Domestic Violence and the Women’s Commission in Pernambuco, Brazil

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The Government of the state of Pernambuco where I live has a special Secretaria da Mulher, a Women’s Comission.  At the invitation of the marvelous Dr. Rossana, Professor of Portuguese at the UPE where Chelsea works,* I gave a talk about Domestic Violence and Gender Issues in the US to Brazilian social workers, police officers and other socially-minded Pernambucans as part of a certification program run by the state.  Thanks to my training with Kim Frendak, Community Educator from the Women´s Resource Center to End Domestic Violence and my life-changing Women’s Studies course with Professor Elizabeth Hackett, I was ready for their challenging questions.

For instance, I was asked what I saw as the biggest barrier to women’s advancement here in Petrolina.  Due to my mother’s lead-by-example feminism and Agnes Scott’s all women’s education, I had already thought deeply about the question: the constant and nearly exclusive focus on women’s physical appearance (as opposed to anything else that humans value in their “equals,” such as intelligence, creativity, etc.).

Instead of fomenting feminist revolution, women here from a very young age spend vast amounts of time and money in the name of achieving a white, eurocentric, capitalistic beauty ideal.   One obvious  example is that due to the mysogenation of races, 80 % of Brazilian women have some sort of curl pattern in their hair, yet I would estimate that 70% of that population use chemical straighteners, pass countless hours applying expensive products and damaging heat to their hair, and a good majority dye their dark hair with blonde highlights.   The pervasive ideas of good hair–straight, and fine– vs bad hair—tight curls—reinforces the intersectionality of oppression, the fact that race and gender are very intertwined.  The white hair ideal pumps women’s bodies with chemicals, discourages them from engaging in phyical activity since sweat reverses the chemical proccess, and has other damaging effects.

Flat-ironing and dying your hair may seem far removed from Domestic Violence,  but these issues are all connected; everything that belittles women, that puts them below their male counterparts and devalues their thoughts, their bodies and their self-worth, contributes to a climate of oppression that is responsible for violence.

It was refreshing to be around a group of feminists.  It felt like home.  I am constantly reminded that mysogeny (the hatred of women) is an international problem that cripples the advancement of the world.  But on days like this I am also reminded of the powerful desire of most women and a few good men to change things and I fill with hope basking in the presence of an international sisterhood.

*Correction, 4/12/12: We mistakenly identified Professora Rossana as the Coordinator of Portuguese at UPE. The Coordinator is Professora Maria Aparecida Ventura Brandão. Our apologies!

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