Women's rights protest, Rome 10 November 2018. Photo: Christian Minelli/NurPhoto/Sipa USA. PA Images. All rights reserved.
What does a self-proclaimed “Pro-Life City” look like? I asked myself this question while on the train to Verona, the northeastern Italian city known worldwide as the “city of love” and the home of Romeo and Juliet.
Last year -- 40 years after abortion was legalised in Italy -- Verona’s local council passed a municipal motion “to prevent abortion” and allow public money to fund anti-abortion groups and dissuade women from ending pregnancies.
Now, the city is preparing to host the 2019 World Congress of Families (WCF) -- the premier gathering of American, Russian and international anti-abortion and anti-LGBT rights activists and their political allies.
Italy’s interior minister and deputy premier Matteo Salvini, from the far right Lega party, is among several senior politicians expected to attend.
“We are proud to host the families of the world in Verona, this is the Europe that we like”, said Salvini in October, suggesting a link between this gathering, in late March, and campaigns for European Parliament elections, in late May.
Salvini was also in Verona meeting with Italian and US ‘pro-family’ activists on the same day the city council passed its anti-abortion motion. These activists said “that from Verona will begin the counter-revolution of good sense and reason” -- echoing a Lega campaign slogan from 2018's national elections.
Giulia Siviero, a journalist for the Italian website Il Post who lives in Verona, told me that these events were just “several steps” over the last year in this city’s increasingly institutionalised opposition towards sexual and reproductive rights.
She described the city as having “a history with ultra-Catholics and far-right movements, but also it is a place where these kind of things are not hampered by local administration. It is the opposite: they are supported”.
What’s new is that these dynamics have reached the national level. This is what Emanuele Del Medico, an author and activist from Verona who wrote a prophetic book about these issues, calls the “Veronification” of Italian politics: a collusion between the extreme right, the Lega, and Catholic fundamentalists.
According to Del Medico, the city has long been a landmark for Catholic traditionalist groups which have had close ties to fringes of the most radical right and which have influenced local politics. “They have a common aim: restore a lost order of the past”, he explained.
Verona, he warned, could be a model for such alliances, with their “obsession for the woman’s body” -- accompanied by homophobia and Islamophobia -- that is “absolutely replicable at European level”.
In Verona, far right and religious right movements captured local government years ago. What’s new is that now these dynamics have reached the national level.
Verona’s anti-abortion motion was proposed by Lega councillor Alberto Zelger, who once said that “abortion is worse than war”; if Italian women don’t have more babies “we will be conquered by the Muslims who will impose Islamic law”; and homosexual people are “a disaster”.
During a council session discussing this motion, Andrea Bacciga, a councilor elected from the same ‘civic list' as the mayor Federico Sboarina, made a fascist salute towards activists from the feminist movement Non Una di Meno (NUDM) who were observing the talks.
In February 2018, Sboarina welcomed into the city an anti-LGBT “hate bus” from the Spanish ultra-conservative group CitizenGo, bearing messages like “children are male or female” and “#StopGender in schools”.
That month, Verona also hosted Italy’s first “Pro Life Festival”, in the historical Gran Guardia palace, provided by the city.
Sponsored by the local, provincial and regional government -- and the WCF -- this festival was organised by groups behind ‘Family Day’ anti-LGBT rallies, including ProVita, which has well-documented links to the neo-fascist group Forza Nuova (FN). Verona’s then deputy mayor Lorenzo Fontana -- now the national Family Minister -- was also there.
Also in 2018, a university event about LGBT asylum seekers in May was cancelled after FN warned on Facebook that it “will be stopped or it will be us to do it”. Meanwhile, when this group lost the hotel hall it had booked for an anti-abortion conference in November, amid protests from rights activists, the city quickly gave them an alternative public space.
Far-right and ultra-conservative movements have faced relatively few obstacles in Verona -- and the city’s history helps explain why. This was one of the main cities of the Salò Republic, a Nazi puppet state during World War II. “There is a sort of black thread here” said Paola Bonatelli.
“This has always been a very conservative city”, said Bonatelli, a former local journalist for the Il Manifesto newspaper and an activist with an LGBT rights group in Verona called 'Pink'. “The Italian neo-fascist terrorism took hold here in the 70s -- the city still has this kind of ties”, she told me.
In the 1990s, then Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi famously let neo-fascists into his government. The same thing happened in Verona, Bonatelli said, describing the entrance of far-right activists into local offices, including those known for organising “nazi-rock concerts, events, conferences”.
At this time, ultra-conservative members of Verona's local council passed homophobic motions opposing any laws that might grant equal rights to same-sex couples and ‘natural families’.
In 2007, Lega mayor Flavio Tosi came in, and the far right’s presence in local government became more explicit. He was linked personally to openly racist, extreme-right supporters of the “Hellas Verona” football team.
Also in Tosi’s council was a militant supporter of the neo-Nazi group Veneto Fronte Skinheads and member of a nazi-rock band. While they were in office, anti-fascist movements documented a dozen assaults by far-right militants, including the 2008 killing of 29-year-old Nicola Tommasoli.
Matteo Salvini, Rome 14 January 2019. Photo: Samantha Zucchi/Insidefoto/Sipa USA. PA Images. All rights reserved.
Federico Sboarina, Verona’s current mayor, was a member of Tosi’s administration. His era seems to complete the consolidation of far right and ultra-Catholic power in the city.
“He is explicitly Catholic and anti-abortion” said Siviero from Il Post, adding that his election campaign in 2017 was supported by the local bishop, members of the Lega party, local far-right movements, and Salvini himself.
This campaign also referenced fights against “gender ideology” and to remove “gender books” from library and schools. On the other hand, Bacciga, one of his councilors, donated to the civic library reference books for the far-right.
This campaign also referenced fights against “gender ideology” and to remove “gender books” from library and schools.
Last year, Sboarina’s deputy mayor Lorenzo Fontana left his position -- to become Italy’s new Family Minister. His national rise took many by surprise.
“He was not someone we used to see on TV. If one had to make a list of dangerous people who could get to the national government surely it would not have had Fontana on there”, said Del Medico.
Though he recalled a picture from a 2015 Family Day rally, of Fontana and Sboarina with far-right militants from Forza Nuova, which he said aims for “a hegemony of Catholic traditionalism”, and a group called Christus Rex.
Siviero said Fontana “was born politically as a member of European Parliament”. He was elected as an MEP in 2009, after serving in the local council and as deputy coordinator of a youth group linked to the Lega, the Movimento Giovani Padani (Young Padanians Movement).
In Brussels, Fontana led Lega’s delegation and managed its relationships with other European far-right parties. He said he organised a meeting between Salvini and Front National leader Marine Le Pen and he spoke at a 2015 meeting organised by Lega with members of far-right movements from Germany (Pegida) and France (Bloc Identitaire).
Fontana also has significant international links. He’s described Russia as “a model” and joined a delegation of far-right politicians to Crimea in 2014, to “monitor” the controversial referendum after Russia’s annexation of the area.
That year, he also spoke at an event organised by the anti-abortion group ProVita Onlus and Alexey Komov, the WCF Russian representative described by researchers at the US Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) as “key” to the WCF's “realignment alongside the European far-right”.
“I think he was nominated Verona’s deputy mayor for these ties”, said Siviero.
Del Medico said far-right leaders had long seen Verona as “a stronghold of Christian thought... [and] values” -- and Fontana “is now using this rhetoric” at the national level in Rome. “He took a piece of what in Verona we heard for years and he brought it in the national agenda”, he added, describing the Family Minister as “representative of a Catholic conservative orthodoxy”.
“Salvini is probably looking to a more secular right to find allies at a European level”, Del Medico continued, though themes like “closing the borders” and “European or Christian Judaic civilization against Islam, or the safety of western values such as the natural family, are something on which right-wing populists and ultra-Catholics converge”.
When Verona passed its anti-abortion motion in October, rights activists feared it was a worrying sign of what is to come for women’s rights across Italy.
Just a few days later, almost identical motions were presented (but not passed) in Rome, Milan, Ferrara, Alessandria, and Sestri Levante (Genova). Fontana and other national politicians expressed their support for Verona’s motion, including the Lega senator Simone Pillon, also expected to attend the WCF.
Meanwhile, with local and national politicians on their side, including Sboarina, Fontana and Salvini, militant far-right groups in Verona appear emboldened.
On 13 October, the Non Una di Meno (NUDM) feminist movement organised a protest against the anti-abortion motion, attended by thousands of people. “It was an unexpected success”, Eva, a NUDM activist in Verona, told me.
“Verona has not had a history of feminist protests”, she said, but at this demonstration “we realised there are lots of people who want to protest against these groups that target women, LGBT people, migrants. Maybe they had not found the space to do it before”.
“There are lots of people who want to protest against these groups that target women, LGBT people, migrants. Maybe they had not found the space to do it before”.
She described NUDM as a “new feminist movement [that] is an intersectional container that perhaps can succeed to put together all of these [experiences]”. But after their October protest, far-right activism also appeared to increase.
In November, Veneto Fronte Skinheads militants put dozens of anti-abortion stickers outside of the office of a counseling service. They also opened a banner outside a school with the phrase “Abortion is not contraceptive”.
Then, far right groups organised two events on the International Day against Violence against Women (24 November).
One was the FN anti-abortion conference, at a venue provided by the local administration. The other: a small street demonstration by the small group “Comitato No 194” (of which Fontana is a part) which wants to abolish the current law on abortion and replace it with a with one that would punish women who terminate their pregnancies with prison terms.
Then, FN opened a new office in Verona on 22 December called “The house of patriots”, with the aim of “ethnic resistance” in the Veronetta area which is known as more left-wing and home to many immigrant families. That day, two women were verbally and physically assaulted in the area, while another neo-fascist group, CasaPound, celebrated the first anniversary of their office nearby.
A few days later, the phrase “Pink shit” with a fascist symbol appeared on a wall by the university, also in this area, directed at the rights group Pink. “That was not the first time”, said Bonatelli. In recent years, they’ve seen such “writings on the walls, stickers on the door of our club. Nothing really serious, but we received lots of threats or insults by phone or, more recently, via Facebook”.
Demonstration of far-right movement 'Forza Nuova' and conservative Catholics against abortion. Photo: Vincenzo Amato/Ropi/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.
Matteo, a young man who lives in Veronetta not far from the new FN office, told me that he and his family were “shocked” by its opening and worried about the impact it could have.
“The far-right movement promised to pull away immigration from the area, but the street where they opened [their office] is full of shops run by immigrants who lived here for years. It is an example of great integration”, he said.
The response, said Eva, must be “feminist resistance”.
I also met Alice, who works for a group that teaches Italian to foreigners. They were translating information warning migrants of the new fascist presence in the area, she told me, as “most seem totally not aware of who these groups are and what their aims are”.
Women, LGBT people, immigrants and minorities are all targets of the same movements which have increasingly captured Italian politics from Verona to the national level. The response, said Eva, must be “feminist resistance”.
She described women’s bodies as “the battleground of this fight”, used by far-right and ultra-Catholic movements to generate sons for the motherland or as something to defend from rape and violence by barbarians.
“They use women’s bodies either for racist, sexist or misogynist ideas to fuel their rhetoric and their politics”, added Siviero. “So these same bodies are the place where the resistance must start”.