Let’s play a word association game: if I said Italy, what would come to mind? Would you say gelato, good food, Vespa, cute guys, fashion and maybe history? When I think of Italy, now that I have spent half my life away from it, often I romanticize it the way visitors tend to, while still being aware of the incongruities my country harbors: nightmarish bureaucracy, corruption, a general sense of selfishness, works of art left to rot, sexism, unemployment. Lately, to the list of ailments that afflict Italy we have been forced to add “feminicide”.
They used to be called crimes of passion: a man kills his woman out of jealousy, betrayal or just sheer lunacy. No country is immune but, in the last few years, the old boot has seen more than its fair share, and not a week goes by without one such crime hitting the news. Xenophobes are quick to point the finger towards the new immigration from Northern Africa and Eastern Europe but statistics tell us 75% of such crimes are committed by born and bred Italian men, the majority of whom never suffered from mental illness.
Not particularly fond of numbers, I have nonetheless immersed myself in statistics lately – there have been days when I lost myself in the pages of Italian dailies, reading gruesome stories of violence and abuse, or expert opinions on why this is happening. I watched interviews with women who sought refuge in facilities dedicated to victims of abuse (14,000 women yearly take such a step) and talked to friends who still live in the old country to get a sense what has changed. Some say such crimes have always occurred but were under reported, especially in the deep south, where a code of honor ruled up until a mere 40 years ago.
The economic divide between North and South is unfortunately still wide and, traditionally, Southern communities are more religious and family oriented, with more women in the role of homemakers, taking care of the children full time. But these murders don’t just occur in impoverished Southern villages: they are equal opportunity offenders on the entire territory and they span the class divide.
As I write this, I think of the words of an Italian American woman, a college professor, I interviewed for a different post, who confessed she would never move back to Italy. And neither would I. Part of the reason being the fewer opportunities afforded to women. I never felt like a second class citizen while living there but I also never experienced the freedom to be who I wanted to be that I enjoy in America. This realization was slow in coming and only recently was I able to put it into words – sometimes, especially in uber-liberal California, the effort to be all-inclusive and respectful of race and gender is taken to an extreme: no one will whistle at you while walking down the street, nor will men stare openly or try to pick you up at the drop of a hat, all ego boosting and flattering Italian habits, but neither will American men crack sexist jokes in the office or subtly, but palpably, will they make you feel less than your male counter part. The contrast became more stark when I moved here and, all of a sudden, I felt as if I could breathe again.
Italy has the lowest percentage of women in the workplace (47%) in all of Europe. In 2012, 150 women were killed by their partners. If, in these times of economic crises, it has happened that some men, no longer able to look after their families, choose to kill them rather than face ruin, in most cases the murders occur because the woman dared to walk away from the relationship.
Killing what you can’t have, as the ultimate objectification. The wife or girlfriend as personal possession. Some stories hide years of abuse, verbal or physical – on average, an abused woman waits seven years before seeking help.
Despite tailgating their European counterparts, Italian women have made long strides in the last twenty years and I suspect that Italian men (or a minority of them) has not kept up, finding it hard to accept a more independent, assertive and opinionated woman by his side. Or could it be that a generation of men coddled and spoiled by their families, mothers in particular, is more prone to fall into depression when their partners leave? Hence killing to satisfy a personal need.
I certainly don’t have the answers but it pains me to see my country struggling in so many ways. The centuries of important history weighing on its shoulders have set the course in many ways and have taught us many lessons worth learning. But the culture I was always so proud to flaunt is now mired in its past and not keeping up with the fast changing times. Attitudes towards civil duty, job mobility, entrepreneurship and, yes, women and minorities, are stale and outdated. The new world Italy is often ready to criticize as a bit crass and nouveau riche has, in fact, a lot to teach. Many Italian women are at the forefront of this re-education – but the road is still awfully long.
A big thank you to Silvia and Annamaria for the inspiration.
Images found in the public domain