Crushing (the) Patriarchy in Italy

Italy is one of those places that gets under your skin, pulling you back time and time again, despite however much you may claim to have hated it. At least, this has been my experience, having lived, studied, and worked in Florence from August 2016–May 2017, and returning for another go May­–June 2018. Italy is a drug—addictive, perhaps not the best option, but the option you keep choosing.

Just out of frame in Piazza Navona: a group of catcalling men

I have my personal qualms and my deepest loves regarding Italy, but one issue continuously shows its teeth: THE PATRIARCHY. Yes, one of the greatest frustrations I have found living in Italy for extended periods of time is attempting to exist in an extremely patriarchal society.

(Not to say that the rest of the world isn’t experiencing similar issues relating to gender equality and that the United States is such an awesome, progressive place these days, buuuuut)

It becomes blatantly clear the longer one spends time in Italy that cis-gender, heteronormative men rule the land.

I see it in firsthand experiences, with simple tasks like waiting in line at the grocery store. Italian men almost always cut in front of me and other women in the line, pushing past as though their time is somehow more valuable than ours. Groups of men are often waited on first at restaurants and other places of service over groups of women, regardless of which groups may have arrived first. In basic conversations with Italian men on the streets of Rome, I have been approached with trinkets to purchase and whenever I attempt to engage in conversation or even refuse to buy, I have been called “cute” and “adorable” but that I “talk too much,” one man even going as far to say he “feels sorry for [my] future husband” because I’m so “feisty.”  This blatant sexism has never happened to me in interactions with sellers from countries outside of Italy.

Chilling in an ancient Mithraic temple in Ostia Antica where women were forbidden to enter

During my orientation program the first week I was in Florence for school, the Chief Police Inspector came to my school to give a lecture on safety in the city. He innocently asked, “What is the Italian national sport?” and we guessed the standard answers of European sports—football, rugby, cricket—and he laughed, replying with a smug grin on his face: “It’s women!” This declaration was proceeded by a lecture filled with victim blaming, slut shaming, and promoting toxic masculinity.

It makes me sick.

Seemingly of no surprise, women have more equality in Mexico, Kazakhstan, Zimbabwe, and Bangladesh than in Italy, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2017 report on the global gender gap. Out of 144 countries, Italy ranks number 82 for equal opportunities at work and in politics, education, and health.

Of course, we’re see progress happening all around the world in the struggle towards ending patriarchal governing and social styles—even in Italy. Rome elected its first female mayor in its over 3,000-year history, Virginia Raggi, who is also the youngest Roman mayor. Interestingly so, Raggi spoke openly about being a mother, rather than downplaying her gender in her campaign, signifying a changing attitude in the capital city.

Ruins of the Temple of the Vestal Virgins in the Roman Forum

Italy has always had moments of women’s importance and empowerment throughout its history, as well. The prominence of The Virgin Mary and other important female-identifying saints in Catholicism has long since piqued my interest and symbolized a somewhat overlooked version of feminism in early Christianity and Roman history. One of my favorite historical figures from Ancient Rome are the Vestal Virgins, maidens tasked with protecting the “flame of Rome” and were in turn granted rights similar to those of Roman noble men.

Oppression necessitates opposition, and as the world leans towards gender equality, we are beginning to see changes. More Italian women than ever before are enrolled in higher education and more women actually hold degrees than men in Italy (The Local). Women’s protests and marches are happening more and more frequently. After the 2016 United States Presidential Election, marches took place all across Italy, including Florence, where I was at the time.

Even small actions to off-balance the current system add up. While in Italy (as with everywhere I am), I make it a point to support female business owners and employees. I stand my ground whenever sexist comments are made. I use my privilege to fight for equality.

It’s time to crush the patriarchy.

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