In November, all of Italy laid Giulia Cecchettin to rest. Thousands of people attended her memorial service in something resembling a state funeral, including a live broadcast on national television. Cecchettin, a 22-year-old biomedical engineering student from the hinterlands of Venice, was murdered on Nov. 11 by her boyfriend Filippo Turetta, also 22, who kidnapped her, stabbed her and left her dying in a gully, a week ahead of her graduation.
What would transpire was an all-too-familiar tale of femicide, a story of quarrels and stalking by a spurned boyfriend unable to deal with rejection, who hounded his female partner before taking her life, a story that played out 90 times in Italy this year. Many hundreds more women report stalking and physical abuse by their partners.
Cecchettin’s case, however, transcended the local crime blotters and came to embody the endemic problem of violence against women, prompting widespread outrage, calls for reform and a moment of national reckoning akin to what happened in the US in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. The soul-searching and rage around the long-standing issue of femicide fueled a national debate in Parliament, news editorials and talk show discussions. The issue has taken center stage in intellectual and policy debates, at once polarizing and unifying public opinion.
A wide movement protesting patriarchy culminated in November in nationwide public demonstrations, notably a 500,000 strong march and rally in Rome. The intense focus has driven a wedge in Italian society, where the governing right-wing coalition includes the party founded by billionaire lothario Silvio Berlusconi. The three-time prime minister died earlier this year, but his cultural legacy lives on in his media company (Mediaset), which was instrumental in cementing and exasperating long-standing sexist mores. Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, head of the post-fascist Brothers of Italy party, has argued that, as the country’s first female leader, she is uniquely positioned to understand the problem. But in a country whose penal code only abolished leniency for “honor killings” by husbands in 1981, a heritage of machismo remains particularly ingrained in the conservative milieu that supports Meloni’s government.
Beyond politics, the case has laid bare a systemic issue that concerns all of Italian society — and all men.
The victim’s younger sister helped galvanize the national movement of women and young people. In a prime-time statement on one of the country’s main TV channels, Elena Cecchettin eschewed the simple emotional expression of grief, delivering instead a lucid indictment of gender violence as social and political issue. “Many people have called my sister’s murderer a ‘monster.’ But a monster is someone who deviates from society’s norms, while he is a healthy son of a patriarchal society steeped in the culture of rape.”
“Femicide is not a crime of passion,” she added, “it is a crime of power. It is a state-sponsored murder inasmuch as the state does not protect us. Do not observe a minute of silence for Giulia. For Giulia, burn it all down.”
Her words ignited the national debate. Some, including politicians and conservative media, immediately attacked her. Some accused her of exploiting her sister’s death, while others emphasized that her tearless words were a clear sign of emotional detachment. Some even used photos from the girl’s Instagram profile to label her as a Satanist, in a farcical reenactment of medieval witch hunts. For many, though, Elena Cecchettin’s words resonated like a rallying cry for a collective awakening.
From the day after the speech, Italian cities, large and small, were swept by rallies, torchlight processions, spontaneous marches, assemblies in educational and workplace settings — a movement not just of opinion but also of active and public participation.
Students ignored the education minister’s directive prescribing a minute of silence in all Italian schools to remember the murdered girl. Instead, at 11 a.m. sharp, the exact minute specified by the executive order, students left their classes and made as much noise as possible with shouts, applause, and the jingling of keys. Camilla Velotta of the Student Network explained, “It was not appropriate to follow the ministerial directive to be silent, but rather the opposite: read, talk, make noise.”
The mobilization grew day by day until Nov. 25, the day of the national demonstration against gender-based violence, which had been called even before Cecchettin’s femicide, organized by the Non Una di Meno network. The organization defines itself as transfeminist, with “trans” as a prefix, aiming both to make trans and non-binary people visible, and to suggest a schedule of demands that go beyond the fight against sexism, to intersect with other struggles, such as environmentalism and anti-exploitation.
The network, connecting a constellation of collectives, groups, associations, and anti-violence centers throughout Italy, was born in 2016 in the context of another major mobilization against male violence in Italy. In that case, the spark was the death of Sara Di Pietrantonio, a 22-year-old woman burned alive by her boyfriend. But the movement also drew strength from a global context where a new wave of feminist awareness was shaking the foundations of public opinion in many countries.
The Italian network’s name takes inspiration from experiences in Argentina and other South American countries, where a massive movement against gender-based violence and for the right to abortion defined itself as “Ni Una Menos,” inspired by the words of a Mexican poet.
After the surprising mobilization on Nov. 25 in Italy, attention on male violence remains high, although this has not translated into government action. Not only because the first female prime minister insists on being called “Il presidente” (specifying a preference for the masculine article). And not only because Meloni’s ex-partner was himself recently caught on video molesting female co-workers (the prime-minister subsequently dumped him “live” on social media). But also because the current government is an expression of a male-centric political culture that is only able to suggest law-and-order solutions, such as stronger sentences for violent offenders. On the prevention front, responses remain hesitant and insufficient.
Meanwhile, since the murder of Giulia Cecchettin on Nov. 11, at least four more women have been killed in Italy.