Thousands of people have come out to support Rome’s Casa delle Donne, a place for activism, healthcare and support for vulnerable women
“A new era is beginning with us,” promised Virginia Raggi, as she was elected Rome’s first ever female mayor two years ago with a huge 67 per cent of the vote. Her win, for the new populist Five Star Movement party, was one of many results that marked major change in the landscape of Italy’s political establishment. The 37-year-old lawyer is a figure in the anti-Europe, anti-immigration party, that exploded in popularity across the country for its promises to cut corporate tax and up minimum monthly incomes. Its leader, former comedian Beppe Grillo, has been described by critics as Italy’s answer to Donald Trump. Not long into her mayoral reign, Raggi would begin to dismantle the city’s most important feminist institution.
In November 2017, the Casa Internazionale delle Donne – Rome’s historic centre for women and home to a radical feminist collective – received a letter from the city council demanding that they pay €800,000 within 30 days. It was, they claimed, for unpaid rent gathered up since 2001. The timing suggested otherwise. But the Casa had already paid hundreds of thousands over the years, covered the cost of maintaining the 17th century building, and provided invaluable services for free. As non-profit groups, they couldn’t afford it. But in January, through crowdfunding, they offered to pay €300,000. It was ignored. There was complete radio silence.
That is, until this summer, when a motion was passed by the council to repossess the centre. The motion, in typical bureaucratic jargon, declared a “realigning and promoting of the building to the modern needs of the administration.” Then it got worse: this month the Casa’s right to stay in the space until 2021 was revoked. For the unique groups and charities that work in the building – and the thousands of women, many of them vulnerable, that visit each year – it is a desperate situation.
“It’s not right,” Oria Gargano, president of Be Free, a charity in the Casa that provides psychological and legal advice for victims of violence, tells Dazed. Others offer healthcare, art therapy, language lessons, yoga, a creche for working mothers, and projects to help the unemployed get work. “The value of this community and human rights are more important than money,” she says with conviction. “The mayor doesn’t have a clue. She’s never set foot in here. They’re neo-liberalists: they know price of everything and the value of nothing. They can't understand the deep value of this place.”
The centre has a long history with the Italian feminist movement, after a group of activists occupied a 15th century palace close to the heart of government in October 1976. They offered free healthcare and counseling. By 1985, they were offered their own space in the Good Shepherd's Palace, a former women’s prison in the Trastevere neighbourhood. Intentional or not, the irony is not lost on them. These days, the Casa is plastered in Venus zodiac signs with a clenched fist inside. They use the old prison cells for exhibitions.
“I'm angry, but we are going to keep fighting,” says Diana Fiore, who began volunteering at the Casa while studying but now works there part-time. She is one of several women who tend to the Casa’s Archivia, one of the world’s most important archives of feminism, containing 30,000 books, 35,000 photos and key historical documents. They receive no government funding and rely on donations. “This is collection is important for the memory of the country,” she says. “Nowhere else in the world do they have these,” adds Giovanna Olivieri, head of the archive, who has been at the Casa since 1985. “This material has important historical value.”
Among the collection are a series of journals by feminists wanting to declare a separate state from Italy, stacks of 1980s literature on lesbianism and a weekly magazine about bandana-clad female fighters. There’s also a first edition of cultural critic Carla Lonzi's famous essay on the power of the clitoris and a document showing the trial against Gigliola Pierobon, a girl from Venice who was put in prison for 17 years for having an abortion. It triggered a nationwide struggle for the legalisation of abortion and 2018 marks the 40th anniversary since they were successful and Law 194 was passed.
But, as Barack Obama put it after Trump was elected: progress doesn’t just move in a straight line. In Poland, the right-wing government recently passed a controversial law banning abortions even with foetus abnormalities. In Hungary, universities teaching gender studies have been threatened with closure. The president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, last year joked that if any of his soldiers raped three women, he would personally claim responsibility for it. Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the role of women should be restricted to “motherhood” alone. That’s before even getting onto modern “pussy-grabbing” America.
Philippe Marliere, a professor of European Politics at University College London, puts this “backlash” against feminism partly down to the success of the #MeToo movement. “It's a reaction saying women should stay in their place,” he says. “There is an anti-feminist trend among these right-wing populist movements against what they regard as female power. It's anti-migrant, anti-gay, anti-multiculturalism, anti-intellectual and anti-women being expressed freely.”
“This is a place where political thought is forged”
According to David Paternotte, editor of the book Anti-Gender Campaigns in Europe, the global recession and migrant crisis have played a role in the rise of conservatism. “In a world that's changing rapidly, gender appears like something stable – although it's not,” he explains. “They think that gender is natural. But if you have claims that suggest it is more complex, or transgender people saying it's not that simple, all this impression of stability in their lives collapses. It explains why some people are attracted to the easy answers offered by some right wing groups.”
The backlash has had a very real impact. There’s been a wave of femicide across Italy recently, with more than a hundred women killed by men each year because of their gender. Globally, it’s 40,000 every year. Cristiana Scoppa, of the Women's Network Against Violence, says it helped 20,000 women in Italy who were survivors of violence last year alone.
Ending violence against women is just one of struggles referenced by signs hanging in the hallways of the Casa: the fight for equal pay, reform of divorce law, better sexual healthcare. Each a massive task. “This is a symbolic place,” says Scoppa. “This is a place where political thought is forged. But the mayor of Rome is fighting against this place without even knowing what happens here. She has never put her foot in this place. It's different when you come here and walk through the garden and see the fruit trees and children playing.”
Those in power are proving hard to convince. At the United Nations, there are a number of powerful right-wing lobby groups such as the Centre for Family and Human Rights and even the Russian Orthodox Church working against them, according to Jana Prosinger, head of International Gender Politics at the Heinrich Böll Foundation. “They are clever in telling one narrative and using the connection between religion, culture and tradition,” she says.
That’s why some believe the battle must be won on the ground. “Only campaigns and activism can save this kind of space,” says Angela McRobbie, a professor in cultural studies at Goldsmiths University. “Let's fight for a feminist future! We need greater alliances worldwide, we need to connect, to sharpen our strategies,” adds Prosinger. “This is not only an issue for women – it's an issue for men, for LGBTQ people, for young people,” agrees Gargano.
The call to action has not gone unheard. Thousands have protested in the streets of Rome. More than 100,000 have signed a petition supporting the Casa. But ultimately the decision lies with the government as it struggles against a key feminist institution for at least three generations of women. Yet one thing that cannot ever be taken way is the Casa’s subversive, defiant spirit. “They want to turn us into something that they can control,” grins Scoppa. “But they can’t.”