Italian feminism resurgent?

Submitted by Matthew on 28 March, 2012 - 6:04

Kate Devine, Erasmus student at the University of Turin, looks into the recent resurgence of feminism in Italy, and asks what has brought tens of thousands into the streets.


On 11 February 2011 hundreds of thousands of women piled into the streets of Italian cities and towns to shout “Se non ora, quando?” (“If not now, when?”). For decades Italy has lagged behind the rest of Europe and much of the wider world when it comes to gender equality.

The media perpetuates a damaging stereotype of women as nothing more than window dressing; so much so, that even though 60% of Italian graduates are female, opinion polls indicate that show-girl (a ubiquitous presence on much Italian TV) is the number one aspiration for young Italian women.

The World Economics Forum’s Gender Gap Report 2010 ranks Italy globally as 74th in terms of gender equality; behind Columbia, Peru and Vietnam. Wage parity (121st) and opportunities to take leading positions (97th) are some of the worst measures.

Even on that rare occasion when a woman does achieve a position of power, as with Mara Cafagna (Minister for Equal Opportunity from 2008-11) it is compromised. Even she will admit that you don’t have to be pretty to get on, but it helps.

All this paints a pretty bleak picture of what it is to be a woman in Italy, but many are fighting back against this entrenched Italian patriarchy. I have spoken to women from various new activist groups, as well as doing some research of my own, in an effort to get a clearer picture of Italian feminism.

I began by asking about the precedence of Italian feminist thought and activism: has there always been a strong tradition? Or is this a new phenomenon?

I spoke to Se non Ora Quando? (SNOQ), probably the largest and most prominent group of gender-equality activists.

The organisation is still less than two years old, but constitutes a diverse group of tens of thousands of women who have orchestrated demonstrations across Italy on an unprecedented scale. They insist that there is indeed a “strong and theoretically rich tradition”, though they admit that over the last 20 years or so “the movement seemed silent, unable to speak to the younger generation, and to face the political changes.”

It’s hard to determine why that might have been. It has been suggested that the cause may lie in the anti-climax of the 1970s feminist movement in Italy. Although it achieved great steps forward in terms of the legalisation of divorce (1974) and of abortion (1978), it fizzled out after a descent into factionalism and a seeming lack of universally uniting causes.

It also saw Italian women retreat into the only domain which was wholly theirs, the family and the home. While the rest of the western world pressed on with female emancipation, Italy seemed to have stalled.

I asked whether this new wave of feminism differed markedly from those in the past.

The Femminile Plurale bloggers told me: “The new generation of feminists is divided into different currents. On one side there is a current of more traditional feminists, identifiable in the new movement ‘Se non ora, quando?’ that bring to the fore their own demands linked with the Democratic Party. The results of this investment in traditional politics remain to be seen.

“On the other side, there are feminists that are using the internet to spread their own reflections and initiatives. This method certainly wasn’t part of the feminism of the 70s and represents, therefore, an innovation.”

Given the state of Italian television today, as veritable plaything for the likes of Berlusconi and his cronies, this alternative way of disseminating ideas and news is vital to any liberation movement. It must be frustrating, then, to know that although the internet is teeming with independent news and opinion sites, still, in Italy, 80% of the public’s knowledge of current affairs comes directly from television.

As the women from SNOQ see things, this current revival is “as radical as the precedent” and, they are quick to emphasise, “it is not as separatist and anti-institutional as the old one.”

This seeming praise of a more institution-friendly approach seems odd to me, especially given the state of “legitimate” Italian politics at present. Even the supposedly left-of-centre “Partito Democratico” (with whom SNOQ have been loosely associated) support Monti, a prime minister whose public spending cuts are having a disproportionately detrimental effect on women’s lives.

It is hard to collect accurate statistics with regard to domestic violence, sexual harassment, and rape, anywhere in the world. Though occasions of these offences are not thought to be hugely high in Italy, I was interested to know how the issues are perceived, dealt with, and campaigned against.

I spoke to Zeroviolenzadonne, a web-based group who aim to disseminate information and promote awareness and discussion of these issues. They pointed me to a recent visit from the “UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women”, Rashida Manjoo.

She had highlighted a recent increase in cases of femicide and domestic violence in the country, and was keen to stress that the current economic situation was no justification for decreased attention and resources allocated to these issues.

She also uncovered an uncomfortable truth about the majority of instances of domestic violence: “Most manifestations of violence are under-reported in the context of a family-oriented and patriarchal society where domestic violence is not always perceived as a crime, there is economic dependency, and there are perceptions that the state response to such complaints will not be appropriate or helpful”.

I asked whether there were campaigns, on university campuses for example, that aimed to tackle the problem of violence against women. The reply was disheartening: “there have been a few sporadic campaigns” they said, but they were disappointed with their focus; generally centring around the criminality of the act, rather than on the proper relationship between men and women.

They did emphasise that there have been better focused campaigns run by students themselves, but these initiatives are “hindered by the disparity of economic means that big companies have at their disposal for promoting huge publicity campaigns using the bodies of women, or the role of the mother, in order to sell products”.

It’s obvious then, that at least for Zeroviolenzadonne, the proliferation of these damaging female stereotypes is a contributing factor to the level of violence against women in the country. The image of women as meat, as “prosciutto”, as one eminent journalist recently put it, that pervades most media outlets, is not just bad taste, it actively perpetuates their subordinate status in Italian society.

I asked whether they thought this was the case.

“In society and in the media, the woman is often represented in a reductive manner nearly exclusively as a sexual object or a mother,” said Zeroviolenzadonne.

“In this way one creates a fertile terrain for discrimination and violence based on gender.

“Advertising and TV commercials in Italy are the demonstration of this reactionary and chauvinistic way of seeing women that can’t but be harmful and contribute to maintaining stereotypes and prejudicial behaviour.”

* Kate Devine blogs here