In her new novel, Italian writer Viola Ardone takes us through an incredibly revolting ancestral law that has long plagued the lives of women in her country.
With The Children's Train, her previous novel, Viola Ardone had hit hard, very hard. And now with The choice, she does it again by seizing another frankly overwhelming historical reality. Did you know that until the early 1980s, a man who raped a woman in Italy could get away with it if he then proposed marriage to her?
“It may seem absurd, but Law 544, which extinguishes the crime of kidnapping and sexual assault if the victim agrees to marry the rapist, was created to 'protect' women, explains Viola Ardone, who lives in Naples, a city she adores. Indeed, it was thought that a woman deprived of her “honour” and her virginity was no longer fit for marriage and was therefore condemned to a life of solitude, on the margins of society. This is why many women agreed to marry the man who had raped them: because they knew they had no other choice. I have not personally met women who have had this experience, but it seems to me that this law (abolished in 1981) still influences certain macho and violent behavior in my country. To write this book, I collected testimonies from women victims of violence and abuse and I realized that from this point of view, little has changed between yesterday and today: women are still considered a prey, like an object to be possessed and subdued by force.”
No to ancestral traditions
Oliva Denaro — an anagram of Viola Ardone — lives in a small Sicilian village where everyone knows each other and where it's nearly impossible to take a wrong step without anyone noticing. This is also one of the reasons why she would have liked to be a boy. As soon as you are born a girl, there is no way to do what you want. And from the moment you become a woman, a bunch of new rules to follow are added: never walk the streets alone, no longer wear skirts cut above the knee, do not look men in the eye , etc.
At the beginning of the 1960s, when she was just beginning to have curves, Oliva did well in spite of herself to attract the attention of Pino Paternò, the son of the pastry chef… who was anything but a good pastry. His advances leave her unmoved? Never mind. The guy will not hesitate to kidnap her and rape her. Because after that, she will be forced to accept him as a husband.
But supported by her father, she will flatly refuse to follow this path.
“Oliva Denaro, it's me, Viola Ardone, specifies the writer. Even though her story takes place in the 1960s, she looks a lot like me: she has the same shyness, the same little quirks, the same insecurities that I had at 15. I felt ugly, clumsy, I was afraid of other people's eyes and at the same time I wanted it. Oliva experiences Pino Paternò's attentions first as flattery, then gradually uneasily as they become more inappropriate and harassing. When he forcibly removes her, she feels guilty for rejoicing in his interest in the first place. This strikes me as an important point in the discourse of consent: a woman can say no at any point in a relationship, even after initially agreeing to date a man. Oliva's friends scold her and remind her of the village proverb: “The woman who smiles says yes.”
“I wrote this book to research the causes of the situation of women in my country in the recent past,” continues Viola Ardone. Almost every day, there are cases of “feminicides”, that is to say women often killed by their partner or ex-partner for reasons of jealousy and possessiveness. Women are still victims of violence and abuse, insults and prejudice. I wondered if it had to do with the fact that, until 40 years ago, men could take a wife by force, protected by law.”
“In the novel , I am also talking about another terrible law that was abolished in 1981, with that of “repairing marriage”. This was called the “honor killing”: if a man discovered that his wife was cheating on him, he was authorized to kill her to regain her honor, the law granting him very strong mitigating circumstances and a derisory sentence. . These two laws, in other words, protected sexual violence and femicide. Today, fortunately, they no longer exist, but in the mentality of people, something may have remained. The mentality is slow to change.”