Sexism in (Southern?) Italy

Throughout our travels, I have been sensitive to how each locale treats women. When I traveled alone, it was actually less noticeable, because I was the only traveler to address. Someone may have thought that men wear the pants, but in the absence of one, here they were, addressing me. But as we travel together, it becomes more obvious what an area’s perspective on gender is.

In Italy, the relationship is complex.

  • On the one hand, Italians revere women. Superficially, they woo them with flowers and appreciate their physical beauty. This is one country in which B’s joke about not buying me flowers because we’re already married tends to fall flat.
  • And Italian women are not ones to roll over. In many households, the matriarch is the iron fist, and woe betide anyone who disobeys.
  • Women are expected to hold their own in a lot of ways. For example, if a man greeted a woman on the streets of Maiori who was carrying many groceries or a large container, he wouldn’t take it from her – even for the course of their chat. And I saw women toiling away on the lemon terraces, not buttressed from work by any notions of delicacy.
  • However, there are still many men (mostly in the south) who don’t look at me when they address both me and B. I will have been the one to purchase their services (on AirBnB, for example), but all discussion is with B. I mean that literally, there is no eye contact with me! This can be especially silly when B knows nothing about what this man and I agreed to via e-mail, and yet he still addresses him. I might write this off to comfort levels: there are certainly people everywhere who are more natural with those of their own gender. However, this is unlikely, given some of these people’s jobs (journalist, inn owner), which require them to interact regularly with both genders. Moreover, I am nowhere near the only one to experience this kind of female invisibility, as evidenced by this charming story. TL:DR; a vendor ignores a woman, who speaks his dialect and is actually talking to him, in favor of a silent man who doesn’t understand his language at all. He also writes her off as a princess, a particularly virulent form of name-calling that makes me want to dress the speaker in an old-fashioned puffy-sleeved tunic and tights for revenge.

In some ways, their behavior feels to me like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Based on past interactions, they have every reason to believe that I will be the one to review their services, not B. For some, this rental (and its reviews) makes up part of their livelihood, especially in this country of such economic difficulties. It is not a minority of couples who divide up responsibilities such that the woman does more of the planning or booking, so we should not be much of an anomaly.

But without fail, I see the same things occur (less so in northern Italy):

  1. When they are showing us around their apartment, they will wait until I have a clear line of sight inside before explaining where things are in the kitchen. They do not do this in any other room.
  2. When they are kind enough to provide a welcome basket, B gets a beer (which – to be fair – is listed in our travel profile as something he likes), and I get things like fruit (which – while I love it – is not listed anywhere).
  3. The dinner bill always goes to B, of course, but they also look to him for negotiations or decisions. The exception is in local food stores, like bakeries or delis; there, he may as well be a pole, for all the say they expect him to have in what we eat. (This is not the only way in which the the sexism here isn’t just directed at me, the woman, but is equally addressed to B.)

Of course, Italy is not at all unique in this respect. Eggs for BreakfastMy own grandmother – who is well aware of my managing nature, and who comes from a matriarchal culture – still expresses similar sentiments. I called her on a Sunday morning on my walk to meet some girls for brunch, and she became fairly agitated: I had left my husband alone? How was he supposed to get breakfast??!? Nevermind that we didn’t even meet until our mid-20s and the fact that he had somehow managed to feed himself for all those years. American culture is no more immune to gender biases like these, mostly simply illustrated by this farcical article.

All that said, it is interesting for me to observe these dynamics. Sure, I have an opinion and a preference on how I’d like to be treated, but this trip is part anthropology. But seeing the contradictions in how Italians address gender is a unique opportunity to see a culture try to reconcile past with present, upbringing with experience. And that’s something I can appreciate, eye contact or not.

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