The challenge of racism, misogyny and social justice in contemporary Europe Notes on the Italian general election

On Italian election day, I was sitting with a friend in the concert hall at the Sydney Opera House, attending the fourth edition of “All About Women,” a festival dedicated to feminist activism and thought. The room was packed, and Australian journalist Julia Baird was interviewing Fran Lebowitz, Francesca Donner and Sophia Nelson about “Grabbing Back. Women in the Age of Trump.”

I was absorbed by the panelists’ sarcastic and very detailed memories of the day Donald Trump became United States president, when Nelson called Italy and Egypt to my mind: “We would need to go back 25 years to see the trajectory that got Donald Trump elected,” she said.

Twenty-five years ago: 1993.

The 1990s was a turning point for my generation.

The post-Iron Curtain world, announced in 1989 as a new age of hope, was very soon transformed into an age of disenchantment. In our late adolescence, we witnessed the spectacle of violence in the former republic of Yugoslavia, where Serbia went to war with the republics that declared independence from the federation. We perceived what followed between 1992 and 1995 as a major failure of the United Nations and the whole international community, powerless amid the siege of Sarajevo, the return of concentration camps in the heart of Europe, the extensive gang rape of women and children and the torture and murder of more than 10,000 people (80 percent of them Bosnian Muslims). Part of the same genealogy, former US President George H.W. Bush’s new world order and the tragic consequences it had for Iraq and, in the years to follow for the whole Middle East, called us to peace, human rights and anti-racist activism.

These were the years we became aware that the humanistic education we were receiving at school — a curriculum in which philosophy was written only by white European men, where history was that of white male subjects and where white, middle-class women were the only ones breaking the ceiling of the literary canon — was not enough to equip us for our lives in the 21st century. These were also the years when a new generation of feminists emerged, attempting to explain that all oppressions are connected, and that if feminism wanted to continue to be relevant, it needed to care about all inequalities and to intersect with other battles.

But these were also the years when the US was governed by the Bush dynasty, when Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt became the poster-child of the neoliberal economy and when, in Italy, traditional political parties collapsed under the storm of “Tangentopoli” (Bribesville, the biggest case of political corruption in Italy’s history until then). Ironically, the leader of the new political force that gained the trust of many Italians in the 1990s was the very man at the heart of that corrupt system: Silvio Berlusconi.

“Forza Italia” (Come on Italy), the entirely artificial party drummed up especially to support Berlusconi, triumphed in the 1994 general election. This was a crucial point in the process that led to the dismantling of leftist political parties. Since then, abandoned by leftist political leaders and intellectuals, the Italian working class — or what remained of it in the post-fordist system of economic production and consumption characterizing late 20th century Italy — looked to Forza Italia and the Lega Nord party for their social redemption from the consequences of the neoliberal economic system. The Lega Nord (Northern League) was born as a federation of local parties that, over the years, advocated the transformation of Italy into a federal state, fiscal federalism, a greater regional autonomy, then the secession of the north, and today, the halting of migration and exit from the European Union.

Poster from the Northern League electoral campaign in Italy reads: “Stop Invasion.”
Below on the wall: “Terroni (the derogatory name for people from the south of Italy) and negros, same shit. We are with Salvini (leader of the Northern League).” The man in the photo is one of the neo-elected senators from the Northern League. He is a migrant himself, yet, he embraces the racist discourse of the party, disguised behind the rhetoric of “integration” A clear example of tokenism. - Courtesy: Lucia Sorbera

Berlusconi ruled Italy for more than 20 years. He saved its companies from bankruptcy and saved himself from jail by peddling to Italian working and middle classes the dream that, under his leadership, one day, everyone could achieve what he himself had achieved. An anthropological change occurred in Italian society, where two significant, historically rooted and intersecting taboos were broken: racism and misogyny.

The historical intersection between racist colonialism and patriarchal misogyny in Italy is clearly illustrated by the colonial iconography of black women’s bodies. However, few in the post-World War II context, or even in 1980s and 1990s Italy, would have ever dared to blatantly use racist and sexist language, especially in the public sphere. Today, both overt and dog-whistle racist speech is the norm, sexist slurs against women in leadership positions is considered legitimate, and Italy continues to experience high rates of femicide and violence against women.

It is beyond doubt that racism and sexism were the most powerful discursive dispositives in campaigns for Italy’s recent general election. The slogan #StopInvasion or #ItalyForItalians, echoing #MakeAmericaGreatAgain and #AmericaFirst — which reverberate as far as Australia’s #GoBackWhereYouComeFrom — show that this newly invigorated racism has a global reach.

Sexism runs even deeper in contemporary global political language and the unchallenged backlash against women in leadership positions has normalized and permitted widespread abuse against ordinary women.  The pioneer in the normalization of sexist attacks against high profile women politicians in Italy was Berlusconi. Italian journalist Francesca Bonfiglioli traces the long list of insults pronounced by Berlusconi against Rosy Bindi, a senior member of the Democratic Party, back to 2003. Over the years, Berlusconi was joined by Francesco Storace, a leader of the neo-fascist party Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance), and Beppe Grillo, the co-founder of the Five Star Movement.

Trump’s comments about Hillary Clinton during the electoral campaign were on a similar level: “If Hillary can’t satisfy her husband, what makes her think she can satisfy America?” “Hillary Clinton is weak and ineffective — no strength, no stamina.” As the presidential election approached, Trump supporters’ anti-Clinton slogans became more and more trivial: “Don’t be a pussy. Vote for Trump” and “Lock her Up.”

Julia Gillard, the prime minister of Australia from 2010 to 2013, was ousted after only three years in office, during which time she faced a number of aggressive sexist slurs, especially — but not only — from the leader of the opposition at the time, Tony Abbott, who stood in front of signs outside parliament urging voters to “Ditch the Witch.” In 2013, Roberto Calderoli, then the vice-president of the Italian Senate, said of Cécile Kyenge, an Italian politician and former health minister who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo: “When I look at her, I can’t help but think of an orangutan.” Laura Boldrini, Italy’s parliamentary speaker and the president of parliament’s lower house, who is often labeled an “arrogante maestrina” (an arrogant little teacher) — something that would never happen to any of the many arrogant men sitting in parliament — denounced the violent cyber-stalking she was exposed to. Grillo posted a question on his Facebook account, which was reposted on the official page of the Five Star Movement: “What would you do, if you had Laura Boldrini in your car?”

The list of examples is endless. What matters here is the significance of Italy in terms of the intersection between sexism and racism in public and political discourse.

Racist slogans and rhetoric have been central to the Lega Nord’s campaign. A racist and separatist party from its inception, it is the only traditional party that survived the debacle of this election, in which it won leadership of the right-wing coalition.

In more ambiguous yet condescending forms, this rhetoric is also accepted by the Five Star Movement, arguably the real winner of this election. Additionally, none of Italy’s political parties were capable of building a compelling counter-narrative, or addressing either the structural causes of the impoverishment of the Italian middle classes or of the country’s deeply rooted racism and misogyny. However, everybody tried to capitalize on the fear of the foreigner and the need for an enemy, which those very same political forces had stoked.

Italian politicians portray the peninsula as a besieged citadel in the heart of the Mediterranean, but data shows that this is not true. In 2016, the number of foreign residents in Italy was estimated at just over 5 million, equivalent to 8.3 percent of the entire population, far below the average in other European countries. Right-wing forces and the mainstream media portray migration as a condition that inherently generates criminality, but the role the Italian industry of criminality plays in trafficking migrants is never mentioned, nor is the intersection of sex, gender and race in the market of exploitation, something that is particularly prominent in the trafficking industry from Nigeria. As a matter of fact, African bodies, especially women’s bodies, are bought, sold, exploited and abused by Italian men. 

Italy is facing many challenges, but the normalization of racist and misogynistic discourse in the language and the actions of leading politicians is certainly the most frightening, and it is mirrored in the low profile that the country is keeping in global politics.

Italy’s international agenda is dictated by a number of national interests: To please the populist demand of having “fewer migrants.” Rather than telling people the truth, i.e. that fewer and fewer people, including young Italians who are skilled and brave enough to leave, have any desire to live in Italy, and that most migrants merely transit through the country to get to better places, outgoing Italian Foreign Minister Marco Minniti struck deals with head of the Libyan National Army Khalifa Haftar, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to block migration. They achieved their primary aim: to slow-down the flow of people coming to Italy by sea. Italy’s Interior Ministry claimed the number of people disembarking in Italy in March of this year had decreased by almost 75 percent compared to 2017. However, this has little to do with the number of people who chose to leave their countries and those who decide to remain in Italy, because the push and pull factors are structural.

The cynical Italian government, led by the Democratic Party, has showed little concern for the grave, daily human rights violations carried out in Libya, Egypt and Turkey — not even when one of its own citizens, Giulio Regeni, was a victim of such violations. The blame for the thousands of lives lost in the Mediterranean Sea was incongruously placed on NGOs, while the responsibility for the kidnapping and murder of Regeni was — equally incongruously — placed on his academic supervisor (an Egyptian woman, making her an easy target for public anger). The blame was also laid on Regeni himself, for being too much of an idealist, too honest and too well read — all those things that the current Italian political leadership cannot understand, much less represent.  

And yet, however much more radical and racist the new Italian government may be, with regards Italy’s relations with Egypt, it is likely that the result of the election is going to be completely irrelevant. Two main factors determine the politics of Italy in Egypt and, more broadly in the Mediterranean: the containment of migration and the interests of Eni, Italy’s petrochemical giant.

One week after Italy’s general election, which produced a hung parliament, it is impossible to say who will be part of the new coalition, and, indeed, if there will be a coalition at all. However, it is clear that Italy will not have a government that is willing or able to address the main issues of these times: racism, violence against women and the biggest crisis of human rights that the Mediterranean region’s recent history, both in relation to migrants, who are dying while trying to cross borders, and of Egyptian, Turkish and Libyan political activists, who, despite the dire foreign policies of the US and Europe, still believe in the values of freedom, human dignity and social justice.

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Lucia Sorbera