*This post of mine was also published on Forbes Woman.*
Years ago when I lived in Rome, it was quite a challenge to spend a day without experiencing the country’s notorious ‘machismo’ culture. Right along with your morning cappuccino and brioche would likely be a side of sexism, some sort of reminder that as a woman in this Mediterranean paradise, you are just barely more than an object.
“Women, they only want to get an education to work so they can buy expensive handbags,” an old man once mumbled to me as I grabbed my books from the cafe counter en route to class.
The manner in which the male gaze is an accepted part of life in Italy speaks volumes to where gender relations stand in the country. Playfully passed on as ‘Italian manly charm’, to me there could not be a more clear indicator of a much larger problem the country has yet to fully confront: violence against women.
The current domestic violence crisis in Italy is so bad that Prime Minister, Enrico Letta referred to the country’s killing of women at the hands of current or former lovers as femicide. Already this year, almost a hundred women have died in cases of intimate partner violence, and in 2012 a United Nations’ report labelled domestic abuse in Italy as the “most pervasive form of violence” in the country, affecting over 30 percent of Italian women.
The report also stipulated out that the majority of Italian women who were abused, almost 90% did not report the incidents to the police.Prime Minister Letta introduced new laws to protect women against domestic violence in hopes to make it easier to prosecute perpetrators.
“We are at war against femicide,” Letta acknowledged at a press conference introducing the legislation which includes stricter penalties for men who attack pregnant women, harass or stalk current or ex-girlfriends and wives, and allows police to remove an abuser from the family home.
But critics point out that it is not only the legal system that is failing women, but Italian culture is guilty, too. In fact, ‘honor killings’, commonly referred to in the context of domestic violence issues in the Middle East, was actually considered legal in Italy up until 1981.
The real factors that contribute to violence against women go beyond anything that tougher laws and more shelters can resolve. In Italy where the family structure is considered more sacred than the lives of the women in it, the larger issue is about the persistence of a culture where women are not viewed as equal to men.
Italian women are still most commonly associated with the stereotypical image of “Mama,” the always cooking, nurturing domestic woman with her endless supply of pasta and babies. Even Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi actively reinforced stereotypes of Italian women as sex-objects with lurid and drawn out legal cases of orgies, and proven allegations of sex with minors.
The UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, Rashida Manjoo, recognized that Italy has an urgent need to tackle their domestic violence pandemic. “Most manifestations of violence are under-reported in the context of a family-oriented and patriarchal society where domestic violence is not always perceived as a crime,” Manjoo said.
Laws and shelters may protect women from their abusers to an extent and may be important steps to take, but until Italian society changes their cultural attitudes towards women’s rights and accepts them as human rights, domestic violence will continue to be this beautiful country’s ugly struggle.
*This post of mine was also published on Forbes Woman.