Last March 8, in Milan, during a demonstration held to celebrate International Women’s Day, some activists of the feminist collective Non Una Di Meno, “Not One Less,” threw some pink washable paint on the statue of journalist Indro Montanelli placed near the entrance of the public gardens named after him, on Corso Venezia. The movement explained that it wanted to draw attention to a story that has been talked about several times about Montanelli, considered by many to be one of the most authoritative signatures of Italian journalism: specifically, about when, as a soldier in Ethiopia in the 1930s, he bought and had sexual relations with a 12-year-old Eritrean girl.
In its statement, Non Una Di Meno justified the protest gesture
“It is a necessary act of redemption. These are the words of Indro Montanelli about his colonial experience: “She was twelve years old … at the age of twelve they [the African females] were already women. I had bought her from her father in Saganeiti together with a horse and a gun, all for 500 lire. She was a submissive little animal, I set her up in a tucul (a simple circular building with a conical roof usually of clay and straw) with some chickens. Every fifteen days she would join me, wherever I was, along with with the wives of the other ascari … my wife would also arrive, with a basket on her head, to bring me clean underwear ‘(interview with Enzo Biagi for RAI in 1982). Are these the kind of men we should admire? “
As a matter of fact, Montanelli had already spoken publicly of the child bride, who he had bought during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, when at the age of 26 he was part a second lieutenant in the army, in command of an battalion of ascari, i.e. Eritrean soldiers. Montanelli told the story of his relations with the girl, in 1969, during the television program of Gianni Bisiach L’ora del verità . During the broadcast, Montanelli was harshly attacked by feminist journalist Elvira Banotti (Eritrean for mother’s side):
Banotti: “He’s just calmly admitted to having a so-called bride, a 12-year-old, and at the age of 25 he’d had no qualms about raping a 12-year-old girl saying ‘But in Africa these things are done’. I would like to ask him what kind of relations he normally entaertains with women, given these two statements.”
Montanelli: ” No ma’am, about rape … there was no rape because the girls in Abyssinia are married at 12 ”
Banotti: “This is what you say.”
Montanelli: “In those days it was normal.”
Banotti: “In terms of human awareness, in short, a sexual relationship with a 12-year-old girl is an act carried out with a 12-year-old girl. If you had such a relationship in Europe, you’d have to admit to raping a girl, wouldn’t you?”
Montanelli: “Yes, in Europe yes, but …”
Banotti: “Exactly, what difference do you think exists from a biological point of view? Or a psychological one, also? ”
Montanelli: “No look, they get married at 12, it’s not a question of … ”
Banotti: “But it’s not a marriage as you describe it, at 12, in Africa. Look, I lived in Africa. Yours was really the violent relationship of the colonialist who came there and took possession of the 12-year-old girl, without absolutely, I guarantee you, taking into account this kind of relationship on the human level. You were the winners, that is the soldiers who did the same things wherever they were winners. (…) History is full of these situations “.
In my opinion, Indio Montanelli – a clever but overrated journalist – was only a little man, basically a scoundrel, and certainly not worthy of being celebrated.
His vileness – even worse than the rape of the African child itself – lies in the fact that 33 years after the events (and for the rest of his life), Montanelli never expressed a doubt, an afterthought, clearly never understood that a kind of behavior that might have once been acceptable, no longer could be considered in the same way.
As we have seen, Montanelli spoke for the first time about his “child wife” in a program by Gianni Bisiach, in 1969. If he had said: “Back then, in 1936, I did not realize that what I was doing was wrong, our racist ideas allowed us to consider African women as inferior beings and our own property. But now, I cannot fail to declare that this way of thinking and my consequent behavior were wrong, that there are no superior races and that all women must be considered our peers and treated with respect,” if not “forgiven,” he could have at least been considered someone who at the time had behaved immorally, even in good faith.
Instead, Montanelli, not only didn’t repent but talked about these events in a smug way, with a smirk on his face. Although thirty years had passed at the time – and even in the following decades, even when writing in Corriere della Sera, on February 12, 2000 – Montanelli failed to show any remorse and, according to all evidence, wasn’t even touched by any doubts concerning his behavior, and seems to claim his past with pride.
In his column, “Montanelli’s Room” published by the Corriere della Sera, the journalist minimized the sexual aspect of his relationship with the Eritrean child and even tried to pass himself off as a victim: “I struggled hard to overcome her stench, due to the goat tallow her hair was soaked in, and even more so to have sex with her because she’d been infibulated at birth: and this, in addition to opposing my desires with an almost insurmountable barrier (a brutal intervention by her mother was necessary to demolish it), rendered her completely numb and unresponsive.”
In short, Montanelli tells us with a wink, that every 15 days he had sex with his slave bought “in leasing,” who performed her “services,” because a man needs to let off steam, hinting that he didn’t do it for pleasure but rather as the duty of an Italian soldier.
Herewith lies the paucity of the character. Certainly, a more intelligent, more sensitive person would have acknowledged the many changes that had taken place even in a society that was originally backward like Italy’s once was, where the so-called “honor killings” had finally been abolished, where there were laws on divorce and the right of women to have an abortion, and would have had the courage and intellectual honesty to acknowledge that he’d been terribly wrong.
Montanelli’s unwavering self-confidence is the result of a never hidden misogyny and a masculine, possessive attitude towards women, which still persists in a large part of the Italian population.
This male-dominated hypocritical attitude is shared by that Sicilian family in which the father viciously beat and raped his lesbian daughter, and by the longtime friend of the three 19-year-old hoodlums who raped a 24-year-old woman in the train station in S. Giorgio a Cremano. And his motivations for defending the three criminals are probably the same ones that prompted their parents to applaud them when they left the police station where they’d been interrogated: “That girl provokes boys from morning to night, have you seen how she dresses?” And “obviously they react as healthy males should,” and in conclusion:” they’re condemning three good guys who go to work.”
The facts of these days tell us that, in Italy, there are still many, far too many, men who literally “love their wives to death.” These men consider their wives and partners as objects that they own, and don’t hesitate to kill them if the women decide to leave.
We need to educate all Italian boys and men so all males learn and recognize that women are people who enjoy the same rights as men, and that women must be able to live independently and (if they like) freely choose a partner with whom to share their lives.
Indro Montanelli, misogynist, rapist, slave owner in 1936 – who never repented or showed any regrets and instead was a complacent witness of his deplorable behavior – cannot be considered a positive example, to inspire future generations and, therefore, worthy of having a statue and a park entitled to his name, in Milan.