Black Feminism in Brazil
Black Feminism in Brazil
Among women of African descent in Brazil, feminist consciousness is positioned at the intersection of racism and women’s concerns. It is generally approached in two ways. First, women activists place the roots of their consolidation in the post-slavery era, when former slaves started to organize themselves. The early twentieth century witnessed important achievements in this regard, including the formation of the first association of Brazilian female domestic workers in 1936 in Santos, São Paulo, and the 1950 inaugural convention of the National Council of Black Women in São Paulo. The 1970s represented a moment of considerable expansion, and the establishment of links with international feminism had a great impact on women in Brazil. At the 1975 Brazilian Women’s Congress held in Rio de Janeiro, delegations of Afro-Brazilian women denounced racial and sexual discrimination. In the early twenty-first century, there are various nongovernmental Afro-Brazilian women’s organizations, with the important ones located in the cities of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Bahia.
The second approach is historical in nature and important to Afro-Brazilian writers and activists. In their quest to revert the legacy of invisibility, militants and researchers have emphasized that there is substantive evidence of female initiative and leadership in Brazil’s historical past. Their approach adds another dimension to the idea of “feminism” by indicating that long before slavery’s end women of African descent in Brazil participated in struggles to defend their communities and families and to ensure their basic human rights. What has been elusive is a recognition of their achievements.
Over time, women of African descent in Brazil have established their own arenas in which they have been able to assume positions of leadership and control. Political and social spheres continue to provide increasing opportunities for debating with the state, political parties, the legal system, and institutions of education. But it is in the sphere of religion that Afro-Brazilian women have achieved unquestioned respect, power, and dignity. As mães de santo (mothers-of-saints) of the Candomblé religion, they are the unquestioned authorities on all matters that pertain to the spiritual, physical, and mental well-being of their religious followers. These stately older women are associated with a legacy of spiritual understanding inherited from their African forbears and a wisdom that cannot be merely learned. They collaborate with organizations at all levels, and their influence among black activists and women’s groups is due to the fact that many militants are Candomblé followers.
In Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, and São Paulo, there are many revered mothers of saints and priestesses. Born in 1923 in Bahia, Mãe Hilda Jitolu exemplifies this legacy. She is the director and founder of Ilê Aiyê, one of the important Afro-Brazilian cultural entities in Salvador, Bahia. A Guardian of the Faith and the African Tradition, she has spent more than sixty-five years as a Candomblé priestess and has earned the respect and admiration of politicians, followers, and the community. In 2004, Ilê Aiyê paid homage to her during their Carnival celebrations marking their thirtieth anniversary.
The Brazilian black women’s movement has succeeded in empowering women and their communities far beyond expectations. It is a movement that is not homogeneous, but rather diverse and widespread. It comprises associations and groups whose specific agendas serve the needs of the communities in which they are located. During the late 1970s and early 1980s these movements did not separate from the Brazilian black movement, and many did organize within its parameters. Increased autonomy arose due to the black movement’s insufficient attention to the race, gender, and class specificities of black women. Feminist consciousness is also associated with distinguished Brazilian icons, including Benedita da Silva, a former governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro, and Lélia González (1935–1994), an anthropologist, feminist, researcher, and black militant. González is revered as one of the Afro-Brazilian women whose untiring efforts transformed the lives of many.
While there are women’s organizations all over the country, the most well-known are Geledés (São Paulo), Fala Preta (São Paulo), Criola (Rio de Janeiro), and Casa de Cultura da Mulher Negra (Santos). These groups share some characteristics in terms of infrastructure and organization, and each one owes its establishment to a woman activist who was initially involved in black movement militancy. They all operate in the early twenty-first century with boards of directors, subcommittees, and teams working
on long-term and short-term projects. They collaborate fully with men and women in all walks of life, government agencies, feminists, and black activists. These organizations also express a reverence for African cultural symbols, a strategy that reinforces diasporic connections and serves as reminders of their origins. Their inspirational figures are famous Afro-Brazilian women who have been leaders of rebellions and resistance movements or advocates against injustice, such as the African princesses Anastácia and Aqualtune, Maroon leader Dandara, insurrection leader Luiza Mahin, prominent slave leader Xica da Silva, first Afro-Brazilian woman writer Maria Firmina dos Reis, and slum dweller and writer Carolina Maria de Jesus.
Geledés, Instituto da Mulher Negra (Geledés, The Black Woman’s Institute) is an organization located in São Paulo that has attained recognition in the arenas of politics, race, and women’s rights. The name is originally derived from Geledé, a secret society of women found in traditional Yoruba societies. It refers to female power over the land, fertility, procreation, and the community’s well-being. The organization was founded in 1988, with Sueli Carneiro as founding director. It is a politicized entity dedicated to combating racism and sexism and to promoting black women and the black community. It emphasizes the need for changes in public policy in order to guarantee the principles of inclusion, equality, and opportunity for all. With its primary fields of activity centered around human rights, racism, education, and health, Geledés stands as the example of a successful nongovernmental organization (NGO) in Latin America. The organization has also received numerous awards, including the Human Rights Award granted by the Ministry of Justice on the Human Rights International Day in 1996 and the Human Rights Award granted by the government of France in 1998 on the fiftieth anniversary of the Human Rights Declaration.
Located in Santos, the Casa de Cultura da Mulher Negra (Black Women’s Cultural Center) confirms how feminism has influenced women to take control, become political, and effect transformations in their community. One of the earliest of these groups to be formed, it was the brainchild of Alzira Rufino, one of the leading advocates of women’s rights, a founding member of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (the Workers’ Party) and a serious black movement activist. A feminist, author, poet, essayist, and ialorixá (or priestess of Candomblé), Rufino is known for her studies and publications on the biographies and historical experiences of Afro-Brazilian woman.
When it was first established under Rufino’s guidance in 1984 the group represented a community effort among women, bearing the name Coletivo de Mulheres Negras da Baixada Santista (the Baixada Santista Black Women’s Collective). In the early 2000s, as Casa de Cultura da Mulher Negra, it is an NGO with its own headquarters located in the city of Santos. Since its inception Rufino has been its first and only director, and it is acknowledged as one of the success stories of the women’s movement in Brazil. It has a very community-oriented agenda and is dedicated to combating racial, domestic, and sexual violence. Through a professional staff of lawyers and psychologists it provides legal aid, counseling, and psychological assistance; and courses, work studies, seminars, workshops, and campaigns are part of an ongoing program of community outreach in the areas of health, education, and development. Other projects include an archive and an Afro-Brazilian restaurant, and the center hosts many cultural events.
Afro-Brazilian feminists promote contact with women’s organizations in the Caribbean and Latin America primarily through conference networking. International caucuses and gatherings provide a number of forums for women of the region to exchange ideas, share experiences, and discuss strategies for dealing with issues such as globalization, poverty, labor, health, and political representation. Important examples of international encounters include the first meeting of the Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Women’s Network (in the Dominican Republic, 1992), the Women’s Caucus to the World Conference against Racism (South Africa, 2001), the meeting of the Black Women’s Network (Costa Rica, 2002), the Fifth International Women’s Conference (Cuba, 2003), and the Tenth Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Encounter (Brazil, 2005).
Sonia Alvarez, a professor in Latin American Politics and Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, believes that Brazilian black women’s movement is more ideologically diverse than ever, following many paths that are largely determined by the issues black women seek to prioritize. Feminism, a close alliance with black men to fight racism, and a rejection of the “feminist” label represent the three major directions that shape current groups and are determining the kinds of relationships they maintain with black men and white women.
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Carneiro, Sueli. 1999. “Black Women’s Identity in Brazil.” In Race in Contemporary Brazil: From Indifference to Inequality, edited by Rebecca Reichmann, 217–228. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Lovell, Peggy. 2000. “Gender, Race, and the Struggle for Social Justice in Brazil.” Latin American Perspectives 27 (6): 85–103.
Rufino, Alzira. 1996. “The Black Women’s Movement in Brazil.” Women in Action 2: 79–80.