Tag Archives: Herstory

Rebel Grrrls: Italian Women’s Resistance Strategies to Domestic Violence

26 Jun

“…and the almond ripens with pain.” – Roberto Roversi

Domestic violence has been around for centuries, yet only discussed publicly in the past fifty years. It continues to be a taboo subject throughout the world. Many women continue to go without help. Even today, domestic violence is difficult and uncomfortable to discuss for many, especially in Italy where the Catholic religion is the dominating force. Italian Activist, Anna Costanza Baldry states, “The Catholic religion…has played a central role in considering the family scared and keeping violence within the home an isolated, private problem rather than a social one.” CEDAW (Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women), of which Italy has signed and ratified, continues to be concerned with the country’s treatment of women. At their 2005 session, CEDAW stated:

The committee remains concerned about the persistence of patriarchal attitudes and deep-rooted stereotypes regarding the roles and responsibilities of women and men in the family and society. These stereotypes undermine women’s social status, present a significant impediment to the implementation of the Convention, and are a root cause of women’s disadvantaged position in a number of areas, including in the labor market and in political and public life. The Committee is also deeply concerned about the portrayal of women in the media and in advertising as sex objects and in stereotypical roles. (CEDAW, Concluding Comments, 5)

CEDAW has also stated concern with Italy’s domestic violence, noting, “The Committee…remains concerned about the persistence of violence against women, including domestic violence, and the absence of a comprehensive strategy to combat all forms of violence against women” (CEDAW, Concluding Comments, 6). During CEDAW’s pre-session, they commented that “The Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women has noted with concern that Italy has not yet devised a comprehensive, coordinated and concerted strategy to address the problem of violence against women” (CEDAW, Pre-Session, 4). All of this suggests that Italy is falling behind in their treatment of women.

Baldry states, “In the Italian culture, violence within the family is viewed as a normal way of dealing with conflicts and keeping the social status quo. It is therefore accepted and often condoned” (Baldry, 60). This culture of abuse must change, but how can it when the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, makes comments on how abuse and rape will not stop until there “are as many soldiers on the streets as there are pretty girls” (The Curvature).

In Italy, at least one in four women will experience domestic violence (RT). Baldry, states, “…there are no specific laws or acts that address domestic violence [in Italy]. The criminal code on which the Italian criminal justice system is based goes back to 1930, and it is inadequate to face the problem of domestic violence directly” (Baldry, 56). This is a disturbing find. According to Sabrina Franca, director of the Maree Antiviolence Center in Rome, “Violence is a cultural problem. Men were not punished if they were sexually abusing women. Until 1996, we still didn’t have a law against sexual violence…For example, according to an old Italian legislation, a man could kill his wife, if she was cheating on him” (RT). Old laws like this are horrendous and allow domestic violence to prevail, as the culture’s mindset has not changed. In 2009, it was found that approximately seven million women were survivors of domestic violence (RT). Something needs to be done.

When we speak of “resistance,” what do we mean? It’s difficult to pinpoint one definition that crosses all borders. Resistance is the idea that one can have agency, even when it appears that they don’t. The role of “Resister” allows a person to regain their sense of agency, when it was unrightfully taken away. Ann Russo states, “When we move from an exclusive focus on victimization to one that celebrates and encourages collective resistance and self-determination as well as social responsibility, we expand our vision of a socially just society free of pervasive violence against women” (Russo, 29). Commonly, scholars on resistance write about how it is “…material or physical, involving the resisters’ use of their bodies or other material objects” (Hollander & Einwohner, 535). The act of resisting can mean many things. For example, someone can be labeled a “resister” if they use violence (physical/verbal/mental), or nonviolence “feigning sickness, wearing particular types of clothing, or stealing from one’s employer” (Hollander & Einwohner, 536). Some may not consider this resistance, but it definitely can be. Many scholars have attempted to answer “the question of whether resistance requires recognition by others…” (Hollander & Einwohner, 541). Scholars on the subject seem to be split on the answer. The point is, resistance is not a universal experience for women, and should not be treated as such. Women throughout the world resist in different ways, and have for centuries.

Italian Women’s Strategies of Resistance
“Si viju lu diavulu non schiantu (If I see the devil I do not run).” – Calabrese women’s song

Italian peasant women in the 1800s used various ways of everyday resistance. For example, these women “’exercised considerable indirect social power, arranging marriages, assigning reputations, helping one another to give birth, and when necessary, to abort’” (Guglielmo, 23). Also, these women often became in charge when their husbands or fathers would migrate to America. With various long-term absences of men, “migration caused a greater separation between and autonomy within ‘female’ and ‘male’ spaces, and women often occupied the center of the family, which was the heart of community” (Guglielmo, 23). This matriarchal/patriarchal family structure has continued to current time. However, one must differentiate between Southern and Northern Italy. Southern Italy is less industrialized and more traditional in some ways, compared to its Northern counterpart. There are also many contentions between the two regions, which further complicates the country’s overall handle of domestic violence.

In the 1800s, these women were often abused by the men in their family, but they had many ways of resisting. The ways in which Italian women resisted were: acquiescence, silence, retaliation (verbal and/or physical), running away, suicide, murder, divorce, accessing women’s organizations/shelters, and using women-only spaces. Women in Italy today continue to use these areas of resistance. In this paper, I will discuss and analyze three strategies of resistance in which Italian women used to combat intimate partner violence. The strategies I will explore are: women-only spaces, verbal/physical retaliation, and accessing women’s organizations/shelters.

Women-only Spaces
“The husband is like the government at Rome, all pomp; the wife is like the mafia, all power.” –Italian Proverb

Historically, Italian women have used women-only spaces as a way to resist domestic violence. Guglielmo states, “Women crafted their social circles with those they could trust and rely on the most, which were often a combination of kin and neighbors” (Guglielmo, 17). Women spent a lot of time in the cortile, “the semienclosed courtyard at the center of adjoining houses” (Guglielmo, 18). The cortile was an area where women could talk to each other about what was happening at home, while they prepared food together. These women shared stories and sought advice. Though the cortile of the 1800s no longer exists, women today will meet in piazzas to get out of the house and to get support when they need it. These “daily labors necessitated strong social networks, which also upset narratives of female passivity and isolation” (Guglielmo, 20).

Women’s ability to be in the public sphere more often has indeed been a great area of resistance. However, researchers on the subject have found that “men have historically attempted to exert more control over the women in their lives as power relations and social systems are shifting and women are gaining more independence” (Guglielmo, 23). The ironic thing about the cortile, the epicenter for women’s bodies and voices, is that often a beating would occur there. Public humiliation would be an addition to the physical violence against women. Guglielmo states, “…the man who broke his wife’s arm did so in the center of town and paid the doctor for her other arm too, announcing that he was paying in advance for the next time she spoke back” (Guglielmo, 24). This type of public display of abuse doesn’t occur as often as it once did, but women are also allowed to be outside of the home now, too.

Italian women have historically been able to resist domestic violence by their ability to exist in public spaces with other women outside of their family structure. These spaces have been a safety zone, and a place of rest and recuperation for battered women. Though the actual cortile is more of a memory, it continues to exist in different forms.

Retaliation (Verbal/Physical)
“I am a rebel who rises up against all these inequities, and I also invite you to the struggle.” – Maria Barbieri

Women-only spaces have been an indirect way of resisting domestic violence, but one way in which Italian women resist directly is by verbal and/or physical retaliation. In the 1800s, if a young wife were being beaten, the woman would go tell her parents. Then, the truly miraculous part happened, “…the brothers, cousins, and other male relatives of the beaten girl would go, led by the old mother, toward the home of the girl. And there they pounced upon the husband and beat him up. In a kind of procession the mother and her kin returned home” (Guglielmo, 25). This example demonstrates women’s strength. Though the example is more indirect, Italian women have also slapped, hit, punched their abusers, as a way to resist. A woman from Potenza (a Southern Italian town) states, “As a young wife I was no angel. I was obstinate and revolted against my husband, whose ideas seemed to me crazy. I was much stronger than he was. Whenever he tried to hit me I was ready to hit him back. This was in our home. But he had it on me for he fixed me many a time on the street. There on the street I didn’t even think of resisting him. If I did that I certainly would disgrace him” (Guglielmo, 26).

This woman’s admittance to hitting back showcases her strength, determination, and resistance. The strategy of hitting/talking back is often the least likely used. Researcher Margaret Abraham says this could be “that a woman feared that taking a more aggressive defense tactic such as hitting back might exacerbate the violence against her, with a greater chance of jeopardizing her own life” (Sokoloff and Pratt, 259). Historically, Italian women didn’t practice violence as a resistance strategy, but this form of resistance has been used presently more often, as domestic violence has come into the spotlight.

Accessing Women’s Organizations
“Eliminating violence requires urgent policy and practical responses.” – N. Livi-Bacci

Another form of Italian women’s resistance is by going to a battered women’s shelter. Italy’s first battered women’s shelters opened in Bologna and Milan in the 1980s, but now there are about 100 centers and hotlines throughout the country (Livi-Bacci, S65-66). Italy’s battered women’s movement has been strong and vigorous, “not only in providing direct service delivery, but also in seeking multiple avenues for impacting change, lobbying for legislative action and other appropriate activities to improve the community’s response to all abuse women” (Livi- Bacci, S65). Many shelters now exist all over Italy and women are using them. One woman who has utilized the shelter as a way of resisting domestic violence is named Suvanda. She states, “’I married an Italian man, it was 12 years ago. I was treated badly, with violence, both physical and psychological…I have three children with him. We were all locked in a house and nobody could help us. And then I found out about this social center. I was told that they could help here. I was lucky—I grabbed my children and fled…’” (RT). Suvanda fled to the Maree shelter in Rome, which only has room for twenty-five women, thus, it has quite a long waiting list. However, shelters like this are open all over Italy, and are continuing to open. Women have been accessing shelters for the past ten years, at least.

Because of the somewhat recent cultural shift in acknowledging domestic violence, the use of shelters has been growing. Baldry states, “In Rome, from 1992 to 1998 there was an increase of over 100% of women who contacted a shelter” (Baldry, 60). The author continues, “In Bologna, the average number of women who annually get in touch with the shelter is over 300; in Milan, over 1,000; and in Palermo, during 1998 over 400 women contacted the shelter” (Baldry, 60). These statistics are distressing, but at least abused women are seeking support from their local women’s shelter. Hopefully, there will come a time when these shelters are not needed.

“The child inherits from the mother the blood and from the godmother the bones.” – Italian proverb

Italian women’s resistance has come in many different forms. Each area of resistance that I have discussed and analyzed proves that Italian women are resisting domestic violence. The strategies of women-only spaces, retaliation (physical/verbal), and the ability to access battered women’s shelters, are all excellent strategies of resistance. Though there are many contentions in what constitutes resistance, I have found the above three to be definite possibilities for women if they so choose. I don’t believe one can, or should, judge another on their strategies of resistance. All of us are different and will inevitably utilize varying strategies when resisting. Most often, resistance is thought to only include physical acts that stop an incident. This doesn’t have to be the case, and isn’t in many situations. A woman who chooses to resist in other ways, such as running away, is not acknowledged as a resister, but a victim. This language can be extremely important, especially for a woman who has been abused. To live forever in one’s victimization is isolating, depressing, and stunted. Ann Russo states, “…identifying women who’ve experienced abuse as only or predominantly victims and survivors of abuse, violence, battering, and rape eventually reinforces our status as victims by reducing us to what someone else did to us” (Russo, 28). As Ann Russo’s conceptual framework suggests, we must continue to move between victim<–>survivor<–>resister at our own time. Women who have suffered abuse can then be given agency once again. Italian women have done this, and continue to do so.