Mariastella Gelmini, the Italian minister of education, has defined the huge protests by Italian women on Sunday under the Primo Levi-inspired slogan “If not now, when?” as a “radical chic” get-together. In fact, the size of the march and diversity of the protesters had taken many by surprise: the media, the government, even the opposition. A million people took to the streets in 230 Italian cities and 30 other places abroad, including women of all ages and even a few men. Not “radical chic” at all.
“I haven’t seen such motivated participation at a demonstration on the streets since the victory of the resistance against fascism,” said an old male partisan marching alongside young girls in Torino. Film director Cristina Comencini, one of the sponsors of the march, said: “We want to be proud of the progress we made in history and we are tired of the representation of women as mere objects of sexual exchange that this government keeps offering us.”
But Italian feminists are divided. Many resisted the call to the streets, arguing it was a contradictory and counterproductive crusade. Maria Nadotti wrote in Il Corriere della Sera that: “I find it saddening, troubling and scary that behind the invitation to awaken there is a veiled, maybe unconscious form of racism filled with sexism and classism: sacrificial women (those who go to bed early and wake up early) versus call girls (those who go to bed with their boss), morality versus apathy of sentiments, souls versus bodies. We, women and men, are made of all this. The contradiction — or the complexity — is inside us. Beware of those who divide us, pitting one against the other and inviting us to participate in crusades.”
On a similar note, Elena Loewenthal in La Stampa said that “it’s our premier’s dignity that is compromised, not ours … why should we feel the urge to defend our dignity?”. Even Valeria Ottonelli, philosophy and public ethics professor at the University of Genova, took a stance against Sunday’s march in an interview with Affari Italiani. “Women are mortified by the female unemployment data, the salaries and the career perspectives, the precarious jobs … not by the symbolic mercification of their bodies on television. Instead of ‘If not now, when?’ the slogan should be ‘Any other time, but not now.'”
Wider problem with women
To an extent, they have a point. Italy does have a wider problem with women. For a start, we suffer from a huge gender gap: more women graduate than men, with better grades, yet only one in two has a paid job. Women are paid 16.8% less than their male colleagues. One woman in four leaves her job after maternity; of every 100 children only 10 find a place in daycare, fewer than five in 100 in a public nursery.
Women represent only 21% of government ministers, and less than 20% of deputies in parliament. In public companies, only 6,8% of board members are women, while they account for only 3,8% of CEOs. Women professors have half the chance of their male colleagues of getting tenure at an Italian university, and according to Eurostat, in 2010 Italian women were half as likely as Italian men to become legislators, managers and entrepreneurs.
One line that is often repeated is that Italy does have a tradition of strong maternal figures within the family. Yet statistics on employment, paychecks and representation give an idea of how little that amounts to once we stray into the public realm. It’s not only a problem of Silvio Berlusconi’s politics: leftist politics in Italy in the past never promoted women either.
Things are likely to change. To promote gender diversity, Italy is on its way to passing the quota requirement, so-called quote rosa (pink quota), on the boards of companies, unions and institutions. The law, required by the European parliament, is being discussed in the senate and should be ready for approval by parliament next week. If it passes, it’s a step in the right direction, even if Italian women will have to thank Europe for it.
The Sunday protest was a refreshing new starting point. There was no victimism, none of the usual attributing all evil to one enemy, but no fear of barricades either. It is a pity that some feminists in Italy, promptly welcomed by the male-led media, failed to embrace it. The day after the demonstration, after realising its enormous success, there is hope that many may have changed their mind. But if they did, none admitted it publicly.
It is bitter to admit that in 2011 Italian women have to take to the streets simply to remind us that they have a mind not just a body, while in more civilised countries women campaign for paternity leave, better childcare for working mothers and more progressive adoption laws. But the fact that on Sunday one million demonstrators said “basta!” is a positive and welcome sign to the whole world watching astonished from abroad. And it is with a bittersweet sense of irony that the news broke that Berlusconi will go on trial on April 6 for paying for sex with an underage prostitute and abusing his powers in the attempt to cover up the alleged offence. The three judges, incidentally, are women. If not now, when? – guardian.co.uk