Renate Siebert looks at the Sicilian mafia, an arena that is typically monopolised by male scholars, through female eyes. She studies the role of women in the organisation and amalgamates sociological scholarship with a wealth of research material, in a way that silences disputes between theorists and empiricists.
Masculinity and destructive patriarchy have been almost completely neglected in previous analyses. The starting point of the book is the extraordinary fascination which the Sicilian mafia exerts over men, who are lured into the organisation while in search of powerful reassurances over their virility. These enclaves of "real" men are improperly defined as "families" while in fact they are monogendered, monosexual units. The mafia, in Siebert's analysis, offers men the possibility to strengthen their masculinity and the values traditionally associated with it. More specifically, it provides them with a set of symbolic and material tools to suppress the feminine aspect inside them. "Self-control, the denial of feelings and the rejection of others' feelings are invariably the foundation on which membership of the mafia is developed."
Women who have some sort of relationship with the mafia vary widely. First, they include female "criminal labour" employed to carry out specific tasks, for example the smuggling of drugs. The exploitation of such women, in truth, is also a characteristic of other criminal enterprises, and reminds one of the use of women by drug traffickers and gangs specialising in stealing or forging cheque books, say, in London. However, what is unique to the mafia is the double attitude towards women who are related to members of the organisation on the one hand, and women who are only given a "job" on the other. The former, who constitute the second variety of women playing a role in the Sicilian mafia, may share the benefits of their partners' reputation, earn prestige, be respected, and certainly will never be molested. The latter will be dumped as soon as their task is performed, and if in trouble with the law will receive no support. Both these attitudes towards women reinforce the masculinity of the organisation.
This treatment of women reminds one of other aspects of the mafia which have rarely been explored, such as the reinforcement of power sought by the mafia through the reiteration of some specific activities which do not appear very remunerative. For example, even when some mafia groups accumulate enough profits to start an official business career, they do not forgo the traditional practice of extortion. The relatively little protection money obtained by corner shops possesses an important symbolic value; it encapsulates a message: we are still the bosses here.
The last type of women who enter into some form of relationship with the Sicilian mafia are those who fight it: ordinary women, relatives of victims, civil rights campaigners. They founded the Association of Sicilian Women Against the Mafia, whose history is told in the last chapter of the book: "Between killing and dying there is a third way: living".
The variable masculinity allows Renate Siebert to analyse organised crime from an angle which unfortunately is almost ignored by traditional observers. She warns that one should get rid of the idea that the mafia is the product of underdevelopment: rather it is one of the possible structures by which the accumulation of wealth and the reproduction of power can be achieved.
Vincenzo Ruggiero is reader in criminology and social studies, Middlesex University.
Secrets of Life and Death: Women and the Mafia
Author - Renate Siebert
ISBN - 1 85 984 9032 and 023X
Publisher - Verso
Price - £45.00 and £14.00
Pages - 333