Enough Machismo Italian Style

Italy is a place full of contradictions.

It is a country with quality education but poor career opportunities; extraordinary culture and beauty but poor protection of its artistic and natural treasures.

It is one of the Group of 8 most industrialized countries, but with regard to women it seems stuck in the Middle Ages. It is always at the bottom of European statistics related to female employment (only 46 percent of Italian women work, in contrast to an average 59 percent in the rest of the European Union), women’s wages and the number of women in influential positions.

It is a country where each citizen is strongly connected to a community but is also left alone by an unequal, distant and often corrupt state system.

In the past few weeks, however, the country has seen debates and mass demonstrations that leave us hopeful that the country might find its way to a dignified, more equal, less fragmented future. This is due in large part to the response of Italy’s women and men to the latest of many embarrassing scandals that have revealed a society in which women are too often not taken seriously.

The scandals have sparked a broader debate on the role of women in Italian society. This debate stretches back to October 2009, when during a TV talk show Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi told a well-respected, 58-year-old female politician, “You are increasingly more beautiful than you are intelligent.” She replied, “I am not one of the women at your disposal, prime minister.”

Indeed, many Italian women feel that men — or at least some men — look at them as if they are interchangeable goods, to be disposed of at their will.

But last week, thousands of women and men filled the streets to protest such affronts to the dignity of women. Demonstrations have taken place in almost every Italian city and also abroad, and, as far as we have seen, they were crowded, peaceful and lacking in partisan politics. The organizers specifically asked that participants not carry political signs, as this was meant to be a demonstration for every woman, whatever her political views. Many people, however, saw the protests — not without reason — as a political manifestation against Berlusconi.

In our view, the recent scandals involving our prime minister are just the last drop, though the cup has been filled over many years.

For decades, women have been used on Italian television shows as speechless bodies serving an audience-enhancement purpose. It is enough to turn the TV to any channel at any time to observe this. Advertisements also often make use of women’s bodies to sell everything from tires to antivirus software, using sexual double-entendre, and sometimes even brutal slogans.

We remember once, at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport, staring shocked at a huge advertisement for holiday cruises displaying six half-turned naked women and the slogan, “We have the best backsides in Italy” (in Italian the word also means breast).

Many Italian men would look at this image of women as the normal role of females. Becoming a showgirl is, in fact, a tempting ambition for many teenagers — their looks are often the only road to success, riches and sometimes even a political career. When women are appointed to political office based on their beauty portfolio, as has happened several times, they might learn how to do a good job, but they will never be taken seriously (as an intelligent and also beautiful government minister, who used to be a showgirl, recently learned).

Last year, at a ceremony conferring the prestigious Campiello literary award, a well-known journalist, on presenting the prize, commented on the low-cut dress of the young, promising winner and asked the camera to zoom in. In the debate that followed, many argued that the woman should have worn a different dress if she did not want to hear such comments.

We have all suffered, or have seen friends suffer, from one form or another of machismo: professors not taking us seriously, boyfriends expecting us to perform typical housewife roles and not willing to share tasks, relatives reminding us that since we are women we should not be overly ambitious — we should marry an average man, take up the household chores, bear his children, take care of his parents and find an average job to help with the family budget.

If we dare to say that we want to struggle for the job that we dream of, that we have worked and studied hard to have that opportunity, we often get labeled as “wonderwomen” or heartless “career girls.” Indeed, we know plenty of girls who have studied hard but now just follow their boyfriends, abandoning their own careers.

We have met plenty of girls who are much more intelligent and hard-working than their male colleagues, but who still feel the need to justify whatever success they have. Of course, this is not just an Italian problem, but we have traveled across Europe and beyond and have never seen advertisements as shocking as those in Italy, or so many half-naked women on afternoon TV-shows, or women judged more for their appearance than for what their brains and souls have to offer.

But there is another Italy. It is made up of women and men who are sick and tired of this narrow-minded vision, who do not perceive old men taking advantage of their riches and power to get young girls as a model to follow.

We know many men who do not ask their partners to make sure their pasta is cooked “al dente” when they get back home from work; many professors who do value their students’ intelligence.

These men cook and iron, they are proud of their partners’ professional success, they enjoy female beauty but they find it more appealing when it does not insult women’s intelligence. These men are also able to respect a woman’s professional capacity, to admire her for her intellectual qualities and to suggest she should be ambitious — as ambitious as a man, and even more if she so wishes. These men are our dads, our friends, our colleagues. Another Italy is possible and it is partly already here. It is time for a change.

By Chiara Ruffa, a postdoctoral research fellow at the International Security Program at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center and Rosa Raffaelli, who holds a doctorate from the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy. Both are Italian citizens.

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