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Gendered violence in a coup d’état
The 2016 coup against Dilma Rousseff had many factors. But one of the reasons it was made possible was the president’s gender.
On 17 April 2016, Brazil underwent a parliamentary coup. Political and economic elites galvanised the population in demanding the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff (Workers’ Party) who, however, had not committed any crimes that warranted her ousting. The date in question was the culmination of a series of events which began in late 2014, after Rousseff’s re-election. Although conducting democratic elections since 1988, this time, neither the runner-up (Brazilian Social Democracy Party) nor his allies and electorate accepted the loss. The mainstream media (the same media that supported the 1964 civil-military coup) was largely on the opposition’s side and Rousseff’s actions against corruption placed most politicians, even allies, against her.
Between the re-election and the day of the impeachment vote (in fact, a vote to accept the impeachment procedure and suspend the President), highly violent and sexist rhetoric and symbols were used against the President. The vote happened on a Sunday, with jumbo screens spread around the country, dividing the population between supporters of the president and supporters of the so-called impeachment. The deputies went, one-by-one, to the microphone to pronounce their vote, “yes” for the coup and “no” against it, with a short speech beforehand.
We analysed the speeches made that day in order to probe deeper into the motivations of the deputies and the representations made by them. Several things were important to us: the use of the phrase “bye, sweetie”, highly-gendered in Portuguese and used freely throughout the period; strategies by the left and the right in defending or accusing the President; the right’s use of new conservative rhetoric, such as religious and family values speeches; how men and women voted.
Each speech equals one observation, including speeches made by party leaders, which were longer and used to tell members how they had to vote (551 observations). These speeches make up an important part, but only a part, of a process that used power plays, alliances, symbolism and rhetoric, public manipulation, and the actual final moment, in the Senate, six months later, when the ousting was completed. In addition, we would argue that the coup is ongoing, with the imprisonment of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, without evidence or due process.
Some expectations were confirmed, some disproven, and new information came to light. First, “bye, sweetie” was used profusely throughout the process, but during the vote it appeared mostly in signs lifted by pro-coup deputies, being said in speeches only six times. There was other gendered language, comparing the President to a “cow” or praising her torturer (as she spent three years imprisoned during the dictatorship) and more subtle critiques, such “arrogant”. The conflation of liberal economic speeches with religion and family values, respectively old-right and neo-right ideologies, demonstrate that this alliance is formed in Brazil, although not fully. Particularly, neo-right speeches did not feel obligated to make references to the economy or even to corruption. Corruption, crime, and the accusation itself were hardly ever mentioned, by either side.
Slightly more unexpected, was the lack of mentions of President Rousseff herself (124 out of 551 speeches). Almost 40% of the speeches that mentioned her were neutral, only using her name. Positive comments were slightly more than negative comments but made little effort to demonstrate her innocence, choosing to give praise to her “integrity”, “honesty” and “valour”. On the other hand, was the position of women, a majority of whom voted for her ousting. Their speeches or lack thereof demonstrate that women were, perhaps, leaning differently, and party loyalty forced them to vote against the President. Two clearly said so, while some merely voted “yes”, without any other statement, and most defences of Rousseff came from left-wing women. This is not to say that were not women voting “yes” with the same type of speeches (“For God, for my family, for the country”), but that proportionally their behaviour was significantly different. No women criticised the President. One important caveat, with only 53 women, we can only make some suggestions here – it is possible that the women simply did not want to speak.
Our findings lead us to conclude that beyond the actual violence of a coup, President Rousseff was the subject of gendered violence in this particular arena, at this particular moment, through the effacement of her actual actions and her career. Although there were instances of what is more recognizably “gender violence”, the explicit nature by which the coup attacked her while not being about her, this was also about a broader power struggle that needed her out of office and this was indeed the most violent aspect of it. In addition, we believe being a woman specifically weakened her position as it created gendered arguments for her ousting in combination with common obstacles for women in power such as lack of support networks and backlash against breaking with stereotypes.
Larissa Peixoto Gomes is currently working towards her PhD in political science from the Federal University of Minas Gerais. Her present research is on women’s substantive representation in national legislatures. She tweets at @larissapolitics.
Helga Almeida is a professor at the Federal University of Lavras. She holds a PhD in political science from the Federal University of Minas Gerais and specialises on legislative studies, electoral systems, and the internet.
Clarisse Paradis is a professor at the University of Lusophone Afro-Brazilian International Integration (Bahia – Brazil). She holds a PhD in political science from the Federal University of Minas Gerais and focuses on political theory and women’s autonomy.