Italian women: snapshot of a forgotten solidarity


Antonella Iavazzo

Antonella Iavazzo

“In the end, everything will be fine. And if anything goes well, then it won’t be the end.” John Lennon’s famous phrase, and its clear optimism, seems to sum up perfectly the emotions of the two months of quarantine just ended. The spread of Covid-19 and a new condition of isolation has led us to rethink the traditional relationship with the space surrounding us. We have been urged to reformulate our identity in both emotional and professional relationships, with both loneliness and the future. The messages of great hope and the perception of fighting against a “common enemy” have strengthened our willingness to becoming more tolerant and supportive. In a word, better persons. That the World at the end of the lockdown would have been different has always been a certain fact. Different, however, does not necessarily mean better. Just quoting Alexander Wendt’s formula: “the World is what men make of it”. Even if the political scientist in 1992 spoke of States and the international system, his phrase sounds as new nowadays, which shows us how much history tends to repeat itself, and mankind not to learn from his mistakes.

Everywhere in Italy, out of the balcony, people were showing rainbows and Italian flags like the one in the picture with the motto “everything will be fine” and the hashtag “Istayhome”

Several episodes, during these months, quickly revealed that the feeling of union and solidarity was just a mere advertising spot. People seem to have never stopped looking for a culprit, to make recriminations, to feed the fear of the other – the other as different from us or always identified in subjects considered as weak and fragile, recipients of accusations of all types. Once again, the virus of prejudice, far more dangerous than the much-feared Covid-19, has managed to lay solid roots in unexpected conditions. I think that women are among the main victims in this process. The haters, especially on the web, and quick, dirty and biased journalism go wild, often using a language that not only facilitates women’s discrimination and victimization, but, above all, removes the responsibility from those who write about them. This is true especially if we talk about free, brave, and strong women, whose worst fault is precisely the awareness of being all this. After all, what is more annoying than a woman who is not compliant but, on the contrary, firmly affirms her life choices? This is what emerged in the latest edition of the Amnesty International “Hate Barometer”, called “keyboard sexism”: users tend to attack women more than men, with hate speech comments 1.5 times higher.[1]

As a confirmation of all this, the recent release of Silvia Romano has catalyzed unprecedented levels of hatred. To be put in the pillory, the girl’s alleged cross-red spirit: she has been always determined to vigorously follow her life goal, that of helping children in difficulty in Kenya. Many of those who have always supported the “let’s help them at their home” mantra suddenly joined forces against a girl who actually wanted to help them at their home, and they used far worse clichés, such as that of “she brought this on herself”.[2] There was no lack of pornographic comments on how Silvia had fun with her captors during the 18 months of captivity, as well as comments about the Islamic dress worn when she returned to Italy or the decision to change her name in Aisha – among the main points of the controversy over her ransom. A ransom paid for a girl accused of being “ungrateful”, a converted woman who, for this reason, betrayed her country, to the point of being accused of neoterrorism, as stated by the Lega MP Alessandro Pagano.[3] Ironically, after the kidnapping of a year and a half, Silvia risks ending up under escort in her country, because she has become the privileged target of the verbal violence of her own countrymen. On the basis of everything, there is a gender issue, as always: the tendency to look with intolerance on a woman who freely chooses to follow her life goal and go to help in areas of crisis. As evidence of this, no comment has accompanied the release of Luca Tacchetto, an Italian kidnapped in Mali in 2018, an area as dangerous as that in which Silvia was located. No accusations of any kind followed the boy’s conversion to the Islamic religion and the payment of a ransom for his release: being a man, he has probably been exempted from certain types of insinuations.[4]

Sovereignism and sexism seem to have irreparably melded, transforming Silvia Romano into an anti-Italianness symbol, and any aspect has been used to carry on this type of narration. Some focused on her young age or others, obsessed with the dogma of “Italians first”, criticized her choice to do good outside national borders.[5] The reality is that in 2020, unfortunately, the duo woman-freedom is still scary, it triggers a sort of blackout in the mind of those who believe that women can be free only under a certain tacitly accepted condition: do not question male pre-eminence in the society. Network sexism aims to attack women in a personal and explicit way, making use of stereotypes and false representations. Comments concerning first of all the sphere of the physical appearance and how this one influences women’s role, – the girl is too eye-catchy or too little – comments inherent in the sphere of sexuality, – the girl gives herself too easily or not enough – the realm of professional or private life – the girl is excessively focused on her career rather than on matters of supposed “real” competence, domestic ones. Women can emerge and make a career, of course, but without exaggerating and thinking that is possible to compete with the male figure, otherwise, the widespread use of recommendations excludes her from progressing further in her career. Women can be among the best journalists on a national level, but if they appear on video with unkempt hair or tired face, they have to succumb to the flood of criticisms that will come on aesthetics; they have to accept the infinite irony on being un-attractive.[6]


The Italian journalist Giovanna Botteri, Rai correspondent from Beijing, has been a victim of jokes about her physical appearance for years; jokes aimed at making small irony about an experienced woman whose work, however, has little to do with aesthetics. As if the chosen dress or haircut could influence the ability and quality of information – the really important things, by the way; as if a journalist must necessarily respect certain aesthetic standards to do her job properly, to be unassailable. This kind of ironies, used to be sagacious and tear a smile, simply show up the absolute machismo and narrow-mindedness of their authors.[7] This kind of insults is not so far from those addressed to Carola Rackete, captain of the Sea Watch 3 who, in June 2017, forced the ban on entering Italian waters to disembark migrants on the island of Lampedusa and save their lives. The determination with which Carola has defended her identity and, above all, human lives, has given way to an endless spiral of sexist and misogynist comments: epithets anything but nice, insinuations about sexual intercourses with the shipwrecked on board, even wishes of rape. The paradox then lies in the fact that often politicians, ministers, and high state officials use sexist comments, demonstrating how much this type of language, often in the form of jokes, spread unchecked. Those who should guarantee and preserve freedom and individuality try instead to stem it as if it were a danger, a threat to the society.[8]

The most worrying fact is that Silvia, Giovanna, Carola represent only the most recent cases of an absolutely widespread phenomenon that many strong and determined women live every day. Just think of the minister Teresa Bellanova, derided for her physical appearance and for the dress chosen for her oath at the Quirinale. Fatau Boro Lu, a former pro-European candidate, endured racist and sexist insults for having dared to criticize (she, a woman with dark skin) Salvini’s policies and management of the Sea Watch affair. An escalation of racist and anti-Semitic comments also touched Senator Liliana Segre, a survivor of Auschwitz and active witness of the Shoah, so much so as to be put under the protection of security detail. Also Laura Boldrini, former president of the Chamber of Deputies, since her assignment, has been the subject of a disparaging campaign, fake news, and slanders about herself and her family.

Such cruel comments create a sense of sadness and frustration because they are rooted in what these women represent: an image of solidity and firmness. It is as if patriarchal thought tends to consider such women as wrong, almost against nature. Their experience, on the contrary, should be the starting point for unhinging discriminating models that no longer have reason to exist. The lesson is to transform frustration into the desire to rise, to follow one’s own path, to be free to express oneself. Because there is always something annoying in a woman who uses her brain, who does not accept to be a sexual object; something that probably goes beyond simple actions: the ability to choose one’s destiny and carry it forward with determination.

Antonella Iavazzo


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