Rue Amelot

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 â€" Nine years ago, when I discovered that I was pregnant â€" as those who read my column at the time may recall â€" 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 â€" 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 â€" 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 â€" 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 â€" 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 â€" 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 â€" a great woman â€" 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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Geopolitics

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

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.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3

-Analysis-

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.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

commons.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.

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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