The State of Women in Post-Berlusconi Italy

Feb 06, 2014 | Updated Apr 08, 2014

There is much ado in Italy nowadays about harassment against women, as MS5's leader and comic actor Beppe Grillo offered sexist remarks against the President of the Parliament Laura Boldrini.

Fact is, the situation of women in Italy has large space for improvement. It is often said that, in their professions, women need to prove themselves harder than men on the job. In Italy the problem goes beyond that. There is hardly a woman holding a leadership role who can rightfully and in all honesty claim that she never received advances or sexual comments from male colleagues, often superiors. God knows how many times I got unpleasant comments or "jokes" in the last two years, during my tenure as director of an Italian agency in Brussels. There seems to be a general assumption that women -- especially younger ones -- if they hold a leadership position, owe it to something unrelated to their résumé or professional capacities. In the last 20 years, Silvio Berlusconi's ambivalent relation to women -- on the one side he promoted the largest number of (especially young) women in government ever, on the other he treated women as objects -- think of the bunga-bunga affair -- has only worsened the general climate for women in power. This makes it very hard for women to come out and denounce harassment.

It does not help that Italian legislation does not provide women with a possibility to go to court to denounce harassment. In Italy, until 1981 there was even a special legislation concerning "honor killings," essentially exempting men found guilty of assassinating a female relative from serving long periods in jail. In 1998, a judge refused to sentence a man for rape justifying it also with the fact that the victim was wearing jeans and "therefore" she could not be undressed unless she wanted to.

Significantly enough, there is not even an equivalent to the terms moral or sexual harassment in the Italian language. The only form of harassment that is somewhat protected by law is harassment in the workplace -- but only and if one can prove that persecution led to physical sickness -- and stalking -- but here again only if the stalker constantly repeats his acts across time and his actions produce such anxiety and fears to force the victim to change her lifestyle.

To be fair, women themselves have a long way to go. In Italy there is no concept of sisterhood like in the U.S. or the UK; sadly, it is often women who -- once having reached leadership positions -- turn their back to other women.

One can only hope that the disdain that followed Grillo's remarks will lead to a much-needed change. The key point for change is the ability for women to go to court to defend their rights; the first step therefore can only be passing specific legislation: will Italian women finally join forces and act?