This story is over 5 years old.


Brazilian Feminists Tackle Carnival Sexism by Joining the Party

This year's carnival season included several feminist blocos, or street parties, that challenge what they see as male-domination of the festival with its sexualized "carnival queens," and general acceptance of the idea that women are prey.
Foto di James Armour Young

A Brazilian woman dressed as the late Mexican artist and feminist icon Frida Kahlo cracked open a can of beer. Another, wearing a Rosie the Riveter outfit, began to dance to the music of a marching band. Other revelers carried posters bearing slogans such as "Let me samba in peace." One placard proclaimed "Whenever She Wants," alluding to the title of an acclaimed Brazilian film that translates as What Time Will She Be Back?


This was Rio de Janeiro in the middle of its carnival, except that this was a carnival bloco, or street party, that challenged the festival in new ways.

Mulheres Rodadas — a slang term meaning women who've been around — was formed just over a year ago with the aim of battering down what members say is Brazil's "silencing" type of sexism that appears to celebrate feminine freedom, but often means anything but.

Debora Thomé told VICE News that the idea was inspired by a Facebook page titled "I deserve better than a mulher rodada."

"People say that in Brazil women dress how they want, so how can you want more freedom? But we say that's how men want women to behave," she said. "A woman can dress however she wants, but she then becomes a victim of violence because of it."

Related: While Murders of Black Women in Brazil Rise Sharply — Murders of White Women Fall

Mulheres Rodadas is one of several feminist blocos that have sprung up in carnival-enthused cities, such as Rio and Recife in the north east, highlighting male-domination of the massive party with its emphasis on the sexualized imagery of "carnival queens" and, they claim, general acceptance of the idea that women are prey.

"It turns out there were a lot of women who felt the same way, but weren't united," Thomé said, noting that 2,500 joined the Rio bloco in 2015. Police said around the same number were involved this year.

The new blocos form part of a growing feminist movement that first became obvious through demonstrations held last November in Rio.


They were sparked, in part, by an effort to toughen already restrictive abortion laws that are championed by Eduardo Cunha, the speaker of Brazil's lower house and leader of the powerful congressional evangelical Christian bloc.

Abortion is currently illegal in Brazil except in cases of rape, when the mother's life is in danger, or when the fetus is found to be developing with a condition known as anencephaly, in which parts of the brain or skull are missing. The proposed amendment would require rape victims to report the crime to police and undergo a forensic medical exam.

As Mulheres Rodadas made its way through the streets of Rio, members of the bloco sang "Oh no, Eduardo Cunha wants to control your vagina."

"In Brazil men feel they have a right to control women's bodies. You just need to look at the proposed abortion law changes," Thomé said. "Only 10 percent of the deputies in congress are women, so basically men are deciding whether women can have abortions or not."

The current epidemic of the mosquito-borne Zika virus in Brazil — which has been linked to a different birth abnormality known as microcephaly — has added a new impulse to the abortion debate from the other direction. An abortion rights group based in the national capital Brasilia is planning to file a lawsuit seeking to legalize abortion in these cases.

Related: Financial Crisis and Zika Threaten Carnival in Brazil


Last year's feminist demonstrations also criticized comments made by Pedro Paulo Carvalho, a Rio politician then seen as a likely future mayor of the city, who dismissed revelations that he had assaulted his ex-wife as "a couple's argument."

According to the Map of Violence report produced by the Latin American Social Sciences Faculty and released last year, the latest available statistics from the Brazilian health system show that 4,762 women were murdered in 2013. The report found that just over half died at the hands of a family member, while a third were killed by current or former partners.

The new feminist effervescence also produced last year's Twitter campaign #MeuPrimeiroAssedio or #MyFirstHarassment. It was started by an NGO called Think Olga in response to sexually themed messages posted about a 12-year-old female contestant of a TV cooking competition.

"On a packed bus, sitting on my blind mother's lap. A man unzipped his pants and showed me his genitals. I was eight," read one of the thousands of stories of sexual harassment suffered by Brazilian women that were posted online.

"The subject had never been discussed outside feminist circles, or it was always brushed under the carpet, but we managed to put in in the mainstream media" said Juliana Faria, director of Think Olga.

Faria emphasized that while change would not happen overnight she believed something new had started that would be difficult to stop.


"There are a lot of feminist campaigns around at the moment, and the country is much more open about the debate now than in the past," she said. "A couple of years ago I received death threats when I tried to raise the subject of violence against women, but today we can talk about it openly."

Back at the carnival, Debora Thomé of Mulheres Rodadas said she believed real change depended on women making their voices heard within the political system.

Despite having a female president in Dilma Rousseff, the country still ranks only 115th in the world in terms of female political representation, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Only two of the 20 federal deputies belonging to the Party of the Brazilian Woman are actually women.

Related: Here's Why Everyone Is So Pissed at Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff

Thomé said that she was working to start a new political party that pushed women's issues with women's voices. In the meantime, she said, dancing and singing in a carnival bloco was a good way of getting the message across to a wider audience.

"Through the idea of having fun and not seeming too serious we've been able to attract people who hadn't thought about feminism before, because feminism can be stigmatized," she said. "Now people like my mother and my grandmother and the mothers and grandmothers of other women, who have spent their lives being oppressed or being victims, have started to think about the themes we're raising."

Related: Gender Equality is Still a Huge Problem in the Global News Media

Follow James Armour Young on Twitter: @seeadarkness