly if tourists decide to touch us without permission," she explains.
Stephanie is tired of the propaganda about Brazilian women that is exported abroad – the depiction of nearly-naked women celebrating Carnival. "During the World Cup, the amount of harassment I faced in the streets tripled. Worse: the government and media were selling the idea that Brazilian women are easy objects to be used, a kind of touristic attraction. We will not take it anymore."

Visitors looking for sexual tourism should be aware: during this year's Carnival, for example, 174% more women went to the police with harassment reports than after 2015's event. Brazilian women are finally growing tired of the old stereotypes that say they are beautiful, sexy, easy, available and not very full of will. Now, women can cry out against violence by dialling just three numbers in their phone – 180, a hotline created only for women – or else by using an app. Activists expect the same to happen during the Olympics: anyone who goes too far in their pursuit of sex (or in their pursuit of sexual violence, as is unfortunately often the case) has a strong chance of getting in trouble with the police – or, at the very least, getting a slap in the face.

Our sex workers are also on the lookout; an organised movement against violence and abuse towards sex workers has only strengthened in the past years. As Amara Moira, a transsexual sex worker and feminist activist from Campinas, a city in the Southeast Region of Brazil, tells me, sex workers tend to call social services if they see children being sexually exploited, or if they see their colleagues within the profession becoming victims of foul play.

"Sometimes they even try and talk to the family, since many of these young girls are being forced into prostitution by their own relatives," says Amara. "Can you imagine how tough the lives of parents must be if they have to do this to their daughters in order to survive? This is when we realise that we can't fight sexual exploitation of underage girls without fighting poverty as well."
Brazil: a sexist "paradise"

All this is not to say that Brazil is a paradise for women. On the contrary, feminism is only as strong as the challenges women face. To begin with, our first female president is being impeached under cries of "slut" in the streets. According to a study by Flacso (Latin American Faculty on Social Studies), we are the fifth country in the world where the most women are murdered. We used to be seventh, just one year ago. If you are a trans woman in Brazil, your life expectancy is estimated at 30 years old – and we have the highest rate of violence against the trans community in the world, according to NGO Transgender Europe.

Racism and poverty mix to make oppression greater in our country. "When they build up walls around slums to hide poverty, our government is also hiding gender issues," says Stephanie. "One woman is raped every 11 minutes in Brazil – and most of them are poor and black."
Brazilian culture is a “macho” culture, one that intensely hypersexualises the female body. If you opt for being an openly sexual woman, people say that you must deal with the consequences – that your body belongs to men, and that they have the right to touch it, to rape it. It is you who will be judged and criticised for this, not them. And you can't decide when or if you get pregnant either: the Catholic Church, still strong in its influence over the people of Brazil, insists that birth control is ungodly, while abortion is a crime punished with jail time.
On the bright side, these days enough women know that some of these behaviours and beliefs are not normal – and they are ready to fight them. The major news portal in Brazil, UOL, has hired feminist groups to cover the Olympics from a female – and feminist – perspective. Funny thing: UOL was, until now, a website that raised critics for being sexist in its sports coverage. Elsewhere, sex workers have been invited to debate in national forums, in order to decide whether we should approve a bill called “Gabriela Leite”, that regulates sex work nationwide. And groups are organising support for female victims of sexual violence.

If one thing is clear, it’s that Brazilian women are no longer a silent army. Our first mission? Let everyone know that abuse will not go unpunished. Yes, we are beautiful, powerful and political, but we are ready to blow the whistle on you too.

Nana Queiroz is a Brazilian journalist, founder and CEO of AzMina, a non-profit dedicated to promote women's empowerment through investigative journalism, culture and art. She wrote the book Inmates Who Menstruate, about female prisons in Brazil.