BY EMILY CLAUS
Italian culture was the first thing that came to mind when I arrived on my year abroad in Verona. A country famous for its great food, ancient cities and beautiful coastlines, I couldn’t wait to start my year here. The city of Verona itself is pretty, both historical and charming, situated in the Veneto region of North East Italy. Don’t get me wrong, for the most part I love living here. But underneath the Aperol spritz happy hours and mountains of freshly baked pizza, there exists a more serious problem in the way Italian society treats women.
I first experienced this discrimination three days into my year abroad when a friend and I were walking back to our apartment at night. As we passed a group of men outside a betting shop, one man - old enough to be my dad - shouted that we looked like ‘a good bit of pussy.’ I was, of course, absolutely horrified. Even though I have experienced a fair share of inappropriate comments from the opposite sex throughout my lifetime, this was definitely the worst. It felt like a wakeup call to the reality of living in a country where comments like these are seen as acceptable; a thing that women just have to ignore as they’re an intrinsic part of Italian male culture.
Underneath the everyday sexism, however, there are more serious issues regarding women in Italy. For example, femicide. It’s estimated that the number of femicide cases in Italy amounts to 1 killing every 3 days, with the national newspaper La Repubblica reporting 106 women in Italy were killed between January and October of last year. From 77-year-old Fernanda Paoletti killed by her ex-lover in Verona, to 16-year-old Desirée Mariottini who was gang raped and murdered in Rome, these figures show that such tragic loss of life doesn’t discriminate against age.
There has also been a significant increase in the number of female victims of sexual violence and assault in Italy. In 2014, Istat reported that 21.5% of Italian women between 16-70 years old had experienced this type of abuse in their lives. That’s just over 1 in 5. On top of this shocking statistic, the report revealed that the number of Italian women who confessed they feared for their own lives has doubled in the period 2006 to 2014. This shows a dangerous regression in times when there have been global movements which have brought positive changes to gender politics internationally.
Italy’s own feminist movement non una di meno (not one less) has recently demonstrated in Rome to commemorate these victims of sexual violence, but there still remains a lot to do in order to permanently change Italy’s social attitudes towards women. Only recently I came across a letter in a newspaper written by a male reader that mentioned ‘stupid exaggerated stories about female abuse just to make the front pages’ and the fact that the number of femicide victims by partners or ex-partners had actually ‘dropped from 150 to 121 in the period 2008-2017’. He made it sound like it was some sort of achievement we should all be celebrating.
Yet the part of sexism in Italy that struck me most of all was the attitude portrayed in the media by prominent Italian figures and personalities. It seems the progression we have seen in other European countries toward gender equality has been unable to penetrate or challenge Italy’s deep machismo culture.
In 2016, Matteo Salvini (leader of the far-right Lega party and one of the most powerful political figures in Italy) compared Laura Boldrini (then president of the parliament chamber of deputies) to a blow up sex doll. And just this April, Massimo Ferrero (president of Sampdoria football team and Italian businessman- think Italian version of Alan Sugar) compared the exit door of his club to a woman since it is ‘penetrated but not talked about.’ Although these instances are reported on, they never seem to cause the outrage that they would if such things happened in the UK. Unfortunately, these comments are instead deemed ‘normal’.
Furthermore, during the Weinstein case, Italian actress Asia Argento was accused of ‘prostitution’ by newspapers in Italy after she released a testimony of abuse. Victim blaming is a common reaction to reports of rape and assault here, which then translates into wider society telling men that it’s normal to act this way. As one of my Italian friends told me, if a man shouts at you in the street it’s a compliment- even if the phrase is derogatory, you should just accept it.
In today’s society, people are quick to point out that in the western world gender issues have improved significantly and pale into comparison to the plight many women suffer in other parts of the world. While this holds substance, and we should most definitely be supporting organisations trying to change the situation of these women, it is dangerous to assume that the western world has attained equality. As a New York Times article stated recently ‘in Italy #metoo is more like meh,’ and if politicians don’t recognise this problem, then internalised sexism and domestic violence will continue to plague one of Europe’s most fascinating countries.
Image Credit: Alessandro Passoni