Interviewee: Prof. Dr. Renata Motta
Interviewer: M.A. Monise Martinez*
Edited and reviewed by Anna Paula Bennech and Giovanna Imbernon
Renata Motta is Assistant Professor in Sociology at the Institute for Latin American Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin and Project Leader of the Research Group Food for Justice: Power, Politics and Food Inequalities in a Bioeconomy, funded by the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). She was a Guest Associate Professor of Brazilian Studies and Global Studies at Aarhus University, Denmark (2017-2018). She received her Ph.D. in Sociology from the Freie Universität Berlin in 2015. Her interests include social movements, social theories on modernity and globalization, social inequalities, gender and environment, and food studies. She has authored articles in these areas for Science as Culture, Latin American Perspectives, Journal of Agrarian Change, Social Movement Studies, Sociology Compass, Revista Brasileira de Ciências Sociais. She authored the book Social Mobilization, Global Capitalism and Struggles over Food (2016), and co-edited Global Entangled Inequalities: Conceptual Debates and Evidence from Latin America (2017).
You recently highlighted that the processes of building solidarity networks among social movements were considered a key point for coalition formation, as the empirical analysis of the Margaridas’ March (Marcha das Margaridas) demonstrated. From a feminist point of view, how do you understand and define solidarity, and to what extent do you believe it can contribute to the construction of horizontal alliances between the feminist strands and between these and other movements?
I have been collaborating with a team of feminist scholars on a book project about solidarity (Massson and Paulos, forthcoming), in which we have discussed the differences within feminist theory and research between conceptualizations of solidarity as a normative ideal and potential that must be constructed politically, and the praxis and processes that generate it, solidarity-building, which can be analytically described. In the introduction to the book, Masson and Paulos conceptualize that solidarity-building does not only involve bridging social differences but also places, organizations, and struggles. Moreover, it is a dynamic process that evolves over time and capable of generating transformations, new connections, and new political subjects. Finally, solidarity building is embedded in organizational strategies and goals, and permeated by relations of power. In my chapter with my colleague Marco Antonio Teixeira, we draw on important insights from postcolonial scholar Chandra Talpade Mohanty on solidarity. She points out that coalitional identities such as sisterhood or third-world women cannot be assumed a priori but result from common contexts of struggles. However, there is a need to analytically investigate how solidarity is transformed from an ideal or a possibility into a praxis and a practical reality. Thus, we trace the political work of actively constructing common diagnostics of such contexts and the joint definition of a coalitional identity. In another work, I rely on postcolonial feminists stressing the importance of identity politics for feminism and Butler’s work on coalitional politics criticizing that the insistence on the unity of identity and goals causes more fragmentation and prevents coalitions from forming. I follow Butler’s understanding of coalitions as processes in which solidarities are built and, therefore, cannot have solidarity as a prerequisite and involve dealing with contradictions, tensions, and splits. Political identities might thus emerge as a result of coalitions and include many that would not identify with the categories of “women” and “feminist.”
These discussions can contribute to the construction of horizontal alliances within feminisms today by calling attention to the hard political work involved in crafting solidarity. That means not assuming unity of goals, commonalities of identities but being able not only to agree to disagree but to recognize the different positions and identities within a broader coalitional project. This approach is by no means a politics of diversity, but a careful awareness of different contexts of struggles in which differently situated social subjects are situated and how such power asymmetries must be recognized. In other words, alliance-building processes with feminists and non-feminist others will have more chances to flourish when accepting difference and not reducing it to diversity but instead recognizing the power differentials between differently situated subjects.
In a study of feminist action fields in Latin America, Sonia Alvarez defines the plural feminisms’ ‘sidestreaming’ as a moment of great popularization of its several facets due to the different actions that have constituted it in the last two decades. How do you evaluate the use of the Internet as space and/or tool for the (de)construction of alliances between feminisms, as well as these and other movements in the region nowadays?
The construction of feminist alliances found new spheres to express solidarity, to nourish common goals, and to achieve visibility in the virtual spheres, recruiting so many new voices and, above all, but not only, a new generation of young feminists. Undoubtedly, the Internet created new spheres and tools for social mobilizations. Still, the initial enthusiasm about the positive effects of new democratic forms of alliances in and through the Internet showed its negative sides by reinforcing fragmentation, polarization, and dispute. There are also clear limitations in digital activism, which can be very consumerist, individualist, and sporadic. These challenges can be overcome if digital activism also articulates street protest, mobilizations offline, political formation, and organizational work. Feminist movements and organizations constantly need new activists who are also willing to work offline in a range of necessary activities to build broad and strong alliances, which can influence public debate and political events.
An example of the mobilizing power of the Internet is the hashtag #Elenão (#Nothim) which went viral on social media, calling for action on the streets on 29 September against the presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro and all he stands for. Instagram, YouTube, and WhatsApp groups provided the platforms to share hashtags, videos, images. One of the most circulated videos was uploaded by Mídia Ninja and brought together self-made videos of influencers, artists, and public personalities representing diverse embodiments that felt directly threatened by the rise of Bolsonaro, such as women*, black, LGBTQ*, and disabled bodies. They declared that Bolsonaro was misogynist, racist, homophobic and that they were in favor of all forms of love and difference.
The protest march #Elenão on 29 September 2018 became the largest women’s mobilization in Brazilian history, bringing 125,000 women to the streets in São Paulo, as well as many thousands to other cities in Brazil and throughout the world. #Elenão brought together diverse Brafeminisms and built on previous experimentations, such as Slut Walks (Marcha das Vadias), NiUnaMenos, and the performative use of body and language in public interventions. In the act of #Elenão, all those bodies targeted by Bolsonaro’s hate speech and political program, all otherness to the mainstream white, male, cisgender, heterosexual, middle-class, joined in an alliance. Beyond mere numbers, the mobilization was innovative in creating an atmosphere in which various strands of feminism, competing political forces, and parties peacefully shared the streets to defend a common goal: to prevent Bolsonaro’s election. During the entire electoral campaign in 2018, left-wing parties and movements were unable to join their efforts in a political coalition, a situation that extends to the present moment.
However, the digital spheres are not free of power relations. Rather, they are constantly disputed. In the case of #Elenão, the mainstream media failed to provide an appropriate media coverage that did justice to the historical political achievement of Brazilian feminisms and to give resonance to their agenda, their claims, their numbers, and collective strength. On the Internet, not only were there strong anti-feminist pro-Bolsonaro mobilizations, like under the hashtag #EleSim (#YesHim), but also an intense campaign of fake news, defamation, and sexist violence by right-wing groups. In short, on the one hand, the Internet contributes to new forms of visibility and alliance building. On the other hand, it does not guarantee broad and enduring coalitions that also depend on an organizational basis and political work offline.
In Latin America, the neo-liberalization process of feminisms, propelled by the IV World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, impacted feminist actions in several ways, generating what many authors understood as a movements’ institutionalization moment. In the last decade, marked by hypervisibility reached by different feminist expressions, the process intensified and acquired new contours. In this context, what challenges has neo-liberalization imposed on the feminist movements in the region?
Latin American gendered struggles against neoliberal reforms and dictatorships in the 1980s and 1990s have been conceptualized as popular feminisms. These struggles articulated gender and class inequalities and called attention to the role of feminism in transforming women’s movements into more emancipatory possibilities (Conway 2021). Since the 1990s, popular feminisms have receded due to a constellation of factors. Nevertheless, gendered class struggles characteristic of popular feminism were certainly not absent during the 1990s; perhaps they were less visible in terms of collective action, by which social struggles are usually recognized (Teixeira 2018). But within trade unions, urban and rural, the 1990s was a period of strong feminist organizing and important victories, such as quotas and the creation of political space, which would form the conditions for a new wave of social-oriented popular feminism in the 21st century. Thus, in the first decades of the 21st century, while Brazilian mainstream and historical feminism occupied spaces of participative democracy, constituting what scholars called state feminism (Matos and Alvarez, 2018), new expressions of popular feminism flourished.
In parallel to institutional feminists that have become mainstreamed in multilateral organizations and other spaces of power, popular feminisms have emerged in other activism networks, among them the popular peasant feminism within the Via Campesina and the popular feminism of the World March of Women. The Marcha das Margaridas, a movement with which I collaborate in my research, is not only “popular”- or working-class based, but also rural. While the analysis of popular feminism had historically focused on urban struggles, the Marcha draws attention to rural history and contemporary expression of popular feminism that decenters the urban political subject of popular feminism. This rural popular feminism has been challenging the effects of neoliberal agrarian change in the conformation of contemporary Brazilian agribusiness, which forms a key economic and political actor in the country today. They have been denouncing the negative social and environmental impacts of the large-scale, technology-intensive, export-oriented agrarian model that has undergone processes of more concentration and been accompanied by high rates of violence and conflicts. Therefore, popular feminists have been actively challenging neoliberalization rather than challenged by it.
In Brazil, the 2018 presidential elections sealed the populist and extreme-right Jair M. Bolsonaro’s victory. Moreover, they were marked, among other strategies, by using anti-feminism as an electoral tool, mobilized mainly around the gender ideology rhetoric. Thinking of the Latin American context, how has the meta-political use of the gender category served to mobilize public opinion in favor of the conservative right?
In Brazil, violence against women and femicide have continuously increased in the past decade, affecting even more black women and trans bodies. The electoral victory of Bolsonaro has normalized and encouraged even more violence. He deployed the term “gender ideology” to fight intersectional feminisms and employed a rhetoric of war on crime, which again will mostly affect black peripherical bodies. Also, he promised to arm rural landlords to shoot agrarian and environmental activists while lifting sanctions to environmental crimes, suspending the demarcation of indigenous lands, and legalizing land grabbing. His agenda is not only conservative. It is actively anti-feminist. The gender category has not been only mobilized in discursive wars – it is not only rhetoric but also an area of state intervention and pro-action in a government characterized by a destructive programmatic agenda. Bolsonaro has appointed anti-feminists, such as the Minister of Human Rights, Family, and Women, Damares Alves. She intervened to cut any reference to the expression “gender violence” in a decree to curb sexist violence in December 2019, which became known as transphobic necropolitics. Although her ministry has a very low budget execution, failing to implement public policies under its sphere of competence, the idea of “unsexual bodies drives her policies.” For instance, by promoting sexual abstinence as the only way to prevent teenage pregnancy or equating women’s bodies to reproductive bodies without any autonomy, restricting even more possibilities of legal abortion.
Thinking about the broader context of the rising of anti-progressive forces, one can argue, following interesting insights from Kimberly Creenshaw about the USA context, that contemporary right-wing politicians criticize identity politics and blame intersectionality, but themselves mobilize anti-intersectional intersectionality: that of the white, middle class, heterosexual, cis man. Right-wing politicians provide a narrative with culprits for their fading position: the Other, who in each context assumes specific racial, cultural, religious, ethnic, class, and gender ascriptions. They strive to re-imagine nations that are post-feminist, post-racial, post-ethnical by denying the very existence of racism and sexism. By doing so, they keep the privileges of the powerful.
I argue that feminist solidarities take the lead against this conservative backlash because they were crafted against the mounting existential threats experienced by marked bodies and alternative forms of relating to nature and territories, in a context of a renewed homogenizing discourse of a body politic that aims to erase all differences in favor of a dominant embodied partiality of the male citizen.
In July 2020, the Brazilian Federal Government launched the campaign Mulheres Rurais, Mulheres com Direitos (5th edition). At the event, the current Minister of Women, Family and Human Rights used the memory of Margarida Maria Alves, a labor unionist murdered by landowners in 1983, to attack the emblematic March that carries her name. On that occasion, following the tendency to appropriate and subvert the memory and agendas of social movements historically aligned with the left, the Minister stated that the Bolsonaro’s government works to “guarantee the rights of all women in the countryside.” What challenges have the policies developed by the current Brazilian government represented for these women, and to what extent the establishment of alliances and solidarity networks, as in the Margaridas’ March (Marcha das Margaridas), can strengthen popular responses?
In a recent representative national survey that my research group, Food for Justice, conducted, we found out that 6 out of 10 households in Brazil were food insecure in December 2020, with these figures rising to three quarters of households situated in the rural areas or lead by women and black people. In addition, there has been an increase in deforestation rates, land conflicts, violence, and criminalization against activists. The women from Marcha das Margaridas will not be fooled by such attempts to co-opt their symbols and discourses to be a part of a government that they know is clearly against their interests. In the Marcha das Margaridas in 2019, the organizing committee decided for the first time not to handle a list of political demands directly to the national executive power, refusing to recognize this government as a viable partner. They protested against the democratic backlash. This context only stresses the importance of building alliances and solidarity networks as the Marcha das Margaridas and beyond. Also, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemics, we have been witnessing how, in the face of a governmental politics of not curbing the sanitary crisis and its detrimental effects in all spheres of life, popular responses, such as the solidarity networks for food donations, in particular, from agrarian movements such as the MST, have increased and occupied a space left bare by the state.
To what extent can the idea of solidarity and networking among social movements be conceived as a strategic response to Brazil’s challenges in the institutional policy context and in the various layers of narrative battles fought in the Brazilian media landscape today?
Brazilian democracy is severely under attack by Bolsonaro’s government, which is actively promoting the destruction of major political and institutional achievements that took decades of social mobilization to be transformed into public policies. The rise of Bolsonaro in the election pools and his first years in office have been very mildly tolerated by the media and institutions. Any stronger response to defend democracy ultimately depends on stronger pressure from the streets and the public opinion. Here, social movements have a key role to play: women and feminist leaderships have been upfront of such resistance for three reasons. First, feminist resistances in Brazil have meant fighting for the rights of certain bodies to exist and not to be erased for a renewed homogenizing discourse of an abstract citizen, as well as a dominant model of economy and ecology. Second, feminist organizing has excelled in its politics of alliances. Aware of their weaker and minority position within left-wing politics, they have historically depended on forging alliances. As the rank-and-file grassroots of many popular movements, women are more used to the hardships of accepting contradictions and living with them without reaching consensus. Finally, far from restricting their agenda to “women*’s” struggles, they have led the defense of democratic politics, universal social policies, and alternative development models. Feminist organizing aims to redefine the contours of modern politics and subjectivities of modern economies and ecologies.
However, it is not women’s responsibility alone or social movements to reverse the conservative backlash. Online activism and assembling bodies on the streets will not suffice in forging a viable coalition for an electoral alternative that will democratically challenge Bolsonaro’s government in the next elections. It will be necessary that political parties and leaderships are able to build broad coalitions and the media to assume a more responsible coverage of political events and social protest, not polarizing, even more, the landscape. Media coverage on the protests against Bolsonaro focused on isolated events with violence far from relevant in relation to the broader picture and might have been instrumentalized by infiltrated actors. It is necessary to have a more critical investigative journalism of protests too.
* Monise Martinez is a Ph.D. Student in Feminist Studies (CES/UC) and holds a scholarship from FCT. Her thesis is centered on the intertwining of antifeminism, the mediatization of the Brazilian religious field, and the Brazilian neo-Pentecostal female leaderships. She holds an M.A. in Publishing Studies (UA), with a thesis related to postcolonial feminism, and a B.A. in Modern Languages and Spanish and Portuguese Language Literatures (USP). She is currently co-organizer of the Gender Workshop Series (CES) and member of the Gender and Sexuality Workgroup (SOPCOM). Throughout her career, she also worked as editor and as a content producer of book collections approved in several of the National Textbook Program (PNLD) editions in Brazil. E-mail: email@example.com.