The Italian journalist who bought himself a child bride

To what extent can circumstances -- whether historical, social, cultural -- justify violence? And if a violent act is considered acceptable in a given context does that make it okay?

Cinzia Sciuto
Cinzia Sciuto MicroMega, Italy
Source: MicroMega
The Italian journalist who bought himself a child bride - NewsMavens
Statue of Indro Montanelli covered in paint, author photo

Why this story matters:

Recently, feminists smeared a statue of Indro Montanelli, well-known Italian reporter who died in 2001, with (washable) pink paint. The women were alluding to an incident in the life of Montanelli dating back to 1936, when the journalist was in Abyssinia as a lieutenant of the fascist army and married a 12-year-old after buying her from her father. (Some sources report that she was 14, but the essence of the story remains the same.)

Montanelli told the story on several occasions. In an 1986 interview said: "At twelve they were already women there. I bought her in Saganeiti along with a horse and a gun, all for 500 lire. [...] She was a docile animal, I left her in a mud hut with chickens. And then every fifteen days she joined me wherever I was, with the wives of the other askaris." In a previous interview in 1969, he admitted that in Europe he would have considered this as the rape of a child, but not in Africa.

Many criticized the women's protest, outraged that this icon of journalism, who had become a champion of the anti-Berlusconian struggle in the last years of his life, could be insulted in this way.

Many brought up "circumstances" -- it was in Africa, in the 1930s, and the world was a very different place. In Abyssinia it was normal for girls to marry at 14 because life expectancy was thirty years, writes Luca Telese, a journalist who declares himself progressive, leftist and educated by a feminist mother, in a representative article entitled "In defense of the 'racist rapist' Montanelli'".

But if it was (perhaps) "normal" for girls of 12-14 years to be sold as brides to men much older than them, does that mean it was also right? Or, more precisely, does it mean that we cannot be scandalized today by what was normal yesterday? Should we not be scandalized by slavery, which was normal until recently? This is not about projecting decontextualized moral judgments on the past; it's about refusing to use the past as a justification for the unjustifiable. Whether it was normal or not doesn't matter: today we throw a bucket of pink paint at that crime against the dignity of women.

Details from the story:

  • On March 8, in Milan the statue of journalist Indro Montanelli was smeared with pink paint, a gesture claimed by the feminist organization Non Una di Meno.
  • Indro Montanelli (1909-2001) was a well-known Italian journalist, famous for his great professional rigor. After having been editor of "Il Giornale" for years -- which was owned by Berlusconi -- he resigned when the latter entered politics.
  • In 1936 Montanelli joined the army and participated in the Abyssinian campaign. There, by his own admission, he married a girl of 12 (or 14, the precise age was never clarified) after buying her from her father.
  • Montanelli told the story in various interviews, never showing signs of remorse and always justifying his acts by evoking context.
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