Letter from Italy

November 20, 2006 Michael Kaufman

In the end it was the boys.

I was in Parma, the sixth of ten cities during my two weeks in Italy, itself the fourth and final country on this speaking trip. The events in Italy were starting to blur: the eighteen workshops for teachers or students, the ten speeches and press conferences, interviews on top of interviews, and discussions with some incredible women and men.

A woman’s organization in Florence had decided to start the White Ribbon Campaign in Italy and it quickly spread across the country. At least 28 local governments signed on and launched local campaigns; the Prime Minister wore a ribbon as did members of Inter Milan and other premier football teams, rock bands, basketball teams, and at least one stately academic procession at the university in Bologna, the oldest and one of the largest in the world.

So, there I was in Parma. Organizers had decided to pack over 200 male students into a large room in the basement of a technical school. They had been selected from a couple of pretty tough schools where there’d been a lot of violence. Last year, in fact, two young men murdered their former girlfriends.

It was a normal group of young men: noisy and excited to be out of class for the morning. Before the group arrived, I had done a quick training with a group who had volunteered to facilitate smaller group discussions, although given our numbers, there would be twenty-five guys in each group. For the next two hours, we went back and forth, between my talking in the whole group or hearing what they had to say, and a couple of discussions in the smaller groups. We talked about our ideas of masculinity and femininity, about inequality, and our acceptance of violence against women. As I told stories about how no man can live up to the expectations of masculinity and about our attitudes towards women, the room grew hushed. Then in their small groups, they figured out how all this linked to violence against women.

I knew from other workshops they would make the connections. What got me, though, was one incredible moment near the end. On a paper flipchart, we had written some of the words they associated with manhood: strong, macho, no emotions, athletic, well-equipped, gets lots of sex, and so forth. I held up this sheet of paper and said these were ideas that had been around for several thousand years. They had brought a lot of suffering to women. They brought rewards to men, but in the end, brought us a lot of problems too. I said if they were bad for women and were impossible for men to achieve, then all we needed to do was get rid of them. With a flourish I crunched the paper in a giant ball and threw it away. And to my surprise and delight, two hundred young men broke into a huge cheer and clapping that went on and on.

There have been many fine moments in Italy, many terrific groups, many handshakes and words of thanks from boys or teachers that told me the work was going well. Talks with terrific women who have been working for years against incredible odds to raise awareness about these issues, and a handful of men in various cities who were stepping up to their side. And of course, being Italy, there was great food and at least a few moments here and there when I could walk along cobbled streets or stare at Renaissance frescos on the vaulted ceiling of an old church.

But in the end, it was those boys who I will long remember..