‘I stutter when I speak, not when I think’ – The Black woman with stutter making a difference in Portugal’s parliament

History was made in October 2019 when members of Portugal’s new parliament took office. Among them were the country’s first Black women lawmakers who trace their origins to Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony in West Africa. Portugal was a leader in slavery and colonization. To date, it has a significant minority population from its former African colonies in Guinea-Bissau, Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Sao Tome and Principe and Brazil. For the longest time, Black people in Portugal were not fully considered Portuguese citizens because of a 1981 law that was passed before their parent’s immigration status was regularised. Most of the people affected by this law were either born in or are children of immigrants from former Portuguese colonies in Africa.
Even though things have improved in Portugal, activists still complain about inequality and discrimination in many areas including housing, education, employment, businesses, politics and the media as well as the justice system. The three Black women who made it to parliament were all activists who, during their campaigns, promised to fight these inequalities. Popular among the three women is Joacine Katar Moreira, an anti-racism activist who was a member of the Livre (Free) party. In October 2019 when she took office, Katar Moreira became the first Black politician to lead a party into an election and win a seat on the national parliament. And then, of course, she had made it as the first speaker with a stutter who remains unshaken in the face of criticism. Before becoming a politician with the left-leaning Livre (Free) party, she was an activist and helped formed the Black Women Insitute in Portugal (INMUNE), an anti-racist organization founded in 2018.
The 39-year-old researcher at the University Institute of Lisbon was born in Guinea-Bissau and moved to Lisbon, Portugal when she was just eight years old to attend boarding school. In October 2019 when she was elected, it was the second time she was standing for the Livre party. And it wasn’t all rosy. Katar Moreira, who became a Portuguese national in 2003, had to grow a thicker skin to deal with critics who attempted to reduce her to stuttering during the electoral campaign. The Portuguese academic and activist grabbed media headlines when it was announced that she would lead the Free Party created in 2014 into the elections. Besides her huge and colourful turbans and jewellery, what caught everyone’s attention is the fact that she stutters. “It is a stutter that is very evident and that it is even quite spectacular, so it is absolutely impossible for someone to listen to me and pretend that I am not stuttering,” Katar Moreira recently said in an interview.
Yet during the electoral campaigns, fake news spread that she was faking her stutter for attention and for the campaign, just because in some speeches she stutters less than in others. “As if stuttering had ever made someone’s life easier,” Katar Moreira responded to those sentiments. But it seemed she buried the issue in an interview that became a watershed moment in her campaign. Asked if stuttering would be a hindrance in her parliamentary interventions, her response would later become one of her famous quotes. Katar Moreira explained in that interview that she doesn’t stutter when she thinks and that what should be of greatest concern is when MPs get stuck when thinking.“I stutter when I speak, not when I think. The danger in parliament is individuals who stutter when they think.”
Today, Katar Moreira has braved all odds, becoming the voice of “anti-racism” and “left-wing radical feminism” in parliament. In the lawmaking house, she’s a member of committees focusing on constitutional rights and freedoms, and energy and environment. With a PhD in African Studies, she has also presented scores of policy proposals aimed at dealing with racism and colonial legacies in Portugal. What’s more, she has become known for speeches that others deem to be controversial including one that said: “Europe is not white. Europe is not a white man.”“There is no democracy without equity and equality. But also, there is no equality without the voices of ethnic minorities in Europe. And here, I don’t see a lot of them. So I don’t know if my Europe is yours.”
In 2020, she called on Portuguese museums to return items obtained from former colonies to their countries of origin. It was in that same year, however, that the Livre (Free) party broke ties with Katar Moreira over a dispute which started when she refused to take part in a 2019 vote that condemned Israel’s actions in Gaza. Thus, Katar Moreira is now in parliament as an independent deputy but her public stance, showing how possible it is to live with stuttering, has earned her praise. According to reports, she has gained more media exposure, with some activists asking members of the Portuguese parliament for “time tolerance” when she rises to speak. Stuttering, sometimes referred to as stammering, “is a speech disorder that involves frequent and significant problems with normal fluency and flow of speech,” according to Mayo Clinic. People who stutter “may repeat or prolong a word, a syllable, or a consonant or vowel sound. Or they may pause during speech because they’ve reached a problematic word or sound.”
Stuttering, which may be due to genetics or from other causes, is estimated to affect more than 80 million individuals worldwide, representing about 1% of the world’s population. In Portugal, stuttering affects nearly 100,000 people. It is usually common among children but can also be a chronic condition that persists into adulthood. According to experts, this type of stuttering can impact one’s self-esteem and interactions with other people, but not for Katar Moreira. After having had to deal with people who questioned if a Black woman with a stutter is suitable for public office, an online-petition attempted to stop her from taking office following the October 2019 elections, saying that her supporters were seen waving Guinea-Bissau’s flags at her victory celebration. She responded on Twitter: “People who suddenly dream of my resignation… contributing nothing and undermining everything, or signing petitions, listen: this has always been a war for people like me.”