A few nights ago in Rio, over thirty men allegedly gang raped a teenage girl. The attack took place in a neighborhood called Morro de Barão. One of the men filmed the rape and posted the video on Twitter. His horrific share garnered over 500 “likes.” Meanwhile, others posted images making jokes of the rape and smiling selfies posed next to the girl’s then battered and bleeding body. She says she woke up intermittently during the attack and noted that when she opened her eyes, she felt the men on top of her, and later saw men with guns.
The aforementioned information was already harrowing enough, but the story became darker as the victim, her family, and law enforcement officials provided more details to the press. As police began to search for suspects, it was revealed that one of the men implicated was a twenty year-old division I soccer player who also was the girl’s boyfriend. He allegedly instigated the attack out of revenge from having suspected her of cheating. In other words, if this element of the case is true, her boyfriend committed an “honor rape.”
I use this term thinking of “honor killings,” a practice in which the immediate family, husband, and/or community participate in the murder of a woman or girl for having “shamed” them by way of flirting, infidelity (even the rumors thereof), sex before marriage, dressing or behaving “inappropriately” around men, etc. This process can also apply to men, but in most cases I have read of such acts, the man is considered “shameful” if he engaged in sexual activity with another man. In some instances, “honor” based retribution takes on a sexual nature of its own, with the punishment being rape before or in the place of murder. In the mainstream press, discussions of these sorts of acts are usually based in the Middle East, though I should note that there is a long history of honor-based retribution throughout the world, including in Latin America and the United States.
This particular case in Rio warrants pause and further contextualized analysis that can help us think beyond our horror at the act itself and into its socio-cultural, historical, and political roots and subsequent implications.
As several Brazilian feminists writing for women’s blogs and speaking in interviews have noted, this incident is a clear example of rape culture in Brazil - not only because the men participated in the act and gleefully shared evidence, but that they had an audience equally as gleeful to participate from a distance, their “likes” marking a vicarious enjoyment of the brutality that unfolded. Others showed their “support” of the rapists by blaming the victim, as expected, for staying away from home so much, for alleged drug and alcohol abuse, and/or for being in the neighborhood where the attack took place. O Globo, a large newspaper and wide-reaching media source here in Brazil that has most recently come under fire for its ardent support in the lead up to and results of the soft coup that just occurred, published a piece on the rape that made sure the emphasize the victim’s grandmother’s comments on her previous drug use, as if to remind its audience that this somehow warranted being attacked. Meanwhile, someone has created a Twitter account showing the young woman posing with guns, as if to not only imply criminal activity, but to further justify the rape for her having supposedly been involved with criminals/gang members in the first place.
Beyond the more obvious instances of victim-blaming, however, lies what Campinas-based blogger and activist Fabiana Oliveira notes is the problem of seeing rape as “unusual” or “crazy,” when in fact it is commonplace and normalized:
“The comments [in reaction to the rape] say a lot about rape culture. ‘They are sick,’ ‘they are animals.’ They were not sick and they are not animals. They are men, relatively healthy psychologically, that live in a society where relations between men and women are guided by power and submission. Where the territory of women, which includes their bodies, is systematically disrespected and invaded. That violence touches all of us, this much is very true.”
Likewise, as activist and journalist Nana Queiroz notes, Brazilians must not only express anger toward gang rape, but also toward sexual assault in all of its forms, which occur daily to far too many women:
“Rape - like what happened to me and so many of my friends - occurs in situations considered ‘normal’ or ‘justified.’ It happens because we, as well as society, keep repeating that ‘oh, but she knew it would happen if she drank so much’ or ‘but, actually she provoked him with that miniskirt,’ or even ‘but didn’t she love to have sex? That leaves space for interpretation!’
This is the rape that we don’t want to open our eyes to. This is the rape that people and those we know - or we ourselves - are capable of committing, if we haven’t already. This is the rape that is socially justified and that is not decried in the public opinion.”
Many feminists, like the women speaking yesterday to the BBC’s Having Our Say, are careful to note that this is no just a Brazilian problem. If one were to remove “Brazil” from the discussion, one could easily substitute it with nations like “India” or “the United States” and find that the series of events - from the act itself to the public discourse - streamlines easily into recent, equally horrific reports.
But what’s missing from the discussion, at least at present, is an attention to the racial and socio-economic implications of what has occurred and the response to it by government officials and rights groups. For example, the attack took place in Morro da Barão, a favela (poor neighborhood/ghetto) in the west zone of Rio de Janeiro (city). Morro da Barão has been plagued by drug trafficking and gang violence for some time now in addition to large-scale corruption within the police forces meant to patrol the area. In 2015, for example, police sent to the area to break up local gangs were involved in a scandal of hiding over R$10 million (around $3.5 million USD) of drug money they had taken from gang leaders. While I do not know the demographic breakdown of the neighborhood, if it is like most other favelas in Rio, the population is most likely predominately of color.
I mention this because within many of the reports, an unspoken sub-plot seems to be that the victim - who did not live in the neighborhood - was a “good girl, gone bad,” a common trope (and even plot device in many Brazilian funk songs) in Brazilian pop culture regarding favelas. Much like the Congo functions from the perspective of the British in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, favelas have long existed within the popular imagination as spaces of danger, disease, sexual licentiousness, and “contagious,” sordid behavioral traits.
Now, in response to the attack, the interim president Michel Temer has created a special department of the federal police force to combat violence against women. While Temer’s program sounds like a good idea in theory, such a department under the leadership of Temer and his ilk surely will not benefit those it is meant to serve. Temer recently cut the Ministry of Women’s Issues after coming to power in a soft coup and calls, among his political allies, Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, a rabid homophobe and misogynist, who cited Carlos Ustra - known for his sadistic torture of women during the military dictatorship - during his vote for the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, who was also tortured as an activist against the dictatorship. As per his usual antics, in 2015 Bolsonaro told a female politician who accused him of being a rapist that he “would never rape [her] because she didn’t even deserve to be raped [by him] [...] because she’s very ugly. She’s not [his] type.” Furthermore, as the 2016 Olympic Games approach, residents of Rio’s favelas have already been experiencing forced removal from their land by - you guessed it - the police. How on earth could beefing up police in poor neighborhoods at a time like this be a positive thing, even if under the guise of “protecting” women?
This move falls under the category of “carceral feminism,” or the response of the state and mainstream feminists/feminist groups to violence against women with increased policing, a process that ultimately hurts women in communities that are under increased levels of state control. In this particular instance, women in poor neighborhoods are already victimized by police who commit violent acts against them (ranging from beatings, murder, and sexual harassment/assault), so expanding their reach will most likely not prove helpful to female residents. This move also proves interestingly timed in light of the removals I mentioned above. In other words, while the department seems to satiate a larger social need to combat violence against women, it fails to curtail the violence poor women are subjected to by the very people charged with “helping.” This means that poor women will not only to be subjected to the policing of their bodies by local men and by society in general, but also a literal policing of their bodies in order to “protect” them. And, as per usual, the women who have economic privilege and live beyond poor neighborhoods will not have to bear the brunt of whatever might go awry in this police expansion.
This problem also compels revisiting feminism as it operates within Brazil and the longstanding problem of failing to pursue truly intersectional approaches to equality for all women. Take, for example, the hashtag #meuprimeiroassédio (my first time I was sexually harassed), which formed as a response to several men speaking in a sexual manner online of a 12 year old participant of Brazil’s edition of the television show Master Chef Jr. At the same time prominent feminists, related organizations, and women around the nation responded with their own accounts of sexual harassment at an early age in solidarity with the young contestant, a case of a young woman who had experienced sexual harassment at the hands of her male boss in a home where she worked as a maid hardly registered a blip in the media and quickly fell out of the public eye. It’s worth noting that the Master Chef Jr. contestant was white and middle class. You can guess the race and class of the young woman in the second case. Sadly, sexual harassment and assault toward domestic workers is a widespread problem with historical roots dating back to slavery. As expected, victims rarely press charges and perpetrators are rarely found guilty.
In many ways, the public outcry of the gang rape has the potential to re-open barely healed wounds regarding the continued dominance of predominately middle/upper class and white voices in the struggle for equality for women here in Brazil, particularly considering the state response, the push for more policing, and even, if revealed, the racial and socio-economic background of the victim. There is some information one can glean from reading between the lines, as I noted above, though even without said details, the relative national silence regarding the threat and occurrence of rape experienced by lower-income women of color by local men, employers, and police stands out.
As this story continues to unfold, I will continue posting updates on a thread I started on Twitter a few days ago related to the issue, and encourage you to follow it for more information. I also encourage you to check out the hashtag that has formed in response to the issue #EstuproNuncaMais (rape never again) on Facebook and Twitter, which Brazilian women have been using to bring attention to the issue of rape. There have been marches organized throughout the country in response to the attack and to respond to sexual harassment, assault, violence against women, and rape culture in general in Brazil. Some have already occurred in Rio. Others are scheduled to take place in São Paulo, Manaus, and Belo Horizonte over the next few days.
As I am currently in São Paulo, I plan to attend the march here on June 1st and hope to speak to some of the attendees. If you have any specific questions you would like for me to ask, please leave them in the comments.
image above of the protest in Rio via Globo, http://oglobo.globo.com/rio/centenas-d…)
ETA: A comment below regarding the death penalty reminded me of several points I forgot to raise in the piece. I have pasted it below in order to add further context. Please excuse any/all typos!
1) bolsonaro, the godawful congressman i mention above, has come out in favor of castration for any men found guilty. he received some pushback (because it’s obviously much deeper than simply a case of these particular rapists, as the women i cited above note). the other reason this matters, though, again, is because he supports a former colonel who tortured women during the dictatorship, often via sexual means (he would literally put insects and rats into women’s genitals). as i also note, he’s been accused of rape himself. SO he clearly has a specific idea of who should be punished for sexual assault and who shouldn’t. and as i note, this type of feigned “concern” for women, when it’s politically convenient, aligns with a simultaneous hatred for poor poc. i say this not in any way to excuse their actions, just saying that there are multiple layers to this that help us better understand some of the responses and why they are not all helpful.
2) some people (feminists included) have come out to say that the death penalty is not the answer, but obviously they should be tried/convicted/imprisoned if proven guilty. the death penalty is not legal in brazil. they signed human rights agreements in which they outlawed it except in cases of war. (see more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_p…). it’s important to note that this is part of the 1988 constitution, which was written 3 years after the end of the military dictatorship (1964-85), during which torture and extrajudicial murders were widespread. the opposition to the death penalty is wound up in recognition of this history as well.
3) on the question of honor (and i forgot to mention this, but should have), there’s a history of femicide in brazil that dilma actually signed a law about in 2015. it was largely symbolic, much like the maria penha law (regarding domestic violence), but still important. in previous decades, even as late as the early 90s, if men killed their female partners over suspicion of cheating (or if they caught them in the act), they would hardly *ever* be prosecuted, and could use said “betrayal” as a defense.