The Failed Marriage between Women and the Landless People's Movement (MST) in Brazil
Caldeira, Rute, Journal of International Women's Studies
The present article examines the processes of inequality reproduced inside the MST-run rural encampments; specifically the ones affecting women the most, and in particular women heads of households. This examination leads to the related consideration of the relationship between the MST, its liderancas, and women settlers. Although women are the ones most affected by these processes of inequality, their disadvantaged position is ignored by the movement, in theory an organisation on the Left. This relationship between the MST and women or 'women's issues' mirrors the old question of the 'failed marriage' between women, feminism and the Left in Latin America. Finally, it is argued that two main obstacles prevent women who remain inside the MST-run encampments and settlements from organising autonomously: the lack of community and/or the institutional weight of the social movement. Hence, either the MST drops its reluctance to deal with 'women's issues' and acts upon them, or women will have to effectively join outside women's organisations that provide them the support and information needed to fight for their emancipation, against inequality, as well as against the social movement's phobia of approaching all things deemed class divisive.
Keywords: Brazil, women's movements, rural social movements, MST
I got off the bus and looked around for a man wearing a red cap with the MST logo. Not a difficult task since the bus stop was in the middle of nowhere; any other human being on sight would have been hard to miss. Antonio approached me even before I realised that there were not just one but three men wearing the MST cap. Antonio and Luis were both liderancas, Januario, I was told, was the encampment's best rower. Why we needed a rower it puzzled me, but only until we had to jump on a tiny canoe to cross the river.
The Itatiaia encampment was just on the other side. The land which made up the occupied fazenda, or encampment, was set on a small mountain. From afar the makeshift shacks made from wood and rusted zinc blended with the intense green of the landscape. Already ashore, I was lead into the communitarian kitchen/canteen, which was still being built. It was lunch time. Men were having lunch. Women were nowhere to be seen. Over lunch and coffee, I was bombarded with questions: about Portugal, Europe, the world. When men went back to work, women finally came out of the communitarian kitchen. I realised then that it was there where they were 'hiding', in the kitchen. Before I could even engage in a conversation with them, Antonio came back for me to tour me around the encampment: the plots, the school, the planned irrigation system. After this informative guided tour I decided to just wander around the encampment, to see, feel and, talk to the people, the settlers. The designated communal area was deserted. Settlers were either ploughing the land or at home. Correction: male settlers were ploughing the land; female settlers were in or around their shacks.
Few days later I hit the road again to Campos de Goytacazes, where I spent some time in the occupied fazendas of Dores, Saquarema, and Mergulhao. Nelson picked me up at the bus station. We had the same arrangement: I would identify him from the MST cap. No canoe this time. Only an old red car equipped with powerful sound boxes blaring Lula's campaign songs, and literally wrapped in Lula's campaign posters. The fazendas were actually a complex rather than separate and individual landholdings. The sum of the three amounted to the land refereed to as the Oziel Alves encampment. The vastness of land was impressive. The land was so plain that in the horizon it met the sky in a perfectly horizontal straight line. It was sparse of trees and left brown/grey-coloured by the successive fires: cane fields are burnt in pre-harvest to remove the unnecessary green leaves, dead leaves, top growth, and to kill any vermin. …