‘Here comes the feminist’: Tackling gender inequality through sport in Brazil

‘Here comes the feminist’: Tackling gender inequality through sport in Brazil

Eva Soares Moura

Sport, and particularly football, is a context in which specific ‘masculine’ attributes are valued and reproduced, but in which dominant norms of masculinity and femininity can also be challenged and resisted. In a low-income neighbourhood in the metropolitan region of São Paulo, Brazil, a sport-for-development organization uses sport to achieving social outcomes, including gender equality and the maintenance of rights for women and the LGBT+ community.(1)

Delivery of this project was, however, a complex, problematic, and contested process; the local educators found it especially difficult to engage more women and girls in sport as well as overcome the stigmas which surround and affect young Brazilian women’s football experiences. In addition, discussing female empowerment and gender equality became even more challenging after the election of the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro.

While the president of Brazil became well known nationally and internationally for his defence of ‘traditional family values’, which appealed to his supporters and helped him to gain popularity, civil society actors such as the community-based initiative I studied had to adjust their work so as to navigate the burgeoning moral panic and reduce the damages generated by the president’s proclamation of ‘war against gender ideology’.

‘Many parents are calling and asking whether we teach children “gender ideology” here. We cannot say “gender” anymore when talking about equality’, stated Ana, a female community leader,(2) with experience delivering workshops on the topics. The broader critique, which has shaped debates around the mobilization of sport in international development, emphasizes the potential to perpetuate harmful, unequal colonial relationships through SDP initiatives and to promote universal and simplistic solutions to social problems regardless of the local context.

Against this backdrop, this is an in-depth account which reveals what happens “on the ground” and prioritizes the expertise and experiences of youth that have been overlooked in mainstream debates and literature. What are the daily experiences of young people involved in sport-for-development programmes in Brazil? What burdens and benefits do gender projects put on them, and how does the hetero-patriarchal society affect these processes? In my analysis, I focus on culturally specific gender-related forms of sport-for-development outcomes, their temporality, and their meanings for local communities.

I argued with the pastor’: Entanglements with religion
Sport-for-development programmes do not exist in a societal vacuum and suffer from larger political problems and social processes. In particular, religious traditions, which make individuals aware of a moral order of issues and standards of appropriate behaviour, raise challenges for the ‘secular-based’ development initiative pursuing diverse outcomes, including the encouragement of young LGBT individuals to acknowledge and exercise their rights. In Brazil, the Pentecostal churches became popular among the poor segments of the population during the 1960s.

Religion was a significant element in the everyday lives of young people and families I interviewed. They were affiliated with Pentecostal and other churches close to their homes, and some project participants frequently negotiated their participation in sport with their religious commitments. I often saw people crossing themselves before getting off the bus at night, and I was asked several times by research participants to join them in the religious ceremonies of their faith. Many of the young women’s and men’s families that took part in the project were also religious, which in some cases resulted in rejection of the initiative and the removal of some children from the programme afterwards (Válková, 2020).

Agatha, a female participant, described how her mother disagreed with the initiative’s effort to discuss gender and sexual health issues as she understood it to be disruptive of normative standards, or more precisely, as an attempt to ‘teach children to reject their bodies’. The hegemonic culture, which establishes and normalizes heteronormativity, thus resulted in consequences for the initiative’s efforts to pursue social change when entangled with the local community context and religion.

My research, however, has also shown that for young people with queer sexuality, the programmes offered a relatively safe space when contrasted with the private as well as other spheres (Válková, 2020). Feelings of acceptance and support shaped Lolo’s experience with the initiative. He had to conceal his identity at home as he was afraid of suffering homophobia:

‘At home, I’m Laura. But here, in the organization, I’m Lolo. I think my family realized that something is going on with me, but I haven’t told them anything yet.’

The sport-for-development programme might be understood as a social and cultural space which helps LGBT individuals to cope with the realities of heterosexism by creating space where their queer subjectivities are accepted, produced, and celebrated.

Being part of an initiative which addresses issues of gender and sexuality also translated into resistance to conservative religious traditions. Jacqueline was a female educator, born in the São Paulo neighbourhood where the organization operates. Women like her are living more complex lives than dominant images of women’s empowerment, self-confidence, and autonomy suggest, structured as they are along relational divisions of class, race, gender, sexuality, and religion. The project has changed this young woman’s views and understanding of gender and sexual relations:

I used to attend church, but when I entered here [the organization], I had to stop attending. I started to argue with the pastor. I didn’t agree with things he was saying about the role of women, relations between women and men, and homosexuals. I stood up and responded to him, saying he was wrong. I started to learn different things here and realized, I had better leave the church.  (Jacqueline, June, Brazil 2018)

At the time, Jacqueline was one of the leading figures in broader community actions fighting for women’s empowerment, gender equality, and social justice. Despite many years of religious affiliation, she did not feel comfortable with the rules imposed by the evangelical denomination she had been attending since childhood. Throughout eleven months of in-depth ethnographic research, I explored women’s lived experiences, and the diverse meanings they attach to sport and the sport-for-development initiatives. In this sense, I explored not merely in what way women felt empowered by the projects to refuse gender subordination and affirm feminist agendas, but also how men perceive their roles inside and outside of sport as reproducers of hegemonic masculinity.

Here comes the feminist
The Latin patriarchy sees the female as innocent and passive, while the male is the one who maintains moral superiority and control over female sexuality. Regarding the sport context, studies suggest ambivalences in the construction of gender rather than a disintegration of gender dichotomies. The understanding of female engagement in football and other sports in dialectical struggle between domination and resistance ignores the ways women as well as men experience these sports—predominantly football—as sites where renegotiations of social relations and traditional notions of masculinity and femininity can take place. In other words, conformity and resistance to the dominant norms and values are not mutually exclusive but coexist together.

Young male participants appear to have difficulties accepting change in gender relations. They tend not to see themselves as privileged or prejudiced. In this sense, young men envision women’s ‘gains’, and participation in football, with resentment and perceive themselves as those who possess ‘less rights and authority’ in the programme because of women. Feelings of losing their authority resulted in rebellion and reluctancy towards feminism, as captured in the following example narrated by a young intern Sara:

The session was about to start. Educators responsible for the gender workshop were over there waiting. Before the beginning of our class, one boy said something terrible. He looked at them and said, ‘Oh, here she comes, that feminist!’ We asked why he said that, and he said, ‘Well, because everything I say now, I’m being machist.’ (Sara, 18-year-old intern, June 2018, Eldorado)

The sport programme provides youth with an alternative gender experience and frameworks they can draw upon. The reasons for men’s resistance toward feminist claims resulted from their insecurity concerning an end to patriarchy which may present threats to identity that occur with change; some men tended to reassert tough and dominant masculinity as a reaction to the empowered status of women. In addition, I identified that there is also an asymmetrical view of boys who are expected to understand and recognize women’s rights.

It’s not just about placing the girl on the pitch. We understand that it is necessary to work with the girls, but we also understand that it’s very important to work with boys so that they recognize the rights of the girls. It’s not worth working with girls only. We need to strengthen them, create safe spaces so that they can feel empowered, encouraged, and motivated to practice sport. But these boys also have to understand and recognize the girls’ rights. (Taís, 45-year-old coordinator, February 2018, Eldorado)

That said, young men are not expected to also be confronted within the transformed conditions. While young women were encouraged to challenge patriarchy and negative labels, there was asymmetrical attention and expectations from the male participants who encounter difficulties in shifting their behaviour in the outside heteropatriarchal culture which forces them into complying with particular patterns of masculinity.

There are many nuances and complexities in sport-for-development work. If the theoretical analysis of culturally specific outcomes and gender is to be enriched and provide insights beyond policy and evaluation, the focus on women’s experiences and inequality concerning gendered identities and relations must also involve the study of men and masculinities. To pursue a critically informed analysis of sport, development, and gender, a study of power, oppression, and subordination in various forms is necessary in conjunction with an intersectional perspective.

According to Connell, men are required to position themselves in relation to the dominant form of masculinity: the hegemonic. I suggest that theorizing sport-for-development through a gendered perspective and the application of existing feminist concepts opens the way to explore burdens and benefits which gender projects put on their participants, including the  ‘reactions’ of boys and men to the project, but also burdens such as the moral panic they navigate as a part of broader society.

References and Further Reading:
(1)  I recognize that this term is not exhaustive, and I use the LGBT abbreviation to describe nonheterosexual and gender variant people.
(2) I will not provide further information about participants and organizations as this would compromise their anonymity.

Darnell, S. 2010. “Power, Politics and ‘Sport for Development and Peace’: Investigating the Utility of Sport for International Development.” Sociology of Sport Journal 27: 54–75.
Hayhurst, L. 2011. ‘Governing’ the ‘Girl Effect’ through Sport, Gender and Development? Postcolonial Girlhoods, Constellations of Aid and Global Corporate Social Engagement. Toronto: Department of Exercise Sciences, University of Toronto.
Saavedra, Martha. “Dilemmas and opportunities in gender and sport-in-development.” In Sport and international development, pp. 124-155. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2009.
Válková, E., 2020. ‘You’re going to teach my son to be viado’: From ‘girling’to queering sport for development?. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, p.1012690219894885.


Eva Soares Moura (@EvaValkova1) is a PhD candidate in sociology at Institute of Sociological Studies at Charles University, Prague. Her research interests include sports sociology, gender and feminist theory, sexuality, critical reflexivity, qualitative methodology, and sport-for-development programmes within the context of Latin America.