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Engagement rituals? When I first heard that this was still practiced, I was shocked. Sure, I had heard about this rustic Sicilian practice from the days of pre-arranged marriages. Until well into the 1940s, most Sicilian marriages were either formally arranged by the spouses' parents or permitted only with their consent unless the couple eloped, a practice known as fuitina. But this was something right out of The Godfather or The Leopard! Worse yet, the actual cases I heard of took place last year (in 2004) in a supposedly middle-class part of Palermo whose number of unwed teenage mothers seemed to rival that of the city's poorest neighbourhoods. Yes, this was bizarre indeed. How was it possible, I wondered, in the days of Melissa Panarello's bestselling sex diary, that young Sicilian couples were still doing this stuff?
The presence of foreign brides in Sicily is no secret, and it certainly reflects new choices, but the nineteenth century practice of being "fidanzati in casa" (formally betrothed with parental approval) is surprising, especially when it takes place in the twenty-first century between couples --usually in their twenties-- who are already sexually active. After all, Italy has moved with the times. Women can vote (well, only since 1946), divorce is legal (okay, only since 1973), and many women are employed professionally. There are even a few women judges, physicians and senators in Italy. So things are hardly hopeless, even if Italian women are seriously under-represented in many fields. After all, Italy does have a subtle but active women's movement.
"Ritual" is an overzealous description. Here's how "engagement presentations" (for lack of a simpler translation) actually work. After a couple decides to get married, whether in a year or three years, they might exchange rings. These are simple gold bands ("fedine"), thinner and lighter than wedding rings ("fedi"). This is a vanishing practice, but some younger couples still follow it. In fact, a well-educated woman in her late twenties or thirties is less likely to accept or wear a fedina, and may even feel offended by the prospect. At some point, the parents of the girl are invited to the home of the parents of the boy, or vice versa. It should be remembered that most Italians live with their parents until marriage, unless there's a compelling reason (such as a job in a distant city) for moving out. The parents of the betrothed couple exchange flowers and get to know each other. It is quite possible that they already know each other superficially. Usually, but not always, a date is set for the wedding, though in some cases this is two or three years away.
Now that the young couple is engaged, they are probably "allowed" to spend more time (nights) together, and this may include things like unchaperoned vacations out of town.
In the past, the entire matter was much more complicated because the future spouses' fathers were actually arranging a union, and (until 1860) were required to formally approve the marriage, even of adult children, by signing legal documents. (A historian on our staff took me to see these amazing records in a public archive.)
How many Sicilian couples submit themselves to this ritual today? There aren't any recorded statistics so it's difficult to tell. There's a tendency towards later marriages, and a woman in her thirties is unlikely to go along with this kind of thing. Likewise a young woman who has attended university or travelled to places outside Sicily, and perhaps outside Italy. Except among less-educated Sicilians, the idea of being "fidanzati in casa" is more popular in the country than in the larger cities (Catania, Palermo). Initially, I thought that a better-educated couple might follow this kind of practice for the sake of nostalgic parents or grandparents, as a matter of tradition.
I was wrong. The reality is that while many young Sicilians seem independent and socially sophisticated in some ways, and perhaps pursue higher education, they often live lives of conformity in other respects, even if this is sometimes a facade. The engagement ritual I've described is just one example of this. (Personally, I arrived at such a conclusion when I dated --here in Palermo-- an American man, whose values and lifestyle seemed so much more sophisticated and egalitarian than those of even the best-educated and most "worldly" Sicilian men I had known well.) So it is quite possible that five or ten percent of couples in Palermo become fidanzati in casa, and the number is probably higher in small towns. Parental approval of future spouses is still important in many families, and matchmaking is commonplace. As such things are often an implicit part of the engagement ritual, it's clear that this is not a mere formality in every case.
Is this necessarily negative? That depends on the people involved. There's something to be said for tradition, but choices are important, too.
About the Author: Maria Luisa Romano has
written for various Italian magazines, including this one.