In Brazil, one woman challenges a system ‘made by men for men’
Sao Paulo—When in August Brazilian writer and feminist activist Clara Averbuck refused the advances of an Uber driver, he physically threw her out of his car, leaving her bruised and with a black eye. He then sexually assaulted her as she lay on the ground.
By speaking out, Averbuck exposed a reality that women in Brazil endure each day. While the country is known for its Carnival parties and world-renowned soccer team, it’s also a place where, according to 2016 data by the Health Ministry, a gang rape occurs every two and a half hours. The rampant gender-based violence in the country came to the forefront earlier this year when, in August, a judge ordered the release of a man who, with 17 charges of sexual assault, allegedly ejaculated on a woman during a bus ride in São Paulo.
I reached out to Uber’s headquarters in Brazil, where a spokeswoman said the company repudiates violence against any individual, independent of gender, sexual orientation, skin color, or religion. Averbuck’s driver was fired, she said, and the company has made itself available to police for an investigation. “We do not tolerate it if our female passengers are or feel threatened,” Uber added in an emailed statement. Before the incident with Averbuck, the company had already launched a partnership with Claudia magazine in Brazil (a campaign that is supported by UN Women) to prevent harassment of women. The company has also distributed booklets and videos for the drivers and has offered workshops on sexism.
I spoke to Averbuck about what happened to her, as well as sexualized violence against women in Brazil in general—and what needs to change.
Gabriel Leão: What were the repercussions of your posts about your assault?
Clara Averbuck: Once I decided to publicly expose my ordeal, my personal life became a living hell. It was reported in newspapers and on websites, and I was offered interviews on as many TV shows you can imagine. I denied all of them because I knew it would only exacerbate the sensationalism during the angry times in which we live in Brazil.
Since I’m columnist at Donna magazine and a collaborator at Claudia magazine, it is easier for me to control the narrative, which of course made me more secure about telling the truth. With the creation of the hashtag #MeuMotoristaAbusador (#MyDriverTheAbuser), the issue began to be talked about online, and soon other cases surfaced. This problem is big and happens everywhere.
GL: Should Uber be more careful about its drivers?
CA: I have heard complaints ever since the business came to Brazil. Uber promotes itself here as a “gig,” something anyone can do. But I believe they should be more careful. There is no full-time employee status or limits on hours, which can lead to situations ranging from harassment or the exhaustion and despair of a driver trying to make ends meet. I’ve heard many stories like this, as well as ones of abuse and rape.
My story got a lot of exposure since I am a writer and an active feminist—besides being a white woman. We need to recognize such intersectionalities when speaking about sexualized violence in Brazil.
GL: What hardships do Brazilian women face when they report such crimes to authorities?
CA: All kinds! The macho culture in Brazil already makes us feel ashamed of talking about an assault, whether it’s sexual assault or domestic violence. We go to the women’s police station, which focuses on crimes against women, and we are treated by people who are unprepared, in a place without resources and full of bureaucracy. Often we have to tell the story in front other people, which can be embarrassing.
This structure needs to be reconsidered. The idea itself is wonderful—to have a police station only for crimes against women—but it isn’t effective if it is as bad or even worse than other stations. The issue resides in the system, which needs to be rethought.
GL: Do you believe that by not going to the police you’ve allowed this person to remain unpunished and therefore in a position to keep putting other women at risk?
CA: In order to have the driver arrested, I needed to have evidence. To have evidence, I would need to go through a physical exam that would have resulted in nothing as I only had a face injury from when he threw me out of his car and I fell on the ground. I would be questioned about whether I was correct about what happened since I had been drinking, and about whether I hadn’t done something—all the blame-game bullshit toward the victim.
Believe me, I’ve seen the treatment at a police station, and I didn’t and don’t want any of that. I still have six months to decide if I press charges or not, but I’ll say it again: I don’t believe in the system. The sentence for rape is less than for those who sell anabolic steroids [in some cases]. And the misogynistic history in judges’ decisions totally discourages women to report these cases.
I’m not discouraging other women from reporting their assault, but I believe the system will improve itself only with people’s pressure. In my case, I believe that without evidence and testimony it would be my word against his. Above all else, I would need to see him again, and he knows where I live. Such circumstances won’t let me feel safe.
Ever since [the assault], I use an app in which I can choose women drivers because now when I go out by myself I am more paranoid than I already was. Every woman looks over her shoulder when she’s out on the streets.
GL: When you wrote about the assault, some people questioned its validity. Do you believe this is another form of violence?
CA: Even in 2017, my attitude shocks this conservative society, so there is no surprise they would doubt my experience. I was expecting that. I already disturb them just by writing, so this incident gave them plenty. And I did not behave as victims are expected to.
What surprised me is how many women don’t know how the system works and thought it was all right to doubt why I did not want to press charges. I didn’t even publish the name of the perpetrator, and people were saying that I was making false claims about him. A sideshow of ignorance. I hope none of these women are ever attacked and have to walk in these shoes to know how broken the system truly is.
There are organized [right-wing, conservative] groups that have been after me for years, but this time it wasn’t only them. Feminism in Brazil is still incomprehensible and rejected by a large number of people who don’t understand the idea of equality. In the last few years, our case has strengthened, but we are still few and there is a lot of misinformation.
GL: I’m sure you know about a judge’s recent decision to release a man who ejaculated on a woman during a bus ride. What do you think about that?
CA: That we live in a system made by men for men, and it needs urgently to be checked. I’m not a jurist who can interpret the law, but by seeing how many charges the man had, he should at least have been in an institution. The problem is that many are quick to point fingers and call any manifestation of misogyny “monstrous” or “sick,” but they don’t take into account the culture that promotes such misogyny. Those who don’t debate such issues and changes are accountable for these scenarios.
GL: Brazilian society is considered very conservative. How do patterns of behavior and such values relate to rape culture?
CA: Brazil lives in this false racial democracy that leads to the hypersexualization of black women, to the genocide of the black populace in the favelas, and to violence against women. Those seeing it from the outside believe that everyday Brazil is a tropical paradise with Carnival, women, freedom, soccer, and samba, but it isn’t any of that. We face more problems than what meets the eye.
GL: How does the Brazilian press deal with rape?
CA: Basically the same way. What should be discussed is not the victim’s clothes, her behavior, whether she drinks, or where she was. Brazil is the fifth-most violent country in the world to be a woman, and for some it is even worse as it is first in transgender murders. There is also violence against black women. What should be debated is the sexist structure and not individual stories.
At the core of the issue is a toxic and sickening masculinity that sees women as objects, and it is based in violence and domination. This is killing us, and as long as it is kept out of the public conversation we will keep being victimized.
More articles by Category: Feminism, Gender-based violence, International, Misogyny, Online harassment, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Brazil, Uber, Sexualized violence, Sexual harassment