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A new book honors female resistance during Brazil's 21-year dictatorship

Cover of the “Heroines of this story — Women searching justice for relatives killed by the dictatorship” book, that reunites 15 profiles of women who fought for memory, justice and truth in Brazil | Image: Used with permission.

Marli witnessed a military policeman killing her brother. Clarice‘s husband was tortured and his death was disguised as a suicide. Damaris was arrested, tortured and forced to watch her partner being murdered in front of their family. Crimeia was a political militant who joined the armed guerrilla forces. These are some of the 15 women who are profiled in a recently published book, “Heroinas desta historia” (Heroines of this History), about their experiences during the 1964 to1985 military dictatorship in Brazil.

The dictatorship, which began with a coup d'état in 1964, led to five military presidents over the course of 21 years, and at least 434 dead and disappeared. The publication is the first of a larger project by the Institute Vladimir Herzog, named after a journalist whose death at the hands of Brazilian army agents in 1975 was disguised as a suicide. His wife, Clarice Herzog, fought for decades against the official version of her husband's death and is one of the ‘heroines’ in this recent publication.

Global Voices interviewed Tatiana Merlino, one of the project's coordinators, via email about women's role in the resistance and why it's important their stories are being told during a Bolsonaro presidency.

Global Voices (GV): What role did women play in the opposition to the 1964 Brazilian dictatorship?

Tatiana Merlino: Elas participaram dos espaços de resistência na cidade e no campo, nas universidades e movimento estudantil, nos clubes de mulheres nas periferias, entraram em organizações de esquerda, na luta armada, enfrentando até os próprios companheiros de organização que não acreditavam em sua capacidade de resistir. Participaram da guerrilha do Araguaia; participaram de greves operárias, como a de 1968, em Contagem (Minas Gerais, a primeira grande greve sob o regime militar) e Osasco (SP). A de Contagem foi a primeira e dirigida por uma mulher, Conceição Imaculada de Oliveira, do Sindicato dos Metalúrgicos. Nos anos de 1970, ainda sob a vigência do AI-5, as mulheres da periferia tiveram seu protagonismo ao saírem às ruas, nos movimentos contra a alta do custo de vida. As mulheres que lutaram contra a ditadura foram presas e torturadas. Foram alvo sistemático de violações sexuais. Sofreram estupros e abortamentos forçado devido a chutes na barriga ou foram colocadas em “cadeiras do dragão”, levando choques elétricos na vagina, na barriga, nos seios, na cabeça. Houve aquelas que tiveram seus bebês nos DOI-CODIs.

Tatiana Merlino: They took part in spaces of resistance in the cities and in the countryside, in universities and student movements, and in women's clubs in the peripheral areas. They joined leftist organizations, fought among guerrilla groups, and even faced their own comrades who did not believe in their capacity to resist. They participated in the Araguaia guerrilla [one of the main armed movements against the dictatorship], in blue-collar workers strikes such as the ones organized in Contagem (the first major strike under the dictatorship in the state of Minas Gerais) and Osasco (São Paulo). The one in Contagem was the first and it was led by a woman, Conceição Imaculada de Oliveira, from the Metalworkers Union. In the 1970s, still under Institutional Act Number 5 [AI-5, the issuing that suspended rights and gave the regime power to punish those that opposed them], women from peripheral areas had leading roles while marching in the streets against the high cost of living. The women who fought against the dictatorship were arrested and tortured. They were systematically objected to sexual violence. They were raped, some underwent forced miscarriages due to kicks to their stomachs or for being put in the “dragon's chair“, suffering electric shock in their vaginas, bellies, breasts, heads. Some of them even gave birth inside the DOI-Codis [department subordinated to the Army].

Carolina Rewaptu, indigenous woman and leader of the Xavante Marãiwatsédé people who were expelled from their lands during the dictatorship. She is one of the women profiled in the book | Image: Mariana Leal/Instituto Vladimir Herzog/Used with permission.

GV: How did you choose the women profiled in the book?

TM: Partimos de uma pesquisa longa nos principais documentos e livros que tratam dos atingidos pela ditadura: o relatório final da Comissão Nacional da Verdade, o livro Direito à Memória e À Verdade (editado pela Secretaria dos Direitos Humanos) e o Dossiê Ditadura Mortos e Desaparecidos Políticos no Brasil, da Comissão de Familiares de Mortos e Desaparecidos. Lemos as histórias dos 436 mortos e desaparecidos (o Dossiê lista 436 e a CNV 434) e fizemos uma grande lista com todos os casos onde havia mulheres citadas. (Destaco aqui o protagonismo dos familiares de mortos e desaparecidos na luta pelo direito à memória, verdade e justiça e sobretudo das mulheres). Fizemos uma lista com mais de 70 nomes. Também ressalto aqui que certamente havia uma mulher na busca por memória e verdade nos demais casos, mas nossa pesquisa só conseguiu fazer o levantamento das que já estavam citadas nos dossiês.

A partir dos 70 nomes utilizamos alguns critérios para chegar aos 15 escolhidos. Também achamos importante ter uma diversidade de perfis de mulheres: mulheres que também combateram a ditadura, as que nunca tiveram militância e viraram ativistas após a morte de familiares, estudantes, intelectuais, operárias, camponesas, indígena e uma mulher que teve familiar assassinado pela violência policial.

Outro critério foi a diversidade regional, já que nos preocupamos em não ter só perfiladas do eixo Rio-São Paulo. Temos também histórias de demais Estados do país, que mostram a abrangência da violência cometida durante a ditadura civil-militar.

TM: We started by researching in archives and books about the victims of the dictatorship: the final report of the National Truth Commission (CNV), in the book ‘Right to Memory and Truth and the Dossier on Political Dead and Disappeared during the Dictatorship on Brazil’ compiled by the Commission of Families of Dead and Disappeared. We read the stories about the 436 dead and disappeared (the Dossier lists 436 and the CNV lists 434) and made a big list with all the cases that had women involved. (I want to highlight the leading part played by the families in the search for memory, truth and justice — especially female relatives). We made a list with over 70 names. There were certainly women in every one of those cases, but our search could only get to those mentioned in the files.

From those 70 names, we had some criteria to get to the 15 women chosen for this book. We also thought it was important to have diversity among those profiled: women that fought against the dictatorship; those who were not political militants, but became activists after the death of relatives; students, intellectuals, working women, indigenous women; and people who had their relatives killed by police violence.

Another criteria was regional diversity, since we were worried about only having women from the Rio de Janeiro-São Paulo axis. We also have stories from other states, which shows the breadth of the violence perpetuated during the civil-military dictatorship.

GV: The book brings together stories of the mothers, wives and sisters of people who were subjected to torture and forced disappearances, calling them “Heroines of this History”. What part did Brazilian history books give them throughout the years?

TM: O Brasil fez uma transição para a democracia e demorou muito a fazer a chamada Justiça de Transição. O trabalho da Comissão Nacional da Verdade foi super importante, mas demoramos muito, décadas, para que ela fosse criada. Por isso, o ônus de buscar provas sobre as circunstâncias em que os mortos e desaparecidos foram assassinados, quem foram os autores, testemunhas, documentos, ficou sob a responsabilidade dos familiares, em especial as mulheres, que tiveram grande protagonismo e que não havia sido bem documentado até então. Veja, se ainda lutam para conseguir o esclarecimento de todas as circunstâncias em que os atingidos foram mortos e se ainda não conseguiram justiça pelos crimes, fica ainda mais complicado haver espaço para falar desse protagonismo de luta. Por isso que a abordagem desse livro é inédita. Até hoje essas mulheres, com algumas exceções, eram desconhecidas, tratadas como “a mulher de..”, “a irmã do…”, etc. Era mais do que hora de dar-lhes o devido lugar na história, o de heroínas. É o que pretendemos com esse livro.

TM: Brazil has made a transition to democracy and it took the country a very long time to have so-called transitional justice. The work of the National Truth Commission was really important, but it took us decades to create it. So, the onus of searching for evidence about the circumstances around which dead and disappeared person was murdered, who were the killers, witnesses, documents, were all the responsibility of families, especially women, who had a leading role which was not very well documented until now. See, if people are still fighting to clarify the circumstances around the deaths, and if they still don't have justice for the crimes committed, it is even more complicated to make space to talk about their leadership in this fight. That is why this book's approach is new. To this day, these women, with some exceptions, were unknown and treated as someone's wife, sister, etc. It was about time to give them their due place in history — as heroines. That was our intention. 

Clarice Herzog‘s husband, journalist Vladimir Herzog, was tortured and his death disguised as suicide by the regime | Image: Carolina Vilaverde/Instituto Vladimir Herzog/Used with permission

GV: In the book, you write that it is imperative to shed light on these women's lives while the country is governed by President Jair Bolsonaro. Why?

TM: Porque temos um presidente que nega a ditadura, exalta tortura e torturadores, ataca mortos e desaparecidos. Além do elogio à tortura e torturadores, há um movimento forte de negacionismo, revisionismo. Além disso, esse governo destruiu as políticas de memória e verdade, quando demitiu a procuradora regional da República, Eugênia Augusta Gonzaga da presidência da Comissão de Mortos e outros membros e no lugar colocou defensores da ditadura. A Comissão de Anistia também foi ocupada por revisionistas e negacionistas. O que esse governo não consegue destruir, ele esvazia.

O tema da memória é verdade da ditadura é alvo do Bolsonaro. E isso não é novidade, afinal as homenagens dele à Ustra antecedem sua chegada à Presidência. Quando do processo de impeachment de Dilma, seu voto de homenagem à Ustra deveria ter sido motivo de prisão, responsabilização. E ele não poderia ter se candidatado à presidência, já que quem defende crimes de lesa humanidade não pode se candidatar à presidência.

Mas se candidatou, ganhou e segue nessa investida contra o tema da ditadura e todas nossas conquistas ao longo de décadas de luta. Por isso é fundamental, imperativo contar essas e outras histórias sobre a ditadura: lembrar que ela existiu, matou, torturou, sequestrou e que centenas de famílias e mulheres dedicaram décadas para conseguir verdade e justiça por esses mortos e desaparecidos.

TM: Because we have a president who denies the dictatorship, worships torture and torturers, attacks the dead and the disappeared. Besides the praise of torture and torturers, there is a strong movement of denial and historical revision. This government has also destroyed the politics of memory and truth when it decided to fire the Union's Regional Attorney, Eugênia Augusta Gonzaga, from the presidency of the Commission for the Dead and Disappeared alongside other members, replacing them with dictatorship defenders. The Amnesty Commission [responsible for evaluating compensations due to the violations committed by the regime] was also occupied by deniers and revisionists. What this government cannot destroy, it voids.

The theme of memory and truth is a target of Bolsonaro. This is not news, after all his homages to Ustra [Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra was one of the main torturers during the civil-military dictatorship] preceding his presidency. During Dilma Rousseff's impeachment voting process, Bolsonaro's dedication of his vote in Ustra's name should have been enough to send him to prison for accountability. And he shouldn't have been able to run for presidency since those who defend crimes against humanity can't run.

But he did it, he won, and he continues with his onslaught against the theme of dictatorship and the accomplishments that were conquered over the years. This is why it is fundamental to tell these and other stories about this period: to remember it happened, that they killed, tortured and kidnapped, and that hundreds of families and women have dedicated decades to getting truth and justice for the dead and disappeared.

GV: In other South American countries that also went through dictatorships, such as Argentina and Uruguay, women had a leading role in the fight for memory, truth, and justice. How has Brazil's process compared? 

TM: Aqui a liderança e o protagonismo também foi de mulheres, elas se juntaram, se apoiaram, criaram o Comitê Brasileiro de Anistia, a Comissão de Familiares de Mortos e Desaparecidos, entraram com ações na Corte Interamericana de Direitos Humanos, pesquisaram os arquivos do IML, pressionaram para a criação da Lei 9140. Elas fizeram e fazem muito, mas a luta delas é menos conhecida que a das Mães da Praça de Maio, por exemplo, por conta das diferenças como os países lidaram com a questão após o fim da ditadura. A Argentina revogou a lei de ponto final e de obediência devida, puniu os torturadores. Aqui, até hoje, não conseguimos responsabilizar penalmente nenhum agente envolvido nas mortes e desaparecimentos. Seguimos com a pendência em relação à Lei de Anistia, e embora o MPF tenha movido dezenas de ações contra agentes, a Justiça brasileira não aceita as ações com base na lei de anistia. E segue a impunidade, que reflete no Brasil que vivemos hoje.

TM: In Brazil, the leadership and main roles were also taken up by women who got together, supported each other, created the Brazilian Committee for Amnesty, the Commission of Families of Dead and Disappeared, entered actions at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, researched morgue files, and exerted pressure to create Bill 9140 [the law recognising those disappeared between 1961 and 1988 due to political reasons, as dead]. They have done and still do a lot, but their fight is not as well known as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo [in Argentina], for example, because the countries dealt very differently with the aftermath of the dictatorship period. Here, to this day, we still haven't managed to hold any of the agents involved in the deaths and disappearances criminally accountable. We still have this pendency with the Amnesty Law [which gave equal pardon for political prisoners and government agents involved in the repression]. Even though the Federal Prosecutor's Office has brought dozens of legal actions against agents involved with the regime, the Brazilian Justice system does not accept them with the Amnesty Law as basis. And impunity continues, which reflects the Brazil we live in today.

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