MILAN, Italy — When a policeman and sports celebrity suggested last month on live TV that husbands should kill their wives in the case of marital infidelity, the Italian public was angered — but not surprised.
The notion that a man’s reputation lies in his control over a woman’s body, and that he is entitled to resort to violence in order to restore it, has deep roots in Italian culture. Until 1981 the country’s penal code granted a special status to the so-called delitto d’onore, or “honor killing” — mandating extreme leniency in judging the killing of “spouses, daughters and sisters caught in illicit sex.” Only in 2007 did the Supreme Court rule that “honor” was an “obsolete” concept.
The policeman, Clemente Russo, who was participating in the Italian edition of “Celebrity Big Brother” because of his fame as an Olympic boxer, was fired from the show after his comments spurred protests. But some of his fans tried to downplay them as chiacchiere da bar, “chatter at the pub,” Italy’s rough equivalent of “locker room talk.” The incident took place as reports of women killed by possessive husbands and boyfriends were mounting on the local media: At least three cases made headlines here in October alone.
Described as a “national emergency” in the press, social media and political debates, violence against women has been a hot topic in Italy for the past few years. In a recent TV appearance, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi urged his countrymen to wage “a cultural battle” against misogyny.
Contrary to the anecdotal reports, however, recent data paint a more encouraging picture: The cases of women murdered by partners or family are in decline, down 5 percent in 2016, 6 percent in 2015 and 4 percent in 2014, according to the Minister of Interior. Domestic abuse and sexual assault are in sharper decline: down 23 percent and 18 percent, respectively, despite the fact that, according to the local bureau of statistics Istat, there’s an increased tendency to report them. Overall, levels of gender-based violence in Italy are in line with the European average, according to the E.U. Agency for Fundamental Rights.
It might seem paradoxical that the national discourse on violence against women is exploding precisely when the phenomenon is in decline. But a closer look reveals a more complex picture of a country engaged in a difficult battle with its most unsettling cultural norms. In the past decades, Italy has slowly shifted from being a place where killing a wife out of “honor” or jealousy was quasi-legal to being a place where violence against women is condemned, and thus talked about.
“We’re witnessing an extraordinary, historic transition right now,” said Barbara Stefanelli, deputy editor of the Corriere della Sera, the country’s major newspaper.
This transition has gained momentum since her newspaper launched a massive campaign in 2011 called “la 27esima ora” that started monitoring daily gender-based violence. “When we began, no one was talking about it. The country was in denial,” recalled Luisa Pronzato, who helped found the project. Soon other media outlets followed and began pressuring authorities to intervene.
In 2013 the government passed a decree harshening the punishments for domestic violence and for murders spurred by jealousy or possessiveness — effectively turning into aggravating circumstances the same factors that earlier were considered a mitigating factor.
The change wasn’t painless. Conservatives slammed the law, claiming it discriminates against men and waged a counter-campaign. Pronzato also warns that recently she has “seen more cases of women that were battered so badly that they almost died, so the quantity of abuse has declined but the intensity has worsened.”
“As it often happens when there’s a progress, there’s also a backlash. Some men are turning more violent precisely because they feel threatened by the fact that women are becoming more vocal: it’s an action-reaction thing,” added Stefanelli.
Sociologist Marzio Barbagli pointed out that the decline in gender-based crimes needs to be put in context. “Violent crimes overall are in decline, so changing attitudes toward women are not the only factor,” he says.
This year the interior ministry launched the educational campaign questo non è amore, “this is not love,” in an attempt to eradicate the belief, still widespread in Italy, that loving men ought to be controlling and violent.
Indeed, when they go as far as to kill their partners, their action is often called a “crime of passion.” The term “honor killing” is hardly used anymore in Italy, but the difference between “honor killings” and “crimes of passion” is in name only, said Dietrich Oberwittler, a German sociologist who has studied the phenomenon. “In concrete cases the distinction is very difficult to make. Killing women who ‘misbehave,’ by leaving their partners or being unfaithful, is always about the male control of female sexuality.”
Some anthropologists say that the origin of this practice lies in ancient Mediterranean pastoral societies, where men had to prove they had their women under control in order to appear strong in the eyes of other men — indeed honor killings are still common in Turkey and in the Arab world.
Isabella Merzagora, the chairwoman of Italy’s Criminology Society, said men who kill their wives tend to have “a very traditionalist view about women and cannot accept it when they refuse to be controlled.” However, she disputes the claim that it is a culture-specific phenomenon. “It’s something that goes on all across the world regardless of the way it’s called.”
The U.K. legal system, for example, still recognizes “loss of control” as a mitigating factor for husbands who kill their wives in a case of infidelity. The rationale behind this clause resembles the dynamic in Italy, though in Britain the term “crime of passion” is hardly used and “honor killing” is applied only to murders within Muslim communities.
Yet there seem to be some issues that are specific to Italy. “This idea that passionate men ought to be controlling is hard to eradicate,” Stefanelli said. “Sometimes people ask me, ‘What kind of Italian woman are you? Don’t you like passionate men?’ I answer that I love passionate men so much that I don’t expect them to be violent.”