Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

BRAZIL: Carnival, a Complex Annual Revolution for Women, Gays

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Feb 18 2010 (IPS) - Fátima Oliveira, one of Brazil’s few black women doctors, always goes to “the best carnival,” in Sabará, a city of 130,000 people in the state of Minas Gerais, where “men dress up as women” at a celebration that is “very informal, very local, with few tourists.”

Carnival in Rio de Janeiro  Credit: Public domain

Carnival in Rio de Janeiro Credit: Public domain

Cross-dressers appear regularly at the many and varied carnivals in Brazil, but particularly in Sabará, in the southeast of the country, said Oliveira, who is a member of the advisory board of the Latin American and Caribbean Women’s Health Network, and ex president of Brazil’s National Feminist Network for Health and Sexual and Reproductive Rights.

Carnival in Brazil is “an all-encompassing libertarian festivity where one can strip off the everyday self in order to become what one would like to be,” and that benefits women, especially black women, who have become its leading ladies, beauty queens and the models of new aesthetic standards, she told IPS.

Carnival has pagan origins predating Christianity, with a subversive character that turned the status quo upside down. The Catholic religion co-opted the popular festival, but modified the meaning to be one of “farewell to the pleasures of the flesh.”

Carnival, in this South American country of over 192 million people, is regarded as the most important of all those celebrated worldwide before the Christian season of Lent, and lasts more than a week. The “escolas do samba” (dance and music groups) and bands rehearse year-round for the parades held all over Brazil.

It is “a short-lived celebration, but its influence endures for the rest of the year,” said Oliveira.


Carnival “turns the world upside down,” creating “happiness, abundance, freedom and above all equality of everyone within society;” it is a celebration of “the feminine in a social and cosmological universe marked by men,” according to Roberto da Matta, who has written extensively on anthropological interpretations of this festivity.

But the event only serves to “show up its precise and exact opposite” in real life, he told IPS.

“Women enjoy the reversal of the established order, which overturns the pecking order,” and they have always had a strong presence in carnivals, where men also “exert the power of their sexuality,” said Sonia Correa, co-chair of the international organisation Sexuality Policy Watch (SPW).

Complex sexuality

But there are contradictions. The “sensual paradise” which surprises foreigners, particularly Asians, with the freedom with which Brazilians “move their bodies,” also includes racial discrimination, “male dominance” and violence against women and children, Correa pointed out.

There is a growing explicit presence of transsexuals at carnival, who have gone beyond simply coming out in public and have earned legitimacy for the defence of their rights. Recently their struggle has become more politicised: one of their demands, for example, is the right to separate bathrooms, said Correa.

A few years ago, she said, a television reporter was charmed by the beauty of a young woman in an escola do samba parade in Rio de Janeiro, and he followed her to ask her name. “Wilson,” was the reply.

Carnival “mixes the unequal,” the result of a long struggle by the black communities, who created the present form of carnival in Rio and other cities. When it all started, some 80 years ago, carnival was heavily repressed by the police, Correa told IPS.

Today black people continue to be dominant in the music and drumming groups at the heart of the escolas do samba.

Gays have gained recognition as key artistic workers, occupying distinguished roles in the escolas do samba, and they are well accepted in the carnival environment – but not in the northeastern state of Bahia, where carnival is different.

Homophobic violence is not decreasing there, said Luiz Mott, the founder of the Bahia Gay Group (GGB), the oldest homosexuals’ organisation in Latin America.

In Brazil, over 3,000 homosexuals and transvestites have been killed since 1980, according to GGB’s survey data, which puts this country in first place for gay-bashing crimes. The group’s last report, covering 1980 to 2008, counted 2,998 murders, and the numbers keep increasing. In 2008 there were 190 killings, 55 percent more than in 2007.

In the huge street carnival in Salvador, the capital of Bahia, various groups of men take part, dressed as women and apparently “getting in touch with their feminine side,” but paradoxically “they are homophobic,” Mott said. They cross-dress in order to ridicule transvestites, and “they reinforce their sexual antagonism for the rest of the year,” he said.

Many people make use of the permissive ambience of carnival to “discharge their hate” at a time when the atmosphere of liberation and alcohol consumption increase the vulnerability of victims and the aggressiveness of attackers.

The “tríos eléctricos,” floats bearing bands and heavy-duty amplifiers that provide the dance music for the carnival crowds in Salvador, carry many gay and lesbian singers and musicians, but they do not publicly express their sexual preferences, he complained. Gay pride parades, like the one in the southern city of São Paulo that draws three million people, are more effective than carnival in fighting homophobia, said Mott. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people take pride of place, gain visibility and share the event with large numbers of heterosexuals, which has a socialising effect, he said.

Breaking down prison walls

“Carnival is for women what football is for men,” said Maria Balé, a São Paulo psychologist who turned to photography and pie-making because she prefers them to “constructing new egos for people who only want to buy a fake identity.”

These explosive celebrations are “a means to free oneself from the prisons” that societies have built up throughout history, by “training” human beings for survival with rules, boundaries and repressions that are broken out of from time to time to reconnect with the deepest part of human nature, “the animal, in the best sense, in us” she said.

“It’s a fleeting return to irrepressible nature, to creative powers, to the exercise of human freedom, which is important for widening the horizons of life without repression,” she added. The arts, other cultural expressions and sports also fill this role.

Women reap more obvious benefits because they have “more prisons from which to free themselves, and that’s why daughters have the hardest struggle with their families to take part in carnival festivities,” she said.

Carnival is also “a female festival, because it welcomes everyone into its womb,” she told IPS.

With regard to commercialisation of the body, with the increasing near-nudity in carnival performances, she said “fashion parades are more obscene, because they only value the clothes worn, and involve the exercise of material power,” where women are used “as clothes hangers.”

Oliveira disagreed with moralistic criticisms of nudity, which she called “a Brazilian cultural tradition.” Carnival “strips hypocrisy naked,” and without this annual festival “women would suffer more discrimination” in their everyday lives, according to Balé.

Carnival in Rio and São Paulo has become a commercial spectacle, with the escolas do samba parades taking place in purpose-built stadiums. This is because they have achieved “the status of street opera, a development that demands an appropriate locale,” she said.

Balé recalled the parade in Rio in the 1980s when for the first time a black woman, known only by the name Pinah, appeared in a magnificent costume on the pinnacle of a carnival float in an unprecedented celebration of black beauty.

Now, black actresses and models are everywhere to be seen in the worlds of television and fashion, in this country where blacks form a majority of the population but continue to face discrimination that is largely ignored in public debate.

 
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