Ms. magazine  -- more than a magazine a movement


| summer 2004

Italy: The Energy of Outrage
As economy falters, women made to blame

Does Berlusconi expect his wife Veronica to "buy cheaper goods"? Corbis Sygma

Guess who Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi suddenly cares about? “The Voghera housewife.” Voghera is the equivalent of a small, somewhat provincial U.S. city, and most Italian politicians contemptuously regard “housewives” as incarnating the lowest form of civic consciousness — e.g., dumb.

But housewives or not, Italian women are smarter — and now angrier — than politicians think.

For instance, we know all too well about the increasing poverty the Euro monetary system has created in Italy: financial speculation, a skyrocketing increase in the cost of living, plus runaway growth in unemployment and “flexibility,” a euphemism meaning “disposable and redundant” when applied to the labor force. Meanwhile, Italians face the erosion of their welfare state — formerly one of the most efficient social-services delivery systems in Europe — due to brutal cuts in public funds and increasing privatization of such services as education and health. Especially for women — employed, unemployed, working at home, native-born, or immigrant — this is a crisis.

Nor is that all. The incremental decline of what we once considered our social rights — full-time public schools, health care for the sick and elderly, oldage pensions — means extra work for women, forced to shoulder these carecorbi giving functions (for free) in addition to everything we’re already doing, including the classic double burden of paid job and unpaid domestic work. Prime Minister Berlusconi and President Carlo Ciampi, joint perpetrators of a perverse new political spin, claim this “trend” augurs the “inevitable” return of women to our “natural tasks.”

Berlusconi recently scolded women to make ends meet by doing “as my mother did. Compare prices, buy only the cheaper foods and goods. Be smart. Save your money.” In other words, blame yourselves and scramble to survive, since we politicians have better things to do than protect the buying power of your salaries. Ciampi, during his televised speech on International Women’s Day, reprimanded Italian women, saying that “our cradles are empty,” fulminating that the country cannot accept zero population growth (Italy has the second lowest fertility rate in Europe).

Apparently only for this reason, Ciampi has called for more flexibility in women’s employment schedules, more day-care centers and improved public transportation — and has “invited” men to help with domestic tasks. Given such adjustments, the right-wing government assumes, women will gleefully flock back to fulltime childbearing and child-rearing.

In such a “family-oriented” political climate, a new law, No. 1.514, regulates all access to techniques of medically assisted procreation (PMA). The bill was approved late last year, despite intense opposition from a multi-party coalition of women in Parliament. Ciampi signed it on February 19, 2004, without deigning to respond to an appeal by 50 distinguished women jurists urging him to block the bill. Mariagrazia Campari, a feminist lawyer from Milan, warns that “since the law bestows the status of a ‘person’ on the newly conceived, this creates a conflict with the mother, who becomes a ‘double person.’ The pregnant woman has de facto become the carrier of two different, potentially contrasting subjectivities, which is unconstitutional.”

Furthermore, the law prohibits most — and controls all — assisted fertilization fertilization techniques. Only “stable” heterosexual couples of childbearing age may apply for assisted reproduction — but even they cannot use donor sperm, donor eggs or birth surrogacy. Moreover, only three embryos can be created during each attempt at insemination, and all three must be implanted in the woman’s womb. Singles, lesbian and gay couples, and sterile heterosexual couples wanting children will all be obliged to travel to a more civilized European country.

Other aspects of this law are, according to Campari, equally unacceptable: “Once the implantation has taken place, the woman can no longer revoke consent, even if serious pathologies develop. This conflicts with Article 32 of our Constitution, which forbids any medical treatment against the will of the subject involved.”

How could such a medieval law pass?

The influence of the Vatican can never be underestimated. Furthermore, backlash plays a part: In the 1990s, Italy became a global center for alternative reproductive/fertilization techniques. But the simplest explanation is the overwhelmingly male majority in Parliament. During the debate, Campari notes, “The behavior of Parliament was that of a barracks, with sexist insults hurled at the congresswomen. To the slogan, ‘No compromise on a woman’s body,’ congressmen actually shouted: ‘Women’s place is the bedroom, not the Parliament.’”

Women are organizing to fight back, especially on political and legal fronts. “We will collect cases and bring them before the Constitutional Court,” vows Campari. “We will also protect and legally defend all the women and men who transgress the law.”

Meanwhile, a more narrowly focused aspect of the campaign against women’s bodily integrity is also pro voking outrage. Dr. Omar Abdulcadir, a Somali physician practicing in Florence, has proposed an alternative to female genital mutilation (FGM) practiced in some immigrant communities. He administers a “pinprick” on the girl’s clitoris “to draw blood as symbolic cutting,” or “soft infibulation,” so that “both the girl and the tradition can be saved.” Outrage to his so-called alternative has been overwhelming, from both immigrant and Italian women.

Dyie Ndiaye, an immigrant leader working with Alma Mater, a feminist organization in Turin, decries such “progress” as regression, noting that “in Sudan, the struggle against FGM started in the 1920s, in Somalia in the 1950s.” Cristiana Scoppa, of the Italian Association for Women in Development, says Abdulcadir’s solution would “undermine the fight of women throughout Africa, who have said that no form of genital mutilation can be permitted and that it symbolizes a culture that submits women to the control of men.”

Activist Mariam Ismail, of the Milan-based feminist group Donne in Rete, says, “Neither cultural relativism nor ‘symbolic stigmatization’ are solutions to the practice of mutilating a woman’s body,” adding, “As an emancipated African woman, I feel humiliated by this ‘shortcut,’ which denies the struggles of generations of women.” A bill is pending in Parliament that would criminalize all FGM practices in Italy.

The Italian women’s movement, feeling somewhat besieged, has nonetheless taken heart from recent Spanish elections that overthrew an ultraconservative government. Energized by outrage, feminists are mobilizing. After all, it was Italian women who took to the streets and won legalized abortion, right in the Vatican’s back yard, as early as 1978.