...Best of Sicily presents... Best of Sicily Magazine.
The first online magazine about Sicily.
... Dedicated to Sicilian art, culture, history, people, places and all things Sicilian.
Persephone's Sisters: Women's Rights in Sicily
Interview with Valeria Ajovalasit

by Roselyn Guarino


Best of Sicily

Arts & Culture


Food & Wine

History & Culture

About Us

Travel Faqs


Map of Sicily


Valeria AjovalasitPalermo native Valeria Ajovalasit (whose distinctive surname was inherited from a Greek ancestor who came to Sicily) founded Arcidonna, Sicily's leading women's rights organization, with several other women in 1986. Arcidonna isn't just another gender-based equal rights group. It works toward the empowerment of women through tangible initiatives, by operating an office providing practical information to women entrepreneurs, publishing books by women authors, and supporting important legislation, like equal pay for equal work. At a youngish fifty, Ms. Ajovalasit, who studied in Italy and France, is a mother and activist. Here's what she has to say.

Could you tell us about Arcidonna and its day-to-day activities?

"We're independent, funded in part by the European Commission but not by any Italian national or regional agency. We employ at least twenty people, and sometimes almost twice that number, and most are women. Many are in their twenties, and most have specialized skills. For example, we maintain our own website. We're self-sufficient and don't often need outside consultants. Most of our staff speak a second language, usually English."

That's remarkable compared to most Sicilian organizations, companies, public agencies...

"We're also different in that we select personnel based on examinations, interviews and professional qualifications. Merit, not recommendations. We're a meritocracy."

It's interesting how rarely the issue of women's rights is discussed openly in this country, even when women speak among themselves. Is this an accurate perception?

"It is. There's been a declining interest for two main reasons, which can be considered different sides of the same issue. First, Italian women thought that the rights they won in the past would last forever, and unfortunately that's not always the case. The second part of the equation is that younger women have not learned the lessons of the previous generation. This has interrupted the progress of our achievements. A very young woman, lacking the benefit of this social continuity, may think that all of her rights were achieved long ago. Confronting certain realities --in the workplace, for example-- she may discover that things aren't exactly as she presumed."

Feminism is considered a strong word today, but it's true that Italian women won the vote quite recently, in 1946, and were influential in ousting a monarchy which supported two decades of Fascism. Were Italian women more activist in the 1950s?

"By comparison, Finnish women won the vote in 1901, and have had an active role for a century. Here in Italy, the post-war feminists were from the Partisan camp. It's worth remembering that even in the early 1990s, Libreria delle Donne, a Milanese publisher of women authors, was still making headway. Nationally, there emerged two camps --women who sought to achieve equality without political activity, and those who felt activism was necessary. Since then, there's been some impetus. The fact remains that many Italian women still have a relatively low quality of life. Arcidonna has drawn attention to these realities. We believe making younger women aware of the issues is a good first step, but we also promote initiatives like training programs and our office which offers advice to potential entrepreneurs. And La Luna, our publishing house."

Do you view feminism as an intrinsically liberal (Leftist) movement?

"I do. But in many battles, women conservatives (the Right) support the same things we do. Parliamentary representational issues are an example."

Outside politics, do you see a tangible difference between today's young Italian women and those of just a generation ago?

"Absolutely. There's been a revolution. My daughter's generation has achieved a genuine liberation socially. In more equal personal relationships with men, for example, especially before marriage. Even if they don't always realize that some of these things are rooted in attitudes that have been changing since the1950s. But they may confront obstacles in the workplace, in their rapport with male supervisors. Or in marriage where there's often a more conservative environment without complete equality between genders. There's still much to be achieved."

Yet Arcidonna was founded when many battles --divorce, abortion-- had already been fought and won in Italy (in that era with the Left against the more reactionary Christian Democrats), though the redefinition of the rape laws in 1996 (making rape a felony for which proof of premeditation is no longer required to obtain a conviction) is a recent exception. In such issues, is there still much to be done on the legislative front?

"Yes. We've campaigned strongly against sexual violence. To increase awareness, we produced a video, seen in many schools, which dealt with teenage victims of rape. The change in the law was very late, perhaps because its focus was violence. The Vatican's stand didn't help. Even after the laws were passed on divorce and abortion, the Catholic Church, in attempting to defend families as untouchable, didn't want to recognize that sexual violence often occurs in families. In Italy sexual violence was considered, before the rape law came into force, as a crime against "morality" and not against a person as an individual. Partly because conviction resulted in no real punishment, fewer cases were filed."

Best of Sicily's readers are from all over the world, with Americans the largest national group (at around 50%). To an American woman, Italy seems to have slightly more than its fair share of what could be called 'sexual harassment' in the workplace. What's your perception, and what do we know about the statistics?

"The Italian media paid more attention to this issue in the early 1990s, though the problem has not disappeared. The labor unions helped in this fight, because sexual harassment usually occurs in the workplace. We were among the groups to advocate legislation that places the burden of proof on the man that he had not engaged in harassment, rather than on the alleged victim. Unions like CGIL have more complete statistics on reported cases."

Arcidonna supports a number of ongoing political objectives, such as electing more women to Parliament. And you talk about quotas.

"More precisely, we believe that representation should correspond to the gender composition of the constituency. Fifty percent isn't a quota, but an accurate reflection of the population. Presently, Italian women in parliamentary bodies --and this includes the Italian national level but also the European and regional levels-- are underrepresented compared to those of every other EC nation. Some women oppose quotas, but we maintain that Italy is behind, much as France was until 2001. French law now allows seats to alternate between genders. Our proposal has been made nationally, and also at the Sicilian Regional Assembly."

About the Author: New Yorker Roselyn Guarino is a businesswoman, wife and mother (of Italian ancestry) who lives and works in Sicily.

Top of Page

© 2001 Roselyn Guarino