Italy is a country mired in accusations of sexism. But, despite 17 years in the shadow of Berlusconi, Italian women are fighting back
Wor ds: Ben Marshall
Italy has a lot to be proud of. Italians have created some of the world’s most amazing pieces of architecture (the Sistine Chapel, Cathedral of Pisa, the Colosseum…) and produced some of history’s greatest film-makers, such as Luchino Visconti and Federico Fellini. Italy is home of the Renaissance, producer of world-class poets such as Dante Alighieri, famous around the globe for its food and, of course, boasts the biggest fashion houses in the world.
However, there has always been one chink in the armour of this incredible country: a macho culture that has seen the voice of women often deemed secondary to men’s. Admittedly, Italy is far from unique in this, but it has lingered longer and is more prevalent than its European sister countries. However, a growing number of Italian women are working hard to change this. Across the country there is a rising hum of protest at the sexist leaders who have ruled their country with misogynist views and outdated opinions on what women are capable of achieving, the most notable of which happened in mid-February, 2011.
Demonstrators, mostly women, numbering more than a million, came out onto the streets and piazzas of Italy. They were joined by fellow women from other countries who organised simultaneous demonstrations in London, Boston, Tokyo, Brussels, and Athens. Demographically, they covered the full spectrum, ranging from teenagers to octogenarian nuns. The way one demonstrator remembers it, “Rich trophy wives in Dolce & Gabbana were standing alongside heavily tattooed radical feminists, while office cleaners joined hands with mergers and acquisitions lawyers.”
Only two things united them – the white scarf they wore around their shoulders and a burning desire for change. The nationwide protests were a reaction to one of the most astonishing stories in the annals of political scandal. It involved a 17-year-old girl called Karima El Mahroug and some of Italy’s most powerful men, foremost among them the billionaire businessman, TV and newspaper magnate and three times prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who was accused of paying El Mahroug for sex. The organisers of the marches used social media to bring together women from all over Italy describing themselves as “neither desperate, nor housewives”.
On the day of the demonstrations Ida Poletto, one of the organisers of the march, told The Washington Post, “Women in this country are denigrated by the repeated, indecent and ostentatious representation of them as naked sexual objects on offer in newspapers, televisions and advertising. It’s intolerable.”
The Sciarpa Bianca (White Scarf) marches made headlines worldwide, but the groundswell of righteous anger that made them possible predates the demonstrations by at least 10 years. A decade earlier in Bologna, a group of young women founded the feminist network Sexyshock as a reaction to the sexist treatment of women by the Italian media. In 2009, the year Berlusconi’s wife, Veronica Lario, filed for divorce, three female academics – and 15,000 signatories – petitioned the wives of G8 leaders to boycott a summit with Berlusconi, over his behaviour toward women.
“Berlusconi didn't invent sexism in Italy, but he is its most powerful apologist”
Though not strictly feminist in nature, the 5 Stelle (5 Star) movement, led by the comedian Beppe Grillo, pursues aims that coincide with much of what Italy’s women’s movement is demanding: Eurosceptic, ecologist, anti-austerity, anti-corruption and loudly pro-women. It has been popular in local elections and a poll in the newspaper Corriere Della Sera suggests it could do well in next spring’s election – only 36% plan to vote for a traditional party and 9% have already settled on 5 Star.
Two-thirds of voters are still undecided, but what seems clear is how deep-rooted antipathy to Berlusconi’s former regime is – even sectors of society you might assume to be stuck in their ways are being radicalised. Last summer in Turin, I chatted to a devout Catholic woman of 76 who has always considered herself conservative. She handed me a wellthumbed copy of the complete works of Oriana Fallaci, the Italian feminist and war correspondent. “You must read this,” she said excitedly. “It’s like Oriana has read my mind.” And it hasn’t come a moment too soon.
Escaping the past
There is no denying Italy suffered under Berlusconi, enduring a series of private TV channels that peddled third-rate US soaps and low-budget quiz shows populated by semi-nude girls, which, gallingly, made him Italy’s richest man (although since 1994, he has made more than 2,500 court appearances in 106 trials, and been convicted of tax evasion). Of course, the problems that have faced Italian women cannot all be thrown at the feet of Berlusconi. In the past, the heavy hand of the Catholic Church, an innately conservative outlook and a huge importance placed on motherhood made it difficult for women.
But while other countries in the western world have shaken off their past, Berlusconi’s rule made it challenging for Italian women to do the same. As Italian journalist Stefano Vaccara says, Berlusconi didn’t invent sexism in Italy, but he is its most powerful apologist. “The man who was perhaps a little ashamed of ogling a co-worker’s legs now felt reassured by the fact that the Presidente Del Consiglio did exactly the same thing and boasted about it,” he says. “Berlusconi was an enabler – he held up a mirror to what many rightly regard as the very worst of Italy and the Italians liked what they saw. Or, at any rate, enough of them did to carry on voting him into power.” But all that is set to change.
Italian women have picked up where the vigorous feminist movement of the Sixties and Seventies left off. A growing number are angry, charged and defiant about getting women’s voices heard, whether that’s by increasing the number in positions of power, helping to revive the economy, trying to end the sexist portrayal of women in the media or, simply, forcing male leaders to face up to their wrongs. Take the impressive Italian MEP Licia Ronzulli, who has plainly demonstrated her support for working mothers by bringing her daughter, from the age of 44 days, to sessions in the European Parliament. A former hospital director, Ronzulli is also on the EU’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality.
"A growing number of women are angry, charged and defiant about getting women’s voices heard"
This year, the Italian government imposed a 33% quota to bring more women into the boardroom by 2015, a move the law’s co-author Alessia Mosca described to The Wall Street Journal as a muchneeded “shock to the system”. “The hope is that this will set off cultural change,” she said. And hopefully it will. But the sheer visibility of someone like Mosca – a rising star in the Democratic Party, a Johns Hopkins graduate and co-author of a book about female power in chauvinist Italy – is already giving the country more political credibility. And Italian women have other strong female role models, too. In 2010, when 3,000 police officers swooped on elements of the Calabrian Mafia, arresting more than 300 in the biggest such operation in more than 40 years, they were acting on orders from Ilda Boccassini, a prosecutor with a fearsome reputation. (It was Boccassini who presided over Berlusconi’s sex charges.)
And while the Italian economy has suffered more than others at the hands of the recession, female entrepreneurship in the country has grown steadily in. Between 1992 and 2005, the number of female-owned businesses grew by nearly 40%, and women control or own almost a quarter of Italian companies, according to Italian Chambers of Commerce figures.
The Next Generation
It’s not only legislators and Oriana Fallaci readers who are fighting back against the legacy of Berlusconi and Italy’s macho past. Women on the streets of Milan feel it just as fiercely: “I think Berlusconi perpetuated many stereotypes and sexist ideas about women and though not everyone believed in his views, he was still the most visible Italian in the country,” says Sara Rosso from Milan. “His actions have served as examples of how to treat and value women, they saw their best chances of becoming successful was to be as attractive as possible.”
Paradoxically, in a society where motherhood is held at such a premium, growing numbers of Italian women are choosing not to marry or have children, seeing it as the only sure way to secure their independence and a career. Italy now has one of the lowest birthrates in Europe. One such person is Christina Agnelli, a 22-year-old university student who attended the Sciarpa Bianca march. She says she’s grateful for Berlusconi: “He helped to concentrate the mind, to remind us of just how thoroughly sick and misogynist Italy has become. We needed him and his orgies to help us refocus. He reinvigorated the women’s movement.” Lorella Pellizone, a Milanese woman of 50, and veteran of hundreds of demonstrations feels the march was a much-needed reaction to the state of the nation.
“Berlusconi pulled us and Italy back in time and he forced us to re-fight battles we had long considered to be won. Of course, when the leader of your country is accused of sleeping with a teenage girl, a minor, you must come out onto the streets and register your disgust. It proves to me he has no respect for any female – we are all there simply to be f*cked and thrown away. That day, women were demanding dignity, because without dignity we are less than human. But should that have been a battle we should have been fighting in the second decade of the 21st century?”
Pellizone understands what it is to be a woman in Italy. Old enough to remember the referendum on divorce but not old enough to have voted, since her early teens she has involved herself in feminism and left-leaning politics. Now she helps with No TAV, a movement ostensibly dedicated to stopping a high-speed rail link through the Susa Valley (near the French border in the Western Alps), which has in actuality become a rallying point for those who oppose the austerity measures of Italy’s new premier, Mario Monti, and see the tunnel as yet another example of political duplicity.
The ongoing protest has had a reshaping effect on the way Italy’s women view themselves. “It’s very hard for a man and fairly hard for any woman who is not Italian to understand what years of thinking in a certain way can do to your mind,” explains Pellizone. “So the first thing we must do is reprogramme ourselves. Facebook and Twitter have been enormously important.” Agnelli agrees: “I have met so many girls who see the world as I do. Now I have this sense that with my sisters on Facebook we are truly a movement.” “Things are changing,” says Pellizone. “Perhaps not in law but in attitudes. Italian men may not realise it yet but our struggle is their struggle. We are pushing, harder every day. It may take a revolution but Italy will change.”
Do you agree that women in Italy are fighting back? Let us know what you think in the comments below or tweet us @StylistMagazine with the hashtag #womeninitaly
Picture credit: Rex Features and Getty Images