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Intersections of racism and sexism in contemporary Italy: A critical cartography of recent feminist debates

Chiara Bonfiglioli | Journal: Challenging Italian Racism [6] | Issues | Oct 2010

In this article I draw a critical cartography of current feminist debates in contemporary Italy, from an intersectional anti-racist perspective. A number of recent feminine and feminist interventions have focused on the issue of widespread sexism and commodification of female bodies in contemporary Italian politics and media. Yet, as I hope to show in the first section, these interventions – mainly voiced from white, middle-class, heterosexual subject positions – have failed to consider how bodies are simultaneously gendered and racialized, and how gendered violence exists at the intersections with other naturalized axes of power and privilege.

In the second section, therefore, I consider how gendered images and female bodies have become a key signifier of contemporary racist and essentialist discourses, in a context characterized by neo-liberal exploitation of labor and by neo-fascist, racist and hetero-normative violence against those who differ from the norm. The difficult articulation of anti-racist feminist struggles will be dealt with in the last section, in which I offer a tentative map of grassroots movements and subjects fighting against systemic intersections of power and oppression. These “other feminisms”[1] are sites of production of critical media literacy, and sites of translation of postcolonial feminist insights into the Italian context.

1. Televised (post-) patriarchy and “real women”
Those who have been following Italian news in the last year and a half couldn’t fail to notice a sudden outburst of political scandals in which the connection of sex, money and power was made apparent: when prime minister Berlusconi attended the birthday party of 18-years old protégée Noemi Letizia, who nicknamed him as “daddy” (papi), his wife Veronica Lario revolted and announced her intention to divorce him; soon afterwards, escort Patrizia D’Addario revealed that a series of private parties – with other escorts-wannabe-TV-stars and high ranking guests – had been held in Berlusconi’s Rome residence, Palazzo Grazioli. Another media scandal ensued in the autumn, when the Premier insulted Rosy Bindi, an MP from the opposition, during a televised talk show (to which Ms Bindi replied: “I am a woman that is not at your disposal”).

The center-left press thoroughly covered the scandals, particularly the newspapers La Repubblica and L’Unità, at the forefront of oppositional campaigns. Consequently, the two newspapers hosted a lively debate on sexism and women’s condition in contemporary Italy. Renowned Columbia University professor Nadia Urbinati started it off, stating that:

“women are always the mirror of society, the most eloquent sign of the condition of their country: when they die for the violence perpetrated by a tyrannical regime or when they travel with paid flights to get a necklace in the form of a butterfly [some escorts received jewelry in exchange of their presence at Palazzo Grazioli]”.

Urbinati lamented “women’s silence” in front of such humiliating role models. Her intervention provoked a number of responses.[2]

Another round of feminist interventions appeared on the independent left-wing newspaper Il Manifesto, and finally resulted in a widely participated assembly in Rome in October 2009, titled “Sex and politics in the post-patriarchy”.[3] The organizers of the meeting criticized the very idea of “women’s silence” circulating within mainstream media, and pointed to the fact that women such as Veronica Lario and Patrizia D’Addario had spoken out. The scandals, they argued, made evident a new configuration of sexual relations, definable as “post-patriarchal” (dopo patriarcato):

“men do still have power (…) But it is a power without authority, naked, like the misery of a traditional virility that it is tentatively being revived against the destabilization of sexual roles provoked by forty years of feminism”.[4]

Radical feminists pointed to a “gap between fiction and reality”, between the humiliating female role models imposed by TV and women’s everyday resistance: real women aren’t silent, but silenced by the media and by political discourses. This is also the thesis of an important feminist documentary by Lorella Zanardo, launched in the same period through the web. Significantly titled “Il corpo delle donne” (Women’s body), it assembles footage from different TV talk shows. Next to fully dressed, middle-aged male anchormen, half-naked young female bodies are displayed, dancing, talking or simply serving as a decoration. While images of women made uniform by plastic surgery flow on the screen, the filmmaker’s voice-over wonders why women’s faces in their singularity have disappeared from Italian TV. “Why do we accept this constant humiliation?” she asks.[5]

Italian TV footage, from the blog of Il Corpo delle Donne

As Giovanna Zapperi notes in her review of Il Corpo delle Donne, while these analyses attempt to disrupt the omnipresent sexist imagery of visual culture in contemporary Italy, they nonetheless seem to pose “normal women” as a counter-image, as the “reality” that should be recovered beyond the fictional images offered by television.[6] I agree with Zapperi’s critique, that “in this climate of standardization of bodies and of intolerance towards every form of difference, notions such as ones of sobriety and normality do not seem very appropriate, and risk producing effects as harmful as those that they denounce”.[7] The ideal of femininity emerging from these debates reflects one of the women voicing it: white, middle-class, highly educated urban subjects.

In the interventions on Repubblica and l’Unità, the female authors posed themselves as enlightened thinkers, while describing the majority of young women as passive spectators manipulated by television. These moralizing undertones involuntarily echo Catholic and right wing positions that blame feminism for society’s evils.[8] Moreover, as it became evident, sex-gates are not limited to the right-wing spectrum of Italian political life.[9] It is also striking that soon before having denounced Berlusconi sex-gates, the new female director of L’Unità, Concita de Gregorio, promoted the new format of the newspaper with a rather problematic advertisement by Oliviero Toscani. The image points to the resilience of a Western, white, commodified conception of femininity even within the left and far left: a perfect female bottom wearing a miniskirt is used to convey a message of progressiveness and freedom.[10] Like the woman wearing the mini-skirt, the new Unità is “free”, “mini” (pocket format), but also: “beautiful, strong, revolutionary, independent, engaged, intelligent, brave, surprising, generous, essential, indomitable.”

L’Unità advertisement

Radical feminists writing on Il Manifesto and elsewhere,[11] on the contrary, pointed to continuities in women’s agency and feminist struggles since the 1970s. They argued that feminist initiatives are regularly censored by the mainstream press and by political institutions, including “progressive” ones. During the public debate on “Sex and politics in the post-patriarchy”, however, the claim of Italian feminism’s “victory” and of an inexhaustible feminist radicalism stemming from 1970s theorizations remained somehow self-referential and unquestioned.[12]The interventions did not go beyond an abstract, psychoanalytical and somehow culturalist framework, reinstating “women” and “men” as universalizing categories, rather than as gendered and racialized social subjects.

2. Female bodies and sexual violence as racist signifiers
It is quite telling that the debates on sexism discussed above have been solely concentrating on the sexism of stereotyped media representations. Only rarely the debate has extended to racist stereotyping in the media, and to the way in which gendered images have served as a signifier of unbridgeable ethnic/cultural differences, legitimating unequal power relations. After September 11th, and since the start of the “war on terror”, the dominant Western rhetoric of the “clash of civilization” has revived discourses that have their roots in colonial and Fascist times, and that predate the language of feminism and gay rights.[13] The ideal of “white men saving brown women from brown men”[14] came once again to the fore.

Female bodies – notably migrant veiled ones – have been used to signify and enforce dichotomies of progress/backwardness, us/them, Christianity/Islam, European-ness/Other-ness.[15] The following poster by xenophobic party Lega Nord is exemplary of how stereotypical representations of female bodies are used to signify civilizational differences. While the victimized, “Turkish woman” suffers under a headscarf and behind prison bars, two educated, sexy “Western women” stand for the democratic, free Western community that risks being invaded and turned upside down by the entrance of Turkey into the EU.

Electoral poster by Lega Nord; captions state: Them…Us…are you ready to take the risk? No to Turkey in Europe

Since the early 1990s, as a consequence of post-colonial and globalized migration flows, populist political forces have wisely exploited the metaphor of the “invasion” of external and internal others. Racist metaphors have been functional to social inequalities and division of labor. Italy’s formal and informal labor market, in fact, has become increasingly dependent on migrants of both sexes, and is extremely stratified along gendered and ethnic lines. The gradual restrictions to immigration into “Fortress Europe” have produced mechanisms of differential inclusion and gradual precarization of migrant workers, men and women, with the attempt to domesticate their labor force and to block the access to citizens’ rights.[16]

If the topic of immigration has been constantly associated in the media to the issue of criminality,[17] with Berlusconi first (2001) and second cabinets (2008) – including the openly xenophobic party of Lega Nord in the governing coalition – racist discourses have been further banalized in the media. The crimes committed by non-white “foreigners” have received significantly more coverage than similar crimes committed by white Italians, and have been accompanied by racist legislative and administrative measures. “Institutional racism, transmitted and reinforced by the media system, feeds into popular xenophobia, using it to legitimate itself”.[18]

Gendered and sexualized discourses are crucial to processes of ethnicization and to populist conceptions of security. In the last years, the “emergency” of sexual violence against women was associated with the “emergency” represented by Romanian/Roma[19] population; the rape and murder of an Italian woman by a Romanian citizen in October 2007 in Rome was used to legitimate massive police operations and violent clearances of settlements all over Italy, and further measures against “illegal” migrants.[20] As Rivera and others[21] have noted, media and public opinion’s reaction to sexual violence differs according to the ethnic background of the perpetrators and of the victims:

“furious and aggressive when the rapist, certain or presumed, is a foreigner; mostly indifferent or discreet when the rapist is [white] Italian, especially when he’s a “good guy” – or the boyfriend, parent, husband or another relative of the victim; indifferent to the point of phlegm when the victim of the [white] Italian rapist is a foreign woman”.[22]

The latest cases of inter-ethnic sexual violence have been particularly “useful”[23] in the construction of institutional racism and in the restoration of white Italian virility: foreigners have been portrayed as hypersexual, oppressive towards their women and sexually dangerous for our women, who are therefore in need of protection by white Italian men and by the State. The government has even authorized special patrols of “security volunteers” (so called ronde) against immigration and crime. The degree of racialized sexism is best exemplified by one of Berlusconi’s infamous jokes: he declared that eliminating rape is impossible, since “we should have as much soldiers as there are beautiful women”.

3. Antiracist, antifascist queer feminisms in precarious times
Antiracist feminist groups and blogs have denounced the instrumental usage of sexual violence for racist and “security” purposes on the side of the government. In November 2007, in a widely participated demonstration against sexual violence, women have marched behind banners stating that “Men’s violence against women start within the family and has no borders”, or that “Violence against women does not depend on the passport, men do it”.[24] Activists have denounced various forms of neo-fascist, class, racist and sexual violence, and supported its victims, against mainstream media coverage that conceal crimes committed by white Italians against non-whites, workers, women, queers, anti-fascists and all those visibly marked as “different”.

Lately, an important antiracist feminist campaign, noi non siamo complici (we are not complicit), started in order to support Joy, a Nigerian woman held in a detention center who denounced the center’s director for sexual harassment, and Hellen, her roommate who witnessed the abuse. The campaign opposes migrants’ deportations and asks for the complete closure of CIE (Centers for Identification and Expulsion).[25]

Leaflet from the campaign noi non siamo complici. Captions state: Stop deportations! Within expulsion centers police rapes. Joy and Hellen should not go back to their perpetrators

Different publications attempt to map these “other feminisms” that have emerged in recent years: “other subjects, other movements, other relationships between women, other ways to self-define oneself and become woman – and even feminist – other paths of self-determination and liberation, other bodies and desires”.[26] A variety of movements have emerged around labor rights and precarity,[27] feminist communication and web-design,[28] sex-awareness and sex workers’ rights,[29] GLBT rights, female domestic workers,[30] militant anti-fascism, Islamic feminism, rights of migrants and of Italian youth with migrant parents.[31] Many of these feminist grassroots campaigns effectively operate through the web, promoting DIY ethics and critical media literacy. Blogs, mailing lists and social networks often become very precious sources of counter-information.[32]

This multiplication of differences between women[33] has also been accompanied by an interest in transnational postcolonial feminist critique, and by attempts to translate these critiques into the specific Italian contexts, through publications, self-managed seminars and research groups dealing with the gendered and racist legacies of Italian colonialism in present times.[34] It is difficult at this stage to assess these movements and networks, their potential to open breaches into deep-rooted racism and heterosexism and to build alliances in order to break the circle of violence against those who are marked as different Instead of a conclusion, I prefer to leave this open for discussion. Beyond fiction, the violence of reality interpellates us all.

Acknowledgements: I’d like to thank Stefania Azzarello, Barbara De Vivo, Sara Farris, Sabrina Marchetti and Vincenza Perilli for inspiring discussions and suggestions.


1. A 2006 anthology mapping new feminist struggles and subjectivities was named Altri femminismi (Other feminisms). See note 26. [↑]

2. The main articles of the discussion on La Repubblica and L’Unità can be downloaded here: www.societadellestoriche.it/allegati/all_1261999143_articoli,_.pdf [↑]

3. The audiofiles of the debate and the main documents can be found here: http://www.ilmanifesto.it/archivi/donne-e-potere/  [↑]

4. Maria Luisa Boccia, Ida Dominijanni, Tamar Pitch, Bianca Pomeranzi, Grazia Zuffa, (2009)  ‘Sesso e politica nel post-patriarcato’, http://www.ilmanifesto.it/archivi/donne-e-potere/  [↑]

5. The English version of the documentary is also available online: http://www.ilcorpodelledonne.net/  [↑]

6. “The notion of woman’s authentic reality presupposes the existence of a unitary subject and an essence of feminine desire, both totally alien to the sexual imaginary performed on television.” Giovanna Zapperi, “Visions du sexe dans l’Italie de Berlusconi”, Revue Internationale des Livres et des Idées, 14 (November/December 2009), 15. Our translation from French. [↑]

7. Zapperi, 16. [↑]

8. Bestseller writer Susanna Tamaro recently wrote that feminism hasn’t liberated women, but has made them subservient to commodified sex and has banalized abortion: http://www.corriere.it/cultura/10_aprile_17/tamaro_c023a4e0-49e9-11df-8f1a-00144f02aabe.shtml [↑]

9. In October 2009 the governor of Lazio region, a former TV anchorman and Democratic Party member, resigned from his post. He had been blackmailed by some corrupted carabinieri who could exploit his secret meetings with transsexual prostitutes. One of the transsexuals involved in the affair died soon afterwards in unclear circumstances. The 2009 sex-gates did not spare Democratic Party stronghold and “moral capital”, Bologna. The mayor of the city had to resign for having financed private trips with his lover with public money. [↑]

10. This imagery was also used by the far-left party of Rifondazione Comunista in a recent – and very contested – poster: not a miniskirt this time, but a red stiletto with a hammer and a sikle, with the caption “I become a member of Rifondazione because I am a classy woman”. See:http://www.womenews.net/spip3/spip.php?article5817 [↑]

12. In my view this phenomenon is similar to what Ben Pitcher notes about race theory: “the operational logic of theoretical practice habitually transforms what began as strategic interventions into particular social and political conjunctures into universal theoretical truths”, http://www.darkmatter101.org/site/2008/02/23/the-materiality-of-race-theory/  [↑]

14. The expression was coined by G.C.Spivak in her essay “Can The Subaltern Speak?” (1988). [↑]

15. Many European “historical” feminists often do not contest, but go along with these rethorics. For an overview of the French situation, see: http://www.darkmatter101.org/site/2008/05/02/muslim-women-in-france-impossible-subjects/  [↑]

16. Enrica Rigo, The Fable of Circular Migration as Process of Exclusion, http://www.euroalter.com/2009/the-fable-of-circular-migration-as-process-of-exclusion/(March 2009). [↑]

17. Alessadro Dal Lago, Non-Persone. L’esclusione dei migranti in una società globale, (Milano:Feltrinelli, 2008). [↑]

18. Anna Maria Rivera, Regole e roghi. Metamorfosi del Razzismo, (Bari:Dedalo, 2009). The quotation is from the back cover, our translation. [↑]

19. Within the media the category of Romanian citizens is often collapsed with Roma ethnicity, reviving anti-gypsies stereotypes against nomadic populations (included Italian nationals). [↑]

22.  Rivera, 25. Our translation. I have added [white] to Italian since “Italian” implicitly also stand for “white”. A black person with Italian nationality would also be treated differentially and ethnicized by the media. This has been the case for Abdul William Guibre, a black Italian 19-years-old defined as “colored youth” and as “ young Italian, originary from Burkina Faso”: he was killed by white Italian shopkeepers in Milan in September 2008, allegedly for having stolen some biscuits. The same happened for a 41-years-old black woman, described as “of Somali origins, naturalized Italian”, who was raped by a white Italian bus driver in Rome. Righ-wing major of Rome Gianni Alemanno referred to her as “the foreign girl”. [↑]

24. Only 6,2 % of all rapes, in fact, are committed by men unknown to the victims: most violences are committed by partners or relatives; women who went through a separation or a divorce – of all background – have many more chances to be targeted by their former partners. [↑]

26. T.Bertilotti, C.Galasso, A.Gissi, F.Lagorio, ‘Introduction’ to Altri femminismi (Roma:Manifestolibri, 2006). Our translation. http://www.tecalibri.info/B/BERTILOTTI-T_femminismi.htm [↑]

27. See the special issue of Feminist Review, Volume 87(2007) on “Precarious changes: gender and generational politics in contemporary Italy”; see also: http://italy.euromayday.org/rigeneriamo/ [↑]

30. Sabrina Marchetti, “Le donne delle donne”, DWF, 1-2 (2004): 68-98. www.sguardisulledifferenze.org/wp…/sabrina_ledonnedelledonne_dwf.pdf [↑]

32. See notably the blogs Femminismo a Sud and Marginalia (http://femminismo-a-sud.noblogs.org/; http://marginaliavincenzaperilli.blogspot.com/). [↑]

33. Alisa dal Re talked of a multiplication of differences between women while opening a recent symposium on “Women, politics, utopia” The audio-files are available here: http://www.globalproject.info/it/in_movimento/Donne-Politica-Utopia-una-relazione-tempestosa/4888 [↑]

34.  See; Nicoletta Poidimani, Difendere la “razza”. Identità razziale e politiche sessuali nel progetto imperiale di Mussolini (Roma:Sensibili alle Foglie, 2009); C.Bonfiglioli, L.Cirillo, L.Corradi, B.De Vivo, S.R.Farris, V.Perilli, la straniera: informazioni, sito-bibliografie e ragionamenti su razzismo e sessismo (Roma:Alegre, 2009); C.Gamberi, M.A.Maio, G.Selmi (eds.), Educare al genere:riflessioni e strumenti per articolare la complessità (Bologna, Carocci, 2010). See also the journals Studi Culturali, Zapruder,Controstorie[↑]

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