When Laura Boldrini, 52, was elected as speaker of Italy’s lower house last month, she knew the job would come with enormous challenges. But she didn’t expect it to come with death threats. Last week, the former United Nations high commisioner for refugees Italian spokesperson sat in front of Italy’s lower house of Parliament and read some of the hundreds of squalid emails she has received since taking office. Many threatened rape, sodomy, torture, and murder. All the warnings were sexual in nature. “You need to be lynched, bitch,” one hater wrote. “You live less than 30 kilometers from my house. I swear I am going to come and find you.”
Many of the disturbing letters also included doctored pictures that superimposed her face on bodies of battered or dead women. Boldrini also pointed to a number of online websites in which she is depicted in horrifying scenarios—including one, which has been removed by a network administrator, which showed her face on a bleeding body that had been stabbed multiple times. Despite the threats, “I am not afraid,” Boldrini told Parliament. “I am not afraid to fight a battle against these fanatics to make this stop.”
Unfortunately, Boldrini is hardly alone—sexual harassment and even death threats have dogged female politicians in Italy for years. Enrico Letta, Italy’s new prime minister, appointed a record number of seven female ministers to his new cabinet last month, and all of the women say they’ve received harassing emails during their political careers (although not all have received death threats like Boldrini). “Why is it when a woman holds prominent public positions, she is targeted by sexual aggression?” Boldrini asked, denouncing the threats and linking them to a misogynistic mentality that has also been behind a disturbing increase in femicide in the country. “This is an emergency situation here in Italy, where prominent women are threatened in public, and worse, every few days a woman also dies at the hands of a man in private.”
Boldrini also sees a disturbing link between the sexually explicit threats she and other female political leaders have received and a dangerous strain of racism brewing in the country. Since Letta appointed Italy’s first black minister, Cecile Kyenge, who also happens to be female, as minister of Integration, a barrage of politically incorrect statements have been made against her. Mario Borghezio, a European parliamentarian with Italy’s xenophobic Northern League, went so far as to term the new Letta administration a “bongo bongo government” because of Kyenge’s inclusion, making a play on words referring to Silvio Berlusconi’s “bunga bunga” sex scandals. Kyenge, an eye doctor who came to Italy legally from the Democratic Republic of Congo when she was 18 to study medicine and now enjoys full Italian citizenship, has also been the subject of online harrassment similar to that experienced by Boldrini, with references to her as a “Congolese monkey” and “Zulu” with her face superimposed on bodies of African indigenous women. When she addressed Parliament last week, she began with a simple introduction: “I am black,” she said. “And I say it with pride.”
Boldrini and Kyenge have ample support in Italy’s Parliament. Luigi Zanda, the leader of the center-left parliamentary committee, said Parliament would act swiftly to crack down on such harrassment. “We must stop this new form of threats and violence against women perpetrated by websites or social networks where, far too often, xenophobic and sexist hate campaigns are born that gradually magnify to become uncontrollable and dangerous to the lives of people, especially if they are women, and especially if they hold important positions,” he wrote in a statement to Parliament.
Zanda and Boldrini are now joining forces to try to introduce legistlation that would make sexist and racist cyberbullying more difficult by controlling anonymous postings of explicit materials. Together with Kyenge, they also hope to launch an educational campaign to teach certain elements of the population to accept racial and gender integration, which they believe could also begin to stop the violence against women in Italy. “We must remember that in 2012, 150 women were killed,” said Keyne. “It is necessary to promote a law against violence against women and introduce new gender policies. But what we really need a cultural change.”