Italy’s Attacks on First Black Minister Cecile Kyenge
Italy’s Two-front War against Xenophobia and Sexism
Attacks on Cecile Kyenge, Italy’s first black minister, reveal interlocked legacies of xenophobia and sexism that continue to manifest in Italian public life.
In its latest attempt at establishing the grounds for a meaningful and civil political debate, Italy’s extreme-right and xenophobic movement Forza Nuova (New Force) staged a protest on July 27 against Minister for Integration Cecile Kyenge, Italy’s first black minister, on her visit to a Democratic Party festival in Emilia Romagna, leaving three mannequins covered in fake blood with the banner reading: Immigration Kills. As the minister reached the stage a few from the audience stood up to throw bananas towards her. While Forza Nuova claimed it had nothing to do with the latter accident – and owned up instead to the macabre display of the three corpses – the latest racist ignominy against Kyenge only piles up to the series of disgraceful attacks which have seen the Minister ridiculed, insulted and threatened ever since her appointment in April this year.
Calling Kyenge an Orangutan?
Only two weeks earlier, on July 14, vice-president of the Senate and senior leader of right-wing party Lega Nord (Northern League) Roberto Calderoli was given the opportunity of brushing his repertoire of ever-insightful political commentaries calling Kyenge an orangutan before a rally of the League’s disciples. Admittedly, Calderoli is not new to moments of such pristine wisdom.
Already in February 2006, then head of the Ministry for Reforms, Calderoli attempted a strip while giving a TV interview only to show a copy of the Danish cartoons ridiculing prophet Mohammad printed on his t-shirt. The joke led to an assault against the Italian consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which caused the death of 11 and injured 25. But while in 2006 Calderoli had the decency of resigning and spare the political stage from his gems for a while, this time things went otherwise.
Two days after likening Kyenge to a primate, Calderoli apologised before the Senate for what he admitted were “wrong” and “offensive” comments. But that was all. Roberto Maroni, the League’s leader, thought that was more than enough and no further action should be taken. Put otherwise, Calderoli should not (and indeed, did not) resign.
Shamelessly Feeds Into Racist
For all its inhumanity, the most concerning point here is not that Italy’s vice-president of the Senate called one of his colleagues an orangutan, but that that very vice-president is member of a party which, alongside a panoply of others, shamelessly feeds into racist narratives as a life-long elixir. Already in 2012, speaking before a group of university students, Maroni candidly confessed the League began to resort to racist discourses as soon as it was clear “this would guarantee us votes”. Riddled with internal feuds, corruption scandals and the fall from grace of its founder and guru, Umberto Bossi, whose son used the party’s money to acquire cars and university diplomas, the League’s credibility before its electorate sunk from an 8.3% at the 2008 presidential elections to the abysmal 4.1% of this year’s round. Perhaps now more than ever, racism is one of the last few weapons the League may use to appeal to its increasingly disenfranchised people.
Racism is Becoming Integral
The worry is that Calderoli’s zoological analogies hide a much more complex and ongoing process through which racism is becoming integral to the way politics can be conducted. In his first attempt at an apology, the vice-president of Senate claimed he “was speaking at a rally”, and those were “rally words”, a “joke” – possibly a very unhappy one – that was nonetheless “told at a rally”, and part of a much more “articulated assessment of the Minister’s programme”. Whether or not Calderoli’s larger argument truly was a masterpiece of rhetoric and critical engagement, the risk is to see politics turning into a spectacle, an ethics-free no-mans-land wherein delivering a hate-speech is just another part of the show, and as such should be intended. Likening a Minister to a monkey based on the colour of her skin (or claiming, as yet another enlightened League MP Mario Borghezio did earlier this year (that she is an “anti-Italian” a “Zulu” that ought to “go back to where she came from”) is not only possible, but more worryingly somewhat condonable, as long as it is part of a political performance which need not be concerned with the weight of the statements it champions.
But this is no fiction. It is a brutal vilification perpetrated by a system which has never truly come to terms with those who did not fit into its preconceived categories. Cecile Kyenge is Italy’s first black minister. But she is also, even more fundamentally, a woman in power, one whose stature would hardly square with the image of women as mere appendages to a male-dominated political stage.
As the bananas landed towards her at the Democratic Party festival, all Kyenge remarked was that it was a “sad waste of food”. And in spite of the League’s never-ending xenophobic delirium, she still insists Italy is not a racist country. For a system which has grown accustomed, and routinely fed into, the idea of women as its sexualised and silent ornaments, Cecile Kyenge is its anathema. She defies the erotic hues through which women politicians have often been painted. And she is not afraid to speak up.
Only a few days before the presidential elections in February 24-25 this year, Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party began promoting a campaign to appeal to Italy’s women and secure their support at the ballot box. The campaign, promoted across a number of newspapers, was summed up in a page-long manifesto titled “I am a woman, I am not a doll”, and signed by a number of Berlusconi’s female devotees who claimed they were tired of being considered brainless objects, and had a voice of their own. Remarkable as it sounds, the manifesto included a picture of three women printed in the middle of the page, smiling confidently at the prospects yet another chapter of Berlusconi’s rule. Unfortunately, minutes after the campaign began appearing all over the country, a handful of twitter users discovered that not only did the three not sign up for Berlusconi’s women-friendly initiative, they had nothing to do with it whatsoever, but were three perfectly unknown faces that had been copy-pasted from an advertising agency specialised in selling smiling, optimistic-looking people to be photoshopped in catalogues. In choosing to allegedly “give women a voice”, the people of Freedom Party had only ended up suffocating it further.
Hardly be Silenced
Kyenge is part of a new wave of women politicians whose voice can hardly be silenced, let alone overlooked. Along with the President of the lower house Laura Boldrini, with whom she shares the same political orientation, she stands in constant tension with the masculine dogmas of a political arena in which women stand as its peripheral decorations – and as such are treated.
Sexual Offences and Death Threats
When Boldrini revealed, earlier this May, the amount of sexual offences and death threats she is a daily target of across the web, a large fraction of the political establishment decided to respond with a nauseating and ill-informed counter-attack against Boldrini’s comments on the differences between virtual threats and any other forms of sexist violence, fearing she would propose restrictions on freedom of speech throughout the net. What was truly at stake was the need to fight violence against women, a malaise which Italy is yet to find a cure to. And what was possibly most frightful was not the sheer fact that Boldrini had been attacked, and constantly so, but the nature of those attacks. A chauvinist system could only defend itself the only way it new. Boldrini had to be re-sexualised, turned back into a man’s object of desire and punished for having dared to transcend the role she had been relegated to. Photoshopped with her throat cut, gang-raped, defecated upon, she had to be put back in her place.
On June 13 Kyenge was herself victim of a similar treatment. But this time the perpetrator was no man. Dolores Valandro, a Northern League female member working in the municipality of Padua, posted on her Facebook account she wished Kyenge were “raped, so that she could know what it truly means to be a victim of such violence”. And as Valandro was expelled from her party the very same night by the League administration, so too was Angelo Romano Garbin, a colleague from the other side of the political spectrum (incidentally, a member of Boldrini’s party) who reacted to Valandro’s offence wishing she too were “gang-raped by twenty black men to see how she reacts”.
Commenting on Calderoli’s insult, President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano spoke against the “growing barbarism” in Italy’s civil life. All their courage and determination notwithstanding, Kyenge, Boldrini and all other women fighting for a sexism-free society are up against a dire challenge – the risk to witness this sense of barbarism being tacitly normalised. It is time for Italy to come to terms with its illogic fear of the other. A two-front war against xenophobia and sexism is a gender-neutral struggle, one which must be won for the sake of everyone’s respect and dignity.