If Not Now, When? How Italian Women Are Using Social Networking to Spark Change

A few weeks ago, Ma-Vib, an engineering firm, was struggling with slumping sales and a stagnant economy. It did what many companies would do in that situation. It laid off employees – nearly half the workforce. The question was where to make the cuts. The decision for Ma-Vib was a simple one. Every single worker released was female. The reasoning? According to an official company statement: “We are firing the women so they can stay at home and look after the children. In any case, what they bring in is a second income.”

It is a strikingly backwards statement, and it’s coming from a company operating in a European Union nation. Ma-Vib’s decision, and the lack of government action following it, is characteristic of the rampant problem of gender inequality in Italy, where traditional views on gender roles have hardened over time, creating a practically double-paned, bulletproof glass ceiling.

Despite being more likely to hold a university degree than an Italian man, the employment rate of Italian women is at 46.4%, lagging far behind the EU average of 58.6%, according to 2009 EU employment statistics. More telling still, Italy ranks 74th of 134 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index – in the bottom half, and far below most other EU powers. Gender inequality in Italy boils down to popular expectations of women – to be either sex symbols or housewives. And, thanks to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s control of 90% of the national media, much of Italian television is inundated with those two images.
Berlusconi might control much of Italy’s television programming, but there’s something he can’t control – the Internet. And this is where Italian women have been turning this year to spark real dialogue about the role of women in Italy and hope for change in the future.

Se Non Ora, Quando (translates to ‘If not now, when’) is one of many organizations popping up this year to support the cause of gender equality in Italy, and it’s taken to the new media of the Internet to spread its message – one that has turned into the first successful, widespread female movement in Italy in decades.

In February of this year, Se Non Ora, Quando organized mass protests in Italy and abroad against Berlusconi’s policies and sex scandals, while demanding a country more suitable for women of all ages. Estimates say more than 500,000 people attended the protests, carrying banners and marching through city streets, in scenes that recall the mass protests in many Arab nations this year. Chants of ‘Italy is not a brothel’ rang throughout many cities, while one banner, in a jab at Berlusconi’s prostitution scandals, read, ‘I love my boyfriend for free.’ Hundreds had signs simply reading, ‘basta.’ ‘Enough.’

The tools used – email, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a WordPress Blog – are all familiar, but their application by Se Non Ora, Quando has created a firestorm that is presenting Berlusconi with possibly his most serious challenge yet. Hundreds of YouTube videos have been created by protesters – some footage of the protests, others direct messages demanding change from the highest levels of the Italian government. The Se Non Ora, Quando blog has become a platform where future events are planned, and news about the progress of women’s rights in Italy is circulated to anyone willing to listen. Outrage over Berlusconi’s excesses and scandals, and the greater sexism in Italy he is seen to represent, is reaching a fever pitch, as more and more women are connecting online, sharing ideas and feeding off the energy of the thousands of others who have had enough.

Se Non Ora, Quando sprung to life in the wake of Berlusconi’s latest scandal – allegations that he paid for sex with an underage girl, Karina el-Mahroug (known familiarly as Ruby Rubacuori, or Ruby Heartstealer), a charge Berlusconi denies. The trial is currently underway. Berlusconi has a rich history of sex scandals and hedonism during his stay in office. Anger over Berlusconi’s former showgirls being given government positions, like the appointment of former topless model Mara Carfagna (who resigned in November of last year) as minister of equal opportunities, is simmering. Protesters are now decrying such handouts as encouraging the idea that the only way for a young woman to get ahead in Italy is to bare her skin.

Whether it was Berlusconi’s brash defiance in the face of scandal or concern for the world young Italian women are growing up in, or both, that set Se Non Ora, Quando in motion, it is clear now that the movement has no intentions of slowing down. On July 9th and 10th, the group organized an open forum in Siena, using its blog and grassroots organizations in several Italian cities, to discuss the status of women in Italy and their plans moving forward to inspire confidence in young women and encourage more women to run for elected office.

In Italy, male-dominated cultural traditions have suppressed the voices of women since the last notable feminist movement there in the 1970s. The February protests are breathing new life into a long-dormant feminist movement. The Se Non Ora, Quando Facebook page, with nearly 50,000 likes and daily activity, is alive with inspirational quotes, local calls to action, and news updates about the movement and Italian politics.  YouTube videos chronicle the protests and discussions, allowing those who couldn’t come to the protests in person to feel like a part of the movement.

The protests and the outrage aren’t falling on deaf ears. Berlusconi, once highly popular throughout Italy, has seen his approval rating plummet to 29% in June of this year, down from a 50% rating he enjoyed in June of 2010. An IPR Marketing survey in Italy predicts that Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party would lose control of parliament if an election were to be held at present.

Berlusconi has recently stated that he will step down in 2013. It’s a statement that sounds a little  reminiscent of the claims of many an Arab dictator during the Arab Spring of this year, some overthrown with the aid of the very tools that women in Italy are now using to mount real resistance to a Prime Minister – and a culture – that have suffocated their opportunities for years. The mass, street protests have been the catalyst for much of the turn in public opinion, but it remains that social networking and blogging have created a framework for these protests to be organized and executed rapidly and on a global scale.

The women (and some men) of Se Non Ora, Quando, are blazing a trail in their country for women to take advantage of advances in technology and social networking to create movements for lasting change. Student groups have cropped up railing against the stereotyping of young Italian women, local communities have banded together to demand policies from city governments guaranteeing fair rights for women – the mass movement has taken hold. With Twitter and Facebook used by hundreds of millions across the globe, the question for Italian women now is as compelling as ever – If Not Now, When?

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