Senator Marta Suplicy: A provocateur of Brazilian society prepares for another challenge
Ever since she was elected to congress in 1995, Senator Marta Suplicy has helped Brazil achieve a number of important progressive accomplishments, including legalizing same-sex marriage and establishing a quota for women in Brazil’s political parties. Suplicy, who is now 73, served in politics for years; after her time in Congress, she became the mayor of São Paulo in 2001, and then served as minister of tourism (2007-2008) and later minister of culture (2012-2014) in two different presidential terms. But even before her political career, Suplicy brought discussions of important issues straight to Brazilian homes through a television show called TV Mulher, during which Suplicy gave sex advice to female viewers in a political era of dictatorship.
Suplicy recently told the FBomb about the changes she has seen in Brazilian society over the course of her career, her plans to empower Brazilian women and girls, and more.
The FBomb: In the early 1980s, you rose to prominence by discussing sex on a Brazilian television show for women called TV Mulher. You did so in a very educational way, but this conversation was still very controversial given that the country was under a dictatorship at the time. What were the greatest challenges you faced during that experience?
Marta Suplicy: The very first two years (1980-1982) were very difficult, mainly because of the re-democratization process that Brazil was undergoing at the time. Consequently, we had to face censorship; [our] content [was] controlled by a political bias; and a conservative reaction to [the show], which I consider the greatest challenge. The “Senhoras de Santana,” a group of women who lived in upper-middle-class houses in the city of São Paulo, protested the debates about sexuality [we had on TV Mulher], mainly because [they were] carried out on television. This group of women labeled the program not only as immoral, but also as a terrible example for the youth. It was a hassle; they really wanted censorship to [be enacted] more forcefully. They even sought out the ministry of justice, Mr. Ibrahim Abi-Ackel, [to deliver] a manifesto against pornography that had about one hundred thousand signatures. As a result, the TV show [was] taken off the air for a few days. The mass media, however, reacted and [helped] the TV show come back on air. We still struggle with conservatism nowadays, especially taking into account [backwards agenda in relation to women and LGBTQI rights] in the Congress.
The FBomb: After serving as a member of the Workers’ Party — which presents itself as a defender of working-class rights and interests — in the 1980s, you decided to run for Congress in 1994. Why did you decided to do so?
Marta Suplicy: I joined the Workers’ Party (PT) in order to advocate for social justice, to address women and LGBT individuals, who were a part of the Brazilian population kept from having human rights. My experience at TV Mulher, and at the office where I used to work as a psychologist [before contributing to the program], showed me that it was crucial to give a voice to and represent the fight for the rights [of marginalized people]. It was then [after joining PT] that I was invited to run for the Lower Chamber [a legislative body in the National Congress of Brazil]. I was the fourth [most voted for] federal deputy in the party. I believe that the result of this election was due to the years spent working for TV Mulher.
My experience in the Lower Chamber was strong and intense, and I am very proud of how far [my work] has come. During the mandate [political term], I submitted several federal draft laws. Among the most relevant were the laws about enforcing a quota of women in Brazil’s political parties and legalizing the civil union between people of the same sex.
What I did at the very beginning of my parliamentary life still produces effects today. The women’s quota is at the base of recent decisions [to try to cut the budget of female candidates] at the Federal Supreme Court (STF); parties started to complain about having to give 30 percent of their election fund resources and some TV air time to women candidates. As for homosexual couples, after years of discussion the Brazilian Supreme Court recognized their rights in 2011. They used the draft law [on marriage equality] I submitted to the Lower Chamber as guidelines for that decision, and for that reason, I regard the Supreme Court recognition of same-sex marriage as a victory of the draft law I submitted. Even [though my draft law was not] voted on in the Lower Chamber plenary — I believe it has been shelved somewhere — it made so much noise that it ended up being adopted judicially.
The FBomb: You are one of the first Brazilian politicians who has publicly defended the LGBTQI cause. Why did you feel it was important to do so?
Marta Suplicy: I shed light on the LGBTQI fight [at a time] when [LGBTQI individuals] could not even go out into the streets. Most would “keep themselves in the closet” as a way of protection. It was a sort of social “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
As a white, married mother of three who belonged to a high-income level class, I could speak about it for them. I was an active voice that nobody could silence. I did what I still do today: fight for human rights and fundamental freedoms.
The very first gay parade in São Paulo was small, but as the mayor of São Paulo, I played an important role in helping it grow. After some years, it became one of the biggest in the world.
Today, LGBTQI people are more commonly present in our lives and more visible: They stroll in shopping malls holding hands, Brazilian soap operas have brought them into their plots. But as they expose themselves more to a society that often still sees them as very different, they get more vulnerable. We still see homophobic attacks, which are unacceptable and provoke indignation. Brazil still has the highest rate of transgender killings, according to the NGO Transgender Europe, and there has also been a rise in hate speech against LGBTQI groups, as at least 445 LGBTQI Brazilians died of homophobic attacks in 2017, a 30 percent increase since 2016, according to research by Grupo Gay Bahia.
We need to work more to promote a culture of peace and to teach people to respect each other. This begins at school, where the gender debate is indispensable.
The FBomb: While you have been a political champion of women, Brazil still has a high rate of violence against women, including many cases of femicides, domestic violence, and rape. Laws addressing these phenomena — including the Maria da Penha Law, which addresses domestic violence, and the Joanna Maranhão law, which advocates for those who’ve suffered child abuse — have recently been passed, but what more do you think can be done to address this problem?
Marta Suplicy: I believe that something very important is already happening. The whole country has heard that if a man hits a woman today, he will be arrested for sure because of the Maria da Penha Law. Not long ago, a group of football fans protested a football player who was accused of beating his girlfriend. These fans asked his future football team not to hire him and it worked.
There is also prompt support for women who are victims of gratuitous and horrendous violence. I remember back at the Globo TV Network, a weather presenter, Maju, was humiliated for being a woman and for being black. That is outrageous, but she received lots of support on social media and those who humiliated her on social media [were denounced by the Prosecutor’s Office for a number of crimes]. Little by little, women are being empowered either by getting support from all who see violence against women as absurd or by other means.
Of course, we still have a lot of work to do for sure: from organizing more efficient social and public protection networks to making justice more swiftly deliberated. What could really make the difference, however, is teaching about gender and to respect people as they are at schools.
The FBomb: In 2015, you left the Workers’ Party to join the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (MDB), which is a more centrist party. Why did you make this shift, and what are your broader thoughts on the state of politics in Brazil right now?
Marta Suplicy: I left the Workers’ Party because I felt that the party had completely abandoned its fundamental values. The party lost itself in the process of maintaining power no matter the cost. I joined the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party because it is a party that embraces all sorts of thoughts. I was quite welcome.
Since then, accusations have been made against [many political] parties. I believe that the political system has collapsed in Brazil. [Former President] Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment was a result of disastrous government leadership and consequently, 13 million Brazilians are unemployed; they are struggling now because of the mistakes [Rousseff] made.
I think PT has to say “mea culpa” for the mistakes it made, but somehow we need to overcome everything and move forward. We need a true and profound political reform; there is no point in letting what we have today perpetuate. I am considering submitting a draft law as my contribution [toward solving this problem], but I am also breaking away from this old political party structure and am returning to civil society.
The FBomb: You are not running for the Senate this year and have said that after leaving politics you’ll start a project to empower women and girls. Can you tell us more about what this project will do and your hopes for your future?
Marta Suplicy Certainly. One of the reasons why I am not running for the Senate, or for any position at the Parliament, this year is because Congress seems completely paralyzed. I believe I have already given a good contribution and close this chapter of my life very happy with the results I have achieved. I am going to complete the term, which finishes in January 2019, then want to continue working for the women’s cause in civil society. I want to have more time to dedicate to writing and to keeping up with the activism in civil society. I am not ruling out the possibility of creating a movement. I live each day fully.
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