Earlier this week, a shocking post appeared on the public Facebook page of Dolores “Dolly” Valandro, a 58-year-old party official with Italy’s xenophobic Northern League. In an attack on Cecile Kyenge, Italy’s new minister of integration and the country’s first black minister, Valandro exhorted, “Why does no one rape her, so she can understand what the victims of atrocious crime feel?”
The comment, made in reference to the recent alleged rape of a Genoese woman by two Somali men, was the latest in an escalating barrage of racist and sexist criticism against Kyenge, an ophthalmologist, who legally emigrated from the Congo to Italy to study medicine when she was 18. She became Italy’s first black minister last month as part of a new center-left government formed by Enrico Letta, who was appointed by Italy’s president Giorgio Napolitano to lead the country out of its political stalemate last month.
Since taking office, Kyenge has been the victim of a number of public insults including referencing her as a “Congolese monkey” and “Zulu” with photos posted online of her face superimposed on the bodies of indigenous African women. For weeks, Valandro—a councilor in the city of Padua—had also been escalating her comments about Kyenge, insinuating during a radio program that Kyenge was better off ministering to “her people” back in the Congo.
In another racist incident, Mario Borghezio, a European parliamentarian, again with the Northern League, even went to far as to call Letta’s new administration a “bongo-bongo government” as a play on words about former leader Silvio Berlusconi’s “bunga bunga” sex scandals. Borghezio was barred from participating in the Europe of Freedom and Democracy group within the European Parliament after his remarks, for seemingly obvious reasons.
Valandro was immediately dismissed from her duties as a Northern League party leader, and she issued a tepid apology, which hardly explained her actions. “It was a terrible joke in a moment of anger. When I have a moment of rage, I need to vent,” she told Radio Capitale. “I’m not a violent person. This is my way to vent, but underneath, I’m really the sweetest person. I’m someone who barks but does not bite.”
Italy’s ruling class in Rome was quick to defend Kyenge, who stoically said she would not make a public comment about whether she was offended. Instead, she tweeted, “This type of language is beyond me because it incites violence, and it tries to incite violence by the general public” and “it should be offensive to all Italians.”
Indeed, the remarks were extremely offensive to Italy’s prime minister Letta, who expressed solidarity with Kyenge in a public statement. “Cecile Kyenge is right. Each of us should be offended, as I am. Cecile merits my personal solidarity, as well as that of the government and the country,” Laura Boldrini, speaker of Italy’s lower house and herself a victim of sexist remarks since taking office, went further to call Valandro’s post “unacceptable words, full of racism and hate. What’s even worse is that it was a woman with a political role suggesting rape as a punishment.”