The Women-Led Opposition to Brazil’s Far-Right Leader

Jair Bolsonaro’s victory has sparked a resistance among women who see danger in his rise.

Demonstrators protest in Rio de Janeiro days before Bolsonaro was elected. They told a large sign saying "#EleNao," or "#NotHim."
Demonstrators protest in Rio de Janeiro days before Bolsonaro was elected. (Fernando Souza / AFP / Getty)

As polling stations in Brazil closed last Sunday following the country’s presidential election, many Brazilian women started replacing their social-media profile photos with a simple black square. Some included the word luto, which is Portuguese for “mourning”: Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right former military officer who made virulent attacks against blacks, minorities, and women, would be their next president.

Bolsonaro, who has five children, has said that his only daughter was born due to his wife’s “weakness.” He has said that women should be paid lower salaries because they get pregnant, and should stop “whining” about femicide. In widely circulated remarks that led to charges against him in the Supreme Court, he said that he wouldn’t rape a congresswoman because she was “ugly.”

The word luto, however, also translate as “I fight.” And that is what women who oppose Bolsonaro have decided to do. “There is no time for lamenting,” said Ludmilla Teixeira, a 36-year-old who works in advertising and founded Women Against Bolsonaro, a Facebook group with 3.8 million members. “We will fight back.”

In Brazil, Latin America’s largest democracy, women represent 52.5 percent of the electorate. But while it has already had a female president, it remains a deeply patriarchal country. Women were given the right to vote in 1932, a lot later than in much of the rest of the world, and feminist movements were restricted from organizing during the country’s military dictatorship. Today, just 15 percent of federal and state legislators are women—an all-time high.

Brazil is also one of the most violent countries in the world for women, with nearly 4,500 deaths and more than 60,000 rapes this past year alone, according to the Brazilian Forum for Public Security, a nonprofit group. (The numbers could be higher still: These were only the ones reported.)

But there have been signs of change. In 2015, before the #MeToo movement began, women in Brazil took to social media after male viewers of a popular cooking show tweeted overtly sexual remarks to a 12-year-old girl contestant. “If she consents, is it pedophilia?” one asked, while another compared her to a character in a pornographic film. (The tweets were later deleted.)

In response, the feminist NGO Olga created a campaign with the hashtag #primeiroassedio, or #firstharassment, for women to share their experiences of being harassed. More than 82,000 posts using the hashtag have been shared overall; at least 3,111 included unique stories of harassment, according to Olga. The campaign was so successful that UNICEF used the hashtag to boost its own campaign against gender-based violence.

In 2015, Brazil also passed a law that included femicide, or the gender-motivated killing of women, in the penal code as a heinous crime, with tougher penalties for the offenders. This came nine years after the implementation of landmark legislation on domestic violence. Both laws were acclaimed by the United Nations.

But Bolsonaro’s campaign, and his eventual victory, showed how far the country has yet to go when it comes to basic universal human rights.

In late 2015, the then-leader of the evangelical bloc and speaker of the lower house, Eduardo Cunha (now serving a 15-year sentence in prison for graft), led impeachment proceedings against Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s first female president; she was removed from office a year later. One of the congressmen who voted to oust her was Bolsonaro. He dedicated his vote to Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, the head of the military dictatorship’s torture unit. Rousseff was among those tortured.

Last March, Marielle Franco, a member of Rio de Janeiro’s city council, was murdered. She was one of Brazil’s few black female politicians, and an outspoken human-rights advocate against paramilitary gangs that control poor areas of Rio. Her case remains unsolved, and Bolsonaro was the only candidate to remain silent during the campaign.

Bolsonaro also opposes the anti-femicide law. In an interview on International Women’s Day last year, he said that Brazilian women should “stop whining; stop with this story of femicide,” and proposed to arm them, though specialists warn that most cases of violence against women are committed by intimate partners or close acquaintances.

Many of the president-elect’s views reflect those of his support base—what Brazilians call the “BBB bloc”: do boi, da Bíblia e da bala, or “beef, Bible, and bullets,” a reference to rural voters, evangelical Christians, and pro-gun groups. Powerful business groups also voiced support for Bolsonaro.

Brazil’s evangelicals, in particular, have grown into a major political force. A third of Brazilians now identify as evangelicals, as do a fifth of members of the House of Representatives. Many of them oppose gay rights and abortion. (In Brazil, one woman dies every two days of complications from illegal abortions, according to the Brazilian Ministry of Health.)

“All the candidates were talking to women voters, aside from Bolsonaro—except for his macho, if not misogynist, comments,” said Manoela Miklos, a feminist activist and writer who was part of the earliest women’s groups that began to coalesce around an anti-Bolsonaro platform. “One comment always emerged: ‘Any candidate would be better than him.’”

As Bolsonaro rose, many women who opposed him were galvanized to act.

The first Women United Against Bolsonaro Facebook group, created in August by Ludmilla Teixeira, drew almost 4 million members in three weeks. “They were students, engineers, housewives, young and old; some activists, others ... long silenced by patriarchy who felt free to have a voice and speak out against threats to their basic rights for the first time,” Ludmilla told me. Soon social-media posts proliferated with the hashtag #EleNao, or #NotHim.

In late September, a week before the first round of the elections, Women United Against Bolsonaro called for street protests. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out in cities across the country. It was reportedly the largest women-led march in Brazil’s history.

The organizers of the march also took pains to ensure that it did not endorse any candidate. It was a strictly anti-Bolsonaro march. “We are very sorry,” Miklos told politicians eager to address the protestors. “We cannot allow this to become any party’s rally.”

The backlash from the pro-Bolsonaro crowd was fierce. The Women Against Bolsonaro Facebook page was hacked and its administrators received death threats. Well-known Brazilian artists who voiced support for #EleNao were attacked online: Marília Mendonça, the popular 22-year-old gospel and country-music singer, removed a video supporting the campaign after her mother received death threats on Instagram.

Bolsonaro supporters soon organized marches of their own. In one, they chanted and danced to a song whose lyrics compared feminists and left-wing women to dogs. The song went viral; among those who shared it was Bolsonaro’s son Flávio, also a congressman.

Online, Bolsonaro supporters spread manipulated images of the women’s march, seemingly in an attempt to demoralize them. A popular one purported to feature two naked women simulating Bolsonaro being hanged (in reality, a picture of two feminist activists in Ukraine); another showed a woman, dressed as the Virgin Mary, simulating an abortion in a church (in reality, an actress in an unrelated protest in Argentina).

The president-elect’s campaign also began pushing the debate to traditional family-values issues such as abortion and LGBT rights. Soon after the women’s march, two prominent Christian leaders, Edir Macedo and José Wellington, publicly declared their support for Bolsonaro.

In a highly patriarchal country, the campaign to demonize the women’s movement succeeded: Bolsonaro’s victory was pushed by men. Had only men voted in the election, he would have avoided a runoff and won office outright. Among women, however, his rate of rejection was twice that of Fernando Haddad, his main opponent. It was even higher among poor women, mostly blacks. In all, he won 46 percent of valid votes cast (many were spoiled or intentionally left blank) in the first round, and 55 percent of valid ballots in the runoff. Exit polls indicate that nearly 60 percent of young women voted for Haddad in the second round.

Following Bolsonaro’s election, activists are now plotting how best to build a strong, suprapartisan opposition.“We always thought of these groups as a way to mobilize, to resist, and to discuss alternatives to confront what was to come,” said Miklos, who now administers two women’s groups on Facebook, with 50,000 and 500,000 members. Since Monday, members of these groups have begun collecting signatures in protest of new pro-gun regulations under consideration by Congress, as well as a government plan to impose conservative and religious-based restrictions on school curricula.

“Politics is not an instant, but a process,” Eliane Brum, a columnist for El País, told me. “Women may have low representation in politics in Brazil, but organized the greatest political act of 2018 elections. This is extremely powerful.” Efforts to promote universal rights here “will continue, and will influence Brazil far beyond these elections.”

Teixeira said that she and other women have also been discussing how to move beyond the digital space. Ideas range from establishing an NGO to creating an all-women political party. “Women realized they are stronger together,” she told me. “Bolsonaro won, but he won’t govern without resistance.”