The bunga bunga just won’t go away. Last week in Milan, Silvio Berlusconi ‘s conviction for bribery, corruption and underage prostitution in the case of the young woman known as “Ruby Heartstealer” (Ruby Rubacuori, whose real name is Karima el-Mahroug) was overturned, and he was acquitted of all charges in a case that had precipitated his fall from power and originally sentenced him to seven years imprisonment and a ban from political office. Many commentators have taken the news as a positive case for Italian politics, noting that despite Berlusconi’s other convictions–which continue to prevent him from returning to office–the acquittal provides him with renewed legitimacy as the ongoing leader of the center right by means of his Forza Italia party. He and his party have been the linchpin of a coalition deal with current—and as yet unelected—prime minister Matteo Renzi to push through electoral reforms widely perceived as a necessary foundation for any further democratic or economic reform in the country.
What this ends-justify-the-means editorializing fails to confront, however, is a more fundamental weakness in Italy’s democracy: the drastic inequality and legal vulnerability of women and people of color. The privilege claimed by male leaders—and, more generally, by the majority of men— to a continuous supply of sexually available women represents a rejection of the rights of people like el-Mahroug, whom nobody involved in the case has denied was underage, was recruited for sex with Silvio and his cronies, and was then coerced into hiding from responsible authorities in the initial stages of the investigation. (Though the court has not yet released a full report of its legal reasoning, Berlusconi’s lawyer hypothesized that they had successfully proven that Berlusconi was not personally responsible, given that he may have believed she was of legal age). While prosecutors may still decide to appeal the case a final time, what ordinary Italian citizens ought to be more concerned about is not so much a potential zombie return of Berlusconi to politics but rather the nightmare their country cannot seem to wake from as thousands of victims of assault, trafficking, domestic violence, and other forms of gendered violence continue to fail to secure justice and have the day in court they deserve.
–Molly Tambor is Assistant Professor of History at Long Island University. She holds a Ph.D. in modern European history from Columbia University and specializes in political history and the history of women and gender. She was awarded the Rome Prize in 2002-2003 and did additional research at the University of Florence, Italy. Her new book is The Lost Wave: Women and Democracy in Postwar Italy.