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02.13.11

Basta! Italian Women Tell Berlusconi

Sick of the scantily clad TV babes, the tawdry details about "bunga bunga" parties, the underage prostitutes, Italian women took to the streets to call for Berlusconi's ouster. Barbie Latza Nadeau reports.

UPDATE: On Tuesday, an Italian judge ordered Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to stand trial for allegedly paying for sex with an underage prostitute and then abusing his official power by trying to cover it up. The judge agreed to waive a preliminary hearing and send Berlusconi directly to trial due to what prosecutors called the “obviousness of the evidence” against him. He faces up to three years in prison on the prostitution charge and 12 years on the abuse of power charge.

Sick of the scantily clad TV babes, the tawdry details about "bunga bunga" parties, the underage prostitutes, Italian women took to the streets to call for Berlusconi's ouster. Barbie Latza Nadeau reports. Plus, read more about inspiring women and learn about our 2011 Women in the World Summit.

Against the backdrop of a huge inflatable penis, flaccid and caught in a pair of giant scissors, more than 100,000 protesters crammed into Rome's Piazza del Popolo to protest Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's treatment of women and call for his resignation. Similar protests were held in 230 cities across Italy, from Naples to Turin, with smaller demonstrations in Paris, London, and cities throughout Europe.

The day's official slogan was "If Not Now, When?" but the unofficial word of the event was "Basta!" Enough! Italian women are simply fed up with the increasing sexism in their country, where the television networks, 90 percent controlled by Berlusconi's media companies, broadcast a steady diet of scantily clad babes and the prime minister himself runs his life like a cheap porn movie. All this contributes to an atmosphere of subliminal sexism, the protesters say, that has kept women subordinate for far too long. They turned out in unexpected numbers waving signs with slogans such as "Our country is not a whorehouse" and "Give women back our dignity," as Aretha Franklin's "Respect" blasted over the loudspeakers.

Sunday's protests came at a moment when the prime minister is particularly vulnerable. On Tuesday a court will decide whether he should stand trial for abuse of power and for paying an underage prostitute for sex. Last week, prosecutors in Milan officially charged Berlusconi after an undercover investigation revealed that he had paid a young Moroccan belly dancer for sex on several occasions. The age of consent in Italy is 14, and buying sex is not a crime—unless it's with a person younger than 18. Berlusconi faces up to three years in jail if convicted.

The young woman, whose real name is Karima El Mahrough, calls herself Ruby "Rubicuore"—or "heart stealer." She allegedly sold sexual favors to the 74-year-old prime minister over the course of several months last summer before she turned 18. The case exploded when Berlusconi called a Milan police station to spring Ruby from jail after she had been arrested on theft charges. At the time, Berlusconi claimed he thought Ruby was the niece of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He said he made the call to avoid embarrassment and to "help someone less fortunate." His opponents say he intervened to cover up his relationship with the then-minor. Ruby was released into the custody of Nicole Minetti, Berlusconi's former dental hygienist-turned-politician, who is now under criminal investigation for procuring prostitutes for Berlusconi and his associates.

For months prior to Sunday's protests, salacious headlines about Berlusconi's "bunga bunga" parties have overshadowed more pressing issues, such as the country's dire economic situation. Tawdry details emerged about hiring stripping nurses and pole-dancing policewomen to entertain his cronies, along with phone intercepts discussing his penchant for bondage and his "toro" stamina. The revelation that he kept 14 women in a housing complex in Milan to be available to him at a moment's notice in exchange for several thousand euros a month proved the final straw for many Italian women, who struggle to earn a fraction of that in legitimate jobs.

In Rome, 13 young actresses spoke about their hopes of being more than veline, as the scantily clad babes on TV are known.

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The World Economic Forum ranks Italy 74th in its treatment of women, behind Colombia, Peru, and Vietnam. In areas of pay equity and equal opportunity, it ranks 121st; in equal opportunity, it ranks 97th.

"Italy is one of the most backward countries in Europe in almost every indicator of gender equality," said parliamentarian Emma Bonino.

Just 45 percent of Italian women work outside the home, compared with 80 percent of women in Norway and 72 percent in the United Kingdom. When they do work, they earn on average 20 percent less than men in the same positions, and only seven percent of the top corporate managers in Italy are women. A recent survey showed that 90 percent of Italian men have never run a washing machine and 70 percent have never used a stove. Private day care is virtually nonexistent, and state-subsidized nursery schools only begin at the age of 3. Grandparents are considered the primary caregivers, meaning women with adult children can't work because they need to babysit the grandchildren.

The demonstrators in each city Sunday heard speeches by politicians and local celebrities. Few men spoke, but those who did addressed labor equality and admitted the attitudes that marginalize and exploit women are deeply ingrained. In Rome, 13 young actresses spoke about their hopes of being more than veline, as the scantily clad babes on TV are known. A 32-year-old woman told the crowd she was hiding her new pregnancy from her boss for fear she'd be fired. Another declared that she worked full time for €1,000 ($1,350) a month. "I hope we aren't here in 10 years," she said. "But I'm worried we will be."

Berlusconi supporters dismissed the protests as "moralistic" and "puritanical" attempts to bring him down. But even some of the prime minister's former allies, such as Giulia Bongiorno, a parliamentarian who was once a staunch Berlusconi sympathizer, have simply had enough.

"Our problem is semantics. A prostitute sounds much more elegant when you call her an ‘escort,' and by adding the word ‘domestic' to violence makes it sound much sweeter," she told the cheering crowd. "But we must remember what these degradations mean at the core. They are calling us moralistic to diminish us. But we are here."

Still, the demonstrations, which far exceeded organizers' expectations, are not likely to have much immediate impact. Italy's opposition is fractured and all polls show that even if the country called early elections, Berlusconi would surely win. There are no moves to de-sex Italian television, and there is not a single initiative in parliament aimed at bettering the lives of women. If Berlusconi is called to stand trial, he can easily use his partial immunity to avoid attending any hearings. Few doubt he is already filling his calendar with important meetings that will preclude his attendance in court, making it all but impossible to convict him of any crime. To the rallying cry, "If not now, when?" the answer, sadly, may be "not yet."

Barbie Latza Nadeau, author of the Beast Book Angel Face, about Amanda Knox, has reported from Italy for Newsweek since 1997 and for The Daily Beast since 2009. She is a frequent contributor to CNN Traveller, Departures, Discovery and Grazia. She appears regularly on CNN, BBC and NPR.