Women Power

Favelas have strong females in charge

Brazilian favelas may not look fit for queens. But for the crowds of men that will gather tonight from across the periphery of São Paulo, queens they shall bow down to.

Every week, people from every corner of greater São Paulo gather in a neighborhood bar deep in the city’s south zone. As local poets take the mic, listeners spill out far into the streets, enjoying traditional Northeastern comfort food and cheap bear on tap. The weekly event is organized by the literary collective “Cooperifa”, which strives to bring cultural activities to the urban periphery.

Tonight, of course, is a special night. For the last ten years, the poets and activists of Cooperifa have organized the Women’s Day “Ajoelhaço”, or “The Great Kneel”. All of the men gather before the women on their knees and recite their annual plea of forgiveness. It goes like this:

“The poets and men of this soirée

Step up to ask for forgiveness

To all of the women present

For centuries and centuries of oppression.

Today, we kneel before you

Humbly begging your forgiveness!”

For the self-described “ghetto poet” and founder of Cooperifa, Sérgio Vaz, the “Ajoelhaço” isn’t about solving gender inequality or violence. Rather, its about encouraging reflection about the female reality of oppression.

“Of course we realize that this act won’t change anything about what women suffer in the favelas,” says Vaz. “But it’s a small start, an opportunity to learn from our mistakes.”

This act of collective male humility is often the first time many men from the favelas have ever thought about their role as oppressors.

“We’ve had women come back to us year after year saying her husband has started to help out around the house, is showing her more respect,” says Rose Dória, a member of Cooperifa.

For these community leaders, Brazil’s favelas have a unique role in fighting societal misogyny.

“The problem of domestic violence is ingrained in the culture of the favelas,” says Thiago Vinícius. Still in braces, the brown teenager looks to be the youngest male member of the Popular Women’s Union. “The ‘Great Kneel’ offers us a moment to reflect on how we can effect change in our daily lives.”

“The periphery is its own nation,” says Dória. “It’s always been us on our own. We have to frequent local businesses, we have to help each other, we have to show each other what change can look like. The ‘Great Kneel’ is a moment to nurture our desire to be better, to be different.”

The queens of Brazil’s favelas are the women who stand before the “Great Kneel”. They are mothers, caregivers, hard-working providers, teachers, artists, and community leaders. And the men kneel on this day because they know, in their hearts, that every day should be Women’s Day.

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