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Some see anti-women backlash in ouster of Rousseff

Women screamed “Get out Temer” in protest against Brazil’s president, Michel Temer, after a military parade marking Independence Day on Wednesday in Brasilia.
Women screamed “Get out Temer” in protest against Brazil’s president, Michel Temer, after a military parade marking Independence Day on Wednesday in Brasilia.(Eraldo Perez/Associated Press)

BRASÍLIA, Brazil — At one heated moment in the impeachment trial of Dilma Rousseff, a senator pushing for her ouster decided that some of his outspoken female colleagues in the chamber needed scolding.

“Calm down, girls,” the senator, Cássio Cunha Lima, part of a political dynasty from northeastern Brazil, told Senators Vanessa Grazziotin and Gleisi Hoffmann, both supporters of Rousseff, Brazil’s first female president.

His remark drew sharp rebukes from the two women.

“Men believe they are the owners of this space, as if we’re just here by chance,” said Grazziotin, 55, a prominent leftist senator from Amazonas State.

For senators like Grazziotin, the episode reflected the emboldening of conservative voices after the impeachment of Rousseff, who argued that she had been the target of misogynistic attacks by opponents. Female politicians across Brazil are debating what her downfall means in a political realm dominated by men.

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Despite the inroads made by Rousseff and others, Brazil ranks remarkably low in the representation of women in politics. Of the 513 members of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Brazilian Congress, 51 are women, placing the country 155th in the world in the percentage of women elected to the lower house of a national legislature, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. It trails places like Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan.

The administration of Michel Temer, Rousseff’s successor — a former ally who emerged victorious in the power struggle to oust her — is doing little to assuage fears that women will be sidelined. Upon taking office more than three months ago, Temer named an all-male cabinet in a country where just 48 percent of the population of 206 million is male.

Depicting a 1950s-style suburban idyll in which a gray-haired president is greeted by his spouse, a much younger housewife, the cover of this month’s edition of the Brazilian magazine Piauí captured the cultural shift to the right embodied by Temer, 75, whose wife, Marcela, a soft-spoken former beauty pageant contestant, is 42 years younger.

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Throughout the impeachment proceedings, female allies of Rousseff’s in Congress argued that the way her impeachment was carried out reflected a political establishment in which women were still supposed to serve as accessories to powerful men. A new wave of vitriolic positioning against female politicians like Rousseff is fueling these concerns.

During the impeachment trial, for instance, Jaufran Siqueira, a socially conservative politician in the northeastern city of Natal, seized on a new idea for gaining votes.

“This is what will happen to feminists when Jaufran is elected,” Siqueira, 25, proclaimed alongside a photograph he posted on his campaign’s Facebook page, showing a house engulfed in flames.

“I can’t deny that I oppose the feminist movement,” said Siqueira, a real estate broker who emerged into the national spotlight with his campaign. “But it’s absurd to claim I’m going to set fire to women.”

He said the photo had been merely “a joke.”

Despite the increasing tensions, female political leaders in Brazil remain far from unanimous on whether Rousseff was driven from office because of her gender.

Marina Silva, the former maid who is a leading contender for the 2018 presidential election, said in an interview that Rousseff’s ouster was rooted in incompetence and deeply flawed policymaking, referring to charges that she manipulated the federal budget to conceal economic problems.

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“My understanding is that Dilma’s budget maneuvers were illegal,” said Silva, 58, an environmentalist who repeatedly clashed with Rousseff when both were ministers in the Cabinet of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, of the leftist Workers’ Party.

“Conservatives are getting more vociferous on a global level — just look at Trump in the United States,” said Marina Silva, referring to Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for president, who, when asked if he had met Rousseff, responded: “No. Who is he?”

“This doesn’t mean that women won’t play a crucial role in Brazilian politics after Dilma’s impeachment,” Silva said. “Of course we will. We have too much momentum now.”

Some contend that Rousseff’s ouster revealed the ugly workings of Brazil’s male-dominated political scene. As large protests flare against Temer’s administration, thousands of women are voicing opposition to the new government.