Decolonizing Feminism: A Brazilian perspective

For the first time ever this fall, the AWID international Forum occurred in Brazil, and put a spotlight on Brazilian feminist movements and perspectives.

Much was said about the importance of intersectionality and greater solidarity between our feminist movements.But intersectionality does not necessarily force us to consider the colonization of feminist movements and their work. What does it mean to decolonize feminism? And can we truly achieve intersectionality and transnational solidarity between feminists if we do not decolonize our movements and practices?

Isabela Camargo Soares da Cruz and Rebecca Tainã dos Santos are two young feminists who presented practices and perspectives to decolonize feminism in the Brazilian context at the Young Feminist Activism (YFA) Hub. Their personal approaches to understanding feminism also highlight the intersectionality of their collective work: Isabela and Rebecca both belong to Coletivo Mangueiras, a young feminist-led collective that advocates for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) in Brazil and works in different regions across the country.

Isabela and Rebecca’s session deeply questioned the way that we understand feminism and do feminist work, particularly in the global South. In Brazil, the concept of feminism was first appropriated by educated white women who articulated and created a movement with little space for the plurality of Brazilian women and their needs, concerns and realities. There is an inherent inadequacy of a feminist movement that is based on European and US theories of feminism and interprets the experiences of white women as universal. As women’s rights institutions were established, official documents, institutions and agreements delineating that work came from a small set of countries and powers - and mostly from outside Brazil. What does it mean when governments, inter-governmental institutions, universities and NGOs have prescribed the priorities of the women’s rights agenda? Who are the women who have access to those institutions and spaces of power?

Isabela and Rebecca addressed this scenario and these questions through the optics of identity, territory, bodies, race, ethnicity and community.

Rebecca Tainã dos Santos, who identifies as a Romani Brazilian woman, understands all too well how “colonized” feminism denies her very existence and participation in feminist work. As a young woman who comes from an ethnicity that is vilified,marginalized and sexualized around the world she understands that her identity, ethnicity, nationality, territory and body are all undermined. Without decolonizing feminism, she cannot participate. Without decolonizing feminism, she does not have a home. And so she made her body her home, her territory, and her field for understanding feminism.

“Our bodies are our territories. And so if my body is my territory, then borders don’t exist for me,” she declared. “A nossa pátria, o nosso território, somo nós mesmas - our homeland, our territory, is ourselves.”

Session at the 2016 AWID international Forum

With no explicit invitation to participate in transnational feminist dialogue and work, she insists on participating and specifically bringing her ethnic identity to the table. When asked about how she deals with institutions such as UN Women, which have specific frameworks and praxis in understanding women’s rights that come from colonial perspectives, she answers, “I question these frameworks. I defy them. I ask them to send their documents in another language. I fight for the word ‘ethnicity’ to be included.” Due to Rebecca’s and other women’s efforts, the first ever transnational meeting for Romani women occurred in Brussels recently.

Isabela Da Cruz comes from a quilombo called Invernada Pail de Telha. Quilombos are territories founded by Afro-Brazilians, many of whom were formerly slaves or descendants of slaves.

Quilombolas, or residents of quilombos, have fought for centuries in order to have their land rights recognized, and yet many quilombos are still not recognized by the Brazilian government and in constant danger of eviction. Her experience and understanding of feminism is as a community practice, even if it sometimes it is unconscious and not directly understood as feminism.

She considers that quilombola communities are essentially matriarchies and have a communal perspective of feminism: women’s participation in decision-making and in the community structure is crucial and recognized as such. Isabela specifically talked about the intersectionality of feminist priorities and community territories: they are inseparable.

“Because of intersectionality, we have to advocate for our different identities,” she said. “We fight to keep our communities, our territories, but that is beyond our control and literally out of our hands. Our bodies are the only things that we truly have, and we have to protect our bodies. And preserving our bodies is relational - we have to take care of ourselves, renew ourselves, take care of each other. We women fight for the land that belongs to everyone, for our communities, for our families - and this is feminism, even if it is not called feminism. Feminism is community.

Isabela and Rebecca also offered examples of community-specific feminist practices and spaces in Brazil. Women-led and women-run initiatives in communities in Brazil such as clube de mães, which are informal gatherings of women, many of whom are mothers, to create artisanal crafts and sell collectively, may actually be feminist practices. In an attempt to self-organize in order to be more resilient and survive, women from the periphery generated funding for their community and for their families. “These are very early forms of feminisms.  Feminism isn’t only what we learn in school, it is what we do,” Isabela said. “It should be action, doing workshops for women, community building and creating resources for your community.” Community-specific practices also often have their own forms of expression and communication, and one example of such is funk music in Brazil. Funk music began in favelas and the peripheries across Brazil, and it is dominated by male funkeiros with often misognystic and demeaning lyrics. However, feminist funkeiras have risen to prominence, and sing about their rights, respect, and challenge the status quo of macho culture in the favelas and peripheries.

Rebecca and Isabela’s messages were multi-layered and in of themselves an approach to decolonizing feminism.

By listening to them and their personal stories of feminist work, the participants in the room also went through a process of self-reflexivity, especially the women from other marginalized communities. Compared to other international conferences where only certain frameworks of feminism and women’s rights are discussed, the AWID Forum was a safe space for women from favelas, quilombos, and diverse ethnicities from the Global South, who stood up after Rebecca and Isabela’s session to say that they identified and felt recognized.

This moment of reflexivity led to a collective understanding of the importance of recognizing race and ethnicity as obstacles to accessing and understanding feminism and feminist movements. It also helped us to realize what feminist knowledge is perceived as and who is producing it, while other subaltern and marginalized feminist producers of knowledge are ignored, such as black feminists who began to articulate, write and mobilize during the 1980s and 1990s in Brazil. The different realities of women from different communities in different countries means that their feminist work of challenging social inequalities and dominant powers will be different, and this needs to be recognized and valued.

It is certainly not easy to build transnational feminist movements and solidarity while at the same time attempting to undergo the process of decolonizing our feminist theories, knowledge and practices. But it seems crucial if we truly want to build a different future. There seems to be a delicate balance of attempting to preserve and respect cultures, traditions and communities while at the same time questioning the patriarchal structures and sexism that still dominates those spaces.

Yet this is a challenge that many women are willing to navigate, because culture, identity, and community are much more important than governments or neoliberal economic structures would like us to believe. Perhaps one of the first steps to decolonizing our feminist movements is to respect and value community- specific, autonomously and self-organized feminist work – even if it doesn't look like the feminist work that we recognize in books or conferences.


About the author

Ani Phoebe Hao is a feminist researcher and writer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She is the co-founder of Agora Juntas, a network of collectives, organizations and initiatives building a collaborative feminist hub in Rio. Her research focuses on youth-led civil society, young feminist activism around reproductive rights in Brazil, and youth policy. Her writing about feminist movements in Brazil has been published on The Guardian, Open Democracy, and VICE.

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