Female Emancipation within iItalian Mafia Groups

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The politics of female involvement in the formerly-secret Mafia-style group of lawless malcontents Camorra, originating in Naples and Neapolitan emigrant communities from 1830, have an increasing salience in modern Italy and the new Europe at this juncture of its development, as trends analysed by Longrigg (1998) and Sales (2006) indicate an increase in post-war illegal activity such as the selling of contraband cigarettes and loan sharking. As Gribaudi (2010) argues, the role that women play in this environment may be determined by the historical and specific socio-economic context. The question of ‘whether female emancipation may exist and if so, should it be considered as an illusion’ reverberates in both domestic Italian and European debates; The common patriarchal mentality and hierarchy of power in society has not only suppressed female participation in Mafia-related activity but has also intensified the gender imbalance, notably in Southern Italy.

Members of the Camorra have systematically adapted the structure and modus operandi of their network to changes in movements such as …since the nineteenth century, while engaging in profitable, often illicit activities such as…. The connections between the Mafia and civil society are “not based exclusively on economic and political ties, but also on a solid cultural framework that the mafia has adapted for its own needs to better disguise and penetrate the territory at a capillary level (Merlino, 2015).”

Significance of This Topic

Reflected by the augmentation of the release of films and literary works relating to the Italian Mafia to portray the reality of how violent organisations seek to infiltrate an illicit economy, such as The Godfather and Gomorrah, Mafia-inspired violence appears to remain commonplace in modern Italy and has global knock-on effects. The phenomenon Brexit is thought to contribute to the significance of this research area. The United Kingdom is considered to be a global haven for criminal activity (Academic source) because London is commonly referred to as the financial heart of Europe, where “most financial transactions take place” (Academic source). If the borders weaken post-Brexit, the accessibility for Mafia-style groups including Camorra to expand abroad and exploit business opportunities created by globalisation increases. The scrutiny of the role of women in Camorra, particularly their activity external to Italy, in this unknown yet favourable environment from their perspective may therefore be of increasing salience.

Improved commitment of Italian law enforcement agencies and judiciary to prosecute members of Mafia-style groups, alongside the growing contribution of state witnesses, has exposed the true scale of female involvement and challenged the traditional stereotypes encompassing the notion that no women engage in the Mafia (Fiandaca 1997; Siebert 1996). Christened the “enterprise syndicate” by Block (1980), whereby Mafia-style groups evolved to adopt a more entrepreneurial dimension upon entering the twenty-first century, it came to light that women were statistically more prone to contribute to Camorra through administration and financial work rather than through the execution of violent crimes (Zaccaria 2010; Zhang et al. 2007).

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Future Research Direction

Research has focused heavily on areas of their traditional presence and the reasons for their emergence into territories both within and outside Italy, whereas both the lack of accessibility to academic work on the topic of female emancipation within Italian-style Mafia groups and the corresponding contrasting interpretations suggest that this research area has been relatively trivialised, ignored or underexplored. The future analysis of female involvement abroad from Italian mainland, notably post-Brexit, may provide insight into this under researched area of interest.


This literature review serves as a contribution to the aforementioned research gap from three principal perspectives, summarised as follows: (1) It provides a deeper insight into understanding the contribution of female members of Italian Mafia-style groups following the decline in research from 1990 onwards, owing to the lack of political will and engagement at domestic and European level in this research area; (2) It offers an “outsider perspective”, evaluating sources from a British viewpoint as opposed to an Italian “insider perspective”; (3) It challenges whether female emancipation in Italian Mafia-style groups may exist or whether it should be considered as an illusion, thereby debunking widespread common clichés and simplistic myths, notably facing the rise of radical feminism that exists in Europe (Academic source).

This paper will cover a time span of research from 1990 until 2019. The 1990s were considered a turning point, following the increased female accession to leadership role in contemporary Camorra during the 1990s, epitomised by the promotion of Maria Licciardi of the Secondigliano Alliance and Erminia Giuliano of the Giuliano clan. This period has known countless changes to Camorra, including but not limited to, (1) demographic changes in society in the 1990s such as fewer children born into the following generation; (2) the introduction of Anti-Mafia legislation in 1991; (3) the introduction of changes to prison measures in 1992. Methods used by others – incl. conflicting methodologies - and what I will use.

Access to primary and secondary sources, qualitative and quantitative data to elucidate complementary aspects of the same phenomenon, and academic research is crucial for the ability to not only assess complex, nuanced, indirect links but also the claims of renowned academics in this field of interest. As Hobbs and Antonopoulos (2014: 110) identify, however, “organised crime is a relatively difficult topic on which one can conduct research.” This is owing to the stigma, dangers and secrecy surrounding information related to Italian Mafia-style groups. They elaborate by observing that few reliable analyses of female involvement in the criminal landscape have been published, largely due to challenges in collecting a sufficient amount of concrete data including the true viewpoints of those in question rather than lies to protect themselves from repercussions. Qualitative observations of women’s involvement have been rejected by an unknown number of academics and researchers, owing to the belief that the aforementioned observations “are subjective and often influenced by widespread traditional prejudices about women and their ‘good nature’” (Madeo 1997, Pizzini-Gambetta 2008). Thus, the adoption of qualitative mixed methods approach in this literature review combines evaluation of the media including judicial, police and newspaper articles, both broadcast in Italy and further afield, with the analysis of case studies. As Arsovska (2015:10) asserts, the triangulation of data and employment of mixed methodology permits the “intrinsic biases linked to single-method studies [to be] avoided.” Qualitative data features more prominently than quantitative data in this paper, as the former allows for in-depth explanations and the analysis of the vocabulary used – either consciously or sub-consciously – by the respondent. This balance is suitable for analysing life stories, relationships, activities and clan alliances.

As neither direct participant observation nor first-hand encounters are feasible considering the dangers surrounding this sensitive topic, case studies provide a multi-faceted study and in-depth appreciation of phenomena within their natural real-life contexts, such as the evaluation of Camorra women’s Neapolitan everyday life (Crowe et al. 2011: 100). A case-study approach prioritises depth over breath to examine overlooked elements of research, thereby however limiting sample, access, relevance and quality of data. The simultaneous adoption of a media approach balances these methodology restrictions by offering a broader area of topics covered.

Theories of Emancipation

Controversies surrounding female emancipation existence and its form originate from the work of Adler (1975), the first acclaimed author to demonstrate ties between female crime rates and emancipation through the comparison of female criminality to the “dark side of feminism”. Her “liberation theory” denoting women followed in men’s footsteps to establish their role in the patriarchal society was disproved by statistics (Beare, 2010), yet the foundations of the concept had been set. Italian researchers Siebert (2007: 37 - 43) and Ingrascì (2007: 84 – 91), studying Cosa Nostra and ‘Ndrangheta respectively, contrast Adler’s theory by introducing themes of an “ambiguous emancipation” or “pseudo-emancipation”. This appears to have contributed to the blossoming debate as to whether female emancipation can exist in Italian Mafia-style groups or whether it should be considered an illusion. Publications released in the twenty-first century appear to be in accordance that the label “emancipation” should be deemed potentially erroneous or misleading in the context of Camorra. While this term indicates the independence that Camorra women have demonstrated such as their accession to leadership roles, the juxtaposition of gender parity and the difficulties women face in building a career challenges the extent to which women in Camorra are liberated. This is supported by (academic soure), who argues that women cannot be fully accepted by male members of the clan if they imitate men to prove their capabilities and contribution to the clan’s activities, despite women’s high-ranking positions within clans, particularly within the family-orientated clan Camorra. Women’s positions are misleading from the false assumption that a favourable shift towards gender parity in Naples has occurred. This illusion is especially prominent in Camorra, as their career accession is largely dependent on exclusive family ties: without men, they would likely struggle to surmount gender discrimination. Thus, women are not truly emancipated in this context. A common notion is, therefore, that women’s roles in Camorra are best defined as a functional exploitation by the clan when resources are limited, or crises arise, as opposed to total female emancipation. This concept, seemingly growing in popularity among researchers, has been coined as a “Female Reserve Army” and presents female emancipation as a desire yet illusion.

Similarly to (YYY), Principato and Dino (1997: 68–69) support the concept that emancipation in Mafia clans cannot exist through the argument of women’s positions of power. Principato and Dino argue, however, that these positions are often temporary delegations of power, linking to the theory of “Female Reserve Army” whereby women achieve more perceived freedom in times of crisis or limited resources. This concept describes, for example, how women acquire temporary control over the management of the clan and its activities, often while the male members remain prisoners or fugitives. This common theme gained credibility following the introduction of the “hard prison regime” introduced in 1992, highlighting the contrasting theories prior to 1992 against more modern theories.

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