How Rousseff has highlighted Brazil's sexism problem

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Dilma RousseffImage source, AP
Image caption,
Many believe sexism has made Dilma Rousseff more of a target

My father cried with sadness when he found out his first child was a girl.

But having an economist mother as a role model helped me to grow up largely protected from sexism in Brazilian society.

I encountered it only later in life, through a few professional experiences and, most of all, through statistics.

The announcement of interim President Michel Temer's cabinet and its 23 white men rings alarm bells in the battle for equality.

It is the first time in nearly four decades that we have a male-only cabinet. The last time was during the military dictatorship.

After strong criticism, there is talk the culture ministry, one of the nine closed in an attempt to cut expenditure, will be brought back.

Reports say Mr Temer is adamant it should be led by a woman. Interestingly, the former ministry will have a lower status, a secretariat. There is no word in Portuguese yet for tokenism.


This absence of women goes beyond their already appallingly low representation in politics.

Among the 81 members of the Senate, only 12 are female. One of them was referred to on Twitter as the "coffee lady" by a famous TV presenter.

The senator, Regina Sousa, from the Worker's Party, is also one of the few black legislators.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The cabinet of interim President Michel Temer (front right) is all male

The main "employer" of women in Brazil is still domestic service. And most domestic workers are not just women but black. This explains why the comment revolted many. But not all.

Lack of diversity is not a popular subject to bring up in Brazil, a country where the "Party of the Brazilian Women" has only one elected MP - a man.

Debates often become polarised.

"Do you want a quota for government jobs now?" said a male reader on our Facebook page, commenting on a piece entitled "All the president's men (and no women)".

"In politics or in any company, people need to be there for their competence not idiotic sexism, silliness from the left," he said.

Others though criticised the new cabinet.

"This is what you would expect from a president whose wife is 'beautiful, demure and at home'," said one journalist, referring a controversial profile of Brazil's new first lady in the country's most influential magazine.

"She is a lucky woman," was the opening line.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Double standards in the media portrayal of Ms Rousseff (l) and new first lady Marcela Temer (r)?

Luck for Marcela Temer apparently came when she met her future husband. She was only 18 and he over 60 when her uncle introduced them at a party conference.

Critics denounced a perceived double standard from the press in the portrayal of another woman.

Undermining women

Also in April, when Congress handed President Dilma Rousseff a crucial defeat, another controversy about gender emerged. She was portrayed on the cover of a magazine as a woman with a nervous breakdown.

Using an archive photo that looked like she was screaming, the president was described as having kicked things, abused staff and being too "emotionally unstable" to run the country.

"What a typical way to undermine women," said a prominent feminist, pointing out the description was a surprising contrast to how Ms Rousseff, a former guerrilla who endured torture, insisted she would fight until the end.

It is hard to argue that there is no sexism in the attacks against Ms Rousseff.

But reducing the huge dissatisfaction in her to sexism ignores the fact that the same woman had been one of the most popular presidents Brazil has ever had in democratic times.

Her management of the economy, and the worst recession since records began, as well as the corruption scandal involving her party are at the heart of her downfall.

Image caption,
Silvia Salek at work

"It [sexism] is not the reason, but it certainly made her more of a target," says my elder sister.

I am the third child and my father did not cry when I was born. He was the product of a family of Syrian migrants and used to say they saw women as cattle.

"But when we have a problem, we just deal with it," he told me once jokingly.

He was also an electronic engineer who introduced me to the world of cables. I was proud to be able to install phone extensions from an early age.

At 22, in my first month as an economics reporter for a Brazilian newspaper, I was shocked when an older journalist whispered in my ear, "I'm going to eat you all up", before calmly returning to his desk.

I froze for a few seconds until a sense of deep humiliation turned to anger.

I stormed after him and, in front of a full newsroom, asked him loudly to repeat what he had just said. "Calm down," he repeated in a patronising tone, clearly not expecting that reaction from a young journalist who had been nicknamed Pocahontas by male colleagues.

"You are a disgusting coward," I shouted, along with a number of other things. Then, still fuming, I returned to my desk to finish a story on unemployment.

My parents taught me to fight back and I was never bothered in that newsroom again. I am a lucky woman.