What It Means to Be a Woman in Italy

Being a woman in this world is tough.

Being a woman in Italy is…. eye-opening (and not in a good way).

Many Italian males are often referred to as mammoni, or “Mamma’s boys”; yet, ironically, it’s these same men who feel it is perfectly okay to disrespect and degrade women they do not know.

Now, I am perfectly aware that not all Italian men behave in the same manner, and I am not claiming that Italian men are far worse than those in other countries. However, ever since I first moved here in January of 2016, I have been noticing troublesome behavior exhibited by both Italian boys and men alike.

It’s no secret that sexism and the objectification of women are alive and well here (if you missed it, I mentioned this briefly in one of my first blog posts!), and I’m concerned that–because this type of behavior towards women has been so deeply ingrained and normalized in Italy’s very aesthetic-based society–it will be decades before a cultural shift occurs.

The fact that the party of Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s very own–and, if possible, more vulgar–Donald Trump, amassed the majority of votes in the last election is disappointing, to say the least. We also mustn’t forget the reaction of Italian media and their vilification of actress Asia Argento in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Victim-blaming and the attempts to silence their voices are rampant, thanks to Italy’s ever strong patriarchy.

Italians are a very affectionate and passionate people, but there is a fine line between casual flirting and blatant harassment. I can deal with the occasional ‘Ciao, bella!’ (although here in the north, it doesn’t happen very often), and I can even bear a lusty glance-over whenever my outfit reveals too much skin (what is too much skin, anyway?!). What I absolutely will not tolerate in this country is being verbally or physically assaulted by creepy men in public. In fact, I vividly recall being repeatedly grabbed and prodded by men in the discoteche and bars during my semester abroad, but–luckily for me–those transactions didn’t end well for the perpetrators.

Women visiting or living in Italy have also shared with me their stories of either physical or verbal harassment. Having experienced the latter just the other day by an employee of the ATM–the company that manages Milano’s transportation system–and having stood my ground since not one of the four men around me tried to come to my defense, I have come to the conclusion that it will be decades before something changes.

I also cannot neglect to mention the high rate of femminicidio, or the death of women by means of physical or psychological abuse, here in Italy. According to a 2015 press release by Istat, Italy’s leading data research organization, nearly 1/5th of Italian women have suffered physical abuse at some point in their lives. (Migrant women are also much more likely to experience physical violence than are natives.) Furthermore, a 2012 report published by the Human Rights Council of the United Nations even declared domestic abuse the “most pervasive form of violence in Italy”.

Regarding sexual harassment, an Istat press release issued just last year revealed startling statistics:

  • Over 8 million women between the ages of 14 and 65 (43.6%) have admitted to being sexually harassed by, in most cases, men
  • Verbal assault is the most common type of sexual harassment, followed by “unwanted touching”
  • “Unwanted touching” mostly occurred on public transportation, with 60% of the crimes committed by strangers
  • Physical harassment was perceived as a very serious offense by 76.4% of women, compared to just 47.2% of men

(I’ve tried researching more numbers regarding sexual abuse and violence in the country, but–unfortunately–there is not enough data available. Go figure.)

It is fascinating to me that–in a country where mothers and grandmothers, the nuclei of the family, are revered with the utmost respect–sexism, violence against and the objectification of women are far too common. Not to sound completely hopeless, but these kinds of demeaning and disgusting behaviors will continue to thrive here if we consistently allow it to. Although the situation seems to be improving (albeit, very slowly), it is time that both Italian men and women confront and tackle this colossal problem together.

Of course, the Italian media and government are animals all on their own, but the power–the possibility of real change–lies with the people.

Not to steal the 17-year-old slogan of the MTA (the corporation overseeing the public transportation network of New York City), but…….. if you see something, say something. Too often, we are afraid to take action when we witness any kind of injustice because of the possible repercussions; but, we must speak up. We must stand for something. We must right the wrongs.

I’m not advising to go full Batman and battle it out with civilians in Gotham City in the name of justice, but even speaking with seemingly sexist relatives and/or friends about their alarming behavior can be helpful. Hell, they may not even realize their wrongdoing. They may even thank you for enlightening them. Or they may tell you to f*ck right off. Either way, it is a start–a start to some hopefully civil and fruitful dialogue regarding the big, fat elephant in the Italian room.

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