Digital Feminism in Italy: The Se Non Ora Quando Social Movement
In the fall of 2010, a series of media reports revealed that the then–Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had allegedly paid for sex with a 17-year-old Moroccan nightclub dancer, Karima El Mahroug (known by her stage name “Ruby the Heartstealer”). In the same period, Berlusconi was also accused of abusing his political power to free El Mahroug from a police station, where she had been detained for stealing 3,000 euros. In 2013, Berlusconi was found guilty of sex with minors and abuse of power. This incident, which came to be known in the press as the “bunga bunga trial,”1 was but the latest scandal involving sex and women in the tainted history of Berlusconi’s mandates as prime minister. Berlusconi’s repeated derogatory and objectifying comments towards women have been reflective of a socio-political culture that digresses from women’s rights and fails to promote balanced representations of women’s roles in Italian society.
This was the gendered status quo that Italian journalist Concita De Gregorio challenged in her petition in the left-wing newspaper L’Unità2 on January 19, 2011. In her short appeal (a mere seven sentences in all), De Gregorio called for women to stand up to the bunga bunga culture that had permeated all levels of Italian society.3 This online petition was signed by almost 40,000 people and spurred the creation of the feminist movement Se Non Ora Quando4 (SNOQ; ‘if not now, when?’) in February 2011. Born from an increasing frustration and anger at the ‘demeaning model presented by one of the highest officials in the country,’ SNOQ was launched on February 13, 2011, through a series of concomitant demonstrations and public events in several major city squares that saw the participation of nearly one million people. The founding committee of SNOQ consisted of fifty Italian women with different backgrounds and careers—ranging from journalists, writers and filmmakers, to economists, academicians, politicians, and architects—who came together to denounce the “repeated, indecent, flamboyant representation of women as a naked object of sexual trade, produced by newspapers, television, and advertising.”5 Seventy three percent of the SNOQ members were between 40 and 70 years old, while only less than one fourth were women under 40.6 The movement was equally comprised of individuals who had previous experience in feminist activism, the ones new to these forms of civic engagement, as well as people affiliated to a specific political party (or labor union), and those who have never belonged to any such group. Indeed, one of the main characteristics of the SNOQ movement is precisely the heterogeneity of the group, something that was paradoxically criticized for lacking focus and specificity.7 SNOQ developed as a national and local civic movement, which was originally promoted by a centralized organizing committee and subsequently, branched off into multiple local subcommittees. By the end of 2012, SNOQ counted more than 120 subcommittees in most Italian regions, speaking to the need to engage with the specificities of the localities—a key feature of civic activism in contemporary Italy (Ardizzoni, forthcoming). A transnational perspective was also added to the local angle with the creation of SNOQ committees in various cities in France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Japan, and Germany. In the early 2014, the heterogeneity and cross-sectional appeal of this feminist movement—considered as one of its main assets—proved also to be a central catalyst for its fragmentation into diversified interests and multiple sub-groups.8
While the recent SNOQ movement is embedded in the long and rich history of Italian feminism(s), and thus embraced some key themes of previous waves (such as the centrality of the ‘network’ and the politicized female body), its use of new and social media tools is reflective of the nature of emergent activist practices (Dinelli 2011, 59-84). Indeed, as in the case of the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street, contemporary social movements have found in social media the appropriate tools to share anger and indignation, to mobilize disparate groups of individuals, to organize for empowerment, and to deliberate on creative alternatives (Castells 2012). With these objectives, the Italian SNOQ movement relied heavily on communication networks through their websites and blogs, their Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, YouTube channel, social forums, and mailing lists.
Of particular relevance in the context of participatory media is SNOQ’s use of online forums to organize a national meeting and its video campaign on YouTube. After the initial, fairly spontaneous demonstrations in February 2011, the SNOQ movement organized a two-day event in Siena in the summer 2011, which featured contributions by politicians, intellectuals, artists, and saw the participation of more than 2,000 people and 120 local committees. The organization of this national event, aimed at coordinating the future of this social movement, relied heavily on online forums, which were used by participants to share information on lodging, organize carpools and room sharing, and lay out the main strategies of intervention. Given the variety of individuals and groups who took part in the event, these online tools (forums and blogs) became the catalyst for a successful attendance. Similarly, the variety of feminist voices within the movement is unveiled in a series of short videos titled Le parole per dirlo (“Words to say it”), featuring women of all ages and backgrounds who speak on camera about their daily lives as women in Italy, relating their desires, their experiences of sexism and abuse, their precarious positions at work, and their hopes for female politicians. In the 142 videos, women are given a space to contrast the objectifying and flattening view of female bodies promoted by media and dominant discourse.
While this space is often stifled in mainstream Italian media, through participatory tools like YouTube, Italian feminists have re-created a public arena that allows them to revive the feminist tradition of orality and personal narration—a central element in previous waves of the movement.
This case study highlights the convergence of social media use and street demonstrations as an effective tactic of participation and engagement in contemporary Italian society.
Ardizzoni, Michela. Matrix Activism: Media, Neo-Liberalism and Social Action in Italy. (Forthcoming).
Castells, Manuel. Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age. London: Polity, 2012.
Dinelli, Serena. “Donne, media, comunicazione trent’anni dopo: presenze e linee di lavoro nel movimento delle donne in Italia.” La Camera Blu no. 7(2011): 59-84, http://www.serena.unina.it/index.php/camerablu/article/view/1366/1471.