4:00am

Tue February 15, 2011
Europe

Italian Women Protest Over Berlusconi Scandal

An Italian judge ordered Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Tuesday to face a fast-track trial on charges that he paid for sex with a minor and then tried to cover it up. The trial, which is set to begin April 6, will be heard by a panel of three judges — all of them women.

The sex scandal engulfing Berlusconi has incensed many Italian women. An estimated 1 million women in more than 200 towns nationwide took to the streets Sunday to demand his resignation.

Berlusconi made a phone call to one of his own TV networks, in what has become his preferred means of communication, to label the protest shameful.

"I saw the usual one-sided forces mobilized against me by the left, which use any pretext to try to topple an adversary they can't beat at the polls," he said.

But there were no political flags at the rallies, just banners decrying a man who protesters said has disgraced Italy. Their slogan — "If not now, when?" — was taken from the title of a book by Holocaust survivor Primo Levi. In Rome, hundreds of thousands of women shouted, "The time is now!"

A recurring question in Italy in recent years has centered on how a country that had one of Europe's most vibrant feminist movements in the 1970s could degrade into one of the West's most sexist.

Francesca Leone, a rally organizer, singled out two key factors. "I think Catholicism on one side and a macho way from the other combined create a big wall for women," she said. "I think we have to speak and start again."

Many analysts say Berlusconi's commercial TV networks shaped the prevailing image of Italian women today. For 30 years, their main fare has been filled with scantily dressed women shimmying on a stage while cameras zoom in on shapely legs, plunging necklines and curvy bottoms.

In the latest Berlusconi sex scandal, leaked wiretaps revealed evidence pointing to orgies at his homes and large payments made to would-be showgirls.

The protest organizers say the prime minister promotes a culture in which young women see selling their good looks as a viable career option. Nicoletta Dentico described what she calls the Berlusconi "culture of entertainment."

"Think about yourself, think about what you can gain today; don't think about tomorrow, think about money," she said. "So today, we are collecting the fruits of that project. We have lost our bearings."

One of the main speakers at the Rome rally slammed Berlusconi for choosing his party candidates for their sexual expertise rather than their political experience.

"As far as I'm concerned, everyone can have all the orgies they like," said Giulia Buongiorno, an MP and former member of the conservative ruling coalition. "However, orgies can in no way be the key factor in the selection process of political leaders."

The explosion of the women's protest — from left to right — has caught Berlusconi by surprise. And it couldn't come at a worse time. He's about to face three long-delayed trials for corruption, and the latest sex scandal involving a minor has dealt a serious blow to his popularity.

Berlusconi's legal problems are all-consuming — most government and parliamentary activity is at a standstill. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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