Today I will be talking about a new word that was introduced let’s say 8 years ago in Italy and enabled a possible reading of an existing social problem.
The new word is femminicidio.
The dominant reading is gender.
The social issue is violence between men and women.
Let’s see where this term comes from.
The original word in English is FEMICIDE and has two meanings:
The linguistic /sociological meaning is “homicide of female”.
The political meaning advocated by feminist Diana Russell since 1976 is male homicide of female because she is a woman.
The political meaning then has expanded to the point that femicide is also used to define all sorts of discriminations against women, not necessarily ending with physical death.
Corresponding term in Italy is FEMMICIDIO. This word never erupted in the public sphere and was the preserve of feminists and their associated publications.
In the 1990s Latin American feminists translated femicide to the Spanish FEMINICIDIO to bring attention to what was happening in the Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez with particular reference to the status of women in countries where women are not legally protected against violence.
Hundreds of women in Ciudad Juarez have been abducted from factories, raped and tortured, and left for dead in the desert. Many of the missing bodies are never recovered. This was happening in a specific social context marked by narcotraffic power and institutional impunity, internal migration of workers and a sexist culture in which financially emancipated women are not well regarded.
This is very different to Italy.
However, the Spanish term was re-translated by some feminist activists in Italian and became FEMMINICIDIO (IT). Two letters more than the previous term. This new version since 2012 has entered the common language.
How? Through the creation of a national emergency.
Countless mobilization campaigns have been held across the country, and different kinds of publications and books written on the subject.
Femminicidio became a topic for TV programmes, and theatre pieces.
Journalists and intellectuals and also politicians running in the 2013 Elections endorsed the feminist claim that femicide and Violence against Women (VAW) was Italian national emergency.
This word was so massively popularized that it has been even used by the press to announce the classic theatre pieces Othello and Carmen.
It was really an emergency?
According to the Ministry of Interior the number of homicides of females in Italy in the same years were not increasing. But as we can see from the first chart media coverage of femminicidio skyrocketed in 2012-13.
Also, please notice that if data on the number of homicides disaggregated by the sex of the victim is collected, there is not reliable data on femminicidio. In other words, if we can determine the sex of victims we cannot determine if the female victim has been killed because of her gender or other factors.
From Discourse theory we know that language not only expresses concepts but also constructs reality: subjectivities, social issues, institutions, regulations, and fields of study. We know also that language authorizes certain discourses and obscures others.
Given the problematic nature of the term and its unprecedented diffusion, I think that thorough investigations are needed to shed light on the many meanings that are changing through the discourse surrounding femminicidio.
I conducted a Critical Discourse Analysis inspired by Fairclough’s and Wodak’s methods.
I used the aggregator Factiva to sample a total of 385 texts.
On these I conducted a macro analysis and later I conducted a linguistic micro analysis on 41 statements made by feminists and politicians.
Later I conducted 60 in-depth interviews with different discourse makers.
In today’s presentation I will be focusing on one small portion of my findings.
Let’s see how femicide has been explained by active claim-makers.
Vittoria Tola, president of one of the more established feminist organizations: “In post-patriarchal society men find themselves having to cope with new gender roles. This causes significant cultural shock. And then a series of heavy mechanisms start”.
Marina Terragni, writer and blogger: “The body of women is an issue of the patriarchy. Patriarchy builds upon itself. On this thing a global battle is ongoing. In Italy it manifests as femminicidio. When an animal is dying it can be very dangerous. Against female autonomy atavic abysses manifest”
Luisa Betti, member of a network of women journalists very active in fighting stereotypes and discriminating language said during a conference: “Not even the most attentive eye realizes as constant the discrimination against women is since the first day when a female is born. A discrimination that is already a form of violence, in that discrimination is in itself violence: an object to be conquered, possessed, controlled “
SNOQ, a new network of women singled out for their rebellion against the sexist politics of former Prime Minister Berlusconi, stated in a public petition: “Women are killed by those who are incapable to accept their freedom”
One of important findings of my study is that politicians appropriated feminist discourse on VAW in their electoral speeches.
Pierluigi Bersani, a leader of the major Centre-Left Coalition said: “Authors are often disappointed boyfriends, rejected lovers, husbands, and relatives. These are not isolated cases of deviance.
Giuliana Carlino, a candidate for a Centre-Left party said: “Enough butchers inside the home! The situation is alarming. We cannot waste more time. We are facing a cultural problem“
Nichi Vendola, leader of a Left party stated: “VAW originates in language: in the last years we have witnessed femminicidio and a continuous aggression against the image of woman .. Femminicidio is the first emergency that I would deal with if I became Prime Minister. 102 women killed by their male master, a country devastated by femicides and by 20 years of pornographic dictatorship.”
He clearly suggests a link between Berlusconi sexist political culture and VAW.
Giulia Bongiorno, candidate for the Centre-Right said that femicide happens: “when he kills to punish the woman because of an outrage to his honor or because of violation of social, religious and cultural norms”.
These are only a few statements exemplificative of the discourse constructed by feminists and political candidates.
As revealed from my analysis, through the spread of the word femminicidio a specific interpretation of violence committed by men against women has been authorized in the recent years in Italy.
The core concepts of the discourse are that:
Male violence is ordinary and is perpetrated by normal men who are not to be considered as deviant
The most dangerous place for women is home and heterosexual relations.
The roots of the problem reside in patriarchal culture which normalizes male ownership and disrespect of women.
This discourse is clearly a discourse constructed from a feminist point of view and it mirrors theories that link VAW to gender inequality, either in society and in symbolic order reproduced for example in media stereotypes and grammar.
It also mirrors the scaffolding of the International Guidelines and Conventions on VAW.
But is the feminist reading the only viable explanation to VAW? Of course not.
We can interrogate Social Sciences, Psychology and Social Psychology, Criminology, Family Study empirical research, Relational Theory, Social Learning Theory, or look for explanations in Situational Analysis.
We will find that violence, either committed by men and by women, is determined by a broad array of behavioral, cultural, emotional, social factors.
Unfortunately, the complexity of violent dynamics is not only overshadowed by the adoption of the Femminicidio discourse but also deliberately banned from politically correct language and from journalism.
For example a code of conduct explicitly forbids to use “the Theory of Cycle of Violence” to make sense of VAW incidents.
The introduction of the word femminicidio comes along with the recommendation for journalists to suppress terms such as “raptus” (uncontrolled rage) and “crime of passion” from reporting on VAW.
The rationale of this intervention is that a change in language is needed in order to change the culture which according to these claim makers is behind cases of femicide and other violent actions committed by men against women.
This aim to change the culture through a fight against sexist language has been on different occasions patently expressed by feminists and women journalists but also by institutional representatives such as the President of the Chamber of Deputies Laura Boldrini.
It is interesting to note that during my interviews they often said the word “raptus” should be avoided because it may induce a public justification of these actions. I would point out, by drawing from the 2013 movie on Hannah Arendt, that “Trying to understand is not the same as forgiveness”
I want to stress the caveat that to carry on a cultural change policy not only signifiers will be lost but also significations will disappear.
And I conclude by asking:
What if these meanings, these theories that somebody want to suppress in the public discourse can in fact help the general public, social workers, and decision makers to better understand violence and relations between the sexes?