Brazil's protests have subsided - for now

The nationwide protests of the summer have mostly petered out, but Brazil's police and government still have a lot to answer for.

At the end of August, as Brazil’s population reportedly passed the 200-million mark, the hashtag #OGiganteAcordou (“the giant has awoken”), used during June’s wave of protests, flickered briefly to life again online. The tag, a reference to the national anthem, in which Brazil is imagined as a colossus reclined on a tropical shore, was the strapline of a striking 2011 Johnnie Walker TV ad, in which Rio’s dark coastal mountains stirred into life and rose up to form a giant.

Over two months on from the protests, the suggestion that Brazil's historically placid population was finally stirring into action now seems hopelessly optimistic: less an insurrectionary “Brazilian spring” than an ephemeral June bug. Small, sporadic protests smoulder on, including a spate of actions by a newly emerged anarchist black bloc, but the majority of June’s protesters have now dispersed.

Despite historic inequality, Brazilians have tended towards non-confrontation. It’s one of the things that makes Brazil such a thoroughly pleasant country to live in; but it also means that in the years since the end of the 1964-85 dictatorship, although smaller, under-reported protests over issues such as police violence, indigenous rights and housing have been a fact of life in the country's marginalised periphery, the social peace has mostly remained undisturbed.

The last time Brazilians took to the streets in large numbers was in 1992, when thousands marched against President Fernando Collor de Mello, who resigned as his trial for corruption was about to commence. Corruption was again an issue this June, as the protests’ initial focus on the cost of public transport broadened to include it along with such things as perceived over-spending on the 2014 football World Cup.

Corruption is a sensitive subject in Brazilian politics, since it apparently touches every party. In the “mensalão” trial currently taking place in the Supreme Court, a string of leaders from the governing Workers Party (PT) has been convicted of paying monthly bribes to opposition Congress members, in return for support for Lula's government. Politicians routinely appear to close ranks to protect their own. In a secret ballot held on 28 August, Congress voted against impeaching the incarcerated congressman Natan Donadon, notwithstanding his 13-year sentence for stealing £2.6m in public funds. (A week later, Brazil’s lower house, assailed by criticism after the Donadon vote, rushed through a proposal for a constitutional amendment to ban secret ballots in government. The amendment will now make its way through the Senate.)

In the Senate, Renan Calheiros currently presides as leader of the house, despite his forced 2007 resignation in a corruption scandal. And at state level, in July, a multimillion-dollar racket came to light when the German company Siemens provided details of its part in a 20-year price-fixing scheme around contracts for metro construction, supply and maintenance. Those implicated include the powerful current and former governors of the state of São Paulo.

A nationwide day of action against corruption and impunity in public office was called for Brazil’s Independence Day, on 7 September. But low turnouts on the day, despite a blast of sound and fury from the black bloc protestors, seemed to confirm that it will take more than corruption to stir Brazilians back to the level of outrage that fuelled June’s largest protests. Those were triggered by a night of ill-judged police violence against a peaceful demo on 13 June, which burst onto TV screens and Facebook, scandalising the watching multitude. While the usual victims of police violence - a problem throughout Brazil - tend to be the poor, the difference this time was that many protesters were better off, well-educated and media-savvy.

The protesters were widely described by international as well as local media as being mainly “middle-class” Brazilians - and many of them were, in the sense of the term as most often used in Britain and other rich societies. Yet these people should not be confused with Brazil’s much-feted “new middle class” - workers who have recently emerged from poverty and gained access to credit, a slightly higher income, or a job in the formal economy. Although their prospects have improved as Brazil’s economy has grown, they do not benefit from access to a decent education (in Brazil, private schooling) and the kind of well-connected background that gives access to the best jobs.

Such people are Brazil's real “sleeping giant”, but it remains to be seen whether  the effects of the current economic slowdown will finally bring them on to the streets. It might. A rampant crime rate and sharp rises in the cost of living  affect those at the lower end of the income scale most acutely, and if something has changed since June, it's a new sense that street protest is valid, possible behaviour for ordinary citizens. And more than ever it is being reported, including by a flourishing new strata of independent media collectives such as Mídia Ninja, whose members routinely make their way to places such as Grajaú, an immense neighbourhood on São Paulo’s periphery that is currently experiencing a wave of occupations and protests.

The government, under the leadership of Dilma Rousseff, has kept a relatively low profile since the start of the protests. This stance, coming from a nominally  left-wing administration, has made it look increasingly out of touch. In an interview published in Folha de S.Paulo last week, the head of Goldman Sachs in Brazil, Paulo Leme, raised concerns about serious problems in the Brazilian economy - and about the government’s ability, political capital o r will to tackle them: “It’s not hard to conclude,” said Leme, “in the light of the protests, that orthodox economic adjustment would not be a welcome sight on people’s TVs on the eight o’clock news.”

Demonstrators protest in Rio de Janeiro during the national strike day this summer. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.