Renata Peppl, an activist and researcher from Brazil, shared her work at a panel as part of the third edition of WOW – Women of the World Festival Istanbul held on 2-3 March 2024. The festival was organized by the British Council, in partnership with Beykoz Kundura and in collaboration with The WOW Foundation in the UK.

For more than a decade, Renata has worked with the women of Redes de Maré, a feminist organization that has been active in Rio favelas for the past twenty years. After Jair Bolsonaro, a former soldier and far right populist politician, came to power in Brazil in 2018, women of favelas, Black women, and indigenous women were at the forefront of the struggle against the government led by Bolsonaro who came to be known as yet another figure in the far-right world leaders systematically assaulting feminist, LGBTI+, and racial justice movements as well as indigenous movements and ecological movements. Today, as Bolsonaro was defeated by Lula da Silva in the 2022 elections, intersectional feminist movements in Brazil are becoming more and more crucial for Brazilian as well as Latin American politics. We talked with Renata about the Redes de Maré movement, a feminist group that started off by self-organizing in the Rio favelas, having a much broader impact on the rest of the country today.

Photo: Serhat Neidim

Could you give us some background on feminism in the favelas in Brazil? How did it emerge, what are its main premises?

The feminist movement in Brazil today asserts that the feminism of an earlier period has not been able to tackle or comprehend the needs and demands of people from marginalized or peripheral communities. So, these critical strands of feminists in Brazil are reorganizing themselves to come up with new theories and new pathways for the feminist work they carry out in the country. Most of them are women who come from the favelas, indigenous women, and especially women from the Black diaspora. In my talk, I made a strong statement that Brazil being born from rape. In a way, we can say that the whole miscegenation of the country and the construction of womanhood and manhood resulted from the rape of indigenous women and Black women who were enslaved. So, the entire power structure of Brazil is built upon oppression and colonization, constructing the society that we live in today. When slavery was abolished, the Black diaspora and indigenous women were the ones who suffered the most because there were no public policies or plans to support these emancipated women. Suddenly enslaved women, who had a roof to live under and food—despite working in harsh conditions and being beaten—were suddenly free to go into the streets. And what do you do in that situation? So, favelas are very much born out of such extreme oppression and extreme lack of resources for the communities that have been extremely marginalized in the society. And when the feminist movement first arrived in Brazil, it arrived with a group of very elite White women who were studying abroad or had access to information. It carried along with it European concepts. So, in a way women in the favelas were already doing feminism because they were working in grassroots organizations trying to get themselves sustenance, struggling to survive and make a living, and resisting all the violence that they were suffering. So, today, as women from the favelas, indigenous and Black women, began to have access to higher education, they rejected feminism as we know it to create the decolonized model of feminism for Brazilian women. They are trying to pay attention to all the different perspectives and all the intersectional layers that structure our society. They focus on race, socioeconomic differentiation and inequalities as well as religion. Brazil was established on this massive order of enslaved people that came to the country and religion was also something that was very segmented. One of the major religions in Brazil -we are a Christian country, actually we are the biggest Christian country in the world- is Candomblé, which is an African religion. Candomblé came to Brazil with the enslaved African people, but as everything else, it got mixed with Brazilian Christianity and it became a religion of its own. There is this layer of prejudice pertaining to religion as well, because Black people are the ones who practice Candomblé in mass. The laws in Brazil are not made for these women. Laws in Brazil do not serve these women. We have the biggest population of people who claim themselves as Black or mixed race. 54% of the population claim to be Black or mixed race. But these people are not in Copacabana or in Ipanema. These people mostly live in peripheral communities, so the laws do not serve them. The women carry out their work/activities in their communities in the form of grassroot organizations. They self-organize themselves in several ways to change this landscape. And that’s why there is so much friction between the new wave of feminists-scholars and feminists from, let’s say, traditional backgrounds.

This sounds like the criticisms targeting White feminists.

Yes, it is somehow akin to the criticism raised in the US against White feminism. However, I think that in Brazil, there’s this whole heritage of slavery and genocide of indigenous people that brings this friction to another level. In Brazil, we have this term that was coined by philosopher Djamila Ribeiro. She is an amazing Black woman and philosopher. She wrote a book called The Place of Speech. This work is frequently quoted and referenced. We don’t want people who don’t have the lived experience to talk on our behalf. She argues that when thinking about public policies or organizing a movement, having allies is something we want. That said, she adds that we want to have the space to be able to claim for ourselves what needs to be done. This is what these women are saying.

Can you talk about the movement you are also a part of, the movement of Redes de Maré? Is Redes de Maré established by women living in the favelas?

Exactly. Those pictures that I showed also have Eliana in them, who is the founder of Redes de Maré. She’s the daughter of a northeastern migrant family, who came to Rio to join the industrialization period, and they built the roads and paved the way for the city. But they had no place in Rio at the time, so they were pushed to the outskirts of the city. They set foot in the area you saw the pictures of… There were houses on top of the water basically. There was literally nothing. And these women started organizing themselves to claim that this area is part of the city as well. There are people living in here, so we need a response from the government. And as a result of a struggle of 20-30 years, they managed to get sewage, electricity, and the first school in the area. Just to give you an idea on the impact of segregation in the country, Maré, where 140,000 people live, was not on Google Maps up until 2015. It was a gray area on Google Maps. So, it’s like a confirmation that you are invisible, that you don’t exist, that they don’t want to see you in the city.

So, Eliana and all the women -Maré was already existing at this time- directed their demands first to the government and then they managed to get attention internationally with Google as well. They demanded that every single street should be mapped and given a postcode and a name. If you don’t have a postcode, how do you receive a letter or how do you receive a television if you buy a television? This has an enourmous impact on their daily lives. They actually managed to organize themselves and now Maré has postcodes and streets with names, and it’s on Google. And Eliana said that she was very emotional when she first opened Google Maps and actually saw that the streets were there. The feminist practice –and I think all grassroots movements– is all about what we call embodied methodologies: going through the territory, trying to gather, and mobilizing local women. These people don’t normally have access to very basic rights. For instance, the police act very violently in these communities and these neighborhoods are run by drug lords and militia… Different areas of favelas are run by different armed groups. So, in the favela where Maré is located, two areas are run by drug lords and another one by the militia.

Who are these people?

They are parallel police. Because the police normally cannot get into the favelas. Whenever there’s conflict or confrontation, police enter very violently killing and unjustly arresting people, and all of that. Because the residents have always been treated like that, no one knew that the police cannot break into their houses without a warrant. They thought it was the normal procedure, so they were not claiming their rights. Women of Maré actually go from door-to-door, placing posters saying “this is my house, you cannot break into it”. So, it is a grassroots action which to me is also an extremely feminist action. If you are a Black boy from a favela, the chances that you die before you’re 25 are extremely high due to these armed groups. And women in these communities are never thought of as people who experience this violence the most. You tend to think that it is the men who are being killed, but actually there are women and mothers and wives and sisters who mourn this death as well. And they are deprived of any information as to how to proceed if their son is killed in custody. What do you do basically? There’s no police station inside. The police might have killed your son, so who do you look for in such a situation? So, these women’s movement, the Women’s House of Maré, tries to seek to self-organize themselves. They have a WhatsApp group that goes around all the community. They all have the numbers. They actually train the community to report any breach of human rights when a police confrontation takes place. Women get legal support to report the killings.

Photo: Serhat Neidim

So, the activities are shaped with the existing situation and the demands from them.

Everything is worked out in a way that the women themselves identify pressing issues coming from the residence through communication channels or through the number of different programs that they have. And then they try to create data and evidence around that.

I talked about the critical and crucial strategy that Redes de Maré employs. This strategy is about doing research and collecting data on these communities and about these women because there’s no evidence to support their claims and demands as a movement. There is no proof of the impact of lack of healthcare for women, there is no proof of the impact of lack of education for these women. Twenty years ago, no one was researching favelas or peripheral communities or indigenous communities per se except for anthropologists in Brazil. And they lacked a feminist perspective in their approach to societal ills. That’s why it’s very important to produce and put forward data that can demonstrate the lack of response from the government, lack of public policies addressing this population’s needs and demands, and how this situation impacts this area. And you cannot ignore these communities, these places. Over 1,300,000 people are living in peripheral communities, this is a lot of people. And this is just in Rio de Janeiro. So, you can imagine the situation across Brazil. And that’s why they are using evidence to make their point.

Based on their own data, they try to formulate policy recommendations in order to tailor policies for this group of people who are not seen in public policy. So, for them, producing data is essential. I can talk about a number of different cases where the organization of women in Maré made a difference to change the public policy of Rio de Janeiro, e.g. reporting in policing, in reproductive rights, in healthcare, and in education. And education is the key issue that Eliana and the women of Maré believe that would change the landscape of this part of the city. They have a very strong program for getting more women into higher education. So, more women have access to a formal education and they come back to the community in order to join forces. Eliana does not have the exact figures, but I personally know a number of women who were initially trained in the course to get into a university. In Brazil we have to enter a national exam to get into the university. So Maré offers this preparatory course for the exam. And they come back to work in Maré. Most of the women you saw in the pictures in the panel presentation were actually born and raised in Maré, received higher education, came back and are still working as part of the organization.

It’s not everyone of course. Education in favelas when Redes de Maré started was 0.5%, very low compared to other locations in the country. Following the program, after twenty years, it’s almost 6%. It may not seem like much, but if you think about all the layers of difficulty such as obstacles before access such as transportation, financial hardships, and prejudice, it is quite an achievement and it’s changing the landscape.

What is the effect of these women in shaping the feminist movement in Brazil?

It’s these women that you see in these organizations and these collectives who are changing feminism in Brazil. They are changing the landscape of feminism in Brazil by grassroots feminism that understands Black feminism, indigenous feminism, peripheral feminism. These are the feminisms that are needed right now in order to reach equality. White feminism, it’s amazing, it has done a lot for sure. However, as White women you reach a moment when you don’t have the lived experience of a Black woman, you are not aware of the problems that this community is facing. So, we need an extra layer of work and an extra layer of activism to actually understand the intersection and the problems and the needs of these communities. These people are trying to speak for themselves. It’s not that they are asking for White feminists to stand back and watch, but actually what they are saying is “give us a space to engage in a dialogue and actually talk about the things that we haven’t managed to gain from your struggle and from your fight and the movement”. And it’s a difficult situation because there is a lot of friction as I said. The only answer to a country like Brazil is a multilayered approach to the women-led movements in order to respond to all the injustice and inequality that women face in the country.

Another question pertains to what we consider feminism as well. The feminist knowledge that we have is just one conceptualization and one vision. Of course, there is a universal vision: all women can agree that we want equal rights, we want gender-based violence to end, etc. However, the obstacles before accessing equal rights or ending gender-based violence, for instance, are intrinsically different based on experiences of race, religion…. For instance, Kurdish women in Turkey, I imagine, experience the levels of state violence or gender-based violence differently because of political and socioeconomic background that might be completely different than Turkish women. The grassroots action means that sometimes more women organize to resist -resistance is a big word- since what the government is doing is not helping. They come up with their own coping mechanisms to resist. I think this amounts to feminism as well. Leaving aside all the theories and the methodologies, if such a self-organization on the part of women takes place to protect themselves and to resist in a number of different ways against the violence that they saw every day… Self-led grassroots organizing nowadays is considered feminism for this group of feminists in Brazil. Most women in these communities are practicing even though they don’t deem this feminism; they are organizing and protecting themselves and their families, they are succeeding in building resistance, and are making their demands for equality at grassroots level.

What you said sounds like another structural intervention, this time in the dynamics of knowledge production. Because you are located in your own favela and you’re observing, you’re identifying, you’re naming your own needs and using your own categories when you are analyzing data and collecting it. And it is a very empowering practice at the end of the day because you’re not simply importing or using somebody else’s categories or abstractions or their world of view but driving your own from your own embedded experience. What kind of relations are formed between these groups of women in favelas who produce this knowledge and other feminists in the country? And how does this knowledge translate into representative politics? 

Completely. This intersectional feminism that is taking place today in Brazil is probably one of the most organized in the world. There’s a plan for every single part of the structural governance of the country, and politics is a very strong part of it as well. There are a number of women who are actually organizing themselves and strategizing together to be able to attract more women with different experiences and different backgrounds within politics for example. So, this is a practical action after Marielle Franco. She was from Maré, actually from the favela. She was a city representative and she was shut dead after leaving a political event. We still don’t know who was behind this assassination. And that was a strong manifestation of how uncomfortable people feel around a Black lesbian woman. She was a Black lesbian woman coming from a favela, doing politics and claiming these spaces for the rights of these communities. This means that she was actually dealing with the militia, with the police… So, Marielle’s killing was a turning point in the feminist movement in the sense that everybody was saying “It’s time to actually organize and be together to be able to speak with one voice. We cannot allow this to happen anymore.”

In terms of politics, at this stage the percentage of women representatives is very low. About 15% of the National Congress is women, which is a very low number. But compared to previous years, it’s much higher. So, there is a swift change and I will say that the change is coming from women in these women-led organizations in the peripheral communities. I think there’s a lot going on right now with respect to the relations with White feminists who are kind of being asked to stay back a bit and cooperate. We need to start at the bottom and move up, so the demand is to open up space for the current grassroots movement. The core voices that we are hearing are indigenous, Black, and from peripheral communities. And people are listening, that’s the most important thing. The last decade has been incredible in that sense. Marielli Franco was killed in 2018 and it was a turning point for the women in politics as well as feminism in the country. She had fought for many grassroots issues that were not included in the national agenda.

In your talk, you mentioned the concept of body-territory as a notion that is derived from the embedded experiences of women living in the favelas. Could you elaborate a bit more on this concept and how it figures in the demands, claims, and politics regarding the city?

We, women, navigate the city in a woman’s body. And it is completely different from a man’s experience. These women’s experience of the city is completely different. For instance, when we did the research with the women about how they were trying to find out ways to formally/ informally resist violence in the favelas, we saw that the police was not a main point of focus.

Instead, we discovered for instance that women felt more comfortable walking in the favela than walking in any other neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, because they knew that they were being looked at and judged as someone from favelas when they are outside of the favela. Therefore, they have a different perception basically. They come from a different social background and therefore have a different way of seeing the city. So, they said in many cases they feel safer in their favela than actually walking around in Rio de Janeiro. They don’t feel safe walking in other areas of the city, because they don’t feel that the city is their own. These experiences I’ll never have and for that I will never be able to claim these experiences to join them in the struggle without hearing their voices.

From the Redes de Maré office in Maré. Photo: Asena Günal

Speaking of the city, we are also trying to discuss what feminists expect from a city in Turkey, especially in light of local elections. I also want to ask the impacts of favelas and the feminist movements in the favelas on local politics. What is the percentage of population compared to the city?

Only in Rio, 1,300,000 people live in favelas.

What is the population of Rio de Janeiro?

6,000,000 people.

What is the impact of local elections?

Local elections are strategic for the movements in the city now that the women got access to education in different levels in the past 20-30 years. Women have been able to actually shift the narrative regarding the dynamics of power. They are asserting what they want to call themselves, what they want to actually discuss, what they want basically. The next step is actually stepping up into politics and getting more and more people to bring about change.

I mean this is not new for anyone, but men are seen as the default, as the universal being basically. Women are always the other. So, nothing is built for women. Healthcare is not built for women, education is not built for women, transportation is not built for women, streets are not built for women. Until recent years there were only men in power and in politics. That has been the reality up until recent times. Women are trying to get into politics now; peripheral women are trying to get into politics by organizing themselves to shift this narrative, and this is the next level. You have the data, you have the self-organized movement, you have the demand for public policies, and now we also want to dictate the regulations. What women of Maré managed to do based on all the data they gathered is to create a special consultancy panel inside the secretary of Women’s Rights and Social Development in Rio de Janeiro, where a number of peripheral women sit to discuss public policies to make sure that the law addresses them as well.

Can you elaborate more on the relation of women with the city and in what way you would like to transform it?

I strongly believe that policymakers need to thoroughly examine processes. Until women are at the forefront of decision-making regarding laws that regulate their access to city amenities, healthcare, transport, education, and social services, we will continue to perpetuate a culture where public policies exclude and are impractical for a significant portion of the female population.

When I refer to women who should lead, I am specifically talking about those from peripheral, indigenous, rural, and similar communities. For far too long, these groups -which are a large population, we are talking millions of women- have been denied equal access to fundamental rights. It’s incredible that we still are struggling so much to close this gap. We need public policies to be made by women who will benefit the most from it, and this will ultimately lead to designs that are more welcoming, functional, and safe. I’m talking about a real effort to have representation at all levels of society, from grassroots organizations, public institutions to the federal government.

There has been progress of course, especially in this new government as we have the very first indigenous women as the Minister of Indigenous people and a women born and raised in a favela running the Ministry of Policies for Racial Justice. This is an achievement we will feel reverberating in the years to come and that we hope it doesn’t stop when new elections are around the corner.

Ultimately, we need to know the lived experiences of women within the city to think and imagine urban spaces that benefit everyone, where women are active contributors rather than passive subjects, highlighting their transformative role in shaping and revitalizing a city.

To read in Turkish / Yazının Türkçesi için


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