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The Mafias – Critic’s corner


Mafia Women: Agents of a two-pronged change

by Ombretta Ingrascì (Università Statale di Milano)

Looking at the role of women in the Sicilian and the Calabrian mafias (Cosa nostra and ʼndrangheta) allows us to grasp the peculiar way in which these criminal organizations have interacted with social changes[1]. Furthermore, it allows us to overcome a static  representation of the Mezzogiorno and to provide a more dynamic and contradictory one. Mafia women have not only played a traditional role in the private sphere, both domestic and familiar, but have also been agents of change: a change in continuity, by employing roles which had formerly been the exclusive prerogative of men; and a transformative change by turning state’s evidence .

The first kind of change hides a traditional pattern, according to which the mafia on the one hand adapts itself to external changes (such as female emancipation) by exploiting them, on the other hand it maintains those traditional aspects which are mostly beneficial to the mafia itself (such as female subordination). Since the 1970s, women have been utilized in those areas that needed trustworthy workforce, including drug trafficking, money laundering, and running mafia clans while men were at large or in prison. Nonetheless, such involvement has never been formally acknowledged, insofar that women are still forbidden affiliation to the so called onorata società. Moreover, female power is delegated and temporary. Above all, male violence continues to characterize gender relations within mafia families.

The second kind of change has instead been triggered by those women who collaborate with the state. This is an innovative pattern, since it interrupts the previous one, which is the product of a process concealing an underpinning continuity. Mafia women, when able to exit the male-oriented and chauvinistic mafia world and break the chains of subordination, claim their autonomy and freedom of choice, and show that they are able to take advantage of the emancipatory influences received from the wider society.

An interesting example of the first kind of change is the story of Laura (this is a pseudonym) who in 1994, following the arrest of her brothers – bosses of an important mafia area of Palermo in Sicily – took up the reins of her criminal family. During prison talks, Laura’s brothers gave her orders via a secret code or via gesture-talk, in order to allow the bosses to keep administrating their territory and to preserve their illicit profits. For this purpose, Laura maintained relations with figureheads, and managed the sale of real estate and the video-poker business. She used the income for various expenses, such as the salaries of the associates and the financial support of her sister-in-laws. Laura had the capability and the know-how to carry on the important roles entrusted to her by her brothers. In order to re-invest the mafia group assets, she moved to the French Riviera, where she fell in love with a Syrian doctor. When her brothers discovered the relationship, they sent her a letter from prison to communicate their disapproval. After a while Laura decided to end her relationship.

Giuseppina Pesce, instead, is an interesting example of the second kind of change. Belonging to an important ʼndrangheta family, she decided to cooperate with the judiciary. In a letter to the magistrate she motivates her decision as follows:

On 14 October 2010 I expressed my intention of undertaking this path, moved by the love of a mother and by my desire to live a better life myself, away from the environment in which we have been raised. I was and am convinced that this was the right choice, given that, because of the life choices of our relatives, we have always been marked by a life of sufferance and difficulty and most of all by the lack of courage for fear of consequences. Instead, anyone of us should have had the power to do and to choose what is good and what is wrong. I should have done this myself, before being dragged in certain situations, but I was not able to do that. However, I hope to still have enough time and to be able to do it for my three children, so that they can have a better life, made of principles and freedom of choice (…) I have found the strength to take such an important decision against a very feared and powerful family which is unlikely to forgive me, being aware of the risk for myself and the people who will be close to me, but at the end I did it . […] I also hope that many people like me who happen to be in the same situation, find the courage to rebel.

Laura’s story of life tells us of a woman who is formally emancipated – she travels, she is learned, she speaks English – but who lives under her brothers’ strict control. Her story indicates that changes in the sexual division of labour within the mafia are the product of a mere process of ‘pseudo-emancipation’. Contrastingly, Giusy’s story is an example of true emancipation. In other words, her decision of collaborating with judges was a choice of liberation. Her decision had positive consequences in generational transmission, because it has interrupted the passing down of mafia ‘values’.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that the condition of women within the mafia has changed in the last thirty years. However, it is important to distinguish the two directions of such transformation. The ‘lady-boss’ shows a re-actualization of the male conservatism typical of the mafia system; while the pentita reveals a deep and progressive transformative process able to bring along new hopes on  the anti-mafia frontline.

[1] There is ample literature on this subject. The following studies are particularly worth of mention: Women and the Mafia: Female Roles in Organised Crime Structure, ed. G. Fiandaca (New York: Springer, 2007); Ombretta Ingrascì, Donne d’onore. Storie di mafia al femminile (Milan: Mondadori, 2007); Giovanna Fiume, ‘Making Women Visible in the History of the Mezzogiorno’, in The American South and the Italian Mezzogiorno, eds. Dal Lago and Halpernn (London: Palgrave, 2002); Id., ‘Chi sono donne nella mafia?’, Meridiana. Rivista di Storia e Scienze Sociali 7-8 (1990): 293-302; Claire Longrigg, Mafia Women (London: Vintage, 1998); Liliana Madeo, Donne di mafia. Vittime, complici, protagoniste (Milan: Baldini & Castoldi, 1997); Id., ‘Mafia donna’, Meridiana. Rivista di Storia e Scienze Sociali 67 (2011); Teresa Principato and Alessandra Dino, Mafia donna. Le vestali del sacro e dell’onore (Palermo: Flaccovio, 1997); Anna Puglisi, Donne, mafia e antimafia (Palermo: Centro siciliano di documentazione Giuseppe Impastato, Appunti 7-8, 1998); Renate Siebert, Secrets of Life and Death: Women and the Mafia (London and New York: Verso Books, 1996).

Ombretta Ingrascì holds a Ph.D. in History from Queen Mary College, University of London. She is a member of the Antimafia Committee of the City of Milan and vice-director of the Summer School on organized crime of the Università Statale in Milan. She is president of Altre Atelier di ricerca sociale, a non-governmental organization carrying out social research on organized crime, international migration and gender issues. She is the author of Donne d’onore. Storie di mafia al femminile (Milan: Mondadori, 2007, translated in Spanish and Polish) and Confessioni di un padre. Il pentito Emilio Di Giovine racconta la ‘ndrangheta alla figlia (Milan: Melampo, 2013).


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This entry was posted on November 4, 2013 by in Critic's corner.
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