Women battle 'sexist mentality' as Berlusconi appears poised for election comeback

When global awareness of sexism, harassment and under-representation of women is at an all-time high, many Italians seem set to support former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Actor-director Asia Argento says Berlusconi 'turned women into bodies to be used.'

In the #MeToo era, polls suggest 37% of Italians plan to vote for his right-wing coalition

Asia Argento, one of the first women to go public about her alleged rape by Harvey Weinstein, speaking at a small #MeToo rally in Rome on Jan. 20. (Megan Williams/CBC)

In late January, as the #MeToo marches attracted thousands of women to the streets in North America and the campaign for Italy's national election was revving up, several hundred women holding #MeToo signs and donning pink pussy hats gathered in a historic piazza in Rome.

There, Italian actor-director Asia Argento took to the small stage and delivered an emotional speech about her decision to go public about her alleged rape by Harvey Weinstein when she was 21.

She also described the backlash against her in the Italian media, where some male journalists called her a slut and accused her of enjoying the alleged assault.

As Argento went to wrap up her speech, she erupted in rage and launched a rant against not Weinstein, but former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

"That pig of a politician polluted our DNA and turned women into bodies to be used! We cannot elect him again!"

She criticizes former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, 'that pig of a politician!' 1:17

Yet, in a historical moment where global awareness of sexism, harassment and under-representation of women is at an all-time high, many Italians seem set to do just that on Sunday. Berlusconi himself cannot hold office due to a tax fraud conviction, but he is the driving force behind the Forza Italia party and the right-wing coalition.

Most recent polls suggest 37 per cent of Italians intend to vote for the right-wing coalition headed by the billionaire octogenarian, renowned for insulting female politicians for their looks, organizing parties with prostitutes and being charged for paying for sex with a minor.

Any suggestion Berlusconi has changed his ways, say critics, was dispelled by his recent admonishment of a female reporter for her firm handshake, with Berlusconi suggested she weaken her grasp if she wanted to find a husband.

Lorella Zanardo has spent more than a decade educating girls and young women about women's rights. She calls the return of Berlusconi a terrible blow. (Lorella Zanardo)
Critics of the media mogul hail his return as evidence of the tragic state of Italian politics. Yet, there's been little discussion about what his political renaissance might mean for women.

"It's terrible for me because I had been fighting this sexist mentality for 10 years," says Lorella Zanardo.

The Milan-based Zanardo almost singlehandedly launched a national discussion about the rampant sexism in public discourse during the decade or so in which Berlusconi had a near monopoly over Italian TV, as owner of the private networks and head of the public ones.

Her online video Women's Bodies, a critique of the highly sexualized and humiliating depiction of women on Italian TV, garnered millions of views. She devotes herself to educating young people about gender equality.

'These young female ministers didn't care about women's issues."— Lorella Zanardo

But Zanardo doesn't just blame Berlusconi for what she calls the "sad condition" of women in Italy.

"You have to consider that in these last five years, we didn't have Berlusconi. We had [centre-left Matteo] Renzi who put a lot women, young women, in the government," says Zanardo. "It's terrible to say, but these young female ministers didn't care about women's issues. We could have used those years to get stronger, but we didn't and we are now weak."

She fears the high number of female ministers in that government, about 30 per cent, will prove to be a one-off.

In the latest World Economic Forum report on the global gender gap, Italy ranks 82nd of 144 countries on gender parity, a fall from 50th position from last year, with Malta and Cypus the only other EU countries lower on the list. When it comes to salary parity and labour force participation, Italy ranks even lower, with only 49 per cent of women working outside the home.
Longtime politician and feminist Emma Bonino is leader of the pro-EU More Europe Party, expected to get about 3 per cent of the vote. (CBC)

Economist Elisabetta Addis with the University of Sassari says the low participation of Italian women in the workplace means that unlike in other Western countries, Italian women tend to vote much the same way the men in their lives do.

"Where women's participation in the labour force is high, women usually vote to the left of men. In Italy, because so many women are dependent on the material resources of their husbands or fathers, they don't have any channel of socialization other than their families. They're not exchanging ideas with colleagues."

Pro-women policies in the right-wing parties that make up Berlusconi's coalition, say observers, are virtually non-existent, except for discussion on how to raise Italy's birth rate, one of the lowest in the world. Left-wing  parties, including the diminished Democratic Party, have more specific plans, mostly focused on how to get more women into the workplace.

In the smaller parties women are better represented.

Emma Bonino, a veteran politician and leader of the liberal More Europe Party is one of the most outspoken on women's issue, as is Laura Boldrini, Speaker of the House and a feminist crusader who has been a constant target of right-wing ridicule and death threats. 
Viola Carfalo leads the small, newly formed Power to the People Party, the only one with more than 50 per cent female candidates. (Megan Williams/CBC)

The new left-wing, youth-driven party Power to the People, headed by philosophy professor Viola Carofalo, 37, is the only one with more than 50 per cent female candidates.

Parties manipulate the system

Still, Italy is far from having a women's agenda. Most parties are actively circumventing a new electoral law that requires 40 per cent of parties' top candidates to be female,

Part of the electoral system is proportional, with lists of candidates for each riding. In order to meet the 40 per cent criterion, most parties are putting the same strong female candidate on multiple lists, knowing she can only represent one riding even if elected in all. The ones she won but could not represent would go to the next man on the list.
"It's a clear pattern," says Filippo Trinconi , a political science professor at the University of Bologna. "The parties are playing around with the electoral rules to have more men than women. But nobody is talking about this."
But Carofalo says women are. 
"It's a trick, a ploy," she says, "And the men at the head of these parties should be ashamed."

About the Author

Megan Williams

Rome correspondent

Megan Williams is a Canadian foreign correspondent and writer based in Rome. Her radio documentaries and reports from around the world have won many awards. She covers everything from the Vatican, culture and corruption to Italy's ongoing refugee crisis.