Street in Salvador de Bahia

Salvador de Bahia in the rain. (Ugo Edu photo)

Watching girl-watchers in a Brazilian airport

SALVADOR, BRAZIL — I arrived in Manaus, Brazil, then waited for a connecting flight to my final destination, Salvador da Bahia, on the northeast coast — a 9-hour wait on the heels of about 14 hours of flying already endured. I was too tired to read theory or fidget with my iPod, but scared of falling into a deep sleep (and waking up to a missed flight and all my belongings missing).

Student Journal: Summer dispatches from the field
Each year the UC Berkeley-based Human Rights Center awards summer fellowships to students from University of California campuses, to enable them to work with human-rights organizations in the U.S. and abroad. Three current Human Rights Fellows including Ugo Edu — a graduate student enrolled in the UCB-UCSF Joint Medical Program — have agreed to share their experiences this summer, with regular updates from the field to be published on the NewsCenter. This is Edu’s final post of the summer.

Ugo EduUgo Edu on reproductive choice in Brazil

  1. Watching girl-watchers in a Brazilian airport
  2. An arduous journey and some food for thought
  3. Trading votes for sterilizations, a common political tool in northeast Brazil
  4. Technology troubles, informal conversations, and a curious fact
  5. From false leads to street thugs, field research has its challenges along with its joys
Also reporting:

At one point, I noticed three men in orange and gray uniforms, seated in the rows ahead of me. I assumed they worked in some capacity for the airport, and noticed when one of them turned around to stare at me (or was he just looking?). I looked right back at him until he turned his eyes away. Later I noticed the first guy’s neighbor turn and survey the room; when his eyes caught mine, he quickly turned back around. I noticed which women caught a man’s eye, or the men’s collective eye, and which women went unnoticed.

I noticed two girls stroll by, dressed in typical, form-fitting Brazilian attire — shorts that allow you to see exactly where the curve of the hips gives way to the thigh, and where the small of the back curves outwards to the butt and back in to the top of the leg. Their tops were less interesting, simply loose-fitting, as there is less emphasis here on the upper half of the body. Judging by their behavior and clothing, I would be shocked if the girls were more than 18. Suffice it to say they were significantly younger than the men.

My interest piqued as I saw the domino effect as each man noticed the girls and alerted the next of their presence. All the men literally stopped what they were doing, looked up, and watched attentively as the girls sauntered by. No other woman or group of women had garnered such attention.

The girls, for their part, seemed unaffected by the mens’ gaze. Have I accurately characterized that gaze? I can confidently state that it was not aggressive, nor accompanied by catcalls or suggestive movements or gestures. Their stares seemed more the appreciative brand of observation that many Brazilian men engage in. Whatever the intent, I was impressed by the girls’ ability to remain seemingly unaffected, since I myself feel uncomfortable, sometimes even disgusted, when I notice I’ve caught the attention of a man significantly older than myself.

Why this story? Why pay attention to such an ordinary event — men noticing women as they walk by in tight-fitting clothes? How is this related to reproductive rights and decision-making, the topic I’ve come to research? Shouldn’t I be more concerned with reports of heavy rain inundating (and generally making life difficult) in Salvador, and with how that will affect my ability to conduct my research!? (I am, in fact, quite concerned with this, as I brought no raincoat, umbrella, rain boots, or any other useful rain gear!)

Such mundane interactions, in fact, are very germane to my research topic, and have led me to questions that may deepen my understanding of Salvador, its residents, and Brazil as a whole. The men in the airport showed keenest interest in a pair of young girls, in a country, that — despite drastically reducing its fertility rate, to as low as 1.9 births per female, in some places — still has a huge problem with teenage pregnancy, alongside high rates of sterilization, particularly among women under the age of 30.

Geledés Instituto da Mulher Negra, a Sao Paulo-based organization of and for women of African descent, recently reported that 1 in 9 Brazilian women have had an abortion. Perhaps not an impressive statistic if this were the U.S., but astonishing in a country where abortion is illegal! How, then, do women understand, define, interpret, engage, negotiate, and interrogate reproductive rights in a context in which they are seen as objects to be freely and openly gazed at and commented upon?

I plan to explore such questions this summer. Meanwhile, while it rains, I’ll work on setting up interviews, meet with the director of my partnering organization, translate forms and questions, and try to recover from my jet lag ASAP!

About Ugo Edu

Ugo Edu

Ugo Edu was born and raised in southern California, the oldest daughter of Nigerian immigrants. After receiving her B.S. in physiological sciences at UCLA, her interest in medicine led her to earn a master’s of public health at Morehouse School of Medicine.

Edu wasn’t satisfied, however, with a strictly public-health approach to questions of sickness, healing, and prevention. Instead, personal experiences — and those of African Americans and of fellow children of African immigrants living in the U.S. — nurtured her interest in a medical anthropological approach to such issues. She is currently entering her third year as a medical anthropology PhD student enrolled in the UCB-UCSF Joint Medical Program.

Edu, 29, has a particular interest in Brazil, in part due to its international geopolitical and economic position; her summer research focuses on Brazilian women’s reproductive choices. She trains in Capoeira Angola, the traditional style of the art form.