The view from the ground.

Berlusconi’s Real Woman Problem

The exploitation goes far beyond a few underage girls.


Silvio Berlusconi is at the center of two dramas in Italy today. The first centers on the prime minister’s notorious personal and political scandals: A judge will soon decide whether Berlusconi should immediately face trial on charges of paying for sex with a 17-year-old and abusing his office to have her released after being accused of theft. With its Roman settings and operatic staging, the effort to put Berlusconi on trial has had the makings of a comic opera, as if Benny Hill were playing Scarpia in Tosca.

The other battle is less acute, but more critical for Italy’s future. This past weekend, one million Italians and some foreign sympathizers marched — not only in Italy, but everywhere from New York to London to Honolulu to Jakarta — in order to air their grievances against “Berlusconi-ism,” the distorted political and social system that the media magnate has imposed on the country since he came on the scene in 1994. Even if Berlusconi leaves the soon, Italians realize he will leave behind a toxic legacy, one in which the media cynically undermine democratic norms and women have largely been robbed of their dignity in public and private life.

In the 1980s, Berlusconi succeeded in creating a near monopoly of national commercial television. The public broadcaster, RAI, has always been subservient to the government, so when Berlusconi became prime minister in practice he controlled five out of the seven national channels. He and his family also have extensive print and publishing interests which he has maintained even in office.

It is hardly news that a political leader has meetings with his staff to plan his media strategies, but what makes Berlusconi different is that the “staff” comprises editors of newspapers and TV channels that reach more than half the population. Given the concentration of media power in the hands of the prime minister, it is no surprise that for the past two years Freedom House has classified Italy’s media status as only “partly free.”

In the case of his current scandals, Berlusconi has unleashed his media companies to act as his public defenders. Over the last few days, they have started what looks like an organized campaign to defend the boss and attack his enemies. Last week, Giuliano Ferrara, the editor of a Berlusconi family paper — the low circulation daily Il Foglio — published a long interview with Berlusconi in which he accused the Milan prosecutors who are investigating him of carrying out a “moral coup” and acting illegally. He compared them to the Stasi and today’s Italy to East Germany. Ferrara was also allowed a six-minute monologue on RAI’s Channel 1 prime-time news program in which he attacked the main anti-Berlusconi media. Channel 1 is RAI’s flagship channel; its news editor, Augusto Minzolini is famous for his direct-to-camera opinion pieces in which he either praises Berlusconi or attacks the opposition. Last week, Channel 1 aired an interview with the prime minister without a single question about his trials.

Italy has never had a puritanical culture, but under the influence of Berlusconi’s media, the country has become positively shameless. That has been especially evident in his current scandal. Berlusconi makes no secret of giving parties for up to 30 young women, some under 18, and a few, usually elderly, male friends. Indeed, another of his family owned papers, Il Giornale, has just published photographs of one of the girls who calls him “Papi,” Noemi Letizia. She spent New Year’s Eve of 2008 in his Sardinian villa when she was only 17. Her friend who took photographs of her at that party admitted that they were given “money for little presents, 2,000 euros or sometimes presents like necklaces or bracelets, the usual sorts of presents that an uncle gives a niece.” Berlusconi doesn’t deny knowing the woman at the center of the current case, Karima el Mahroug (aka Ruby), nor having phoned the Milan police station where she was being held on charges of theft in order to get her released.

One needn’t be a moralistic American to be troubled by the prime minister’s casual openness about this kind of conduct. And the effects are being felt not only among a small group of young girls, but among Italy’s women more broadly.


Italy once had a thriving feminist movement. In the late 1960s and for most of the 1970s, Italian society changed dramatically under both demographic and political pressure. Women earned greater financial and personal freedoms: The right to divorce in 1970 (confirmed in a 1974 referendum), as well as reforms in family law, the legalization of family planning (both in 1975), and the legalization of abortion in 1978, all led to greater legal, financial, and personal security for women. Major student protests and the changing social climate gave women an increasing voice in the workplace and in wider society.

But instead of moving to the near equality that women now enjoy in the rest of Western Europe, in Italy the process stopped — or rather, was pushed off course. There are certainly underlying sociological causes — not least, the influence of the Roman Catholic Church — but the crass populism of Berlusconi’s TV programming played an undeniably large role.

When Italian broadcasting was liberalized in the late 1970s, Berlusconi’s offerings couldn’t have contrasted more greatly with the staid standard fare offered by public broadcasters. Pretty scantily dressed girls became essential decoration for most TV shows, to be seen but not heard. Italy is hardly the only country in which sex is used to attain success. But on Berlusconi’s increasingly influential channels, it became the only model on offer to Italian women.

In the last few years, he put this model into practice in his cabinet: Among party candidates for regional assemblies and the European Parliament were pretty younger women, often ex-showgirls, appointed by Berlusconi.

Finger-pointing aside, it’s undeniable that gender equality has suffered. The glass ceiling in today’s Italy is thicker than in comparable countries. According to the OECD, the percentage of women employed in the labor market is declining. Currently, only 46.4 percent of women work — compared with 80 percent of Norwegian women. In Europe, only Turkey, where 24 percent of women are employed, makes a poorer showing. The 2007 World Economic Forum gender gap index put Italy in 84th place, down from 77th in 2006.

It was not only the left that was vocal on Sunday, Feb. 13: A missionary nun appealed for dignity for all the women who have been trafficked to prostitution on Italy’s streets, and the editor of a right-wing paper said, “The position of women is still a problem; women live in a position of permanent discrimination. We must become principals and not extras.”

Sunday’s massive demonstrations may be a sign of an awakening among Italian women. The story of Ruby is the quintessence of what the journalist Paolo Guzzanti, a disillusioned Berlusconi supporter, dubbed mignottocrazia or “tartocracy.” It would be a delicious irony indeed if the people who finally pushed Berlusconi out of power were the women he has spent so much of his career exploiting and degrading.

James Walston is professor of international relations at the American University of Rome and blogs on Italian politics.
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