Palermo native Valeria Ajovalasit (whose distinctive surname
was inherited from a Greek ancestor who came to Sicily) founded Arcidonna,
Sicily's leading women's rights organization, with several other women in
1986. Arcidonna isn't just another gender-based equal rights group. It works
toward the empowerment of women through tangible initiatives, by operating
an office providing practical information to women entrepreneurs, publishing
books by women authors, and supporting important legislation, like equal
pay for equal work. At a youngish fifty, Ms. Ajovalasit, who studied in
Italy and France, is a mother and activist. Here's what she has to say.
Could you tell us about Arcidonna and its day-to-day
"We're independent, funded in part by the European Commission but not
by any Italian national or regional agency. We employ at least twenty people,
and sometimes almost twice that number, and most are women. Many are in
their twenties, and most have specialized skills. For example, we maintain
our own website. We're self-sufficient and don't often need outside consultants.
Most of our staff speak a second language, usually English."
That's remarkable compared to most Sicilian organizations,
companies, public agencies...
"We're also different in that we select personnel based on examinations,
interviews and professional qualifications. Merit, not recommendations.
We're a meritocracy."
It's interesting how rarely the issue of women's
rights is discussed openly in this country, even when women speak among
themselves. Is this an accurate perception?
"It is. There's been a declining interest for two main reasons, which
can be considered different sides of the same issue. First, Italian women
thought that the rights they won in the past would last forever, and unfortunately
that's not always the case. The second part of the equation is that younger
women have not learned the lessons of the previous generation. This has
interrupted the progress of our achievements. A very young woman, lacking
the benefit of this social continuity, may think that all of her rights
were achieved long ago. Confronting certain realities --in the workplace,
for example-- she may discover that things aren't exactly as she presumed."
Feminism is considered a strong word today, but it's true that Italian women won the vote quite recently, in 1946, and were influential in ousting a monarchy which supported two decades of Fascism. Were Italian women more activist
in the 1950s?
"By comparison, Finnish women won the vote in 1901, and have had an active
role for a century. Here in Italy, the post-war feminists were from the
Partisan camp. It's worth remembering that even in the early 1990s, Libreria
delle Donne, a Milanese publisher of women authors, was still making
headway. Nationally, there emerged two camps --women who sought to achieve
equality without political activity, and those who felt activism was necessary.
Since then, there's been some impetus. The fact remains that many Italian
women still have a relatively low quality of life. Arcidonna has drawn attention
to these realities. We believe making younger women aware of the issues
is a good first step, but we also promote initiatives like training programs
and our office which offers advice to potential entrepreneurs. And La
Luna, our publishing house."
Do you view feminism as an intrinsically liberal
"I do. But in many battles, women conservatives (the Right) support the
same things we do. Parliamentary representational issues are an example."
Outside politics, do you see a tangible difference
between today's young Italian women and those of just a generation ago?
"Absolutely. There's been a revolution. My daughter's generation has achieved
a genuine liberation socially. In more equal personal relationships with
men, for example, especially before marriage. Even if they don't always
realize that some of these things are rooted in attitudes that have been
changing since the1950s. But they may confront obstacles in the workplace,
in their rapport with male supervisors. Or in marriage where there's often a more
conservative environment without complete equality between genders. There's still
much to be achieved."
Yet Arcidonna was founded when many battles --divorce,
abortion-- had already been fought and won in Italy (in that era with the
Left against the more reactionary Christian Democrats), though the redefinition
of the rape laws in 1996 (making rape a felony for which proof of premeditation
is no longer required to obtain a conviction) is a recent exception. In
such issues, is there still much to be done on the legislative front?
"Yes. We've campaigned strongly against sexual violence. To increase awareness,
we produced a video, seen in many schools, which dealt with teenage victims
of rape. The change in the law was very late, perhaps because its focus
was violence. The Vatican's stand didn't help. Even after the laws were
passed on divorce and abortion, the Catholic Church, in attempting to defend
families as untouchable, didn't want to recognize that sexual violence often
occurs in families. In Italy sexual violence was considered, before the
rape law came into force, as a crime against "morality" and not
against a person as an individual. Partly because conviction resulted in no
real punishment, fewer cases were filed."
Best of Sicily's readers are from all over the world, with Americans the largest national group (at around 50%). To an American woman, Italy seems to have slightly more than its fair share of what could be called 'sexual harassment' in
the workplace. What's your perception, and what do we know about the statistics?
"The Italian media paid more attention to this issue in the early 1990s,
though the problem has not disappeared. The labor unions helped in this
fight, because sexual harassment usually occurs in the workplace. We were
among the groups to advocate legislation that places the burden of proof
on the man that he had not engaged in harassment, rather than on the alleged
victim. Unions like CGIL have more complete statistics on reported cases."
Arcidonna supports a number of ongoing political
objectives, such as electing more women to Parliament. And you talk about
"More precisely, we believe that representation should correspond to the
gender composition of the constituency. Fifty percent isn't a quota, but
an accurate reflection of the population. Presently, Italian women in parliamentary
bodies --and this includes the Italian national level but also the European
and regional levels-- are underrepresented compared to those of every other
EC nation. Some women oppose quotas, but we maintain that Italy is behind,
much as France was until 2001. French law now allows seats to alternate
between genders. Our proposal has been made nationally, and also at the
Sicilian Regional Assembly."
About the Author: New Yorker Roselyn Guarino is a businesswoman, wife and mother (of Italian ancestry) who lives and works in Sicily.