Italy: Waiting for a Silvio Lining?

To the horror of many, especially the women who have endured his stream of sexist remarks, Italy in April elected Silvio Berlusconi prime minister for a third time.

He has promised the nation much, but many commentators think he is highly unlikely to deliver the change it needs - and certainly not the change craved by many of Italy's women, who remain under-represented in Parliament, suffer from high levels unemployment and are generally excluded from power.

Officially sworn in on May 8, Berlusconi just about kept to his pledge to appoint four women ministers, but that was out of a total of 21, including 12 with portfolios and nine without. Only two of the women hold first-tier posts. They take responsibility for the environment and education. The other two are among the nine ministers without portfolios and will look after equal opportunities and youth affairs.

Critics have been scathing and have drawn unfavourable comparisons to the Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who had also announced last month that a majority of his cabinet would be women.

"Twenty-one ministers with just four women doesn't seem a big sign of change," Italian opposition politician, Antonello Soro, was quoted saying. The Italian press focused on the good looks and relative youth, rather than the political credentials of the 71-year-old Berlusconi's female ministers, whose ages range from 31 years to 41 years.

No one should have been particularly surprised at this, given Berlusconi's playboy image and very public dismissal of the new Spanish government as "too pink".

Undaunted by such "legendary crassness" - to quote the phrase of James Walston of the American University of Rome that applies not just to Berlusconi, but to many male Italian politicians - a couple of feisty feminists were prominent in the run up to the Italian vote.

They did not make it into the ministerial ranks and adopted stances some would argue were at odds with the defence of women's rights. But their attitude livened up an election campaign that left many voters feeling cynical although, true to Italy's tradition of high turnouts, around 80 per cent of them turned out to cast their ballots.

One of the campaigning women was hard-right candidate Daniela Santanche, a former ally of Berlusconi, who broke away to head a small party called The Right ('La Destra') and became the only woman candidate to run for prime minister in Italy.

"The hard-right content of La Destra's programme is familiar enough: the attacks on immigrants; the evocation of family values; and an assault on privilege and banks' profits. But what was new and startling was Santanche's decision to challenge Berlusconi's male chauvinist appeal head on," wrote Peter Popham in Britain's 'Independent' newspaper.

Santanche warned Italy's women, often inured to endemic sexism, not to vote for Berlusconi "since he sees us only in the horizontal".

A woman who leapt to his defence was Alessandra Mussolini, grand-daughter of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and niece of actress Sophia Loren. For the purposes of this election, she was an ally of Berlusconi and, in a televised debate that was robust even by Italy's standards, she snapped back that Santanche was "horizontal politically".

Santanche was not elected, Mussolini was. And some opinion formers acknowledge that she has influence. "She has been around for a long time. She is something people understand and know... She has done a lot for women in this country," Gianna Fregonara, a political journalist at respected Italian newspaper 'Corriere della Sera', has been quoted as saying.

For Walston, both Santanche and Mussolini remain on the fringes. He noted Mussolini, who split with the National Alliance ('Allianza Nationale') to launch her own Freedom of Action party ('Alessandra Liberta d'Azione'), had only come back to the centre-right fold for the election.

"Both are on the extreme right and show the paradox of women supporting an ideology which is explicitly against parity," he said further.

Mussolini, in particular, a graduate in medicine, who has posed as a topless model and acted in anti-fascist films, seems comfortable with contradiction. As a politician, when not batting for Berlusconi, she has fought passionately for women's rights, as has Santanche. "I have two daughters and I would like for them to have, in a short time, equal opportunities with men," Mussolini has been quoted as saying.

A short time seems optimistic, not least because, for all the women who are horrified by Berlusconi, many still voted for him. One reason is that many women spend their days watching Berlusconi's television channels, which carry his propaganda. Another is that Italian women have a strong tendency to be Roman Catholic, which makes them vote not so much for Berlusconi, but for the centre right in general, Professor Walston said.

There is nevertheless very modest progress towards giving women real power:
Shortly after the political elections, Berlusconi formally met Emma Marcegaglia. Co-chief executive of the Marcegaglia steel group founded by her father, she had just caused a sensation in the press by becoming the first woman to lead the influential Italian employers' body, Confindustria.

Back in the arena of national politics, slightly more women have been elected than in the past, although "the overall percentages are still abysmally low," Walston said.

Previously, Italy was ranked 66th in a list to show the proportion of women elected to national parliaments. According to figures from Swiss-based umbrella group the Inter-Parliamentary Union, published in March, 17.3 per cent of Italy's lower house and 14 per cent of its upper house comprised women.

Complete data on the new parliament is not yet available, but information so far shows there are 58 women senators out of the 322 members of the upper house - around 18 per cent.

The one category in which women dominate is the youngest elected members of parliament (aged 25-29 years). In that bracket, Waltson said, there are five women, compared to only one man, suggesting there should be greater hope for the future. 


More by :  Barbara Lewis

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