On Black Women and Feminism in Brazil

Gender, race and class are all intimately intertwined in Brazil. Using the needs of black women as my starting point, I'll try to draft an overview, however simplified, of the disparities within Brazilian feminism.

Brazil has over 200 million people, of which 50 percent are women. Though our president is a woman, running for reelection against another woman, we are still underrepresented in politics. In our House of Representatives, less than 9 percent of the deputies are women.

Fifty percent of all Brazilian women are black, which means there are 50 million black women in the country -- 10 times the population of Norway.

Though we've made great advancements over the last few years, Brazil is still a very unequal and racist country. And the story of black women in Brazil is also the story of my life, although I have been more fortunate than many.

I studied English in a small school in the suburbs of São Paulo thanks to my mother. She was a housemaid and was able to go to university in the '70s thanks to a public scholarship. My mother and I are part of a small group of black women who have access to higher education. Today, black women are still only 20 percent of the university population.

My grandmother was a housemaid her whole life. And my grandmother's mother was most likely a slave. In 2003, out of every 100 black women working in Brazil, 22 were maids. And until very recently, maids didn't have the same rights as other Brazilian workers. Only in 2013 were they guaranteed a 44-hour-week; payment for overtime; extra pay for night shifts; and unemployment benefits -- thanks to the efforts of workers' organizations.

My mother and my grandmother both raised their children by themselves. My grandfather left his family when my mother was 2 months old. And my father also left us when I was 2 months old. Again, this is not an isolated fact. About 35 percent of Brazilian families are headed by women.

My mother, just like my grandmother, never had a relationship or got married again. A number of researchers say black women's subjectivity, especially when it comes to their self-esteem, their affection and their sexuality, is very compromised by the "whiteness" of our social model. Add to that the experience of many women with abandonment and violence, and you get the picture that of being alone is not a choice.

After divorcing my mother, my father got married again and had another son, a boy I lost contact with when our father passed away. I was 11 years old.

Like so many other young black men, my father died at an early age, after spending a life making money from gambling, which is illegal in Brazil. He was smart, ambitious and invented a way of making money. And it ended badly, as it does for most young black men. In 2012, proportionally almost 150 percent more black men than white men died, in homicides, car accidents, or, like my father, suicide.

I don't need to stress how much pain I felt and still feel over that story. And how difficult it has been to talk about it. After years of studies and therapy, I decided to look for that brother. And I found out, last year, that he was also an intelligent, ambitious young man. And that he was in jail. Around 560,000 people are in jail in Brazil today, and a majority of them are young and black.

I considered looking for my brother in prison. But not only did I not have that kind of emotional strength, but I also could not endure the oppressive and shameful body search. In Brazil, visiting a loved one in prison is a harsh and humiliating process. Visitors have to take off all of their clothes, squat down and sometimes undergo invasive clinical examinations. That even happens with children.

The situation of women prisoners is equally grim. Though female prisoners make up a smaller percentage of the overall prison population, they face sexual abuse, inadequate and unhygienic facilities , and a severe lack of medical care.

Young black men in Brazil are victims of mistreatment so severe that it could almost be called a genocide. And we, black women, feel it in our hearts, in our skin. Most black women live alone, work a lot for low pay, take care of the kids by themselves and witness their sons, fathers, and brothers get killed or arrested.

I have experienced this reality -- and other painful realities that are part of my experience as a black woman. Despite the pain and the memories, I am now a professor, a journalist, married and I live in a central upper class neighborhood. But that puts me in very close connection to what we call "whitewashing." First of all, my name is Bianca! That means white -- in Italian. This whitewashing has manifested ever since I was a child, when there was nobody I could talk to about my skin color, hair or ancestry -- not in my house, nor in school. It has manifested especially in the way I deal with my hair.

Women in my family have always straightened their hair, just like most women with afro hair in Brazilian urban centers. With my Afro hair, I was always invited to "fix" it.

I let my hair free less than a year ago, and started using colorful turbans and big afros, which seems strange to most people. A lot of them stop me on the street and ask if I'm an artist, because "only an artist would walk around with hair like that."

Seeing black hair as bad and "white" hair as good is, as we know, an expression of racism and racial inequality.

White women are perceived as fragile. Black women, on the other hand, are often perceived as strong. Our naked bodies are exposed on TV, before, during, and after Carnaval. We have been workers forever. And we have no access to justice. Justice in Brazil has a very specific color -- it's white.

Feminism does not always take these nuances into account. Because of that, many black women's movements point out that several approaches to feminism are white, Eurocentric, academic, rich, and even racist.

An evident point of divergence in feminism in Brazil is women's autonomy over their bodies. A more liberal feminism, for example, seeks to reclaim pejorative terms like "slut." Events like the SlutWalk encourage women to expose their bodies as an affirmation and a protest against rape and sexism.

For many black women, though, it's not possible to give new meaning to terms once used to oppress women, especially poor and black ones. Black women's bodies, used by the media as sexual objects, are already overexposed. So, interpreting bodily autonomy as one's right to be a slut and exploring nudity is one of the conflicts in Brazilian feminism.

Casa de Lua [a name that, in Portuguese, means House of the Moon], the feminist collective I'm a part of, believes in diversity and dialogue as necessary values for the feminist agenda. We have tried to embrace internal differences in our own group, seeing them as motivators for growing stronger both individually and as a collective. We believe in internal revolutions, built as a group, becoming social transformation. Every activity held in our space ends with a brief ritual where, in a circle, we say three times: "I put my hands over yours so we can do together what I cannot do by myself." I do believe we can make changes, if we put our hands together.

This post was originally published on HuffPost Brazil and was translated into English. It was edited and condensed for an American audience.