Italy's inconvenient women: in praise of Laura Boldrini and Cecile Kyenge

As the renewed threats against politician Cecile Kyenge show, the problem of the abuse of women in Italy's public sphere persists. This cannot be dismissed as just a debate about censorship. Italy’s gender question is a wound left unhealed. 

Leonardo Goi
21 May 2013

Cecile Kyenge is the first African Italian minister in the country's history. Demotix/Stefano Montesi. All rights reserved.

When a country spends the last two years of its democratic life recovering from decades of social and economic decomposition, any renewal of its political capital should be welcomed with a huge sigh of relief. But Italian politics have long been known for defying the laws of logic. So when new faces enter the political arena, the initial reaction tends to be, at best, moderately sceptical. But when the new faces are those of women, people in their own right and not the fetishised tools of a man-tailored society, the scepticism turns into fear – if not outright hatred. Laura Boldrini, Italy's Lower House President, and Cecile Kyenge, the country's Minister for Integration, have both been victims to a system that fails to recognise the consequences of a rhetoric in which women are still treated as silent subalterns.

Of the seven women ministers chosen by the new PM Enrico Letta, Cecile Kyenge gained momentum in media coverage as the first black minister in Italy's Republic. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and moved to Italy to pursue a career in medicine, her appointment as member of PM Letta's cabinet was the symbol of an increasingly multi-ethnic nation that must finally come to terms with the dilemmas of a migrant-born youth that is still formally denied Italian citizenship. Poised to mark a historical moment for Italy's young democracy, Kyenge's election simply unveiled the latent racism that still plagues Italy's political stage.

In the welcoming words of Northern League European MP Borghezio, Kyenge's election was the signifying mark of PM Letta's "bonga bonga government". An African woman at her core, Kyenge appears “better suited to work as a maid” and likely to be more interested in expanding the “tribal laws” of her country of origin than pursuing truly Italian policies – whatever that may mean. In a breathtakingly racist echo, Borghezio's xenophobia resonated across the web, fuelling the hatred of a panoply of extreme right-wing and chauvinist blogs which hailed Kyenge as a “Congolese monkey”, an “anti-italian” “Zulu” that had better return to where she had come from.

Standing defiant before the race-tinged slurs at her new post, Kyenge has refused the press-sponsored and politically correct label of Italy's first "coloured minister", and reaffirmed – with pride – becoming its first black woman. For a political stage that has grown accustomed to a masculine aesthetic of rule to which women have access as mere decorative appendages, Cecile Kyenge, a black woman, is a system error.

Among those who stood up to condemn Kyenge's xenophobic assaults was Laura Boldrini, Italy's President of the Lower House. An outspoken critic of women's submissive role in Italian society, Boldrini had been a UNHCR spokesperson upon her entrance into Italian politics as an MP for the left-wing Left, Ecology and Freedom party, and became the country's President of the Lower House on March 16 this year. If Kyenge's appointment despite her gender and skin colour threatened to shake up a male-only world to its foundations, Boldrini's humane professionalism was yet another reminder that leadership and competence are gender-neutral virtues. The very first words she uttered as President of the Lower House – “Let this Chamber of Deputies be the house of good politics” – cast her as anathema to a system that found in the sexualised and submissive image of women its long life elixir.

Neither sexualised nor submissive, Boldrini is an inconvenient woman. In the space of a few weeks she has defied the Berlusconi-branded version of women-in-politics as the decorative and fragile ornament that stands in perpetual need of male guidance. She chose to show up at the funeral of a family who had committed suicide in April this year in response to their economic difficulties, and was the only politician to do so. She handled a three-day political nightmare while chairing the re-election of President Giorgio Napolitano. And she stood by Kyenge in condemning what were, at once, sexual and racist attacks.

Unsurprisingly, the system reacted the only way it knew. Boldrini had to be put back in her place. Days after her election as president of the Lower House, MP Borghezio was given yet another chance to grandstand the pinnacles of his rhetoric by welcoming her appointment as the triumph of a “do-good leftist asshole” who visited the refugee centres in the Island of Lampedusa to “do shit” and sign up to a trite demagogy, thereby paving her own way into parliament. A woman who'd been chosen for a life-long commitment to humanitarian values that qualified her as a spokesperson for UNHCR – a woman who had, that is, been rewarded for her expertise and not the erotic fantasies it evoked –  had to be confined to the little comfort zone which society prescribed for her. She had to be re-sexualised.

Speaking to Italian daily La Repubblica on May 3, Boldrini stirred up a hornet's nest when she revealed she'd been targeted by an ever-growing number of online threats that wished her dead, sodomised, defecated upon, lynched. Unable to cope with the trope of a woman-in-power, a chauvinist portion of the internet could only hope to turn her back into the object she was apparently meant to be. What's more frightening, of the two questions Boldrini raised in the interview (the chronic passivity which greets assaults on women, and the issues posed by online threats), public opinion chose to focus exclusively on the latter. As Five Star Movement leader Beppe Grillo began blogging on the paranoia the political establishment tries to engender against the web, the discussion turned into a never-ending debate gravitating around privacy and freedom of expression, and lost track of the dilemmas from which it had emerged.

Italy's women question is a wound left unsealed. Women are being assaulted, both verbally and physically. More than 100 lost their lives in 2012 alone. Over 70 amongst them have been killed by their own partner. Of the many shameful stories we would never want the outside world to know, only in 1981 did Italy abolish the “crime of honour” - the law set to guarantee more lenient punishments for men found guilty of killing their unfaithful women. Until then, lawyer Giulia Bongiorno denounced in November last year, the time one could spend in prison for this went from 3 to 7 years. The very same sentence one might be given if found guilty of setting fire to a scooter.

Italy's relationship with its women casts a large shadow over its democracy at large. For different reasons, and to various extents, Laura Boldrini and Cecile Kyenge are the other side of the coin that never shows up. Luckily for all, their shoulders are strong enough to support the public outcries of a political and social faction that has never really entered the age of maturity. But their strength is no excuse to justify a dangerous silence. No country can consider itself to be a fully formed democracy if only half of its polity can speak up without fearing verbal or physical assault. Boldrini's and Kyenge's calls for a fairer society are questions that transcend gender boundaries. Challenges which it is time for Italy to meet.


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