What Brazil is Showing Us About Feminist Resilience and Resistance to Rape Culture

On the weekend of May 20-22, a 16-year-old girl woke up in an unfamiliar room in Morro da Barao, a favela (slum) in Rio de Janeiro, surrounded by at least 30 men. Her boyfriend and others had evidently drugged and transported her there, where at least twelve of them raped her. This crime of cruelty and misogyny was compounded, and only came to light, when the rapists posted videos and photos of themselves manipulating the unconscious victim, joking about her genital injuries and bragging that “more than 30” men had raped her.

In a sign of the momentous, transcultural resistance to rape culture that a hopeful feminist eye might perceive emerging right now, the victim in Brazil is speaking out in her own voice—a direct parallel to the same decision made by Brock Turner’s victim, who challenged the media and his legal team in a stirring public statement admonishing his actions and the rampant victim-blaming and rape apology shaping the most recent instance of a very public rape case exemplifying the barriers to holding assailants accountable in the U.S.

That parallel shows us is that while Brazil is indeed an extremely dangerous place for women, especially those marginalized by race and class as well as gender, the issue of rape is hardly exclusive to any particular place or culture—and here in the U.S., we should be watching the resounding protests against rape culture that have exploded in Brazil since the attack. The activism happening on the ground there demonstrates that amidst misogyny, institutional indifference and victim blaming, collective resistance and resilience are possible.

Many thousands of women and men have taken to the streets in cities across Brazil over the past two weeks. On Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Copacabana Beach, the NGO Rio de Paz laid out 420 pairs of underwear to represent the number of women raped every 72 hours in Brazil— adding up to about 50,000 survivors each year.

Protestors also displayed giant poster boards on the beach with images of women with red handprints over their mouths, created for an exhibit titled “I will never be silenced” by the artist Marcio Freitas. Meanwhile, support for the victim has permeated the permeated the Internet, with hashtags such as #EstuproNuncaMais (Rape never again), #EstuproNãoÉCulpaDaVitima (Rape is not the victim’s fault) and #EstuproNãoTemJustificativa (Rape has no justification) flourishing on Twitter.

There is a concept in feminist rhetorical studies—the study of public, persuasion-oriented communication from a feminist perspective—called rhetorical resilience. The scholars who coined the term—Elizabeth Flynn, Patricia Sotirin and Ann Brady—explained in the Introduction to their edited volume Feminist Rhetorical Resilience that this resilience happens when those who are usually denied a public voice mobilize whatever creative, available means they can find to interact communicatively with others in the face of adversity. “Rhetorical resilience is about recognizing and seizing opportunities even in the most oppressive situations,” the authors elaborated, clarifying that this process “does not necessarily return an individual life to equilibrium, but entails an ongoing responsiveness” to collective injustice.

This seems a perfect lens for viewing recent responses to sexual violence: Although experiences of trauma and institutional sexism remain, the survivors’ first-person public narratives, the mass street demonstrations including women across class and racial lines and the leveraging of art, underwear and hashtags to express solidarity bespeak the resourcefulness of a rising movement.

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Lisa Barca is an honors faculty fellow at Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University. Her writing has appeared in numerous anthologies as well as in peer-reviewed journals.  She has recently been selected as a regular invited lecturer for Arizona Humanities, presenting her research on gender and the media around the state.