I read a story on Mashable the other day about an Italian woman who will go on trial for being a bad housewife. Her husband, the accuser, claims that he and his family have “suffered” under her slovenliness. Apparently she lets food go to waste and forces the family to “live in conditions with poor hygiene”.
It is unclear what prevents the husband, or other members of the family, from doing the housework themselves.
While “failure to complete housework’’ is not a crime in Italy, negligence is, and if she’s convicted the woman can face anywhere from two to six years jail time.
Now I wouldn’t go so far as to call my living conditions unhygienic, but I can tell you now, if bad housekeeping was a crime I’d have gone straight to prison YEARS ago. Seriously, just ask my mother.
But while I still remain free from incarceration, let’s explore the actual horror of this story…
Italy might be a so-called “First World Country”, but everyone knows the machismo runs deep. Women (yes, also the working ones) are expected to cook and clean, and though Italian men do dote on babies, they do very little hands-on parenting. Italian columnist and former women’s magazine editor, Maria Rodota says that it is common for Italian men to have mistresses and to treat their wives with disdain or even contempt.
So it wasn’t surprising that Silvio Burlesconi’s antics were tolerated for such a long time. Not just because the man was a thug, but because the endless string of parties and sex workers and corruption was a mere mirroring of the deep-set, institutionalised sexism inherent in Italian culture where women are still treated as objects and possessions.
As a South African woman I can’t help but feel echoes of that here.
We might be more equally represented in government, but South Africa is hip-deep in the clutches of an entrenched patriarchal mind set. So deep, in fact, that the United Nations Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on violence against women came to find that gender-based violence is so prevalent and so accepted in SA that it has become normalised.
So if we think about the Italian woman facing jail time for being bad at cleaning, it makes me think about how many times I’ve heard stories about women beaten for being unsatisfactory housewives. For burning the family’s dinner. For not ironing her husband’s shirt properly. With our horrifically high femicide rates, how many times do we hear stories about a woman being killed for flirting with another man? About a wife being hunted down and shot by her abusive partner because she dared to leave him? How many times do we see girls being treated differently than boys – be it the practice of forced child marriages, be it the victim being blamed in a gang rape or be it illegal forced virginity testing in return for scholarships?
It’s even evident on a much milder, but just as insidious, level in everyday conversation. How often do we hear these kind of statements:
‘I’m so lucky because my partner helps me with the dishes.’
‘My husband is so unusual, he even got up in the middle of the night to give the baby a bottle.’
What? Are you saying that housework and child-rearing are reserved for women only? Excuse me if I don’t think your husband deserves a cookie for looking after his child or cleaning up after himself and his family.
So I have the world’s smallest little viola playing for that Italian man, and frankly any other man who still thinks it’s a woman’s job to look after him just by the virtue of his gender.