Never has the gender gap seemed so wide in Italy, but things could be about to change, says Cristina Odone
‘Basta!” (Enough!) cried a million women, as they poured out into the streets of every major Italian city last Sunday. They were calling time on the premiership of Silvio Berlusconi.
It was a very feminine protest: housewives, actresses, business women (Miuccia Prada, of the luxury leather goods firm, was there). In their Gucci shades and Prada handbags, most were angry but civilised, and opted for sarcasm (“We like sex, not bunga bunga!”) rather than Molotov cocktails.
“Women want to stop Berlusconi and his trashing of our values,” said Raffaella Neri, editor of La Comuna, a small independent newspaper, who organised the march in Florence. She welcomed the ruling by an all-female jury that he should be tried on charges of sex with a minor and abuse of power, and she is already preparing for another nationwide women’s protest on March 8, to mark Women’s Day.
Next month’s protest, like last weekend’s, will expose not only Berlusconi’s fading credibility and popularity; but also the gender gap in Italian society. Although men did turn out last Sunday, (30 per cent of the crowd in Florence, according to Neri) the marchers were overwhelmingly female. There had been nothing like it since the 1970s, when women campaigned for the right to divorce and abortion.
Italian men have been very forgiving of Berlusconi. They see him as the little man who made it big, the former ship’s crooner who now sits at top table with the President of the United States. He’s the 72-year-old who can still pull the girls, the fun-lover who knows how to savour every moment of la dolce vita… most Italian men don’t just like their head of state – they want to be like him.
But the women of my native land have had a rough time under “il Cavaliere” (the gentleman). For generations, women have had to observe a careful balancing act: they are the matriarchs who guard the sacred concept of the family and rule the roost, but also the partners of chippy machos who must be allowed to think that they’re in charge. La mamma is all-powerful, but she must not let papa lose face. This philosophy has meant that Italian women accommodate far more in their marriages than their British counterparts would countenance. I know of Italian wives who shrug off their husband’s very public flirtations as if they were naughty boys indulging their sweet tooth; the result is infantilised men, but a quiet life – and impregnable status for the women.
Berlusconi, however, with his sexual excesses (the latest, allegedly, a 17-year-old prostitute) and constant undermining of women (he divorced his wife and turned porn stars into politicians) has taken a hammer to the pillar that was a woman’s place in society.
His obsession with sex permeates his broadcasting empire: popular quiz shows star semi-naked presenters and Strictly Come Dancing-style competitions focus on sexually suggestive acts, such as a provocatively dressed girl eating a banana. Berlusconi’s selection of weather girls and former models to hold political posts – Mara Carfagna, his equal opportunities minister, was a topless model – has demeaned women in Parliament as well as on prime time.
The Berlusconizazzione of Italy has contributed to some sobering statistics: last year, the World Economic Forum placed the country 74th in the world for its treatment of women; sexual violence, in particular domestic violence, is on the rise. Berlusconi’s regime has compromised more than personal safety, though. Italy’s net deficit is more than 100 per cent of GDP, and its productivity lags behind Britain’s and Germany’s.
Even the most macho Italian must resent the way the premier who should be leading the nation out of its economic woes fritters away his time with belly-dancers. So far, the anti-Berlusconi demonstrators have not turned out on an Egyptian scale. Next month, though, they may change their tune. When they do, the one-time crooner may have sung his last.