Italian Men, Berlusconi, & the Forward March of Women

February 18, 2011 Michael Kaufman

A million women hit the streets in 230 Italian cities on February 13.  400,000, alone, marched in Rome.   Media around the world played it up as a march against the sleezy, likely-Mafia-connected, Prime Minister Berlusconi who seems to have a thing for hair dye, plastic surgery, and buying sex from young women.

I wondered if many men were involved in these marches.  And was this a rebirth of the Italian women’s movement?  So I got in touch with some colleagues and friends in Italy.

Boy on his father’s shoulders in Florence:  “I respect girls.”

“This went beyond Berlusconi,” says a long-time women’s activist and leader in the gender work of IFAD, a UN agency based in Rome.  Annina Lubbock notes that in terms of equal opportunities for women, Italy now falls behind Kazakhstan. “It was a demand for social, economic, and cultural change to ensure employment, equal opportunities and dignity for women.”

Alessandra Pauncz tells me that school “reform” means that many schoolchildren get out at 12:30 – and women are expected to look after them.  And while families really need two incomes, a paltry 46% of women are in the workforce.  (Alessandra was key to bringing the White Ribbon Campaign to Italy while working in a women’s centre in Florence and now is president of a counselling centre working with men who use violence.)

Annina felt it was a revitalization of the women’s movement.  And an interesting one because it brought together women from across the political spectrum, left to right.  Alessandra adds, however, that younger women still see the women’s movement as dominated by the older generation and they’re still trying to find their own voices and space for leadership.

Okay, so what about the men?  Here’s the amazing thing:  About one-third of the marchers were men.  Supporting a women’s march!  In Italy!

I spoke with my colleague, Sandro Bellassai from the Bologna-based group Maschile Plurale, roughly “plural masculinities”, although it’s more poetic in the original Italian, but then what isn’t?  (One of the MP guys, Stefano Ciccone, was invited to speak at the rally in Rome.)

Sandro says that while many men were there simply to demonstrate against their wretched PM, “I believe many were looking for new ways to express what they’re feeling as men.”   And that is?  “There’s a new awareness that Berlusconi embodies (most) Italian men’s ways of expressing their sexual desires.  Many men are increasingly troubled by this and are beginning to confront sexism.”

Annina adds that more and more men realize that “the macho image projected by Berlusconi is bad for them, too.”

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