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Between tradition and feminism: modern Amazonas

“We have our world and we are building feminism into it.” In the last two decades there has been a rebirth of the Amazons in the struggle for women's rights. Part 1. Part 2.

Rebecca Souza
1 September 2016
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Altamira, rallies against Belo Monte. Photo: Daniela Silva

Part One

Beginning this article with words that appear to be the opposite of one another and bringing them together is a challenge that many women from traditional peoples and I experience in our activism as feminists.

For one, we understand traditional peoples - also called native peoples - as communities whose culture, way of life, ethnic recognition and identity have been the same for centuries. Despite the geographical, cultural, religious and other differences between these groups, we always use the term "traditional peoples" to differentiate our resistance and existence politically. In this context, we can mention indigenous peoples, fishing communities, nomadic peoples of the desert and, among many others, Romani people - the ethnic group to which I belong. Among these people, women who identify themselves as feminists and work as rights activists in their communities are increasingly active.

Being a feminist, Romani woman from the northern region

I am not the first Romani woman to call herself a feminist. Women before me such as Soraya Post (Swedish European Parliament member elected by the feminist party), Yaskara Kalori (Romani journalist) and many others whose names were not recorded have been defending the need for a gender perspective in debates for years.

When women from traditional peoples began to organise in groups and call themselves feminists, it caused, at first, a certain fear in society. This fear is due to the fact that our communities are still seen as "the other". When we share urban or rural spaces with those who are not part of our reality, a self-defence system is triggered. We close ourselves off into our own little worlds. They start to see us as people who should not be occupying that space. This self-defence is due to historical prejudices towards everything that does not fit the mould of "urban western" society, which leads both sides to distance themselves from one another.

From the rain forest to hydroelectric dams: the forgotten north of Brazil

The northern region of Brazil is composed of seven states: Acre, Amazonas, Amapá, Pará, Rondônia, Roraima and Tocantins. Even though it is the largest geographical region of Brazil, it is forgotten - almost non-existent - in the social debates.

If we also consider that it is the region with the highest number of representatives in the national government from traditional peoples and combine this with the lack of knowledge in the rest of the country about the region, the feminist debate is often held from a colonial perspective and does not respond to the demands of women from the northern region.

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Protests against Belo Monte, Brazil. Photo: Fractures Collective. Some rights reserved.

We do not want to discuss only abortion, gender equality, harassment and the other latest issues in feminist debates. We also want to discuss the impact of large infrastructure projects on our land. We want to debate about our full right to prior consultation when a project like the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam is taking our culture away and destroying our historical emotional ties to this land.

We have our world and our way of thinking, and we are building this feminism in it.

Amazons and feminists from the north: women who do not bend

When the first colonisers arrived in north of Brazil, they said that a tribe of warrior women existed. They lived in a matriarchal society and only allowed men to be present at certain times in order to have pleasure and to conceive new warriors for the tribe.These women were given the name "Amazons", just like the ones in Greek mythology. For many centuries, they brought terror to colonisers, as they fought to defend their territory and their culture.

I like to think that in the past twenty years, there has been a rebirth of the Amazons in the struggle for women's rights. For a long time, the word "feminism" was not the one that baptised this struggle, but we cannot say it was not present. Women from the north began to see themselves as political and social actors and, more importantly, they started to question what united them to the feminist cause and what distinguished them from it.

Major victories such as the decision not to build a second hydroelectric dam, and the public consultations, were obtained through these struggles, but new challenges also emerge. It is these modern Amazonas who are increasingly taking these challenges beyond the northern region and drawing attention with slogans and a lot of struggle.

"We will be like the Samauma tree: our roots will go far."

I heard a feminist activist say this phrase at a mothers' club on the shores of the Xingu River in the city of Altamira. At the time, the debates on the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam were increasingly intense, as were the violations of rights.

Samauma is a large tree in the Amazon that lives for centuries and whose seeds and roots provide benefits to other plants. This is what the feminist movement of women from traditional peoples of the north of Brazil is like, which, in two decades in a row, developed and showed its "roots".

Think of a feminist movement built for and by women from tradition peoples in states that are continental in size, such as the northern region. There are always challenges. Even so, looking at the last two decades alone, we can highlight important victories and defining moments.

By us, for us

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Rebecca Souza.Photo: Osonmilu Argdão.

We are modern "Amazons" who do not bend, nor do we give up in battle. Through our efforts and struggle, we have earned our victories. It should be noted that the majority of these victories are not individual, as the idea of individuality does not exist among traditional peoples. When one of us achieves something, it is undoubtedly an accomplishment for the whole community.

The first major achievement is what the sentence at the beginning says: "By us, for us". In the past, a woman from northern Brazil was portrayed as needing someone from the outside to express her thoughts for her. With the creation of the national conferences, especially the women's conferences, the voices and the questions of women from fishing, riparian and rubber tapper communities began to be heard. In addition to the ones mentioned, a variety of women from the north of the country started to participate as delegates.

We can now say, "Today, I am going to speak not only about a region. I'm going to speak about my home."

I take pride in my boat. I am a fisherwoman.

This sentence is written on the door of the "Associação de Mulheres pescadoras da Barreira" (association of fisherwomen of Barreira). Barreira is a beach community that is about one and half hours from the capital of the state of Pará (Belém).  It may seem strange, but this points to perhaps the most important advance of the feminism of traditional peoples: women from traditional peoples are increasingly taking the lead in professions and assuming positions that were exclusively male. While the women used to be limited to catching seafood, they now have their boats and go out on the sea to earn their living and bring in fish to sell.

It is hard to find a community where the association, community centre or some other kind of local organisation has not been, at some point, or is not, at the moment, chaired by a woman. As in most societies, the social role assigned to women was that of staying in the kitchen and having children. With their empowerment, today, the men of these communities even prefer to see the women in the spotlight, as women's capacity to argue is greater and their level of education is higher.

When women are able to create associations exclusively for themselves, their socio-economic power also increases and has a positive impact on several aspects, even domestic violence. I increasingly find communities where women are divorcing violent men, as they have their own income and no longer depend on their former partners.

As the association's phrase wisely says, "I take pride in my boat". We can actually substitute this with "I take pride in my empowerment".

Cultural and ethnic recognition: the wisdom of the peoples of the forest and of the river

Even before the debate on doulas emerged, all women from traditional peoples knew that when a woman gets pregnant, a midwife will always be there to help her. This midwife is a woman who moves to the pregnant women's house to take care of her before, during and after the birth - and perhaps, for generations, to help the newborn child with pregnancies in the future. However, if one does not want to get pregnant, there is nothing better than going to the local herbalist for help. Local herbalists are women who are half-witch, half-doctor and who know which medicinal herbs and plants to use to cure everything. In remote regions, these two examples are pillars of the communities.

In the communities of my ethnic group, we usually call the Romani woman who performs this kind of activity "Rom daí" (mother of the people). And these women truly are mothers of our peoples, of our communities. With the advent of urban sciences, these women were exorcised, just as witches had been in the past. We fought hard to ensure that these women would not remain in limbo or on the margin. Through our efforts, we were able to have both midwives and herbalists recognised as professionals. Now, when they get old, their labour rights are guaranteed.

In the end, feminism and tradition go hand-in-hand in what we are building. I also believe that in light of the exclusion we face, we must celebrate them as major achievements. Without these advances, all of our efforts to be feminist while not forgetting our roots would be in vain.

They show our communities that we are proud of who we are and that our feminism and our activism also serve to confirm this when we affirm, "I am a feminist from traditional peoples and proud of it".

Read Part Two of this article.

Rebecca Souza will be speaking at the forthcoming International AWID Forum Feminist Futures: Building Collective Power for Rights and Justice, 8-11 September, Bahia, Brazil.

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