Tag Archives: feminism

Celebrating the Transformative Power of Women’s Athletics– Rugby and Feminism at IF-Petrolina’s Zona Rural

International women’s day is a day to ruminate what it means to be a woman.  It is a day to critically reflect upon the current status of women around the world, but also a day to celebrate all that women are.  We are mother’s, sisters, doctors, lawyers, lovers, fighters and everything else in the whole spectrum of being present in today’s world.

We are also athletes, and I believe in the transformative power of women’s athletics.  Nothing affirmed this belief like the women’s rugby team at the Zona Rural where I lived and worked last year.  I would like to dedicate this post to the deepest feminist experience I had in Brazil – my women’s rugby team.

Below is a news report on the sport and our teams (my very first TV appearance here in Petrolina) and also the text (translated from Portuguese to English) from a poster I’ve presented in two national conferences about rugby and feminism.

Happy International Women’s Day– now get out and play.

Women’s Rugby and Feminism:  Four Feminist Theories at Work, Combating Oppression at the Federal Institute in Petrolina’s Rural Zone

The women’s rugby team commenced at the Zona Rural in March 2011 (the same time as the male team) and has been vibrantly active since, competing twice since its inception and practicing weekly.  Due to the high level of contact and aggressive nature of the sport, women’s rugby provides for a fascinating intersection of feminism and athletics.  Using the four main feminist theories described by Professor Elizabeth Hackett of Agnes Scott College, this section details how Rugby Feminino at the Zona Rural illustrates women´s liberation and empowerment in action.

Humanist (Same theory)

The female team is humanist in the sense that there is woman’s team, just as there is a men’s team, with the same resources, practice time, balls, competitions, etc.  The equality between the two teams is empowering as it shows that the women’s team, and its young female players, are as equally important as the men’s team.  They are equally as strong, skilled, athletic and able.

Gynocentric (Difference Theory)

It is important that there is a women’s rugby team separate from the male team.  As rugby is a sport involving high levels of physical contact and tackling, the differences of height and weight between men and women require that they compete separately.  In accordance with the gynocentric approach, the female team at the Zona Rural values women’s athletic contributions while affirming separate but equal athletic qualities between men and women. 


Besides occasional male coaching or refereeing, the women’s rugby team at the Zona Rural is matriarchal.  With the exception of minor guidance, the Women’s team is largely self-administered:  warm-up, stretching, practices and practice matches are largely self-run, providing invaluable leadership opportunities and offering an alternate, radical model to the patriarchal society at large.    

Moreover, rugby involves tackling, scrums and overall physical intensity that are not gender stereotypical. 


What words or images come to mind when you think of rugby? And what words or images come to mind when you think of women? Most likely, for rugby you thought of the words and images associated with “violent, bruising, intense, strong, sweat, hard-core, etc.” For female maybe you thought of “delicate, sweet, beautiful, gentle, pink, etc.” and the images associated with those words. Thus Rugby is also a classic example of neo-classical feminist thought, the mere fact of women playing rugby completely defies these stereotypical images.

A major outcome of this apparent conflict is that on an individual level, the female players learn that they are in control of how they want to be defined. They are the masters of their identity and nobody can tell them what they are. They are empowered by learning that to be a woman, to be who they are, means what they want it to mean. In a society that is constantly telling women that they are weak and sensitive, they are actively proving that, as women, they are strong, courageous, powerful, athletic and capable. The women’s rugby team is breaking gender stereotypes on campus and in the community of Petrolina, playing in inter-campus games, appearing on local news Channel 4 and now internationally to those reading these words!

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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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