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.