In the southern Italian region of Calabria, the organized crime syndicate known as the "Ndrangheta is known for its cruelty and ever more central role in the international drug trade. But in his book Rebelling Sweethearts, journalist Lirio Abbate is focused on a largely untold chapter in "Ndrangheta's story: its women.
Abbate, an award-winning chronicler of the Sicilian Mafia, describes an even more backward, feudal society in Calabria. It is a shock in modern Italy to see such conditions, where the absolute power of life and death is exercised by men over women. Abbate explicitly compares it to the Taliban.
The image of this hell-on-earth is of an old and fierce woman trapped in her black scarf that is the Calabrian version of the burqa -- the destiny of the women of the ‘Ndrangheta is to pass on the “values” to their descendants that keep the society, and the criminal organization, in control.
It is a system that imposes no less than the death penalty on women who don’t follow the rules. So, at almost 90 years-old, a certain Nonna Giuseppina isn’t disturbed at all when her own granddaughter is condemned to death because of an adulterous relationship. Abbate describes the images captured from a prison in the city of Reggio Calabria where the elderly woman confirms the sentence with the gesture of her index finger running from one side of the neck to the other, mimicking the dirty work of a knife. These are family values for the “Pesce di Rosarno” clan.
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Reading the book, we must ask how it is possible that a system like this can exist in a western country? The answers may lie in the isolation in this corner of Italy, of living in a self-sufficient society and growing up with the deceptive myth of a failing state. It’s what Sicily struggled with a half-century ago.
But, it’s not just forbidden relationships that the girls can be punished for. Simona and Maria Concetta went “missing” because of things that were forbidden. They interacted with male friends through Facebook - a forbidden sin. Husbands, brothers and fathers that only recognize one duty: the mob, “blessed” by a fundamentalist religion that finds the apotheosis in the secret mafioso assembly, consecrated in the Church of Madonna di Polsi. This General Assembly decides the fusion of the clans by arranging marriages -- exactly like noble families once did to further their economic interests. The magnificence of marriage is part of the mythology of the "Ndrangheta.
Cracks are appearing in the ‘Ndrangheta as more than one of the girls have decided to co-operate with prosecutors in order to prosecute the men who have ordered the killings of these women. Simona managed to escape near certain death, and is now living under police protection. Her lover was killed by her father. As in other fundamentalisms, the executor must be a male in the family: father, brother, cousin, husband or boyfriend.
“I tried to reason with him many times. I knew that because of the nature of the affair, my father would have killed me too,” she said.
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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