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Sexism, Italian-Style: Bad News For My Eight-Year-Old Daughter

Italy is, still, a deeply sexist country. A recent murder and suicide remind one mother why part of her shuddered at the thought of having a baby girl.

Billboard in Naples
Billboard in Naples
Barbara Sgarzi

MILAN — Nine years ago, when I discovered that I was pregnant — as those who read my column at the time may recall — I was shocked. I had made a conscious decision to be child-free; I was convinced of my choice, I wrote about it, and accepted the ensuing insults (nine years ago in Italy, it wasn't so common to openly address the topic — not that it's any easier today, I observe here with some bitterness.)

An amniocentesis several months later provided not only the most important news ("it's healthy"), but also the confirmation that "It's a girl." The baby's father, who secretly aspired to a harem of a home where even the cats were all female, was overjoyed. Sadness and worry were mine alone.

"What? You're not happy to be having a little girl?" No. I was not happy. And to those who asked for clarification, I answered very simply: "I'm not happy because we live in a sexist country. Because as a woman, I have had to face discrimination and aggression. Because I have had to work harder, and still do. Because I, and not you, have heard my boss telling me, "Great job, you brought in some stellar business — you really unbuttoned your shirt in that meeting, huh?" Because, in the end, I don't think and I no longer even hope that in 15 or 20 years, when my daughter is out and about in the world, this country will really be any different than it is today. And I don't want her to be subjected to the same things. I don't want her to struggle so hard to obtain what men take for granted."

Over-the-top. Pessimistic. Apocalyptic. Feminist (said as an insult, to be clear.) "It's not such a big deal."These were just some of the responses I got.

Eight years have gone by. "And a half," my daughter would add. She's in that beautiful phase of life where even half years count, but going up, not going down. For about half the time I was pregnant, I figured nothing would change. I know that some small battles have been won. I know that life tends to improve, that our conditions in life are, generally, better than they once were. I know that my great-grandmother, whom I had the good fortune to know, at age 40 already seemed like an old lady, with her head covered and those black dresses, while I on the other hand … I know that there's a woman ("wife, mom, grandma," as the short Twitter bio explains) running president of the United States.

Asking for it

But I can't help but notice that an entire Italian town, faced with the horrific, repeated rape of a young girl, says that she was asking for it. I can't help but see that a man whose lover has left him can turn into a killer because, from his perspective, his partner is nothing more than an object that cannot and must not free itself from his possession.

There are countless numbers, statistics, red shoe demonstrations, another woman murdered, it goes on and on. I can't ignore that Tiziana Cantone killed herself because someone, betraying her trust, put sex videos online, and so popular wisdom has it that if you're a woman who likes having sex freely, you're a slut who deserves to be pilloried, whereas if you're a man you're cool, we'll have T-shirts printed with your face on them.

Nothing has changed, not one bit, from when I was in middle school. If you're a girl who "hooks up with a lot of guys" you're easy, or worse. If you're a guy who "hooks up with a lot of girls," you're a stud. There is no room here for nuance, for anything in between.

And on the subject of Tiziana, the real shame lies in repeating that she was killed "by the web," or "by Facebook." Tiziana was killed by the nastiness of other people, who were the first to share those videos. And by the stupidity, lack of empathy and superficiality with which hundreds created memes, jokes and photo montages from moments of intimacy that had been violated. Or maybe they imagined that it was all a clever marketing scheme devised to launch a new porn star's career. (Because this would never happen to us: we conspiracy theorists know what's what.)

Tiziana Cantone, killed by people's nastiness — Source: Instagram

To say that the web kills is like saying a pack or gang committed rape. That a street was a killer. That a mountain was murderous. That we're not involved. It's a dangerous process of denying responsibility, attributing only generic blame — empty, faceless and nameless. When in reality, blame can be traced to a principal point of origin: sexism, stereotypes, differences in thinking, in treatment, in the way sons and daughters are raised, all of which persist today, as strongly as ever.

Stereotypes at six

You might say, "But she's your daughter, it's up to you to give her the tools she needs to defend herself. The self-esteem. The strength." To which I say, "It's like when my father was afraid of letting me drive by myself at night."

"But dad, I'm careful, I'm a good driver," I would say.

"But you're not the one I'm afraid of. It's the people you'll meet on the road who worry me, because I don't know how they were raised," he would reply.

I explain, console, share, analyze. I'm always there. I speak openly and I am willing to address any topic with my daughter; I do try. I notice with some worry the wall between "the boys" and "the girls" in her elementary school class — a wall that originates with the children's families. In the stories my daughter tells me, I listen to the gender stereotypes that are endlessly perpetuated and show up unexpectedly, and therefore even more chillingly, in the voice of children of six, seven or eight years old. That's not to mention the stereotypes expressed by the teachers, which slip in with even greater subtlety; those are more acceptable, somehow, and harder to catch.

I read with disgust (and here, Italy isn't the only county at fault, but as my own elementary school teacher — a great woman — used to say, "A shared illness isn't halved, it's an epidemic") the drooling commentary on the posteriors of female Olympic athletes. What can I actually do? How can I keep the commonplace feelings of a nation at bay? What can parents do when a whole country, or at least a large part of it, is driving down the wrong side of the highway?

Who knows if my daughter will ever be free to live her life as she sees fit. To have sex with hundreds of men or women or with no one at all. To have ten children and breastfeed them till they're three years old or to dissolve powder in water by the spoonful without anyone saying, "Hey, you're doing it wrong." Maybe, instead, she'll have no children and live with ten cats. Or aspire to the job that she wants, or stay home to raise her children (or cats) and gaze at her navel.

I don't think so, unfortunately. I've lost faith. She'll probably get to be my age and be told that she needs to stop dressing like a young girl, and cut her magnificent curls and let them go gray. Because between rapes and media violence, it seems to me that right now, there's a lot of pressure on women to dress soberly as they age; heaven forbid that we upset anyone when they notice we're no longer at the pinnacle of the beauty competition. Far better to opt for shapeless dresses and short salt-and-pepper hair, as my great-grandmother did. She knew her place.

All I know is that when I felt sad nine years ago, part of me was right.

Barbara Sgarzi (@barbarasgarzi) is a journalist and adjunct professor at the International School for Advanced Studies (Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati, or SISSA) in Trieste, Italy. She is also a columnist for the Milan-based weekly women's and fashion magazine Donna Moderna. The Italian version of this piece originally appeared in Medium.

This is Worldcrunch"s international collection of essays, both original pieces written in English and others translated from the world's best writers in any language. The name for this collection, Rue Amelot, is a nod to the humble address in eastern Paris we call home. Send ideas and suggestions at info@worldcrunch.com.

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In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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