Feminist fightback against Silvio Berlusconi-style sexism.

Something is stirring in the home of western European chauvinism. Italian womanhood is rising up. An online petition decrying the way female politicians are treated by Silvio Berlusconi, prime minister and billionaire businessman, has gathered 100,000 signatures.

A slogan – “I am not a woman at your disposal” – is catching on. It is aimed at the famously flirtatious 73-year-old after months of revelations about his dalliances with prostitutes and models procured for parties. It draws attention to his attempts to put forward women better known as showgirls as his party’s MEPs in Brussels and for cabinet posts. In some cases, their scant qualifications have been matched only by their record of scant outfits.

The petition was started by two academics and a writer, all women, and hosted on La Repubblica, one of Italy’s leading newspapers and a frequent foe of Mr Berlusconi. It says: “Qualities considered useful in advertising are now considered essential political qualities… obedience and attractiveness are now indispensable elements of the education needed to serve in positions of the upmost responsibility.”

Unusually for the supremely confident Mr Berlusconi, he has been forced into a half-hearted apology to Rosy Bindi, a well-known Left-leaning politician in her late 50s, after he told her on TV this week that she was more pretty than intelligent – a slur intended to mean that she was neither. The prime minister said his “joke” had been made in a “moment of disappointment”, a rare concession considering he usually lashes out at those offended by his frequent boorish remarks.

Mr Berlusconi is also under fire at home. He is not accused of criminal wrongdoing in the claims that associates hired women to come to gatherings he was hosting. But Veronica Lario, his wife of almost 20 years, has said she will seek a divorce and his lawyers have, embarrassingly, had to clarify who it is that breaks the law when a man has sex with a woman who has been hired for the occasion.

Meanwhile, something more fundamental in Italian society is being questioned. High-profile television programmes – not on the channels controlled by Mr Berlusconi – have attacked the incessant portrayal of women on Italian TV and in advertising. There is so much eroticism on display in Italy that, usually, this is spotted only by foreigners amazed at the perpetual use of female flesh to sell products. In other countries such crude marketing has been rare for 30 years.

“Why do we put up with this continual humiliation?” asks a female voice-over added to a clip of a relatively recent prime-time show. A smiling and uncomfortable woman is standing on a rocking surfboard, elevated above a table of men, trying to keep her balance and therefore doubled over so that her very short cocktail dress rides up ever higher. Another clip shows a woman with her breasts thrust upward by her clothing, walking into a transparent shower cubicle in the middle of a stage and then being soaked. This is not on a pornography channel. “What,” asks the voice, “are we afraid of?”

What indeed? For it is not the ubiquity of naked women, nor the chauvinism of men such as Mr Berlusconi that are so remarkable – though they are pretty extraordinary. The most striking question is why Italians, particularly women – emancipated, Western, affluent and educated – put up with it. The new spasm of feminism is a very rare outpouring in a country where gains were made by women in the 1960s and 1970s but whose voices inexplicably fell silent while Mr Berlusconi built his media empire on a cocktail of flesh and glitz in the 1980s.

Italian society has also been behind in making the changes that, in other countries, have increased the participation of women in the workforce. Italy ranks low on part-time work, and parents are critical of the lack of nursery places or the restrictive opening times of businesses such as banks and shops. Italy is ranked 67th in the world for gender equality according to the World Economic Forum in 2007, a ranking based on the percentage of women among legislators, ministerial positions, senior officials and managers.

Article continues at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/italy/6417105/Italian-women-say-ciao-to-the-showgirl-image.html

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