Politician’s fighback after sex assault shows change under way in Brazil

São Paulo Letter: Incident was filmed by cameras covering the legislative assembly

Women  in São Paulo on International Women’s Day. Numerous studies show sexual misconduct against women is rampant in Brazilian workplaces. File photograph: Fabio Vieira/Photo via Getty Images

Women in São Paulo on International Women’s Day. Numerous studies show sexual misconduct against women is rampant in Brazilian workplaces. File photograph: Fabio Vieira/Photo via Getty Images

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Nobody in São Paulo watches the TV channel dedicated to covering the Brazilian state’s legislative assembly. But the cameras roll on regardless, which is why on December 16th last year they caught a sexual assault on tape.

It happened as state deputy Isa Penna was standing at the podium talking to the chamber’s president. Suddenly she felt someone invade her space from behind while putting a hand on her right breast. It was her colleague, fellow deputy Fernando Cury.

Multiple studies show such misconduct against women to be rampant in Brazilian workplaces. But what horrified feminists was that an elected representative could suffer such a blatant act of sexual harassment from a fellow deputy on the floor of a state assembly. If such a thing could happen there was any woman safe anywhere?

But Cury messed with the wrong person. A self-described “100 per cent feminista” from the left-wing Socialism and Liberty party, Penna once addressed the assembly wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Fight Like a Girl”, and she duly fought back.

She did so initially by spinning around and pushing the offending arm off her and confronting her aggressor over what had happened. Then as the footage of the incident went viral she launched a campaign to have his mandate revoked.

Cury attempted to talk his way out of trouble. He apologised, though by portraying the incident as a misunderstanding, the result of “my way of hugging, kissing and showing affection”. He said the episode had served as a learning experience, apparently having got to 41 years of age without realising you should not put your hand on a colleague’s breast in the workplace.

Discredit accuser

This personal contrition contrasted with the ugly political operation mounted to save him. As his lawyer spoke of a public “lynching” there was a campaign to discredit his accuser. Much was made of the fact that Penna had previously posted videos of herself dancing funk – a sensual dance popular among Brazilian youths. Quickly it seemed her conduct was under the microscope, not his. Plus ça change, said activists.

Penna is not finished with Cury yet. She also denounced him to the police, leading to the opening of a criminal investigation

In the assembly’s ethics committee this well orchestrated establishment rearguard managed to block the initial punishment recommended for Cury. The committee’s rapporteur wanted him suspended for 180 days, which would force the closing of his well-staffed and financed office. But the deputy’s allies watered this down to a four-month suspension, which would allow his office to continue operating. Penna dismissed this as “paid holidays”.

Women across Brazil were furious. “There was a sense of rage,” says Isabela Del Monde, the co-ordinator of Me Too Brasil. “What more do you need for a man who commits sexual violence against a woman at work to be held responsible? This was filmed!”

Mobilised, this white-hot public anger was such that earlier this month the full assembly voted unanimously to overturn the ethics committee’s decision and instead suspended Cury for six months while closing his office. It was not the expulsion Penna wanted and many activists have no doubt he deserved, but it was celebrated as a victory over the manoeuvrings to let him off with little more than a slap on the wrist.

Denounced to police

And Penna is not finished with Cury yet. She also denounced him to the police, leading to the opening of a criminal investigation. State prosecutors have charged him with “acting with the clear intention of satisfying his lust”, for which he could receive jail time.

If Cury’s misconduct and the political mobilisation to help him avoid its consequences demonstrate just how ingrained misogyny is in Brazilian politics, then the push-back against it led by Penna herself illustrates a change under way.

The election of proud misogynist Jair Bolsonaro as president in 2018 just months after the still unresolved assassination of Marielle Franco, the black, lesbian city councillor from Rio who was a party colleague of Penna’s, was a dark period for Brazil’s women’s movement.

But it also gave greater impetus to a political mobilisation that is yielding electoral results. Women remain grossly under-represented in the country’s elected bodies but a growing number of avowedly feminist activists have won seats on them in the last two election cycles.

“If they hoped to silence women like Marielle their plan has completely backfired,” says Del Monde. In Brazil, rather than intimidate, the current conservative reaction has only spurred on feminist action.

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