Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Cortile (Neighborhood Courtyard)

Three women in Naples cortile
The Cortile (Neighborhood Courtyard)

Location: Italy, but variations exist throughout the world

One of the amazing things about surfing the Internet is finding fresh women's voices. It was through pure serindipity that I stumbled across this discussion of Italian women and their resistance to domestic violence. The historical function of women-only space--namely the cortile, or the semi-enclosed courtyard between houses--is particularly fascinating. I urge you to read the entire post by Olive Grrl:

Women-only Spaces

“The husband is like the government at Rome, all pomp; the wife is like the mafia, all power.” –Italian Proverb

Historically, Italian women have used women-only spaces as a way to resist domestic violence. Guglielmo states, “Women crafted their social circles with those they could trust and rely on the most, which were often a combination of kin and neighbors” (Guglielmo, 17). Women spent a lot of time in the cortile, “the semienclosed courtyard at the center of adjoining houses” (Guglielmo, 18). The cortile was an area where women could talk to each other about what was happening at home, while they prepared food together. These women shared stories and sought advice. Though the cortile of the 1800s no longer exists, women today will meet in piazzas to get out of the house and to get support when they need it. These “daily labors necessitated strong social networks, which also upset narratives of female passivity and isolation” (Guglielmo, 20).

Women’s ability to be in the public sphere more often has indeed been a great area of resistance. However, researchers on the subject have found that “men have historically attempted to exert more control over the women in their lives as power relations and social systems are shifting and women are gaining more independence” (Guglielmo, 23). The ironic thing about the cortile, the epicenter for women’s bodies and voices, is that often a beating would occur there. Public humiliation would be an addition to the physical violence against women. Guglielmo states, “…the man who broke his wife’s arm did so in the center of town and paid the doctor for her other arm too, announcing that he was paying in advance for the next time she spoke back” (Guglielmo, 24). This type of public display of abuse doesn’t occur as often as it once did, but women are also allowed to be outside of the home now, too.

Italian women have historically been able to resist domestic violence by their ability to exist in public spaces with other women outside of their family structure. These spaces have been a safety zone, and a place of rest and recuperation for battered women. Though the actual cortile is more of a memory, it continues to exist in different forms.

The courtyard has a long history as a women's gathering place. In a random search, I found references to "courtyard tenements" providing "genderized urban space" where Chinese working class women were able to form and operate social networks in early 20th century Beijing. There are also tantalizing references to courtyards in the lives of women throughout the Middle East, Africa, and the Mediterranean area. As women lead more "public" lives--especially in the West--the courtyard as a signficant women's space has been lost, but it has not necessarily disappeared from across the globe.

Photo: Women in a Cortile in Naples, Italy

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