As hundreds of thousands of Italians poured into piazzas in Rome and 230 other cities on Sunday to protest against prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and his sexual shenanigans, the placards told the story.

“Italy is not a brothel!”  said one sign. “Berlusconi you are stealing our dignity!” said another.

Aretha Franklin’s Respect rang out across Piazza del Popolo in Rome, as tens of thousands gathered to hear poignant messages from anonymous women read out to the crowd.

Ordinary women who have no jobs, are too afraid to tell their employers they are pregnant, or push their children to leave the country as soon as they leave university because there is no future for them here.  One even complained her young child had added “escort” to his vocabulary.

After a minute’s silence across the central square, a massive banner was unfurled saying, “If not now, when? We want a country that respects all women”.

As massive crowds took to the streets from Turin in the north to Palermo in the south to demand the 74-year-old leader’s resignation , a judge was weighing up whether he stands trial on allegations he paid for sex with an under-age prostitute known as Ruby and abused his power to have her released from police custody last year.

The protests drew young mothers with toddlers, teenagers and grandmothers who had fought on the front line of the sexual revolution a generation ago.

But there were also plenty of men in the crowd, including a 72-year-old pensioner, flanked by his wife, who told me what it meant to him to ride on a bus where he could barely breathe it was so full of protesters.

“I have never seen anything like it,” he told me as his wife watched him in silence. “I am convinced that many women are disgusted with Mr Berlusconi. For me it is very moving.”

What made this protest so different to many of the other anti-Berlusconi demonstrations was its grassroots surge. This was not organised by a political party or trade unions, communists or fascists.  This protest was from women and men of all ages eager to tell their narcissistic leader  “Enough is enough!” — in a political bushfire fuelled by the mainstream media and social networking sites such as Facebook.

Some women in the crowd even told me they had been inspired to take action after what they had seen in Tunisia and Egypt.

“We want to see an end to corruption, we want a new consciousness,” one woman told me.

This was far more than a protest against Berlusconi and his private pole-dancing parties.  This was a belated rejection of a culture of corruption and s-xual favours, where women can be a topless dancer one day and be running for political office the next.

“Women in this country are denigrated by the repeated, indecent and ostentatious representation of women as a n-ked s-xual object on offer in newspapers, televisions and advertising,” said protest organiser Ida Poletto.

Whether any of the women or men who protested today ever voted for Berlusconi is an open question.

But they certainly sent a strong message to 74-year-old leader that they have had enough of his behaviour and he can no longer blame what he calls a left-leaning judiciary for his woes.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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