‘Wretched’ and ‘humilated’? Writing agency into history

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Stefania Sandrelli as Agnese in the 1964 film ‘Seduced and Abandoned’

Despite having probably hundreds of ideas that I meant to blog about I have written barely anything for this blog lately. Partly that’s because I’ve been busily writing up my research and trying to cobble together the first draft of a book manuscript. However as I begin to revise some of those chapters, I’m thinking again about how I approach the people I research and write about.

During the summer I spent some time researching and writing about honour crime and forced marriages in 1960s Sicily. I’m still hoping to blog about that research more soon. However at the moment I’m reflecting more generally on the Sicilian women I encounter in my research and how I can capture their subjective experiences in my writing.

Honour is a subject that looms large in my work on courtship, marriage and gender in Sicily. A concept that still prevailed particularly among some groups in rural Sicily at least up to the 1950s, a woman’s honour was measured by her sexual chastity. It was not just the woman herself who was affected by honour; The loss of it affected her family too. A young woman who was ‘dishonoured’ could damage the marriage prospects of unmarried siblings. Women’s honour was thus protected by the men in their lives; whether husbands, fathers or brothers. Women’s behaviour and dress was strictly circumscribed and transgressions could be punished or avenged with blood. This is how the honour system is described by numerous anthropologists who worked on Sicily and the broader Mediterranean region between the 1920s and the 1980s.

My work examines how this system began to break down in the 1960s as national and international media attention was drawn to the plight of Sicilian women by several controversial cases of so-called honour crime and forced marriages. The most famous of these was the case of Franca Viola who is known as the first Sicilian woman to refuse a marriage with her kidnapper and rapist thus leading to his prosecution under Italian law. One of the immediate effects of the case was that it created an awareness of the continued prevalence of the honour system in some areas of Sicily and the social condition of Sicilian women, both in Sicily and outside. A glance at the Sicilian media reveals a determination to reject such attitudes even if legal reform only came much later.

As I look back over what I’ve written on honour and changing attitudes towards marriage and gender in Sicily, I’m not sure how well I’ve managed to do justice to the subjective experiences of Sicilian women in this story. I’ve used a number of different sources, all with different perspectives on the social condition of Sicilian women.

Studies by American anthropologists, mainly written between the 1950s and 1970s, mainly stress the rigid patriarchal system that defined the lives of local women, and the continuing symbolic and social currency of honour.  A study of Sicilian women by a woman Lieta Harrison born to English parents and brought up in Sicily, entitled Le Svergognate (The Dishonoured) and translated into English as The Wantons, was published in 1963. Written and packaged in sensationalist, outraged tones, the book aimed to open the eyes of national and international eyes to the miserable, barbaric and repressed state of Sicilian women.

Wantons

Several Italian films from the 1960s also took up the cause of Italian women. One of the best known of these, seduced and abandoned, dramatized the story of Agnese who was raped by her sister’s fiancé peppino and then forced into marriage with him. Melodramatic scenes depicted her locked in her bedroom, hair dishevelled to highlight her distraught, semi-crazed state. The final scenes of the film depicted her, after an initial refusal to marry Peppino, delirious and bedridden before a final capitulation and an elaborate white wedding in a cathedral. These contemporary sources paint Sicilian women as helpless victims of their cruel fate; while they were expected to be passive, they might sometimes rail against their circumstances but could never expect to win.

Agnese in Seduced and Abandoned (1964)

Agnese in Seduced and Abandoned (1964)

More recent sources by historians stress women’s agency, while not denying the presence of the honour system. Mainly looking at an earlier period, they stress that while women were restricted to the private domestic sphere, they were still involved in neighborhood networks and support systems and could be significant economic actors, whether through household management, paid sewing or embroidery work or running a shop or tavern from the home.

Recent histories then stress agency at least for an earlier period, while contemporary sources from the 1950s and 1960s highlight misery, repression, submission. Even the few memoirs I have found by Sicilian women themselves stress oppression, rigid gender roles and lack of opportunity for women. Most of them had left Sicily. I think the tone of these sources is explained at least in part by the social and cultural climate of the 1960s themselves; Italian society was changing rapidly as the result of the post-war economic miracle. With migration and urbanization, came changes in family structure, gender roles and in the 1970s, the rise of Italian feminism. In such a rapidly changing society, the traditional, patriarchal structure of Sicilian society was undoubtedly thrown into much greater relief. The tone of newspaper articles, films and memoirs seem to be characterized by an impatience that society wasn’t changing fast enough in some parts of Italy.

It is undoubtedly true however that honour crime and forced marriages continued to exist at least into the 1960s. Some scholars remind us that honour crime was sensational but rare. However it is also true that the vast majority of forced marriages were never reported to the authorities and are thus impossible to trace. The vast majority of gender and intimate partner violence still goes unreported today. The strong patriarchal culture of 1960s Sicily, coupled with the suspicion Sicilians generally held for the Italian police force and legal system, made the reporting of such crimes even less likely then.

I am left wondering: where as a historian should I position myself when examining the experiences of 1960s Sicilian women? I can point out the cultural biases that inform much of the media coverage in the 1960s, but I can’t deny that women were repressed and treated cruelly by a harsh patriarchal system. While critiquing the limited perspectives of others, I can never fully escape my own twenty-first century lens. And while I can unpick the racist overtones of the northern Italian journalist who described forced marriages as ‘tribal’ and ‘barbaric’, I do think these practices are barbaric myself. Between media coverage from the 1960s and memoirs written retrospectively by Sicilian women who left behind what they saw as a backward and repressive society, I am still no closer to discerning how Sicilian women themselves regarded their own daily lives in the 1960s.

The fact that historians of the nineteenth century stress agency, while the sources that I examine for the 1960s stress repression, passivity and cruel treatment, also lead me to questions about periodization, and how we think about the periods we study. Historians who interpret the nineteenth century are writing in response to those who characterize Sicilian women as passive and oppressed; when I come to examine the 1950s and 1960s, I am encountering a society that is changing rapidly and that is in horror of all that does not seem ‘modern’, from donkeys to women in black shawls. How a period of time is viewed or characterized is always coloured by another, limited lens. As a historian who is distant in both time and space to the people I am attempting to understand, how can I write about them in a way that acknowledges the realities of gender violence and oppression, but does not reduce them to passive or hysterical victims?

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