"One woman makes the difference - Many women change the world." London, 29 September 2018. Women protest against Jair Bolsonaro Photo: Romena Fogliati/Folhapress

He is the backwardness no country deserves to have. And we are the women who will not let him win

Women in Brazil have become the main voice of resistance against far-right presidential candidate,Jair Bolsonaro, who is leading the polls for the presidential election taking place on Sunday.  Protests organised on social media took hundreds of thousands of women to the streets on September 29 to show their opposition to the candidate’s fascist, sexist, misogynistic, racist and LGBT-phobic ideas.

Women’s demonstration, Largo de Batata, São Paulo Photo: from Facebook

Bolsonaro has made many offensive comments on women. He told a fellow MP that she didn’t deserve to be raped because she was ugly. He once said in an interview that having a daughter after having four sons was the result of weakness. And more recently, to add insult to injury, he argued that women should earn less because they get pregnant.  Added to that, one of the few bills proposed by Bolsonaro in nearly three decades in Congress recommended that Brazil’s national health system no longer be forced to provide emergency treatment to women and children who had been victims of rape or sexual abuse. The proposal was made in 2013, when notifications of rape were increasing by 90%.

Bolsonaro’s running mate, retired army general Hamilton Mourão, who had been all but invisible, came into the spotlight while Bolsonaro was in hospital recovering from a stabbing he received at an election rally. He carried on in the Bolsonaro vein with more offensive comments against women, saying, for instance, that “houses run by mothers and grandmothers are factories of misfits that feed the drug gangs”. It’s worth pointing out that almost a third of households in Brazil are run by women…

The women’s movement started with a Facebook group – Mulheres Unidas Contra Bolsonaro or Women United Against Bolsonaro, created on August 30 as a platform to coordinate protests against his “misogynist, prejudiced and truly fascist” ideas and soon went viral. They started using the hashtag #EleNao (#NotHim) to highlight all the different reasons why he should not be elected. Within two weeks the group had one million members and #EleNao was among the top trending topics in Brazil.

Cyber warfare

In an attempt to sabotage the movement Bolsonaro supporters carried out a series of cyber attacks. Many joined the group using false identities to post pro-Bolsonaro comments and offend members. Others invaded the administrators’ Whatsapp networks and threatened to expose their personal details if they didn’t take the group down. And some hacked into the group and changed its name to Women with Bolsonaro, causing many members to leave. And finally they managed to get the Facebook group temporarily closed by massively reporting the group. (Facebook pages can be reported for many reasons: spam, hate speech, harassment, violence, etc and if a large number of people reports a group for whatever reason, Facebook take the page offline until they verify it).

But, rather than dismantling the group, the attacks made it stronger. While the group was down, other women created other groups to replace it. The hashtag #EleNao became the top topic in Brazil’s Twitter and has been among the world’s trending topics since. The campaign also received support from local and international artists. When the original Facebook group came back around 24 hours later, thousands more women were waiting to be added and it is still growing with the number of members nearing four million.

Women represent 53% of the electorate in Brazil and those in the movement see Bolsonaro as a threat to their existence. Their manifesto calls for equality, freedom, rights and a life free from violence. Founder of the Facebook group, Ludmilla Teixeira, said she only “lit the match which exploded the powder keg of Brazilian women’s collective indignation”. The movement transcended the internet waves and materialised onto the streets. On Saturday 29 September coordinated protests took place in all 27 Brazilian states, in at least 114 different cities, and in 63 cities abroad. The largest woman-led protests in history, they brought together women from a variety of backgrounds and political ideologies. It is a feminist movement that hopes to change Brazil.

Brazilian women in the UK speak out

In London approximately 1,000 women met at the Old Palace Yard in Westminster and marched across Westminster Bridge and back, ending in Parliament Square. They chanted several slogans including #EleNao and sang songs critical of Bolsonaro.

Women’s demonstration on Westminster Bridge, London. Photo: Camila Fontenele/YVY

For Erika Berenger, a senior research associate at Oxford University, the feminist movement is an important way in which women discover they have a voice, because “historically Brazil has a very macho, sexist, culture”. She went on: “Women have only been entitled to vote for 100 years [actually only 86 years] and many of them didn’t know they had such a powerful voice.”  She highlighted the diversity of women in the protests, including many from the black, indigenous and LGBT communities, all voicing their common dislike of the misogynist candidate.

Human rights activist Marcia Alves, who was born in a poor community in Rio and now lives in Reading in the UK, sees the prospect of someone like Bolsonaro occupying the presidency as terrifying, especially for women, blacks, members of the LGBT community and the poor. She believes that the backward and reactionary ideology defended by the candidate is even more threatening to women living in Brazil’s favelas and poor urban neighbourhoods than to middle class women.

She went on: “Bolsonaro appeals to and encourages the worst prejudices still rooted in Brazilian culture. Among them, that the place of women is to be subservient, with no right to growth or choices. He tolerates and encourages violence against women. He also encourages the idea that poor people should know their place, thus justifying social inequality. A Bolsonaro government would speed up the war on poverty and women which already exists in Brazil. It would be an unimaginable reversal of the economic and social freedoms that we have in our society.”

Alves sees similarities between this movement and the protests of 2013, for their spontaneity and their progressive element (though many of the protestors, particularly at a later stage, were not progressive in 2013), as well as their potential. She also draws a parallel with the women’s movement against Trump after he was elected in 2016, but with one important difference: the movement against Bolsonaro is taking place before the elections and could bury the fascist candidate’s aspirations and create a pole of resistance against policies which are sexist, anti-democratic policies and against the interests of the majority of Brazil’s population.”

For Pedrita Setenareski, a language teacher and carer living in Devon in the UK, women’s protagonism is essential because although “women are treated as a minority they are actually the majority.” She said the protest made her feel empowered by “the resistance, sorority, empathy and compassion in every step and song, where all women were united as one”.

Monica Benicio, partner of Marielle Franco. Photo: Camila Fontenele/YVY

The great surprise of the London demo was the participation of Monica Benicio, partner of murdered councilwoman Marielle Franco, shot dead in Rio in March this year. Franco was a black, feminist, bisexual human rights activist who became an icon in the fight for minorities’ rights and was remembered in protests everywhere. Benicio was surprised to see so many women together “in a city that has a reality so different to ours”, she said. “This power, this solidarity and the desire to change things is the essence of feminism for me and to see Marielle’s face become the symbol of this revolution makes me believe it is all worthwhile and want to keep going”.

Feminism is a force

After seeing the scope and reach of all the protests nationwide and internationally, Benicio said it is clear that a feminist revolution is under way. “Feminism is an important force in the world to make a fairer and more equal society.”

Bolsonaro, who was discharged from hospital on the day the #EleNao protests were taking place, played down their scale, reportedly saying that “this stuff about a women’s movement against me is all false rumours, it doesn’t exist.” The scant coverage on TV reinforced this impression. His campaigners quickly flooded their Whatsapp groups with photos of different feminist and LGBT protests such as Gay Pride and Slutwalk, portraying topless women in funny customs and alleging those were the typical #EleNao activists. As a result, evangelical Christian women, who account for about a third of Brazilian women, feel revulsed by the movement claiming it doesn’t represent them.

The latest polls by Brazil’s largest polling companies, IBOPE and Datafolha, published on Monday and Tuesday, show the percentage of people intending to vote for Bolsonaro has actually increased, from 28% to 31% and 32%, respectively. Datafolha also shows an increase in support for him among women voters.

Some are now saying that the #EleNao campaign was counter-productive and actually bolstered Bolsonaro’s ratings. But the women in the movement are trying to keep their spirits up. In the current world of distorted reporting, it’s difficult to detect meaningful trends. Election polls are often proved wrong and they may be now. Women have little choice but to go on resisting. More protests are due on Saturday 6 October, the eve of the election.

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