03.12.11

Emma Bonino on Italy's Sexist Backlash

An Italian newspaper with ties to Silvio Berlusconi slammed a prominent female politician for speaking out about sexism at Newsweek and The Daily Beast’s Women in the World summit. By Jesse Ellison.

An Italian newspaper with ties to Silvio Berlusconi slammed a prominent female politician for speaking out about sexism at Newsweek and The Daily Beast’s Women in the World summit.

An appearance by Italian Senate Vice Chair Emma Bonino at Newsweek and The Daily Beast’s Women in the World summit has incited a backlash, with an editorial in Saturday’s edition of Il Foglio, a right-leaning Italian daily edited by a former Berlusconi official, calling for a lawsuit against the longtime champion of women’s rights.

The second annual summit was held in New York this weekend and brought together powerful female leaders and activists from around the world to tell their stories, brainstorm solutions, and inspire each other with their shared experiences. Bonino was joined by Hillary Clinton, Diane von Furstenberg, Meryl Streep, Facebook's Chief Operating Offficer Sheryl Sandberg, President of the Rockefeller Foundation Judith Rodin, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, managing director of the World Bank, and many other courageous women.

On Friday, Bonino appeared on a panel alongside Newsweek's Barbie Latza Nadeau and Italian actress Violante Placido to discuss Prime Minister Berlusconi's "bunga-bunga" antics, the way in which women are stereotyped in the Italian media, and how those two forces are complicit in creating a culture of sexism that is effectively holding Italian women back. Italy ranks 74th on the World Economic Forum's 2010 Global Gender Gap Report—behind Colombia, Peru, and Vietnam—and has fallen lower under the media titan's leadership.

The panel didn't mince words in their assessment of the prime minister's complicity in perpetuating a sexist culture. "He's highly responsible for it. He leads the country and he does own most of the media," Placido said. "We don't have female models to which we can aspire. The winning model is that of a young woman who is available to be corrupted, to go to parties and be next to powerful men and the next day, she's on the cover of all the magazines, she gets interviewed on TV, she gets a fashion campaign, and she becomes a star."

Bonino, however, was notably less critical, noting that Italy’s women problem pre-dates Berlusconi’s seven-year reign. "I think he is a problem," she said. "But I don't think he is the only problem. But the next day, writing for Il Foglio, Marina Terragni launched what amounts to a character assassination against the high-ranking politician—mocking everything from her outfit to her age—and implying that she should be sued for libel.

Italy ranks 74th on the World Economic Forum's 2010 Global Gender Gap Report—behind Colombia, Peru, and Vietnam—and has fallen lower under the media titan's leadership.

But what's striking about the claim against Bonino is that nowhere does the op-ed claim that she actually told any lies. "On the contrary," Bonino told The Daily Beast. "It's quoting the same figures that I've been putting out. So it seems to me character assassination… Typical for Italy. But without any kind of substance." The longtime politician said she suspected that the attack was based primarily on a sense of nationalism, and that the writer was likely motivated by the fact that Bonino brought her criticisms to an American stage that was also host to global luminaries that included Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, and Melinda Gates. Indeed, in calling for the lawsuit, the piece cites Bonino's "scorn and dishonor on the international stage with the U.N. and White House present."


Bonino's responds.

Video screenshot

The threat of a lawsuit—empty or not—speaks to an administration that seems desperate to crush voices of opposition, particularly now that Berlusconi faces charges related to prostitution and abuse of office. These may in fact be the early days of a new, invigorated women's movement in Italy. Last month in Rome, some 100,000 women took to the streets of the capital to tell the government that they'd had enough and insist that Berlusconi resign. And rather than hide from it, Bonino posted the attack on her website. She's been preaching these ideas in Italy for years, she told us. "Luckily, I'm not alone anymore."

Jesse Ellison is a writer and editor for Newsweek, covering society, culture, business, and health. She also co-authors the Equality Myth and can be found on Tumblr.