"The poor of the land, excluded, marginalized and dominated for centuries,
walk silently and hurriedly on the ground of this long night of humiliation,
and proclaim, through their struggle, resistance, rupture,and disobedience,
their new condition, their path of no return, their ragged but dignified appearance
on the scene of history" (José de Souza Martins)
"My wife was unable to speak to a stranger. Today, without going to
school, she is a leader, highly advanced in the work of the struggle. The struggle
is a school." (Testimony of the settler Daniel Ferreira Chagas, São
This article analyzes the importance of women’s participation in the struggle
for land, emphasizing and redefining their space and their role in society.
It also situates the construction of the feminine in the social re-creation
of the space won the settlement. Woman is understood as a cultural and historical
category of social relations: that is, a social construction, based on relations
established between men and women, of the significance attributed to the feminine
and masculine in the family, in work, in social struggles, and in the dynamics
of the settlement. Within social struggles, it emphasizes, on one hand, the
feminine presence in the construction of the Movement of the Landless Rural
Workers (MST), and, on the other hand, the role of this social movement as an
educating subject in forming the identity of the Sem Terra woman.
Building a social movement like the MST is understood as the result of a combination
of objective and subjective factors. The former have to do with the history
of the unequal distribution of lands with the modernization of agriculture,
which concentrated lands, expropriated and expelled farmers from their land,
reduced wage-labor with the introduction of modern machines and products, worsening
poverty; and with the construction of hydro-electric dams that expelled people
from their land without due compensation.
The subjective factors include the perception of exclusion and the comprehension
of how it was historically created; the construction of a collective sem-terra
identity from a common perception of needs and scarcities; the collective consciousness
of the need to fight for rights, where the land is seen as a right for the one
who works on it and needs it to live, which confers legitimacy on the occupying
of unproductive lands.
The situation of impoverishment, together with the consciousness of the creation
of misery and the collective recognition of a right are, therefore, fundamental
factors in the organization of a movement and manifestation of its social struggle.
A struggle that questions and denounces the unequal distribution of land and
the lack of political will of the government to resolve the agrarian question
forces the debate on agrarian reform. Through the struggle, the sem-terra
people come on the scene as political subjects of the historical process, as
those who build citizenship in the country, transforming themselves as they
create the movement of social struggle and transform their own reality. In this
sense, the process of the land-struggle is understood as a fertile space for
socio-cultural re-creation, where the daily practices lived by the people are
(re)drawn as a function of the objective and subjective conditions that the
struggles create (Caldart, 1996; Gohn, 1997; Damasceno, 1995). According to
the experience of participating in the MST organization educates the
sem-terra basically through the social relations it produces and
ends up by intervening pedagogically in several dimensions of human beings,
and, at the same time, proposes and problematizes values, changes behavior,
creates and destroys concepts, customs, ideas. In this way, it shapes
the Sem Terra identity (2000: 220).
To join the struggle for land, demanding it as a right, implies a reformulation
of the people’s vision of the world, as well as the establishment of new relations
in their daily lives (Schwade, 1993: 77). On the other hand, the settlements
spaces won and re- created socially by rural landless workers, beginning with
a process of struggle bring about the (re)construction of a social space, of
relations in daily life, based on norms that each subject brings with his life-story
and collective norms (re)drawn in the struggle for land (Schwendler, 1995).
Woman’s Participation in the Space of the Land-Struggle
The experience of occupying lands and organzing settlements of landless working
men and women with different life stories and a history affected by different
forms of social, political, economic, and cultural exclusion, creates an identity
for them, giving them a common objective the conquest of the land. The settlement,
resulting from the occupation of an area by a large number of landless families,
constitutes the MST’s strategy of struggle to apply pressure for the disappropriation
of unproductive lands. For Caldart, the educational force of the struggle "is
usually proportional to the degree of rupture it has established with the former
patterns of social existence of these working men and women of the land, precisely
because it requires the development of new cultural syntheses" (2000: 106).
In the struggle for land, the woman becomes a fundamental historical agent,
whether by confronting the situation caused by occupation, or by the relations
she forms through her active presence in the struggle. The feminine presence
as historical subject becomes fundamental in the land struggle and makes it
possible. The settlers themselves attest to this importance:
"No settlement comes from men alone" (Teresinha, Nova Ramada
"And if the women weren’t together in the struggle, organized, together
with the men, I think there wouldn’t be any settlements. It’s very important
to have women in the struggle. They are organized and they help to organize
and join the struggle" (Valmir, Nova Ramada Settlement).
Even the pregnant woman or a woman with small children occupies the land, faces
the police, takes part in discussions and organization, as well as in maintaining
the settlement, whether in or out of it, seeking to ensure its survival. According
to Lechat, these women "went into politics not as asexual beings, but as
women, mothers of families taking part in everything, even pregnant or with
them" (1996: 123). The woman, therefore, takes part in the settlement,
remaking her role in society. The spaces for and roles attributed to the masculine
and feminine are re-defined during the process of land-occupation and formation
of the settlement through the organic structure itself, brought about by the
forming of committees, where tasks are divided and taken on by men and women.
The MST is organized into committees to make possible the organic structure
of the social struggle. Caldart says the following about the matter:
"The internal organization of an encampment begins with forming
the so-called base nuclei, consisting of between ten and thirty
families, according to the initial criterion of proximity, generally starting
from the municipality from which the people originate. Through the nuclei,
the division of the necessary tasks is organized to guarantee the daily
life of the encampment: food, hygiene, health, religion, education, leisure,
finances Through the nuclei, the discussions and studies necessary
for making decisions for the next step of the struggle take place. Those
responsible for the various tasks compose the work teams, meeting
regularly to plan and evaluate their activities. There is a general
co-ordination of the encampment, whose main responsibililty is to
give unity to the work of all the teams, as well as carry on the process
of negotiation and relations with the local society and wider area. The
highest forum for decision-making on the encampment’s direction is the
‘general assembly of the encamped families’, which generally
meets after a preliminary discussion of the issues of the base nuclei,
the main channel of communication between the co-ordinators and members
of the encampment" (2000: 115).
In the encampment, the woman begins to take on tasks not only in the private
sphere washing, cooking, caring for the children but also in the public one
discussing, organizing, co-ordinating tasks and groups, negotiating, taking
care of security, confronting the police. In this experience of land-struggle,
she broadens her space of participation in society, occupying spaces historically
exclusive to men public life where she learns to argue, participate, express
her ideas, and becomes the subject of many social conquests such as maternity
wage, retirement, and others. The struggle also offers the possession of land,
which before was restricted to men, since the woman was not recognized as a
rural worker (Schwendler, 1995).
In this way, the woman learns, beginning with experience in other spaces, to
think and live questions beyond the quotidian and the domestic, resignifying
her place in the world, her presence as a woman in history, relearning as a
Sem Terra woman. The woman who fights for the right to land, to living-space,
to taking part, to her being recognized as a worker of the land and the dignity
of her gender, also re-develops the role of women and men in society.
The woman enters public life but does not abandon the private space, even in
the struggle, for she still continues to be responsible for the life of the
home, which leads to the maintenance and reproduction of already established
family relations. Although many of the old relations between men and women are
maintained, carried over from the experience before the struggle, the experiencing
of new relations in the space of the struggle leaves its marks, which stay in
the memory as meanings and "can be maintained or recovered in concomitant
or later situations" (Melo, 2001: 175).
The Participation of Women in the Dynamics of Agrarian Reform Settlement
The traditional division of distinct roles for men and women is sustained by
a rigid sexual division of labor that historically has relegated women to a
secondary role in work, in political life, in social struggles, making them
responsible for the non-visible tasks. The marriage contract itself has legitimated
the role of the woman in doing invisible work, leading her to accept the obligation
of home and family in exchange for being supported by her husband. Relevant
to our discussion are the different concerns parents have had historically in
relation to their sons and daughters, giving the man the land and the woman
the trousseau for the house. Thus, the girl learns from her mother domestic
chores and child-care, and she does not learn how to discuss policies, negotiate,
buy and sell, discuss production, which is the boy’s duty, who also does not
learn from his mother domestic duties and child care. It is up to the mother
to give birth, take care of the children, maintain the family, do the domestic
work, and reproduce the force of work, she being destined for an auxiliary role
in work, as an extension of the home. Analogically, the woman "helps"
in the fields. In most cases, it is not up to her to decide production, or negotiate,
buy and sell products, discuss agricultural credits these are regarded as masculine
jobs. And yet, the active presence of women in social struggles has contributed
to the questioning and/or break with some daily practices that relegate her
to a secondary role in society. It has also contributed to women organizing
to fight for rights that have been denied them historically.
It is now necessary to examine the role of women in the settlements, that is,
after the period of struggle for winning the land and the resistance in the
encampments. The Settlements of Agrarian Reform in themselves establish a historical
process of transition and transformation of the old Brazilian agricultural structure,
of the reorganization of territory, for it is a process of the conversion of
the latifundium into a space where many landless families may begin to
live and produce. They are established in territories won in the course of struggle
and resistance, of occupying unproductive lands, highways, plazas, and public
buildings; in short, of the whole organizational process of the MST. For Fernandes,
the settlement also means "the attempt to begin again as new subjects it
is the possibility of re-creating the dimensions of social space and movement
itself it is the result of a transformation project for winning citizenship"
(Fernandes, 1996: 236). I quote a female worker from a settlement on this transformation
process in terms of gender:
"When we began to make the internal rules of our co-operative, the
men thought that the women should not have rights or obligations ... when
we began the co-operative, when we began our organization, it was difficult
to make the women conscious that they should go out of the house and take
part" (Teresinha, Nova Ramada Settlement).
An important fact is that the women entered the lines of struggle, but when
it went into the phase of negotiation, they usually went back to former standards.
In the new organization of the settlement, the life experiences of the working
men and women settled before the organization, also came into play their customs,
traditions and experiences as well as the lived process of the struggle,
where the socio-political commitment of the agents involved takes place in different
ways. An explanation is given by Paulilo, for whom "the repertory of possible
ways of acting is formed both by the new ideas and by the old experience"
(1994: 197-80). With the process of struggle that they lived through, these
two social agents modified their situation and themselves. Yet, this change
does not imply a denial of their past or their history, but their overcoming
In his work Revolution Within the Revolution, James Petras analyzes
the gathering of the women in the post-revolutionary period, after their intense
participation in the social struggles. For the author, each step of the struggle
consists of a school for the next step. In this sense, if the woman occupies
a secondary place in the organizational structure during the process of organizing
the families for land-occupation, she will also play secondary roles in the
encampment phase and there will not be any women for the
co-ordinating of the settlement. Soon, Petras warns:
"If woman are not present in the negotiation committee, their needs
will have no voice. They will return home, to the former traditions of
oppression. The men say "we won the struggle" but they are on
the committee and she is in the kitchen! That is why at the time of negotiation
her presence is important, as she will transmit the content of her demands
for post-revolutionary transformation or post-occupation of lands"
On discussing the masculine and feminine spaces in building this new way of
life the settlements Ferrante reveals the timid participation of women in discussion,
deliberation, political decisions, for in "meetings and assemblies women
sit near the doors, as if they were ready to leave a space that is not theirs"
(1998: 267). In the same line, from the account of the settlers it can be seen
that when women take part in the areas where they exercise leadership in the
settlement, these are generally connected with education and health, regarded
historically as feminine spaces. Even in these areas, the settled woman still
finds it difficult to take part, mainly when she needs to leave her home to
go on a trip, take courses or take part in organizational activities, and even
in the education of young people and adults in the settlement itself, since
she often ends up being spoken of or seen as someone who does not fulfill her
obligations. Many women do not take part in the youth and adult literacy courses
because they need to make dinner for their husband or even because the husband
does not let her take part.
In developing an extension project in the settlements during the period 1997
to 2001, titled ‘Exercising citizenship in the field: an examination and
multidisciplinary commitment in an occupied area of the Movement of the Landless
Rural Workers’, during the meetings with the community, the collective meal
was still the responsibility of the women, making their participation in the
discussions, the decisions, the planning of the community impossible. Sometimes
the men helped with the washing of dishes or each member washed his own, a common
practice in the MST meetings, marches, and land-occupations. In one of the actions
planned and carried out with the working men and women of this settlement, a
communal garden was organized. The plants of the garden became smothered by
weeds, and the garden was only re-planted when the group of women took on the
job. Care for the garden is seen as a feminine role, since it is a question
of subsistence production. In this context, the work of the woman is not regarded
as work and its product, which contributes to subsistence, is not counted as
a product. According to Nobre and Silva, the cultivation of the garden, the
raising of animals, the work in the fields, and the production of artifacts
work that produces merchandise whose sale contributes to the support of the
family are embedded in what is called ‘taking care of the house’ (1998: 29).
For Ferrante, even in the settlements, "the participation of women in
the different strategies of income formation coexists with the reproduction
of inequalities and exclusions in the area of decision-making" (1998: 274).
The author claims, however, that masculine and feminine responsibilities do
not have rigid boundaries at all times, keeping in mind that there is relative
co-operation between men and women in defining the future of the piece of land.
The very fact that external agencies currently require the signature of the
couple in order to make resources available for production and organization
of the settlement has contributed to this joint planning. And yet, fulfilling
this demand does not mean that the woman has in effect the power of decision,
for the last word is usually the man’s, as the women themselves argue.
The collective learning experience of the land-struggle has already
contributed significantly to the reconstruction of gender roles, since men and
women jointly take part in a process that has brought significant social, economic,
political, and cultural changes reflected in the re-creation of the new space
the conquered land. Nevertheless, apart from the moment of struggle, the woman
still continues to be excluded from the decisive moments, mainly in the areas
seen as masculine, such as production and the organization of the settlement.
There is still much to build, there is much to conquer in the struggle for
the humanization of men and women. As Freire puts it:
"Humanization and dehumanization, within history, in a real, concrete,
objective context, are the possibilities of men as incomplete beings but
conscious of their incompleteness. But, if both are possibilities, only
the first seems to be what we call the vocation of men Dehumanization,
which is not seen only in reference to robbed humanity, but also, although
in a different form, in what robs it, is the distortion of the vocation
for ‘being more’" (1987: 30).
The struggle takes place by way of winning land, housing, education, health,
but also by way of rebuilding the relations of gender in the family, school,
work, in the social struggles and in the settlements themselves. For the Sem
Terra woman, therefore, there is a great challenge: to perform her historical
task as a social subject who comes on the scene by also occupying the public
space, taking part in the decisive instances to make, with her differences as
a woman, a different history.
Women are different: "They affirm themselves with other words, other gestures"
(Perrot, 1988: 212). Woman has her own way of being, of representing herself
in the world. And it is this difference that needs to be sought so that we may
make another history, build another society. "Between the public and the
private, the political and the personal, men and women, the divisions dissolve
and recompose a landscape" (Perrot 1998: 2). This landscape
is building in a movement, where women and men re-define roles, rebuild their
histories, re-create culture, to which the collective learning experience of
the land-struggle has already contributed.
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