Italy: Inciting hatred against Romani women
24 November 2023
This month, both online far-right trolls and ‘post-fascist’ legislators in Italy have Romani women in their crosshairs, as the government moves ahead with its blatantly racist ‘Security decree’, and social media ‘vigilantes’ wage a hate campaign stigmatising all Romani women as thieves. This is what racism looks like at the intersection of ethnicity and gender, when the most vulnerable are targeted and hate becomes normalised.
As reported by Anna Pizzo for DINAMOPRESS, the government has just voted for yet another 'security decree' directed against Romani women accused of theft, that allows for the detention of mothers with children under the age of three. Judges will decide on the advisability of detention, and whether it is better for the detainees’ minor children to be placed in a ‘more suitable family’.
Racist diversions, folk devils and moral panics
The government is making good on Matteo Salvini’s promise back in April 2023, when the far-right parties sabotaged a bill by the Democratic Party to improve conditions for imprisoned mothers. As the bill folded, Salvini promised a tightening rather than a lightening of the law: “The Democratic Party frees Roma pickpockets who use children and pregnancy to avoid prison and continue to commit crimes. Shame on you. The League had passed the law in the Justice Commission and will immediately resubmit the text: it is a question of health, justice and common sense.”
In response, the Ombudsperson for prisoners Mauro Palma condemned Salvini’s comments, and described attributing a crime to an entire category as a ‘serious cultural setback’, because "it is never a minority or a social group as such that commits a crime".
Later that month, five Italian MEPs from the Identity and Democracy group doubled down on that ‘serious cultural setback’ in a written question submitted to the European Commission. They stated that many of the now commonplace crimes of theft, pickpocketing, drug dealing and attacks are carried out by Romani women in Italy and Europe, “who often take advantage of the fact that they are pregnant at the time of the crime and avoid going to jail as they receive state protection.”
The far-right MEPs went on to say that despite the Commission having spent EUR 42 billion for the social inclusion of the largest ethnic minority in Europe, Romani women “continue to steal in the major European capitals, tainting the image of our historical cities”, and facetiously asked whether the Commission might consider it necessary “to earmark EU funds to compensate the victims of crimes by Roma people, pending their integration into society?”
It is clear, at home and abroad, these latest moves, which effectively stigmatise all Romani women, are diversions to distract from the Meloni coalition’s failure to deliver on revitalising a stagnant economy and stemming the flow of illegal migration, which included the promise of a naval blockade of the northern African coasts. Instead, by way of red meat for I Fratelli d’Italia’s neo-fascist constituency, the coalition wages culture wars against multiculturalism and gender ideology, in defence of “God, homeland, family”, backed up with nativist attacks on immigrants, LGBT ‘lobbies’, and other visible minorities. Stoking a moral panic around Romani women – ‘folk devils’ pregnant, thieving and in need of punishment – is a dangerous diversion which not only stigmatises all Romani women, but creates a permissive environment for online and real-life racist violence.
Digital violence against Romani women in Italy
Far-right web ‘vigilantes’ in Brindisi have taken to posting photos of young Romani women on social media, making baseless accusations, and branding them as ‘thieving Gypsies’. The victims, whose faces are clearly identifiable, are falsely accused – in lurid detail rendered in malcerto Italian – of a range of illicit activities ranging from pickpocketing to stealing children. These young women are publicly pilloried, unable to refute such allegations, and vulnerable to racially-motivated attacks in the street.
The completely unfounded accusations of stealing children, rooted in medieval anti-Roma prejudices, has lost none of its potency in 21st century Italy, and such rumours in the recent past have led to outbreaks of mob violence against Roma. Mindful of this, in May 2023, police in Puglia were prompt to denounce rumours circulated on WhatsApp of Romani child abductors as ‘fake news’. The messages, which warned that ‘Zingari’ kidnappers were loose in certain parts of the town, claimed that the police had intervened, and caused some panic among parents. In their statement, the Cerignola Police swiftly debunked the message as false, and issued a categorical denial there was any such case of attempted kidnapping.
This latest action by web ‘vigilantes’ in Brindisi, is just another example of what Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, spoke of recently, when she stated that “the magnitude of digital violence against women and girls and ensuing impunity remains colossal, having an impact on society as a whole. Violence in the digital world can be especially harmful for those women and girls at risk of or exposed to intersecting forms of discrimination.”
Her warning that such attacks not only have a serious impact on the wellbeing and human rights of the individuals targeted, but also have the effect of further spreading hateful narratives, is especially relevant for Italy, where the UN OHCHR noted that the increase of intolerance, racial and religious hatred, “which in some cases is allowed or even encouraged by political leaders and members of Government” has led to a situation where “hate speech has become normalized, and manifestations of hatred has become permissible.”