Questioning power in view of the rising role of women in the Italian mafia

Temps de lecture : 13 minutes

16.06.2022

Written by  Emma Montron

Translated by Jessica Norbert

The gradual evolution of women’s power within the mafia hierarchy, and more specifically within the Italian mafia, will be the topic. The mafia here refers to “a rich and powerful economic and social actor with multiple activities (…) that uses illicit means to serve its interests”[1]Definition by the Encyclopaedia Universalis.. The mafia organization is tainted with social representations which consequently condition the relationship to power of the individuals who constitute it. Therefore, we will question this aspect within the Italian mafia, under the prism of gender studies to try to highlight some of its specificities. According to Laure Bereni and Catherine Achin[2]Sociologist and researcher at CNRS., the notion of gender is defined as “a relationship, embedded in other social relationships (of class, of “race”) and which presents a critical dimension. It refers to the process of bi categorization into male/female and the values associated with it (masculine/feminine)”[3]Navarre Maud, « Catherine Achin, Laure Bereni (dir.), Dictionnaire genre et science politique », Lectures..

The Gender representations in Italian mafia

 The Italian mafia is shaped by the individuals who compose it as much as it shapes them. Belonging to such an environment inevitably implies being subject to someone’s power or holding power over others. The mafia resembles a microcosm[4]“Person, group of people, object, place constituting a kind of universe in reduction on the cultural, social or ideological level,” Definition of “microcosm,” CNRTL website. in which gender representations are prevalent. The relation between the notions of “women” and “violence”, which often appear to be incompatible, is the result of the entrenchment of these gender stereotypes within the mafia. Indeed, women are generally perceived, firstly, as the victims of violence. It is not uncommon that archival footage show women, mothers, sisters crying, screaming their pain at the tragic, but predictable death of one of their family members. In the film[5]Véron Anne, « Des femmes dans la mafia », YouTube channel Toute l’histoire, Published on March 5th, 2017 by A. Véron[6]French-Italian director and author of numerous documentaries regarding the mafia, the photographer L. Battaglia mentions behaviours that she describes as both a demonstration of pain and “deep resignation in the face of death”[7]Words of Letizia Battaglia collected in the above-mentioned film by Anne Véron. . These many scenes of grieving widows, shattered wives and broken mothers have contributed to the entrenchment of a belief: women are the primary victims of the mafia and cannot be anything other than victims. The researchers F. Allum[8]Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Bath in the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies. and I. Marchi[9]Researcher in the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies, University of Bath. highlight it: “Women were not considered directly responsible for crimes; they were perceived by the judiciary, by the police but also by civil society in general, as unable to commit crimes or to have criminal intent because of their gender”[10]Original quote: « Women were not considered directly responsible for crimes; they were perceived by the judiciary, by the police but also by civil society in general (see Longrigg 1998), as unable … Continue reading . This is in fact what the magistrate M. Sabella[11]Marzia Sabella. In the framework of the Women and Mafia Laboratory, organised by Professor Simona Laudani of the University of Catania. mentions in her work on the elements which, during the 20th century, “marked the process of invisibilisation of women (especially when they are linked to mafia associations) in Italian justice”[12]Tiziano Peccia, « Transgressions de genre dans les organisations mafieuses en Italie », Les cahiers du CEDREF [Online], 24 | 2020, Published on June 15th, 2020.

This weakness that the female sex would have in committing a crime would automatically distance them from the phenomena that they nevertheless encounter on a daily basis. The assignment of this status of “victims of the mafia” is also linked to the violence inherent in this environment. The so-called “men of honour” exercise a very brutal violence, essential element of the mafia DNA. The grip exerted on individuals, and the power that derives from it, therefore goes through violence. At the same time, the figure of the family mother is very strong in Italy, and in the mafia. Indeed, T. Peccia, a doctoral student in sociology and gender at the University of Paris, explains in particular that “Mafia associations have historically taken advantage of this invisibilisation[13]Legal invisibilisation in particular. of women and have often contributed to fueling it through the exaltation of the social roles of mothers and wives[14]Tiziano Peccia, « Transgressions de genre dans les organisations mafieuses en Italie », Les cahiers du CEDREF [Online], 24 | 2020, Published on June 15th, 2020. . This supports the idea that there is a gap between the figure of the matriarch and that of the perpetrator of clan violence.

One element can explain the persistence of this idea: the men are inducted into the Mafia after a ceremony, while the women, without having been concerted, are directly affiliated to it by their father or their husband. According to logical reasoning, how could a woman commission a murder and therefore be charged when she does not even enter this baptism of enthronement? The inherent gender assignments inevitably influence the view of women’s relationship with violence.

It would seem that women of mafia clans are not directly targeted by this physical violence that characterizes[15]We will not dwell here on the issue of psychological violence or other forms of violence that women may experience within the mafia environment as this is not our focus. them, at least not in the context of the close family clan. However, arrests of members of mafia clans can compromise this unspoken rule. Indeed, from the moment a man is likely to find himself behind bars, two possibilities are open to relatives and particularly to women: to protect or to betray. Betrayal is considered a real infamy, however difficult the situation may be for those who remain. Proof of this is the archive images[16]Véron Anne, « Des femmes dans la mafia », YouTube channel Toute l’histoire, published on March 5th, 2017.  showing a more or less theatrical staging, that took place during the 1986 mega trials in Palermo, where nine women on a balcony scream at their relatives in prison not to crack, not to repent and not to collaborate. People who betray the mafia pay the high price. The repentant S. Contorno[17]Salvatore Contorno, Salvatore Contorno, former mafioso who betrayed the mafia. is one example: 35 relatives of his family were murdered by the Sicilian mafia as punishment for collaborating with the authorities and allowing the arrest of 127 criminals[18]Padovani Marcelle, « Mafia italienne : le crépuscule des repentis », L’OBS, October 14th, 2011. . Sometimes it happens that women, who often find themselves alone with their children, also choose to collaborate with the justice system, exposing themselves to serious consequences. The case of R. Atria is a good illustration, since her 1991 deposition in Partanna, Sicily, was a bombshell: it revealed a lot of valuable information about the internal workings of the mafia. It was the murders of her father in 1985 and her brother in 1991 that led her to consider collaborating with the justice system. At that time, a woman could not avenge the death of a father, husband or brother as a man would have done, so collaboration with the justice system was considered as revenge, although it was not perceived as such by the family of the repentant[19]Véron Anne, « Des femmes dans la mafia », YouTube channel Toute l’histoire, published on March 5th, 2017. . This portrait allows to understand this “infamy” as a powerful symbolic act. The choice to denounce is by far the riskiest, and although it does not fit directly into her clan, R. Atria held a form of power, at a given moment, within the mafia system.

The gendered representations assigned to women have constituted shackles that have kept them in predefined places. The female exceptions don’t seem to be numerous enough to be talked about, at least for the time being. While a man will have to prove himself through blood, through arms, the path will be different for a woman. This difference can be linked to the fact that the goals and ambitions are not the same, although this is only one of many explanations. From an early age, a boy will be told that he must be strong and prove himself to be able to become a significant man within his clan. The women led to lead clans and mafia trafficking did not consider it as such: they did so by force of circumstance. Their management has demonstrated capabilities quite equivalent to those of their male counterparts in ordering violence and organizing all the illegal activities inherent in the mafia identity. However, we remain in the sphere of ‘saying’ and not ‘doing’. The henchmen, those who carry out these orders, are all still men.

However, when it comes to retaliation, no gender is safe from the inevitable vendetta that will follow. The mafia’s hold on individuals is deeply entrenched and keeps them all in defined roles and representations.

The unsuspected power of women, intermediary links within the mafia

In line with the family attachment that is inseparable from Italian society as a whole, the role of the mother of the family, the ‘mamma’, is very important within the mafia clans. Apart from the internal wars, the mafia can be considered as a conglomerate of families united by common values. Within the Italian national framework, there are three Italian mafias: “Ndrangheta”, the Calabrian branch which values blood ties more than the others with “still deeply rooted traditions”[20]Ibid. , “Cosa Nostra”[21]Can be translated as “what is ours”, “our thing”. , the Sicilian mafia, described as a “territory mafia”[22]Quillet Lucie, « La mafia ne pourrait pas exister sans les femmes », Madame Figaro, June 2nd, 2015. where women have a greater role within the clan, and “Camorra”, the Neapolitan mafia, more open to the emancipation and participation of women[23]Ibid. , in all proportion to traditions.

In the intimate family circle, mothers instill these traditions in children. They raise them by insisting on the elements of the mafia culture: respect for the family, the prohibition on collaborating with the justice system, the importance of the vendetta[24]“In certain Mediterranean regions (Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily), pursuit of revenge for an offering or a murder, which is transmitted to all the relatives of the victim”, definition by … Continue reading . The Franco-Italian director A. Véron[25]Franco-Italian director, author of numerous documentaries dealing with the Mafia. even qualifies them as “guarantors of the mafia culture”[26]Ibid. since they have the responsibility of training the young people who will take over from the old generation, the way of the mafia being the only possible one. This responsibility is akin to the power to shape minds, and makes them indispensable within the mafia, making them crucial intermediary links between those who currently wield power and those who will wield it in the future. In a 2015 interview, A. Véron summarized the life pattern of a woman in the Mafia: “Women marry very young, around 16 years old. Soon their husbands are murdered or go to prison. They find themselves alone at 25 with children and must respect a code of honor which forbids them to rebuild their lives “[27]Ibid. There is a real control of privacy and very strict rules to respect.

If we extend the reflection to the framework of the village or town, women are endowed with a real power of representation. They constitute a sort of ‘window of normality’ behind which the clan never ceases to hide in order to act with complete impunity. The women act in such a way that their family fits in with the rest of the inhabitants and blend in.

In the same way that women act as a screen in society, they also help ensure the stability and security of heritage. Indeed, since there is a large gap between the number of women and men in prison, the latter have gradually handed over to the former the reins of the various criminal organizations. According to A. Dino[28]Alessandra Dino, Professor of Forensic Sociology at the University of Palermo. “the number of such women is still low but increasing. In 1989, only one mafia-related indictment was filed against a woman. In 1995, there were 89”[29]Original quote: «The number of such women is still low, but increasing. In 1989, only one mafia-related indictment was filed against a woman. In 1995, there were 89. The increase is due to a change … Continue reading . The article[30]Siebert Renate, « L’émergence d’un protagonisme féminin dans les mafias en Italie. Production sociale d’un « pseudo-sujet féminin », 2004. by R. Siebert[31]Professor of sociology at the University of Calabria. Her article was translated by Virginie Karniewicz. presents three phases of evolution concerning the image of mafia women in Italy. The third period, which begins around 1996-1997, marks a real turning point concerning the role of women within the mafia system. The latter appear in the media – no longer to demand the release of their family members – but because they are the subject of criminal charges.

If we look at more recent figures, dating from the end of December 2018, we see that “2.5% of people convicted of crimes linked to the Mafia in Italy are women, yet they own a third of assets of organizations”[32]Chokoualé Datou Malaurie, « Les femmes ont-elles pris le pouvoir dans la mafia italienne ? », Ulyces, July 10th, 2019. . Ultimately, it would seem preferable for women to be officially recognized as managers of family companies, because they find themselves more rarely imprisoned than men. According to Mr. Ricardi[33]Researcher at TransCrime, Center for Research on Transnational Crime at Cattolica del Sacro Cuore University in Milan. , the women of these families “represent the ideal proxy, because they usually have a less relevant criminal history (…) and, if they are family, they allow the clan to keep control of the company in-house”[34]Original quote: “They represent the ideal proxy because they usually have a less relevant criminal history, due-diligence monitoring has a hard time spotting them, and, if they are family, they … Continue reading . Thus, there are; “4 times more women shareholders than in the legal economy”[35]Chokoualé Datou Malaurie, « Les femmes ont-elles pris le pouvoir dans la mafia italienne ? », Ulyces, July 10th, 2019. and if we go into a little more detail “among the companies confiscated from the mafias, the restaurant and hotel sector has 52% women shareholders[36]According to an ongoing study by TransCrime that has not yet been published. , followed by wholesale and retail trade (38%), transport (37.8%) and construction (28.5%)”[37]Original quote: “Among the companies confiscated from Italy’s mafias, those in the restaurant and hospitality sectors have the highest proportion of female shareholders (52%), according to … Continue reading .

The rise of women to the top of the mafia hierarchy

“One day a victim, the next day a criminal”[38]Véron Anne, « Des femmes dans la mafia », YouTube channel Toute l’histoire, published on March 5th, 2017. . This formula by L. Battaglia allows to make the transition between the woman perceived as a victim of the mafia and the “woman of honor”. The elements we have just mentioned highlight the multiplicity of roles that women are able to exercise.

There is no lack of examples of women who have exercised power within the clans: R. Atria, N. Bagarella, A. Mazza or even M. Di Trapani. However, we will focus on a specific course, that of G. Vitale. The arrest of her brother in 1998 led her to take over the leadership of the clan. She is considered trustworthy by her peers because she was the one who conveyed the messages of her brothers during their run. The “boss in a skirt” then became someone important and respected. For C. Costanzo[39]Co-author of Ero cosa loro (“I was their thing”), a book about the so-called “first godmother in history” (Guisy Vitale). , “power management is not a question of sex, but of charisma and will. It is the case for G. Vitale, a woman who is perfectly capable of taking on this role, courageous and inclined to command”[40]Heuzé Richard, « Les femmes s’imposent à la tête de la mafia », Le Figaro, September 3rd, 2009. . She organizes drug trafficking and murders and consequently becomes “Capo Mandamento”[41]“Head of the region” : this function makes her the boss of the region. She is respected as much as a man and her authority is not questioned. However, it appears that, in order to be respected as a man,

Paradoxically, despite being the head of the clan, G. Vitale could not access the various clan meetings without being accompanied by a man. Her hold on the clan for a few months ended when she was arrested the same year. After four years in prison, she ended up collaborating with the justice system in 2005. The researcher O. Ingrascì[42]Researcher at the University of Milan, Department of International, Legal, Historical and Political Studies.  highlights an argument contrary to the one previously mentioned because for her, “the detention of the male boss” is a “basic precondition for a woman to assume a significant operational power within the mafia clan. This power is therefore “delegated and temporary”, and only lasts as long as the incarceration of the boss”[43]Original quote: “Some might see this trend as a type of female emancipation in the criminal world, but Ombretta Ingrascì, a researcher and author of several books about the role of women in … Continue reading .

Women’s kinship with clan leaders contributes to the closeness between them and power. Being part of the entourage of the men of honour increases a woman’s chances of reaching the ultimate level of power. Being at the top of the hierarchy involves ordering violence, ordering other members of the mafia clan to kill individuals. When women occupy this position of power, they are led to give these same orders to other men. But there is never any question of women carrying out the orders of a leader. They can therefore be the holders of decision-making power over violence, but not of execution. The writings of sociologists Coline Cardi and Geneviève Pruvost are in line with this idea. In their book[44]Penser la violence des femmes, 2012 , they write: “To think about about women’s violence means coming up against the combination of two epistemological obstacles: the definition of violence, on the one hand, and the implicit sexuation of the phenomenon, on the other. The implicit gendering of violence is reflected in a postulate: violence is male. While a man can prove his strength, value and virility through violence, a woman will be stigmatized from the outset and explanations will be sought to justify her behavior. Violence exerted by women is defined by sociologists as “outside framework” violence: as a kind of “denial” which would repress female violence and deny its existence. Men would therefore have something extra: the execution of violence.

This detour may provide a lead of explanation for the instability of women in power. This idea that they would be incapable of violence, unlike a man, would weaken their power and by extension, the influence they could have over the rest of the mafia clan.

Conclusion

Addressing predefined social roles according to gender was an important step in contextualizing the place of women in Italian mafia clans. Once their status as ‘victims’ is overcome, it turns out that women have their own importance and missions within the mafia organization. Whether through their role as mothers or as intermittent managers of the family business, they appear essential to the functioning and continuity of the clans. We can only note the unsuspected power of women, as an intermediary link in the organization. Moreover, this analysis shows that women have sometimes succeeded in reaching the top of the Italian mafia hierarchy. Although this remains occasional, temporary and possible due to the blood bond existing between them and the men they replace.

Bibliography

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To cite this article: Emma Montron, “Questioning power in view of the rising role of women in the Italian mafia”, 16.06.2022, Gender Institute in Geopolitics.

The views expressed in this paper are solely those of the author. 

References

References
1 Definition by the Encyclopaedia Universalis.
2 Sociologist and researcher at CNRS.
3 Navarre Maud, « Catherine Achin, Laure Bereni (dir.), Dictionnaire genre et science politique », Lectures.
4 “Person, group of people, object, place constituting a kind of universe in reduction on the cultural, social or ideological level,” Definition of “microcosm,” CNRTL website.
5 Véron Anne, « Des femmes dans la mafia », YouTube channel Toute l’histoire, Published on March 5th, 2017
6 French-Italian director and author of numerous documentaries regarding the mafia
7 Words of Letizia Battaglia collected in the above-mentioned film by Anne Véron.
8 Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Bath in the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies.
9 Researcher in the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies, University of Bath.
10 Original quote: « Women were not considered directly responsible for crimes; they were perceived by the judiciary, by the police but also by civil society in general (see Longrigg 1998), as unable to commit crimes or to have criminal intent because of their gender. », Allum Felia et Marchi Irène, « Analyzing the Role of Women in Italian Mafias: The Case of the Neapolitan Camorra », Springer Link, August 7th, 2018.
11 Marzia Sabella. In the framework of the Women and Mafia Laboratory, organised by Professor Simona Laudani of the University of Catania.
12 Tiziano Peccia, « Transgressions de genre dans les organisations mafieuses en Italie », Les cahiers du CEDREF [Online], 24 | 2020, Published on June 15th, 2020.
13 Legal invisibilisation in particular.
14 Tiziano Peccia, « Transgressions de genre dans les organisations mafieuses en Italie », Les cahiers du CEDREF [Online], 24 | 2020, Published on June 15th, 2020.
15 We will not dwell here on the issue of psychological violence or other forms of violence that women may experience within the mafia environment as this is not our focus.
16, 19, 38 Véron Anne, « Des femmes dans la mafia », YouTube channel Toute l’histoire, published on March 5th, 2017.
17 Salvatore Contorno, Salvatore Contorno, former mafioso who betrayed the mafia.
18 Padovani Marcelle, « Mafia italienne : le crépuscule des repentis », L’OBS, October 14th, 2011.
20, 23, 26 Ibid.
21 Can be translated as “what is ours”, “our thing”.
22 Quillet Lucie, « La mafia ne pourrait pas exister sans les femmes », Madame Figaro, June 2nd, 2015.
24 “In certain Mediterranean regions (Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily), pursuit of revenge for an offering or a murder, which is transmitted to all the relatives of the victim”, definition by Larousse.
25 Franco-Italian director, author of numerous documentaries dealing with the Mafia.
27 Ibid
28 Alessandra Dino, Professor of Forensic Sociology at the University of Palermo.
29 Original quote: «The number of such women is still low, but increasing. In 1989, only one mafia-related indictment was filed against a woman. In 1995, there were 89. The increase is due to a change in approach by prosecutors toward female criminals”, Bordero Lorenzo, “The Rise and Fall of Mafia Women”, OCCRP (Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project), April 26th, 2019.
30 Siebert Renate, « L’émergence d’un protagonisme féminin dans les mafias en Italie. Production sociale d’un « pseudo-sujet féminin », 2004.
31 Professor of sociology at the University of Calabria. Her article was translated by Virginie Karniewicz.
32, 35 Chokoualé Datou Malaurie, « Les femmes ont-elles pris le pouvoir dans la mafia italienne ? », Ulyces, July 10th, 2019.
33 Researcher at TransCrime, Center for Research on Transnational Crime at Cattolica del Sacro Cuore University in Milan.
34 Original quote: “They represent the ideal proxy because they usually have a less relevant criminal history, due-diligence monitoring has a hard time spotting them, and, if they are family, they allow the clan to keep the control of the company in-house.”, Bordero Lorenzo, « The Rise and Fall of Mafia Women », OCCRP (Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project), April 26th, 2019.
36 According to an ongoing study by TransCrime that has not yet been published.
37 Original quote: “Among the companies confiscated from Italy’s mafias, those in the restaurant and hospitality sectors have the highest proportion of female shareholders (52%), according to ongoing research by TransCrime that is still unpublished. It is followed by wholesale and retail trades (38%), transport (37,8%) and constructions (28,5%)”, Chokoualé Datou Malaurie, « Les femmes ont-elles pris le pouvoir dans la mafia italienne ? », Ulyces, July 10th, 2019.
39 Co-author of Ero cosa loro (“I was their thing”), a book about the so-called “first godmother in history” (Guisy Vitale).
40 Heuzé Richard, « Les femmes s’imposent à la tête de la mafia », Le Figaro, September 3rd, 2009.
41 “Head of the region”
42 Researcher at the University of Milan, Department of International, Legal, Historical and Political Studies.
43 Original quote: “Some might see this trend as a type of female emancipation in the criminal world, but Ombretta Ingrascì, a researcher and author of several books about the role of women in Italian mafias, says it really isn’t “The detention of the male boss is the basic precondition for a woman to assume meaningful and operative power within the mafia clan,” she wrote in an email interview. That power is therefore “delegated and temporary,” and lasts only as long as the incarceration of the boss.”, Bordero Lorenzo, “The Rise and Fall of Mafia Women”, OCCRP (Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project), April 26th,2019.
44 Penser la violence des femmes, 2012