Saturday 10/31/20

Being a woman in Italy and in Finland

We have a long road ahead to achieve global gender equality. The World Economic Forum estimates that the goal will be reached in about 100 years from now. In 2020, Finland placed third in the world among the countries closest to bridge the gender gap.

I was born and raised in Italy, one of the most sexist countries in the European Union and ranked down to the 76th place in the global chart (out of 153). Statistics aside, I have personally experienced what sexism meant from tender age.

I experienced sexism as unwanted attention or comments on the street by strangers; as the constant looming threat of violence in public and sometimes private spaces; as abusive boyfriends

Sexism manifested as my parents allowing me less freedom and opportunities than my little brother; as unwanted attention or comments on the street by strangers; as the constant looming threat of violence in public and sometimes private spaces; as abusive boyfriends; as being groped by strangers in bars (seriously, I’ve stopped counting).

As a teenager I fell in love with science, so I naturally found myself in male-dominated environments for years. In the final years of university I often was the only woman in class. Whenever a female teacher held a lecture, my classmates would gossip whose lover she was. Beside this being a disrespectful comment per se, it was never correlated to the teaching skills of the target: they simply assumed that a woman could not have true merit in science or potential to reach any leadership position. They even said it to my face without cerimony: “You’re a girl, you just cannot understand maths”.

The saddest thing, I realise now, is that I grew used to it all. Although I always dismissed remarks by telling myself “I’ll show  them”, I was so soaked in this madness that I had stopped questioning the world could be any different. Sexism at home, sexism at school, sexism among friends. That was simply my reality.

Treated as a human being

In the last year of my master studies I won an Erasmus scholarship to study in Finland. I had selected Finland despite not knowing anything about the country. My other option was Switzerland and I knew I needed to get as far away as possible from home.

Feeling safe and able to enjoy my life without having to look over my shoulder was inebriating and one of the first strong reasons that convinced me to move here permanently

In my first class I rapidly noticed how I wasn’t the only woman in the room. What a change! I connected with few (male) students to join a study group. They behaved very differently than my Italian classmates and at first I blamed it on the different culture.

It took me few days to realise that the difference I felt was that they were treating me… as a human being.

There were no inappropriate jokes, no flirting, no dismissive behaviours or remarks. I started paying attention whenever I walked in the streets: no catcalling, no staring. I went to parties and bars: no groping. I mean, this was the world how it was supposed to be! For the first time in my life I experience feeling safe. Suddenly I felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I realised I had been living on constant alert, like I was under attack. Not anymore. Feeling safe and able to enjoy my life without having to look over my shoulder was inebriating and one of the first strong reasons that convinced me to move here permanently.

I do not want to depict Finland as the paradise of gender equality. Our country has still a long way to go especially in women’s health (which includes gender-based violence) where it rakes only 56th in the world.

Figures are staggering, with 1 in 2 women experiencing sexual or physical violence in their lives (usually from a partner) and elderly women facing high risks of poverty. Without forgetting where we still have work to do, there’s no denying that overall Finland is one of the best places in the world for a woman.

I wish women everywhere would feel as safe as I did and more. I urge everyone not to get cosy in Finland’s high ranking. Let us all work together to achieve gender equality in our society and the whole world world.

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