Is this the world's most powerful feminist?

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As Brazil’s first female leader, Dilma Rousseff plans to give her countrywomen a voice. Stylist profiles a political innovator…

Languishing in a dirty prison cell in 1970, enduring beatings and electric shocks, Dilma Rousseff surely can’t have imagined that one day she would be Brazil’s most powerful woman – the country’s first ever female president – and on the road to becoming the most prominent feminist in the world. After all, she certainly didn’t take a traditional route to get here. But that’s exactly what makes Rousseff so fascinating – her background may be littered with scandals and struggles – all of which might usually make her current position unthinkable – but she’s drawn on these experiences to become a president determined to fight for what she believes in, not prepared to kowtow to sexist attitudes and one who is transforming her country into an economic powerhouse. On a political world stage, where leaders spend most of their time squabbling and self-promoting, Rousseff’s attitude is more than just refreshing – it’s a revelation.

Born to an upper middle-class family in south of Brazil, Rousseff should have had her life mapped out for her. Instead, she left behind her privileged upbringing as a teenager in the Sixties to join an armed splinter group opposed to the country’s military dictatorship. With the steely determination that has characterised her presidency, Rousseff’s fight for her political beliefs saw her arrested at the age of 22 and sentenced to three years in prison, where she was routinely tortured. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, President of Argentina, described seeing a photograph of Rousseff on trial: “She was standing in front of a 1969 military tribunal made up of judges hiding their faces with their hands. She exuded defiance.” Today that defiance, and her unwavering quest for equality and justice remains. But, on 1 January 2011, when she was named President, she became part of the machine, instead of working against it.

Making Strides

If you don’t think this has anything to do with you, consider that this year Brazil has overtaken Britain as the world’s sixth largest economy. While David Cameron is fighting for the female vote, Rousseff has won over her entire nation, leading Obama to call her, “the most popular politician on earth.” In April she had an approval rating of an astonishing 68% in Brazil (in the same month, David Cameron polled just 30% in the UK).

This is all the more remarkable in the face of serious cultural obstacles – Brazil has never even had a female presidential candidate before.

It’s a testament to Rousseff that the endemic inequalities in Brazil which could have worked against her have instead become her campaigning platform. While she may not openly declare herself to be a feminist, in her first speech as President, she firmly positioned herself as a champion for Brazilian women, traditionally underrepresented in politics and subject to high levels of violence both inside and outside the home. “I am here to open doors, so that in the future many other women can also be President,” Rousseff declared, “so that today all Brazilian women may feel proud and happy to be themselves.”

A trained economist, Rousseff has made plain that her wider priority is to eradicate poverty. Since women make up the majority of Brazil’s poorest, they are most likely to benefit from this. The country’s women earn, on average, 28% less than men and this is something she won’t tolerate – Rousseff signed a bill in March which means companies can be fined for paying women less than men to do the same work.

Tackling misogynistic attitudes in Brazilian society has also been a top priority. Two major studies suggest that around half of Brazilian women are subjected to physical or sexual violence some time in their lives. Speaking at the UN last year, where she became the first woman to open a general debate, Rousseff railed against “the deplorable but persistent habit of blaming women for the violence to which they are subjected”.

We were jailed and tortured. It taught us to deal with situations no matter how difficult

Even one of Brazil’s most famous exports – Gisele Bündchen – has been rapped on the knuckles by Rousseff’s circle for upholding the sexist status quo. The supermodel launched her new underwear line with an ad campaign about appeasing an angry husband by seducing him in underwear. The Secretariat of Women’s Rights pulled the ad, saying it “ignores the major advances we have achieved in deconstructing sexist practices and thinking”.

Rousseff has also made steps towards women being allowed greater control over their bodies, presiding over the first change to Brazil’s abortion legislation in 72 years. Although it’s still illegal in Brazil (except in rape cases, or when the mother’s life is at risk), it’s estimated that there are over one million terminations carried out each year.

Last month’s landmark Supreme Court ruling made abortion legal when the foetus has a condition preventing the brain developing.

There’s no doubt that having Rousseff at the helm will have a huge knock-on effect for women in Brazil. Joan Caivano, a director at US policy research centre Inter-American Dialogue says that “countries used to seeing women in power are more likely to vote for women.” Rousseff herself is pinning her hopes on changing the culture from the ground up – so that girls are taught that they have every right to equality. “I would like parents who have daughters to look straight in their eyes and tell them, ‘Yes, a woman can,’” she said.

Facing Adversity

Rousseff’s background is almost certainly a catalyst for what she has become. Her father, a Bulgarian communist, encouraged his daughter’s education and questioning attitude from an early age. So in 1964, when Brazil’s military overthrew its left-wing president and installed a US-backed dictatorship of violent repression and censorship, Rousseff sprang to action by joining a militant wing of the Brazilian Socialist Party. In 1970, she was searched, found to be carrying a weapon and arrested for ‘subversion’. She was imprisoned for 22 days. But true to form, she drew a positive from the experience by hiring her former cellmate Eleonora Menicucci to head up the Secretariat of Women’s Rights. Menicucci, who has admitted to having two abortions, and is openly bisexual, is deeply mistrusted by Brazil’s Catholic and evangelical bloc. But Rousseff sees her as a powerful ally. “We were jailed, tortured, we shared the same cell,” she said. “We made a commitment that taught us how to deal with adversities and never run away from situations, no matter how difficult.”

What Rousseff has already achieved during her presidency is phenomenal. Of course, she’s not been without controversy. She currently has a pivotal role in approving the new Brazilian Forest Code which could lead to the loss of 220,000 square metres of Amazonian rainforest. But it’s the improvements she’s made for women which is the most impressive. At her UN speech last year, Rousseff asserted her position as a woman. “I speak to you with a feminine voice. It’s the voice of democracy, of equality,” she said. “I am certain that this will be the women’s century”. With her at the helm of one of the world’s most economically powerful countries, she might be right.

Words: Rose Hoare and Laura Mannering

Picture credit: Rex Features

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