Arthur do Val’s sexism about Ukrainian refugees is shocking – but not surprising. Here’s why

The world is shocked by the beginning of another war. The images of death, destruction and displacement coming from Ukraine are heart-breaking.

Brazilian right-wing politician Arthur do Val visited Ukraine on a ‘humanitarian mission’. During his trip, sexist and misogynistic comments of his about Ukrainian women, those who are fleeing war, were leaked. They are truly shocking – but they are not surprising. Here’s why.

Military conflicts are always crossed by gender issues.

The decision to begin or to end a war is usually taken by cis-gendered heterosexual men. The sexualised division of labour means that they are the ones in charge of the armies and the state. Men also tend to be summoned to fight, while women are forced to flee or stay behind, taking care of the elderly, children, and a home that might not even exist the next day. Women do what Cynthia Enloe called the invisible work of holding their battered wartime communities together. In these situations, they frequently experience the menace of sexual violence and rape – another weapon of war.

Do Val’s shocking comments

In the midst of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – Arthur do Val, a representative at São Paulo’s State Assembly and a prominent figure of the Brazilian right – made the news after his sexist comments were leaked during a trip to Ukraine. His trip was supposedly to support the Ukrainian people by giving a financial donation and even helping to make Molotov cocktails: “I never thought I would be making Molotov cocktails for the Ukrainian army”, he wrote in a photo shared on Instagram.

During his stay, he sent a message to a group of friends making comments about Ukrainian women, particularly refugees. Someone decided to leak it to the world.

If you haven’t heard it yet, prepare your stomach. Do Val says: “I’ve never seen anything like it in terms of beautiful girls. The refugee queue … imagine a 200metres-long or more of just total goddesses … it’s some incredible shit … the queue outside Brazil’s best nightclub … doesn’t come close to the refugee queue here.” His sexist and horrific tirade doesn’t stop there. “…they’re easy because they’re poor”, he says.

The comments, besides being sexist, are also racist because at he points out that they are all blondes and that “they are gold diggers”. He recalls that his partner on this visit, Renan Santos, leader of MBL (Brazil Free Movement), takes a trip every year on what he calls a “blonde tour” around European countries.

Should we be shocked? Yes. Should we be surprised? No

It’s disgusting to hear a man say these kinds of sexist things about women. How can a person not show any kind of empathy towards other human beings, especially in a war? Worse so, it objectifies them. It’s shocking.

But we shouldn’t be surprised. Do Val’s movement, MBL, was born in 2014 and was one of the main groups responsible for the demonstrations against president Dilma Rousseff that led to her impeachment in 2016. Back then, as Flavia Biroli argues, sexism and misogyny contributed in the construction of a political environment where an elected woman was challenged in her competence and deposed. In 2018, when do Val was elected deputy of São Paulo’s State Assembly, MBL supported Bolsonaro, a candidate openly against women’s and LGBTQIA+ people’s rights, as I shared in my previous blog for Countering Backlash.

Nowadays, MBL’s candidate for the Brazilian Presidency is a former judge and Bolsonaro’s Minister of Justice and Public Security, Sergio Moro. Moro is the one who convicted ex-president Lula and prevented him from running in 2018. Now Lula’s convictions were annulled by the Supreme Court and he is free to run for political office.

Once the audio leaked, to defend himself, do Val argued he did ‘nothing’. As if his sexist words didn’t matter in everyday life.

I had a personal experience of MBL’s hatred of women. In 2017, after I appeared in a TV show talking about male and female predetermined tasks and how it affects childhood, a picture of me was shared on their social media, accusing me of being a ’radical feminist’. After that, I received thousands of critiques and dozens of menacing comments.

Brazilian society reached its limit

The response from Brazilian society was strong. Do Val is now facing 21 requests made by his colleagues to cancel his political mandate, from right- to left-wing parties. There are also online petitions claiming his expulsion from São Paulo’s assembly.

This might tell us that something has changed in Brazilian society. It shows there should be a limit to symbolic violence against women, which is nowadays so commonly spread by the far-right. However, the line was not drawn by an event in Brazil, but one outside our borders and political affairs.

What does this reaction mean? Will that be enough to avoid the re-election of figures from MBL and Bolsonaro himself? One can only hope.

Feminist protests and politics in a world of crisis

Feminist activism and organising for gender justice are rapidly evolving. We are seeing new energies and new ways of building a feminist future. This is happening in a time of multiple and interconnected crises, adversely impacting women’s, trans folk’s and non-binary people’s rights, as well as gender equality gains made in policy, discourse and practice.

To explore the challenges to feminist and gender justice activism and to identify new energies in the field, Sohela Nazneen and Awino Okech were invited to guest edit the Gender & Development journal’s special double issue on Feminist protests and politics in a world of crisis. You can also watch the authors discuss their articles in an Institute of Development Studies’s webinar held in November 2021.

Why now?

Feminist activism has faced new and diverse challenges over the past decade. The rise of conservative and populist forces, the growth of authoritarianism, racism and xenophobia, and austerity in many countries are just some of these challenges. These have led to an increased dismantling of civil liberties, freedom of speech, expression and peaceful assembly.

Across the globe, feminist and gender justice activists are recalibrating their actions to face these challenges.

From Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and climate justice activism, we are witnessing a growth of transnational and intergenerational organising. Feminist and gender activists are seizing the moment to reimagine democracy, gender and power relations, and humanity.

Feminist activism requires presence across policy, online spaces and the street…

What we explore

In this special double issue on Feminist protests and politics in a world of crisis, we set out to answer two central questions:

  1. How are movements sustaining thriving, robust and resilient spaces and alliances in a world of multiple crises?
  2. How is politics of solidarity created at the national and trans-national levels?

To answer these, we explore varying themes and collective mobilisations for feminist and gender justice actors through 20 articles from different regions of the world. Below are some examples of what you will find:

Nothing is as it seems: ‘discourse capture’ and backlash politics; Tessa Lewin

Tessa Lewin develops the concept of discourse capture, analysing how gender equality is undermined by right-wing political parties and women’s groups as they co-opt progressive feminist agendas. Tessa details examples from around the world, including the US pro-life movement, the ‘Vote No’ campaign in the Republic of Ireland, the ‘Anti-Homosexuality Bill’ in Uganda, and more.

Femonationalism and anti-gender backlash: the instrumental use of gender equality in the nationalist discourse of the Fratelli d’Italia party; Daria Collela

Daria Collela explores the media strategies of right-wing political parties in Italy, and how they frame people of colour, especially those of a Muslim background, as perpetrators of violence against women. Daria argues that these nationalist forces use gender equality agendas to bring together a diverse set of actors to promote racism, anti-migrant agendas and xenophobia.

The resistance strikes back: Women’s protest strategies against backlash in India; Deepta Chopra

Deepta Chopra analyses the strategies used by Muslim-women activists in Shaheen Bagh, Delhi, India. These women led a four-month-long sit-in protest against the police violence inflicted on student activists and India’s discriminatory citizenship laws. Deepta details how the grandmothers of Shaheen Bagh used inclusive frames for claiming citizenship, rotated care work duties with younger women of the community so the latter could participate, and how the performance of poetry and songs transformed the Shaheen Bagh as a space for building cross-sectional solidarity.

Visible outside, invisible inside: the power of patriarchy on female protest leaders in conflict and violence-affected settings; Miguel Loureiro and Jalila Haider

Miguel Loureiro and Jalila Haider examine the Hazara women’s protests in Balochistan, Pakistan. They look specifically at how the women went on hunger strike and drew national attention to the killing of and violence against the men of their community. Women’s participation transformed the movement from male-dominated violent protests to women-led peaceful ones. But despite women being the face of protests, they are still excluded from key decision-making structures, drawing attention to the slow pace of change.

Gendered social media to legal systems, online activism to funding systems

Other articles in this issue explore how South-South transnational solidarity is built. They examine the role of public performance, street protests and intergenerational dialogues in creating solidarity across diverse social groups and generations in the movements such as “A Rapist in Your Path” in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia and the anti-abortion rights movement the Green Wave in Argentina. There is a focus on queer and feminist activism in online spaces in Nigeria (such as #ENDSARS), Lebanon, Brazil and how online engagements help to raise contentious issues but also pose a significant risk to activists. For many authors, how to sustain movements and protect spaces for autonomous organising remain key concerns. Several of them focus on the development of alternative funding mechanisms and influencing bilateral negotiations as key pathways for sustaining activism.

Further articles analyse how having a seat at the table in Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, Argentina were important for making and sustaining pro gender equality policy change and explore the ways an active and effective feminist presence in policy political spaces can help to counter gender backlash.

The strength and determination documented in the articles of feminists and gender justice activists, gives us hope for a better, equitable, fairer future.

By banning ‘gender ideology’ Bolsonaro feeds his far-right ideals

In Jair Bolsonaro’s 2019 inauguration, he swore to ‘combat gender ideology’ and ‘preserve’ familial values. ‘Brazil will once again be a country free of ideological bonds’ he declared – as if what he was stating wasn’t ideological at all. This positioning led to gendered cultural and social approaches and policies being dismantled. Funds to prevent violence against women have been cut, teenage abstention is promoted instead of sexual education, LGBTQ+ groups are excluded from public television; these are just some examples explored in my article ‘Brazilian far-right neoliberal nationalism: family, anti-communism and the myth of racial democracy’.

This type of backlash isn’t new

‘Gender ideology’ is an expression frequently used in Brazil by the far-right to attack progressive public policies, pro-women and LGBTQ+ people’s rights. But this is not recent. As numerous researchers have identified, ‘Gender Ideology’ is a term that was first propelled onto a global level in 1995, as a reaction of the Catholic Church leadership to the World Conference on Women in Beijing, when the word ‘woman’ began to be substituted by the word ‘gender’. With the passage of time, the expression was taken up by other Christian groups and gained social popularity in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Columbia, France, Hungary, Peru, Poland and the United States.

In Brazil, one of the main disputes of ‘gender ideology’ was in the educational sector between 2014 and 2016. The word ‘gender’ was banned and simply excluded from several state’s education plans when approved by City Councils and State Assemblies. Elected officials frequently argued that ‘sexual orientation’ (they don’t use the word ‘gender’) doesn’t concern schools or education, but only the ‘family unit’. This ignores the reality that gender does indeed cut across the entire school experience.

Gender ideology as a neoliberal tool

Bolsonaro’s discourse against gender ideology and women’s and LGBTQ+ people’s rights gained materiality by his agenda, implemented by the Ministry for Women, Family and Human Rights and the Ministry of Economy. Neoliberal reforms and policies promoted by his government and his predecessor, Michel Temer, led to the intensification of poverty and to the dismantling of the social assistance system (such as changes in the ‘continued benefit’, a guarantee of a minimum wage per month to the elderly aged 65 years or over or to the disabled person of any age), which made women’s lives – especially those who are black, indigenous and trans – worse.

The defence of conservative thought might sound contradictory to liberal and neo-liberal ideas. However, neoliberalism and ‘gender ideology’ and other conservative’s thoughts are an ideal marriage in Bolsonaro’s Brazil – and of course I’m using the word ‘marriage’ in a provocative way as Bolsonaro and his supporters defend a traditional, restrictive family model.

As I argue in my recently published article ‘Brazilian far-right neoliberal nationalism: family, anti-communism and the myth of racial democracy’, with Sue Iamamoto and Renata Summa, it is necessary to understand the various cross overs between neoliberalism and neo-conservatism, which we do not see as opposing schools of thought. As Verónica Gago accurately explains, ‘the privatisation of public services or the restriction of their reach is translated into the fact that these tasks (health, care, food, etc.) must be supplied by women and feminised bodies as unpaid and mandatory tasks’.

The promotion of a heterosexual, patriarchal family, strengthening the sexual and racial division of labour, fits well to neoliberal plans that weakens public services which were already far from being universal. Afterall, somebody still has to take care of the children, the elderly, the family and group’s health and survival in general. Services that could be offered by the State become once again unpaid or precarious work. As Wendy Brown argues, the defence of the ‘family’ is also a neoliberal attack on social policies that battle inequality, whether in its gender, race, or class expressions.

An ideological ‘crusade’

During Bolsonaro’s first year as President it was commonly mentioned, especially by the hegemonic media, that the government had two, even three, different branches: the economic, the ideological and the military. Going to the end of his first term, it became evident that such distinction did not exist. The far-right Bolsonaro government is an assemblage of all those actors and the fight against women’s, black, indigenous and LGBTQ+ people’s rights. Presented as an ideological ‘crusade’, this is the ground where the disputes are happening in Brazilian society.

But there is resistance.

Here is an example: before the first term of the elections in 2018, thousands of women from all over the country occupied the streets in the #EleNão (#NotHim) movement against Bolsonaro. They headed back to the streets on 4 December, 2021.