Italian Women Assail Berlusconi For Sexist Remarks

WIDE: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in March 2009 at a People of Freedom's gathering i i

hide captionItalian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (shown here in March 2009 at a gathering of his new political party, the People of Freedoms) has recently come under fire for a sexist remark about an opposition politician's looks and intellect. After a series of sex scandals involving Berlusconi, more than 100,000 women have signed a petition stating they are offended by him.

Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images
WIDE: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in March 2009 at a People of Freedom's gathering

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (shown here in March 2009 at a gathering of his new political party, the People of Freedoms) has recently come under fire for a sexist remark about an opposition politician's looks and intellect. After a series of sex scandals involving Berlusconi, more than 100,000 women have signed a petition stating they are offended by him.

Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been caught up in a number of sex scandals, but for a long time, Italian women have been largely silent about his behavior. That changed earlier this month when Berlusconi made a remark about an opposition politician's lack of good looks.

Berlusconi's comment unleashed a wave of anger among Italian women. Tens of thousands have signed a petition that says "this man offends us — stop him."

Here is a sampling of Berlusconi quips: Women are "God's most beautiful gift to men." In order to prevent rape, "we would need as many soldiers as there are beautiful Italian women."

Berlusconi, 73, boasts of the good looks of his party's young female members of parliament, dismissing the opposition ranks as menopausal.

In September, the prime minister informed a gathering of journalists that he had never paid for sex.

"For those who love to conquer, the joy and the most beautiful satisfaction is in the conquest. If you have to pay, what joy is there?" he told them.

Berlusconi's sex scandals came to light when his wife announced she was divorcing him. The prime minister, she said, is a man who consorts with minors.

Later, numerous young women, including a call girl, said they had attended parties at Berlusconi's home.

But in a country where women made massive political gains during the 1970s, there was little or no female protest about the prime minister's womanizing.

Former parliament member Tana de Zulueta blames a feminist movement she says was too elitist.

Opposition Italian MP Rosy Bindi i i

hide captionAn exchange between opposition politician Rosy Bindi (shown here in October 2007) and Berlusconi has prompted outrage at the controversial prime minister.

Luca Bruno/AP
Opposition Italian MP Rosy Bindi

An exchange between opposition politician Rosy Bindi (shown here in October 2007) and Berlusconi has prompted outrage at the controversial prime minister.

Luca Bruno/AP

"This really was one of Europe's most interesting and lively feminist movements, [but] they didn't want to go mainstream, they didn't want to mix," she says.

The mood suddenly changed earlier this month when Berlusconi called in to a late-night talk show and made a jab at a female opposition parliament member, Rosy Bindi.

"You're more beautiful than you are intelligent," Berlusconi snipped.

The 58-year-old Bindi retorted, "I am not a woman at your disposal."

The prime minister's insult sparked outrage. A group of women drafted a petition saying Berlusconi's statements offend female dignity and accusing him of using women's bodies for his political ends, denigrating women and democracy in the process.

In 11 days, more than 100,000 women signed the petition, protesting against the "cretinzation of women."

The feminist movement has come back into the open.

At a recent seminar on "Sex and Politics in Post-Patriarchy" at Rome's International Women's Center, political scientist Francesca Izzo went straight to the point.

"It was women who revealed that Berlusconi the emperor has no clothes, starting with his wife. And the scandals surrounding the prime minister have been like a violent slap in the face for millions of women who are just now waking up from a state of passivity," she said.

Another Italian woman who has rebelled against the female image promoted by Berlusconi — and the three TV networks he owns — is Lorella Zanardo, who has had a successful business career abroad.

"When I came back [to Italy] and I watched TV, I really couldn't accept this humiliation, this lack of dignity. It was something disturbing physically," she said.

In response, Zanardo produced a documentary of images of women on Italian TV. The visual essay, Women's Bodies, shows what she calls grotesque, vulgar and humiliating creatures, with inflated silicone bodies, oozing out of plunging necklines, tottering on stiletto heels.

Zanardo is proud to say that more than 800,000 women have already watched her film on the Internet, which she believes is where the new Italian women's movement is coming to life.

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