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Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is caught up in a number of sex scandals, but for a long time Italian women had been largely silent about his behavior. That changed after Berlusconi made a remark about an opposition politician's lack of good looks. It unleashed a wave of anger among Italian women. Tens of thousands have now signed a petition that says: This man offends us — stop him.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Here's 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. He boasts of the good looks of his party's young female MPs, dismissing the opposition ranks as menopausal. In September, the prime minister informed a gathering of journalists…

Mr. SILVIO BERLUSCONI (Prime Minister, Italy): (Through translator) I have 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?

POGGIOLI: 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, surprisingly, in a country where during the 1970s, women made massive political gains, there was little or no female protest about the prime minister's womanizing. Former MP Tana de Zulueta blames a feminist movement she says was too elitist.

Ms. TANA DE ZULUETA (Former Member of Parliament, Italy): It really was one of Europe's most interesting and lively feminist movements. They didn't want to go mainstream, they didn't want to mix.

POGGIOLI: 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 MP.

Mr. BERLUSCONI: (Foreign language spoken)

POGGIOLI: You're more beautiful than you are intelligent, Berlusconi snipped. Fifty-eight-year-old Rosy Bindi retorted: I am not a woman at your disposal.

Ms. ROSY BINDI (Member of Parliament, Italy): (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. BERLUSCONI: (Foreign language spoken)

POGGIOLI: 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. And in 11 days, more than 100,000 women signed the petition, protesting against this cretinzation of women. Even the old feminist movement has come back into the open.

(Soundbite of crowd)

POGGIOLI: Rome's International Women's Center was overflowing for a seminar with the title: Sex and Politics in Post-Patriarchy. Political scientist Francesca Izzo went straight to the point.

Ms. FRANCESCA IZZO (Political Scientist): (Through translator) It was women who revealed that Berlusconi is the emperor with 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.

(Soundbite of applause)

POGGIOLI: Another Italian woman who has rebelled against the female image promoted by Berlusconi's three TV networks is Lorella Zanardo, who has had a successful business career abroad.

Ms. LORELLA ZANARDO (Producer, "Women's Bodies"): So, when I came back and I watched television, I really couldn't accept this humiliation with this lack of dignity. But it was really something disturbing physically even. I think, (foreign language spoken).

POGGIOLI: Enough, she said. But then she reacted and produced a documentary of images of women on Italian TV. It's a visual essay called "Women's Bodies," showing 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 already more than 800,000 women have watched her film on the Internet, which she believes is where the new Italian women's movement is coming to life.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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