“Art is a way to look at the world”. This is the motto that drove the organisers of the event entitled Rosso Indelebile’ (indelible red), a mobile artistic line-up in Turin from 23rd November to 7th December 2019, from local organisations Artemixia and Eikòn. It celebrated the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, which is on 25th November every year. Rosso Indelebile, brainchild of the artist and curator Rosalba Castelli, is an art project made up of educational conferences, a collection of contemporary art, meetings in schools, sessions on the prevention of gender-based violence and live performances of music, dance, theatre, reading, photography and video making. Its aim was to expose gender-based violence, tell stories of the damage it causes, give voice to those who have experienced and witnessed such violence, from children to women to trans persons, encouraging victims to speak out and believe in their power to overcome the perceived shame and indignity of what they have suffered. Multiple forms of violence exist and nobody is truly exempt from it during the course of their lifetime and nobody, therefore, should feel alone in their search for a way out. 

Iroko was invited to take part in the opening night of this two-week-long event, on 23rd November, an evening entitled #25novembresceglitu (which translates as ‘on 25th November you choose’), organised in collaboration with M.A.I.S.

Gender-based violence is primarily a cultural problem, as underlined by Valeria Quaglia, a sociologist at the University of Turin, who shared a shocking statistic: 6,788,000 women have suffered some form of physical or sexual violence and even this number is incomplete when we consider that it includes only identified cases of violence. We know all too well that the real figures are much higher than those we are able to identify.

Cristina Mozzatto, a criminal lawyer, explained some of the legal instruments that exist to support and protect victims of domestic and gender-based violence, from the law number 38/2009 that defines the crime of stalking as a crime against moral freedom, to the Istanbul Convention ratified in 2013, to the recently approved ‘Code Red’ that has introduced various protections, among which the crime of going to places frequented by the victim, the increase from 6 to 12 months in the window a rape victim has during which to report the crime and the legal recognition of witnesses of violence as victims themselves. 

Despite the progress made, the data tells us that the reality of violence against women is still a serious problem, regardless of nationality of the victims of perpetrators. The AGI report 2018 highlights that, despite the common negative stereotypes about foreign men, the crime of stalking – which is on the rise – is more often than not committed by Italians: “true analysis of the data would clarify this phenomenon and debunk the common narrative in which migrants are often accused of violence and aggression. Stalking is a crime that relates above all to Italians, considering that more than 80% of the women who report this crime, make a report against an Italian citizen.”

The Italian legal framework around domestic and gender-based violence is broad and concentrates largely on the criminalisation of the perpetrators, but, as explained in the 2018 report published by D.I.Re, “unfortunately the same cannot be said in terms of what is needed to guarantee effective implementation of laws to support and offer resources to the victims of these crimes and their children in order for them to escape such violence. All too often the reality for these women is a series of too many obstacles, caused both by the police force and health and social care professionals inadequately trained for such cases and, significantly, by the Italian cultural setting, which is characterised by deep-rooted sexist stereotypes and gender inequality, as well as prejudice towards women who report these crimes, who even today we tend not to believe.”

During the debate psychologist Anna Buonocore offered an analysis of the relationship between emotion and sex within the phenomenon of gender-based violence, based on the Greek myth of Medusa. Such violence always stems from cultural factors, which we can see clearly represented in the iconography of the female body, as early as classical mythology. Medusa was punished for her beauty by Athena, considered the most masculine of the goddesses, who turned her into a monster. This transformation becomes a metaphor for the woman who does not conform to a patriarchal society’s vision of femininity. This monster, Medusa, had a gaze that turned onlookers to stone, which can be compared to the paralysing effects of trauma that a victim seeks to redirect onto others. So Medusa assumes two roles at the same time: victim and executioner. The mirror that Athena gave to Perseus to allow him to deflect Medusa’s gaze, which would have been fatal, is – according to Buonocore, who shares the philosopher Maria Zambrano’s analysis – the tool with which Medusa’s negative powers can be controlled, the tool that can defeat her. 

This story is reflected in the stories of women who suffer violence, unable to look at themselves in the mirror because of an unjust sense of their own guilt with regards to the violence they have suffered. These women, Buonocore said, should recapture this mirror from Perseus’ hands to look at themselves and rebuild the identity that has been taken from them, reclaim their own stories in order to build a positive future. According to Buonocore, autobiographical writing – storytelling – is an important tool with which to retrace and develop the self. 

In meetings with victims of trafficking, we often see women who are unable to lift their gaze, a behaviour that stems from a sense of shame for which they feel somehow responsible, even though they themselves are the victims. These are women who oftentimes don’t have the awareness or have not been able to identify themselves as being victims, women who choose to go by a different name in order to dissociate from who they are and create another identity. Then there are also women who express a desire to become cultural mediators and interpreters so that they can guarantee a ‘correct translation’  of stories recounted during asylum interviews.

This demonstrates the key role played by Italian language courses for migrants, as Cecilia Pasini from Almaterra reminded us, which equip many migrant women with the linguistic tools they need so they can express themselves autonomously and tell their stories directly. Again we see the central role played by language, by words – whether written or spoken – in communicating one’s identity, one’s self, rather than the body. The female body that is used more and more often as the tool through which or the place where violence plays out: from aggression to sexual abuse, there are endless forms of violence, above all from men. 

Domenico Matarozzo from the organisation Il Cerchio degli Uomini (the men’s circle) – which has worked with men in Turin for over 20 years, offering training to increase their self-awareness and improve their relationships – told the meeting that he has observed a decrease in the age of the men who commit violence, they are getting younger and younger, and this trend demands some in-depth analysis of the consequences of the patriarchal system within which our relationships exist. 

Let’s have a look at the language, particularly that of the media, which is then reflected by our everyday language. The fact that our language is inherently sexist in some way normalises and ‘softens’ sexism and violence itself. Experiences of violence are often paraphrased when reported by the media, told in a way that somehow justifies the violence perpetrated. An example is the word femicide, which is often replaced in the media’s narrative by phrases like ‘a fit of rage’ or ‘a crime of passion’. But femicide is not just a sudden impulse, a moment of rage. It is an act of extreme violence that culminates in a man murdering a woman and, although there are many different reasons or explanations offered for each instance of violence, it essentially comes down to women being murdered simply because they are women. 

It is high time the media started to expose the violence ingrained in our language and our societies, to use the strong words we have to describe the ugly truth of such violence.