In Italy, Qaddafi takes page from Berlusconi: Meet with the ladies

On his first trip to the country, the Libyan leader met with 700 women to discuss women's issues. Critics say it's thinly veiled machismo.

Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters
Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi (c.) leaves after a meeting with businesswomen in Rome on Friday.

Before arranging his historic first trip to Italy, Libya's Muammar Qaddafi had one request: to meet the ladies.

On Friday, the visiting African leader met with a group of 700 Italian women, including politicians, businesswomen, and housewives, in order to discuss women's issues.

Mr. Qaddafi, who travels with a stylish corps of female bodyguards, portrays himself as a champion of women's rights – especially in Europe, where, he says, Western culture forces women to turn into men.

But many criticize Qaddafi – much as they do his host, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi – for using women to assert his own authority and influence.

"They are both used to expressing their power through their relationship with women, by being surrounded by them," Gad Lerner, a progressive Italian commentator. "[Qaddafi's visit] sounds to me like another occasion to show off women as an ornament.... He knows he can afford it, since he came to a country where women are so used to being humiliated that they take it for granted."

Italy ranks second-worst among Western European countries for women's rights. And for many critics, Mr. Berlusconi is Exhibit A when it comes to treating women as objects.

The billionaire premier has been under fire from the media – and his wife – for various romantic encounters this year. Last week, a Spanish paper published front-page photos of young, scantily clad women enjoying a Berlusconi-hosted visit to his villa last winter. Meanwhile, the 72-year-old leader faces possible divorce over an alleged affair with a teenager, to whom he reportedly gave a ¤6,000 ($8,400) diamond necklace at her 18th birthday party this spring.

Qaddafi's manifesto: woman and man are equal

Mr. Lerner dismisses Qaddafi's meeting with Italian women on Friday as "a farce." Local and international media, meanwhile, slammed it as "a date."

About 100 Italian and African women wrote a letter saying that they don't want to meet the Libyan leader because of his poor record in human rights, though they didn't mention gender issues specifically.

Human rights organizations report that Libyan authorities often jail women for the "crime" of having been raped – despite Qaddafi's formal condemnation of violence against women. (To view Human Rights Watch's report, click here.)

Qaddafi's political manifesto, written in 1975, states that "woman and man are equal as human beings" and that "discrimination against woman by man is a flagrant act of oppression without justification."

But it also says that women's primarily role is to bear children, condemning both contraception and women working in male-dominated fields: "Driving woman to do man's work is a flagrant aggression against the femininity". (Click here to read more from his manifesto about his philosophy on women and family.)

Nevertheless, the Libyan leader introduced the drafting of women into the armed forces, and, during the 40 years of his rule, female employment rose from 6 percent to 20 percent.

Equal Opportunity minister: former nude model

Similarly, Berlusconi has a mixed record on women's rights. When asked why his party did not have many women in powerful positions, he said it was difficult to find "good ladies willing to leave their husband to attend Parliament sessions." But in 2004, he also introduced the first mandatory quotas for women in electoral lists.

Last year, Berlusconi raised some eyebrows when he appointed as "Equal Opportunity minister" Mara Carfagna, a former nude model.

To some, Ms. Carfagna, who is hosting the women's conference with Qaddafi, embodies the contradiction of female imagery in modern Italy.

Last winter she sponsored a law making prostitution a crime. " I am disgusted by the very idea that a woman may use her body for profit," she explained.

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