On election day, Giorgia Meloni appeared to have found a way to flout rules demanding candidates stop all campaigning. The Italian far-right leader posted a video of herself on social media holding two melons in front of her chest while winking into the camera and saying: “25 September [voting day], I’ve said everything”. Meloni in Italian means melons, and it is also slang for breasts.
For those who found the clip distasteful, the sexualised image was a further indication that Meloni would not be carrying the torch for feminists as prime minister. Others were surprised by the sudden turn in style by the Brothers of Italy chief, who had made being a woman and mother central to her campaign, but nonetheless acknowledged that it was a clever way of showing voters she knows how to have a laugh, even if the humour hailed from a more masculine culture.
A spokesperson for Meloni, who is putting together a government after a coalition led by Brothers of Italy, a party with neo-fascist roots, won the election, told the Guardian the melons were simply a play on the surname Meloni and that the narrative of the 45-year-old being “a woman against women” was “distasteful” and “outside of reality”.
Melons aside, part of Meloni’s appeal to her voters is that she is a strong woman and the only one who has led an Italian party to power while holding her own against powerful men, namely her coalition allies – Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right party League and Silvio Berlusconi, the three-time former prime minister who leads Forza Italia.
Meloni does not describe herself as a feminist, instead saying she is against “pink quotas” and that roles should be achieved through merit, not gender. She illustrates this point by claiming hers is the only party that contains several women in leadership positions.
“Not only might we have the first female prime minister but we also have a large number of women who were elected to parliament,” said Lavinia Mennuni, a Brothers of Italy councillor in Rome who was elected senator in her constituency after fending off competition from rivals including Emma Bonino, the leftwing leader who was among the feminists who fought to legalise abortion in Italy in the 1970s.
“But frankly, it is not about whether Meloni is a woman or not – she is simply a very good leader, someone who is determined and coherent. We need to stop attributing feminist labels to everything.”
Giorgia Serughetti, a sociologist at the University of Milan-Bicocca who writes about women’s issues, said Meloni’s victory for the rightwing was not about “celebrating women” but a person who “made it”.
“She has no language in terms of women’s battles and neither has the desire to become a role model,” Serughetti said.
Monica Cirinnà, a politician with the centre-left Democratic party (PD), became a symbol for Italy’s LGBTQ+ community after drafting legislation that led to civil unions being approved in 2016. She said leadership needed to be “earned” and that Meloni had earned her role.
There was an outcry in August after PD leader, Enrico Letta, selected Cirinnà as a senator candidate, but in a constituency she was likely to lose. Cirinnà was also furious but decided to run after being encouraged by her supporters, even knowing she would lose.
“He put me in a losing constituency, essentially he was saying that I was no longer powerful for the party,” said Cirinnà. “Let’s just say he wanted people who are more agreeable; I am difficult and do not give in easily.”
While the PD placed women in ministerial roles when in government, Cirinnà criticised the party, saying elected women were always “chosen by men” and that women who “speak freely” like herself “irritate” them.
Cirinnà argues that voters recognise and welcome women who have the freedom to speak freely and pursue their political path, something that is attractive for Meloni supporters, even if she exalts a macho culture.
Luisa Rizzitelli, a women’s and LGBTQ+ rights campaigner, was also offered the chance to run as a PD senator but turned it down after realising it would be in a constituency she was guaranteed to lose.
“It was only about the image [of having a woman in the running],” she said. “The really big problem with the left is that they only put women in ‘second level’ positions rather than putting us in leadership roles that would really give us power.”
Rizzitelli said Meloni’s melons video was an astute way for her to present humour, while also expressing masculine values. “Brothers of Italy have understood very well that women can be good in this respect – if Meloni had feminist values, they would never have allowed her to get this far.”
However, the lack of those values is guaranteed to set the clock back on women’s rights, Meloni’s detractors say.
While Meloni has said she has no plans to abolish Italy’s abortion law, she does intend to limit abortions, such as offering financial support to women to carry through a pregnancy instead of choosing to terminate. Thousands of women protested across Italy on Wednesday evening to protect abortion rights.
Meloni’s agenda is also unlikely to favour giving women special treatment in the workplace.
“For sure we will go backwards on women’s rights because Meloni does not renege her far-right culture, which has always maintained that women need to behave in a certain way and that they should only be allowed a certain amount of freedom,” said Cirinnà.
“As for [mandatory] pink quotas [in corporate boards] – I would like us to overcome this measure too, but until it becomes normal to see women in positions of power in Italy, pink quotas are necessary.”