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Berlusconi's shadow will long be cast over the psyche of young Italian women

Italy has been raising a generation of women to think that mini-skirts, tank tops and swimsuits, and a chance to shake their bottoms on national TV, are the key to success.
Valentina Pasquali
16 February 2011

Yesterday, the umpteenth sex-related scandal implicating Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi became just a bit more serious. Judge Cristina di Censo ruled that Berlusconi must be tried immediately, granting a request by Milan chief prosecutor Edmundo Bruti Liberati, who investigated allegations that Berlusconi paid an underage girl, Karima El Mahrough, for sex, and later abused his power to intervene in her favor when she was arrested on an unrelated charge. The trial is scheduled to begin in early April.

On Sunday, in anticipation of these developments, women across Italy took to the street, to protest Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s perceived machismo and what they consider a degrading treatment under his long and contentious tenure. It was the latest display of how resentment towards Berlusconi’s leadership style is growing across many sectors of society, amidst deepening scandals involving the prime minister.

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Several key indicators charting the health of the Italian democracy – on the role of women, the state of press freedom and the overall level of institutional trust felt by the Italian people -- offer a dim picture and plenty of reasons to worry. It is time to start pondering not only the immediate consequences of Berlusconi’s choices, but also what kind of long-term damage his multiple premierships might have inflicted on the Italian psyche.

It would perhaps be no understatement to say that Silvio Berlusconi has an appetite for younger women. This does not necessarily imply that he has engaged in illegal activity (Berlusconi has always denied any wrongdoing.) But it shows a certain lack of taste on his part, and a debasing view of the other sex.

Before El Mahrough -- also known as “Ruby the Heartthrob” -- was Noemi Letizia, who, as a minor, entertained a murky relationship with the prime minister (Berlusconi attending Letizia’s 18th birthday party prompted his now estranged wife Veronica Lario to file for divorce.) A number of other girls have, over the past few months, come forward with embarrassing disclosures about the extravagant parties that were often hosted at the prime minister’s many residences.


The legal implications of Berlusconi’s behavior are only part of the problem. For the Italian women who protested on Sunday, the political and social repercussions of his choices as a prime minister are just as worrisome. They believe Berlusconi has eagerly exploited the country’s deeply rooted macho culture for commercial and political purposes (populating first his TV networks and, later, the ranks of his party and governments, with scantily clad young girls seemingly selected only on the merit of their physical appearance,) without any regard for the consequences. As a result, Italian women fear that their social, political and economic standing has been undermined and their image hurt.

A wealth of data supports these women’s worst fears.

A study conducted in 2010 by Manageritalia (an organization that represents Italian managers) found that only 46% of Italian women are employed. Worse even, 27% of them leave the workforce after giving birth, and an additional 15% quit working after a second child is born. This situation has no parallels anywhere in the developed world.

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Demotix / pikat09. All rights reserved.

Not coincidentally, in the 2010 Global Gender Gap index of the World Economic Forum, which ranks 134 countries on the basis of opportunities available to women as compared to men, Italy placed 74th, behind countries such as Ghana and Malawi. In and of itself an abysmal performance, this result is even more shocking in light of the fact that Italy’s position has been steadily slipping in recent years, and it is now seven spots below where it was when Berlusconi last returned to power in 2008.

The relative status of women in society is not the only indicator strongly correlated to the health of a democracy that has plunged under the multiple premierships of Silvio Berlusconi. Press freedom and levels of institutional trust have also taken a hit, inviting questions about the kind of political and social legacy his successors will inherit once Berlusconi leaves public office, whenever that may be.

Berlusconi’s relationship with the media (in addition to his private empire, he also indirectly controls, as the head of government, state-run broadcasting) has raised more than one eyebrow. Since 2008, Freedom House, which monitors freedom of the press across the world, has qualified Italy as “partly free,” the only country in Europe receiving so low a mark. Back in 2001, the year when Berlusconi was elected prime minister for the second time, Italy was regarded as having a “free” press.

Finally, levels of institutional trust, as measured by various organizations in Italy and internationally, have also tanked during Berlusconi’s two most recent tenures (2001-2006 and 2008 to now).

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Demotix / pikat09. All rights reserved.

According to Transparency International, which ranks countries according to citizens’ perception of corruption in the public sector, Italy placed 29th in 2001, before dropping all the way down to 67th by the time 2010 came around.

Rapporto Italia 2011, a study by the Italian research center Eurispes, found that, last year alone, 68.5% of people felt diminished trust in institutions, especially the government, parliament, political parties and the bureaucracy.

This wide array of figures portrays a grim reality: Italy’s democratic fabric is frayed and further eroding.

While some of these trends could still be reversed, if only some thought and effort were put into ad-hoc measures, other effects of what many consider Berlusconi’s reckless premiership might take longer to undo.

In 2010, the rate and value of tax evasion, a long-running problem in Italy, peaked at a historical high. A survey by Krls Network of Business Ethics, conducted on behalf of the Associazione Contribuenti Italiani (the Italian Taxpayers Association) and released in December, estimated that, in the first eleven months of 2010 tax evasion grew at a pace of 10.1%. According to this study, Italian taxpayers avoid paying taxes on 54.5% of all taxable income. This means losses for the national coffers in the range of 159 billion Euros a year.

Although correlation does not imply causation, one must reflect on the possibility that Italy may be stuck in an inescapable vicious cycle of heightened perceptions of growing corruption, dropping institutional trust, and correspondingly skyrocketing tax evasion.

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Demotix / pikat09. All rights reserved.

Similarly, one may want to consider how a TV culture -- largely propelled by the success of Berlusconi’s own private networks -- which stars women only in supporting roles, smiling and dancing half-naked, and then has these same pretty faces run for public office or take up ministerial positions (the current Minister for Equal Opportunity Mara Carfagna used to be one such girl), affects the psyche of young women.

According to a survey conducted in the summer of 2009 by British bookmaker Stanleybet, 32% of Italian women aged 18 to 35 aspired to become starlets on TV. Of these, 35% held a university degree and another 33% were attending university. These young Italian women seemed convinced that appearing on TV would be, for them, the quickest and most effective way to progress to more meaningful careers, including journalism and politics.

While other developed nations think about ways to fend off global competition by improving educational standards at home (U.S. President Barack Obama recently pledged, in this year’s State of the Union address, to have America out-educate the rest of the world), Italy has been raising a generation of women to think that mini-skirts, tank tops and swimsuits, and a chance to shake their bottoms on national TV, are the key to success.

Considering the overall social, political and economic landscape, it is no wonder that Italians took to the streets on Sunday. The question is why they waited this long. Having dug itself into such a deep hole, even after Berlusconi’s departure, Italy will require much time and effort to climb out of it.

What can a world in crisis learn from grassroots movements?

For many communities, this is not the first crisis they’ve faced. The lockdown feels familiar to those who have years of experience living and organising in the face of scarce resources and state violence.

So it’s not surprising that grassroots and community activists mobilised quickly in response to COVID-19, from expanding mutual aid groups and launching creative campaigns to getting information out to women at risk of domestic violence.

What can the world learn from these movements to get us through this crisis – and help us rebuild a better world?

Join us on Thursday 2 July at 5pm UK time/12pm EDT for a live discussion on these urgent questions.

Hear from:

Mona Eltahawy Feminist author, commentator and disruptor of patriarchy. Her latest book ‘The Seven Necessary Sins For Women and Girls’ took her disruption worldwide.

Crystal Lameman Member of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation and campaigns against the exploitation of her people and of their land, holding the government of Canada accountable for violations of their treaty rights.

Elif Sarican Anthropologist (LSE), writer, organiser and an activist of the Kurdish Women’s Movement.

Chair: Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief, openDemocracy.

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