My course book for the Italian class contains many dialogue texts. In the chapter on the future tense, there is a conversation between two friends. One of them is telling the other about his plans to visit Tuscany with his girlfriend. They will be taking her car but he will drive because, as the saying goes, donna al volante pericolo costante! (a woman behind the wheel is a constant danger).
My teacher rolled her eyes and made an exasperated hand gesture as one of the students read the text aloud, and the all female classroom of foreign women ranted away in broken Italian in protest, clearly offended by the sexist stereotype.
During class last Monday — Father’s Day in Italy — my Egyptian classmate decided to voice her passionate disapproval for this tradition. “What do they do? We clean, we cook, we bring up the kids, and deal with all their problems. What does the father do?” She was speaking about her own life. But it turned out to be a collective experience.
My teacher pointed out that her husband worked hard to earn for the family, “He works five days a week, I work seven. And he even gets a lunch break”. Another Egyptian and a Moroccan woman chimed in, “This is the problem of all men in the Arab world”. The student from Spain disagreed, “Not just the Arab world. My husband has never picked up his dishes from the table.”
In an onslaught of complaints, a lot of genuinely frustrating and painful moments were released in embarrassed laughter between a group of girls.
After the venting, my Italian teacher said the final words and set the bar quite low: “If your husband doesn’t raise his hand at you, doesn’t say offensive words and does not order you around, be grateful. Look at what is happening in the world around you.”
She was talking about the situation of women in Italy — a western, European, G7 country — where domestic abuse and violence against women is alarmingly high (one murder every three days last year, according to Eures.
“I heard on the radio…” is a favourite conversation starter here and very often Italians wake up to news of young and old women killed by a former or current partner.
Casual sexism remains rife in Italian conversation, media and politics. Single women still cannot adopt children. Mother after mother from my town will share traumatic tales of being refused the epidural during childbirth to keep the suffering natural as it was intended for women. The Berlusconi era was humiliating for women and sexist humour continues to win great applause publicly. My British friend who is a writer and activist, and has been living in Italy for two decades, has no doubt that Italy turned her into a feminist.
While we all come from countries with their own horror stories, shortcomings and prejudices, we do have higher expectations from the new counry that we now call home. After leaving behind everything that is dear to you, if this new situation isn’t quite ideal, it seems like a bad compromise.
Perhaps that’s why I found it personally satisfying when I read the story of what happened to a young Pakistani man who was caught off guard when he tried to sexually assault a 75-year-old Italian woman, forcing himself on her at her home when he came to deliver some leaflets. She responded with a kick in his private parts and punched his face, before he could do more harm. He ran off, and even after the beating and humiliation perhaps put it past an old lady’s abilities that she would call the police. He continued distributing leaflets in the area as if nothing had happened but his shameless manhood landed him in jail within a few hours.
A month into moving here, I attended my first coffee meeting of a group of international women held in a large, intimidating room of a posh club. To my great surprise, there were about a hundred women. The room was full of conversations, blow dries, fragrances, and expensive attire.
I have begun my life many times in many new places and the dynamics were familiar. Walking into a large gathering of people who already know each other and are potential players in your new life, is a very frightening experience, yet full of possibilities.
It took me a while to find my feet. I stereotyped. I felt out of place in a land of ‘rich suburban ladies’ as I described them. But then I had to do what strangers who build a new home must do — swallow the pill and get on with this whole adventure thing.
Five years later, it is this club that gave me my closest friends, made me a part of this city and became a family away from home. It was the coming together of the ‘outsiders’ who needed each other and wanted much more from the town than what it offered.
I began building my own village. A wonderful Italian friend took me on as a daughter and taught me all the important verbs and idioms. I welcomed into my life friends who enriched me with their diversity — anti-vaxxers (gulp!), bored housewives, working women, hardworking women, women with talent and those without any, moms struggling to relate with their kids, moms who grew up without moms, cancer survivors, divorce survivors, grief survivors.
I also edited a monthly magazine for the club and it introduced me to the members of my club on a deeper level. There were women who volunteered with hospices, feeding and comforting terminally ill patients; women who gave years of their lives volunteering at shelters for abused women; women who ran small charities collecting children’s clothing and toys for Syrian refugees; women who left their families and spent days cooking food for earthquake survivors in central Italy. There are women who just show up by your bedside when you have a surgery, hold your hand when your mother dies or your husband leaves.
Read also: Glimpses from a small Italian town
During frustrating language lessons, it comes easy to shed a tear over someone’s medical diagnosis or a death of a family member far away. We share the disappointment of a classmate for not being able to attend her brother’s wedding in her country and celebrate when another passes her Italian exam to get the residence permit. A lot of us have cried together, laughed together and of course, gossiped shamelessly as well.
We are the women from (if not of) the world, trapped in a small town, bringing bits and pieces of our lives and struggles with us. And we have created our own Monza — bringing to this old town in northern Italy, a new, vibrant and diverse community of women, ready to write their own stories.