Academic feminists beware: Bolsonaro is out to crush Brazil’s 'gender ideology'

Although it claims to protect women, the Bolsonaro government is running a crusade against the human rights of women and LGBTQ individuals, writes Fernanda Barasuol. Attempting to ban gender studies in universities is one example of how the government works against women’s right to defend themselves

In his most recent speech at the United Nations, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro stated that 'Brazil is a Christian and conservative country and has family as its foundation'.

This statement will hardly surprise those who have been following Brazilian politics since Bolsonaro’s election in 2018. Since then, his administration has become internationally known for conservative positions such as its defence of gun ownership, criticism of 'globalism', and scepticism regarding climate change.

Even more prominent has been its crusade against what the president and his supporters call 'gender ideology', an umbrella term used to signify anything from feminism to the support of LGBTQ rights. Understanding the role of anti-gender discourse is not the whole puzzle, but it is an important part of understanding Bolsonaro’s continued appeal to a large part of the Brazilian population.

Masculinity and the 'good citizen'

Bolsonaro is not the first far-right politician to use anti-feminism as a talking point. As Jason Stanley, author of How Fascism Works, argues, the defence of patriarchal values has been one of the common elements of the new right, from Hungary to India to Brazil. While commonalities – and connections – between these movements undoubtedly exist, it would be erroneous to ignore the particularities of each.

Patriarchy is infinitely adaptable, feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe reminds us. It morphs and moulds to each context, even as its core of beliefs and values remain the same.

In Brazil, its latest adaptation is centred around the figure of the 'good citizen' (cidadão de bem) and his righteous fight against many enemies.

One would be hard pressed to define what, exactly, is a 'good citizen', and this ambiguity is an important part of its rhetorical appeal. The term might evoke more traditional images of blue-collar workers, Sunday barbeques and football matches. Or it might call to mind young entrepreneurs walking the streets of São Paulo’s financial district. The identity of a good citizen is constructed not in absolute, but in relational terms: not by commonality, but through opposition, allowing it to gather and mobilise all these different masculinities.

whatever his occupation or address, the 'good citizen' is undoubtedly a man – and his masculinity is what defines him

Because, whatever his occupation or address, the good citizen is undoubtedly a man – and his masculinity is what defines him. It defines him as a worker and provider, unlike 'bums' (vagabundos) who would rather not work. It defines him as law-abiding, unlike 'criminals' who deserve to be severely (and violently) punished – be it by the law or by citizens themselves. And it defines him as a family man, opposed to those who question the natural and biologically defined roles of men and women, and thereby tear apart the fabric of society.

Creating the myth of 'gender ideology'

In another speech at the United Nations, in 2019, Bolsonaro claimed that 'Ideology was installed in the field of culture, education and the media. Ideology invaded our homes to invest against the mater cell of any healthy society, the family. They also try to destroy the innocence of our children, perverting even their most basic and elementary identity, the biological one'.

This is hardly the most extreme or controversial of the president’s positions. Before being elected, he said he was proud of being homophobic and that the birth of his daughter was a moment of weakness. He told a congresswoman that he would not rape her because she didn’t 'deserve it'. Bolsonaro has also repeatedly affirmed his support of dictatorship and torture, and his admiration of Brilhante Ustra, a colonel convicted of kidnapping and torture during the military regime.

Indeed, Bolsonaro’s ideology seems in part a recouping of the militarism of the 1960s and 1970s. It defends the violent punishing of women who defy traditional gender roles (many were tortured during the military regime), all while claiming the role of protector of women – the right women.

The creation of this opposition between 'good' and 'bad' women has been central in allowing Bolsonaro and his supporters to present themselves as actual defenders and protectors of women, children, and the family – a position which may seem counterintuitive given the above. And this explains, in part, their appeal to sectors of the population one would not consider ultra-conservative.

The creation of opposition between 'good' and 'bad' women has been central in allowing Bolsonaro and his supporters to present themselves as actual defenders and protectors of women, children, and the family

A good example of this phenomenon is the popularity of Damares Alves, Minister for Women, Family, and Human Rights. Best known outside of Brazil for absurd claims such as that the Dutch sexually stimulated babies, she is one of the most popular government officials, with 43% rating her as 'Excellent or Good'. Alves is also one of the most vocal critics of 'gender ideology', which she claims advocates not only for women’s and LGBTQ rights, but also promotes the sexualisation of young children and 'anti-heterosexuality'.

The politics of gender studies

According to Alves, the source of 'gender ideology' is the university sector, from where it has spread via the indoctrination of students. The cure for this malady is government intervention, to keep it out of classrooms.

This has been done through bills that ban any mention of gender in the classroom and by directly intervening in the appointment of deans. Combined with budget cuts to universities, there has also been a restructuring of priorities to promote areas deemed 'strategic' for the development of the nation. In practice, this means the strangling of the social sciences and humanities, particularly those programmes which go against the government’s political stance. One of the most immediate results of these policies has been a notable increase in the 'brain drain'.

there has been a restructuring of priorities to promote areas deemed 'strategic' for the development of the nation. In practice, this means the strangling of the social sciences and humanities

One of the ironies of this situation is that, for all the success the right has had in portraying gender studies as having had too much influence, the average woman has virtually no knowledge of what gender studies actually is as a disciplinary subject.

Despite its important role in the advancement of women’s rights, academic feminism in Brazil is still on the back foot, having not only to defend itself against attacks, but also to work towards engaging a wider public.

Author

photograph of Fernanda Barasuol
Fernanda Barasuol
Independent Researcher

Fernanda holds a PhD in International Strategic Studies from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), Brazil. She has also been a visiting Researcher at American University, Washington DC (2015-2016).

Her research interests include IR theory, gender, migration, and the connections between academia and policymaking.

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