Is MST for or against women’s emancipation?

Tord Björk | Latin American movements,MST,Women | Monday, March 9th, 2009

Are female activists in MST an emancipatory force in women’s struggle or do they represent backwardness and traditional rural values?

Man and woman at Jair Costa MST camp. Photo Pertti Simula

Many positive towards womens emancipation and female activists struggling may see this as an odd question. That antipatriarchial activists within MST from any point of view positive towards women’s emancipation are good for feminism is something everyone can agree upon. But that does not mean that they might be misused by a movement that in the end is authoritarian struggling for traditional values working against emancipation. Or that they are used or choose themselves to use old-fashioned methods that can be stamped by media as violent.

Men and women at Coptar MST cooperative. Photo Pertti Simula

Swedish author Magnus Linton have described his ambiguity towards MST in his book Americanos. On the one hand he sees MST as an impressive movement bringing social justice by breaking with authorian old parliamentary party politics. On the other hand he cannot decide himself clearly. He show how beating of wifes still continue in MST camps and settlements. He gives examples on how social hiearchies are reestablished in MST settlements between those that succed and those that fail to enlarge the small resources of animals and seedlings they are given by the government once they are recogninzed to get their piece of land according to the agragrian reform. And how a women living alone is less worth than a women living in a stable relationship.

But this reality may no movement be able to change alone. In reality both Linton and many others can show that MST is making things better for most people in the movement.

Women at Coopan MST cooperative. Photo Pertti Simula

Linton sees that the there is especially one conflicting issue between MST and socially interested presidents as Lula or other parts of the global justice movement which causes problems for women. That is the highly critical view on urbanisation.  Linton quotes one of the old MST leaders, Irma Brennetto, who describes how hard it is to maintain young people and especially women in the settlements. A majority of the young do not want to stay in the settlement she describes. They prefer the unsecure precarious job market and chaos in the cities instead of becoming peasants. The old still dominating leadership in MST also come from the Catholic liberation theology tradition and thus do not have the most liberal views on issues as abortion.

To others female activist in MST are manipulated by this old leadership to become guerilla soldiers. To some also left intellectuals in the cities and many middle class people and the media i Brazil MST started well but have turned into a movement using violence. The arguments starts by claiming that the movement is old-fashioned celebrating figures as Che Guevara and Lenin and organized in a hierarchic way. And then some few examples when violence against people have occured and blamed on MST are listed. But primarily the most prominent examples of violent acts carried out by MST are destruction of property.

Women and child at Jair Costa MST camp. Photo Pertti Simula

This is the result of MST and other female activists in Via Campesina organisations that the last year have occupied plants or plantations and begun deliberately to destroy equipment or cutting down trees. Such acts of civil disobedience are claimed by those against MST to be acts of violence.

What has been especially given as an example is how 2000 women from MST and other Via Campesina organizations on March 8 2006 entered and destroyed parts of Aracruz laboratory in Barra do Ribeiro, Rio Grande do Sul, uprooting more than 1 million eucalyptus tree seedlings. in protest against gene technology and in solidarity with Tupnikim indians that was violently evacuated from land which once belonged to them by Aracruz Celulose. After the action they immediately went to the demonstration on Women’s international day in Porto Alegre.

Activists and especially leaders are regularly violently attacked and killed by gunmen hired by landowners or killed or violently harrassed by police. But what emberass those claiming that MST is using violence is not the acts of violence against the movement or even acts of violence occurring against those defending the status quo. The violence considered as most horrible is occupying and destroying property. With such a definition of violence the feminist activists of MST becomes a great threat to modern patrirarchic Brazilian society.

The short impressions I got from visiting MST settlements and the national congress was that there are problems within MST for women’s emancipation but that the society that MST is trying to change is much worse. And that few social forces are doing so much for emancipating women in Brazil as MST. When MST invited organizations to come to their 25th anniversary celebrations there were many man coming. Within MST there were not only men taking the stage. As speakers, as people making comments from the floor, as leaders of cultural actions, as leaders of settlements and schools, as the most militant activists of the movement, there were many women to be seen.

Intervention from the floor at MST 25th anniversary plenary in Sarandi

I dared to ask one question. Was the chose of female activists to carry out action the result of tactics to present the movement as more vulnerable hoping for media to be more symphathetic or was it mainly due to a fact that many of the most militant activists were women. The answer confirmed clearly the last suggestion.

Women singing at MST cooperative. Photo Pertti Simula

Linton wrote his book in 2005. His ideal for emancipating the Latin American women were rather militant urban middel class activists in Bogota using international law and the power of modern medicine technology and subversive culture against traditional values rather than MST. His criticism against MST for maintaining traditional family values and illusions about rural life thus standing in the way for emancipation has been challenged. The wave believing in international laws and courts have proven to be as much an illusion as ever the idea of establishing rural societies with small farmer villages and cooperatives. Today it is the MST women that are the most militant feminists in Brazil and turns March 8 into women’s workers struggle day. On the scene in Sarandi at the MST 25 celebration they show the cultural strength of a movement now also orienting itself towards la periferia, to the suburbs of the cities.

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