Silvio Berlusconi has never had this much trouble with women. After a weekend in which hundreds of thousands of women turned out to demonstrate against him, the Italian Prime Minister was officially indicted on Tuesday on charges of paying for sex with an underage prostitute and abusing the power of his office to cover it up. In her ruling, judge Cristina Di Censo accepted the argument put forth by prosecutors that the strength of the evidence against Berlusconi was "obvious" enough to warrant an accelerated trial. The proceedings, set to begin on April 6, will take place before three other female judges.
The ruling has energized Italy's fractured opposition and given strength to those who argue that Italian culture fueled in no small part by Berlusconi's media empire has a long way to go when it comes to women's rights. "Leaving aside for a moment the Prime Minister's behavior, which I find incredibly deviant, this is a problem that regards all parts of life and the economy in our country," Alessia Mosca, a parliamentarian with Italy's Democratic Party, tells TIME. Italian women have one of the lowest employment rates in Europe, shoulder a disproportionate share of the country's housework, and suffer from badly managed and inadequate services, such as daycare. "Sure, the first thing is that Berlusconi should resign and submit himself to the court's judgment, but we also have a responsibility to intervene on a problem that touches all sorts of sectors," says Mosca.
Tuesday's ruling follows weeks of rolling revelations, in which Italians have watched with a growing sense of shock as leaked wiretaps painted a picture of alleged debauchery at Berlusconi's residence, with callers describing "bunga bunga" parties featuring multiple young women, sometimes dressed as nurses and police officers. The 74-year-old Prime Minister, who has denied all the allegations, stands accused of paying for sex with a Moroccan nightclub dancer named Karima El Mahroug when she was 17. Prosecutors also allege that Berlusconi abused the powers of his office when he called a police station after El Mahroug had been arrested on suspicions of theft, told officers she was the granddaughter of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and urged that she be released.
More disturbing, to many women, is a growing perception brought into sharp focus by the scandal that Italy has become a country in which sex provides the surest path to fame and success. Nicole Minetti, one of three people alleged to have procured women for Berlusconi's parties, is a former showgirl and dental hygienist who was installed on the Prime Minister's ticket as a regional counselor. In one tapped call, according to Italian press reports, El Mahroug, who also goes by the name Ruby Rubacuori "Ruby, Stealer of Hearts" can be heard telling her boyfriend at the time that Berlusconi accepted her request that he give her €5 million ($7 million) as compensation for having her name sullied by the allegations, and that he asked her not to "tell anybody anything."
On Sunday, Rome's Piazza del Popolo spilled over with demonstrators mostly women while others protested in more than 200 towns and cities across the country, displaying signs saying "Berlusconi resign" and "We like Sex; Not Bunga Bunga" in protest of the way women are treated in Berlusconi's Italy. Many Italians worry that the Prime Minister's alleged antics have dragged the country's name into the mud, with some newspaper websites offering regular roundups of the foreign press's coverage of the events. "The Ruby scandal was the last drop that overflowed the glass," says Lorella Zanardo, director of Women's Bodies, a documentary on the Italian media's portrayal of women. "Italian women are doctors, engineers, mothers. But we're in a cage when it comes to how we're represented on the Prime Minister's television stations. We're represented as only sex objects."
On hearing the news of his indictment, Berlusconi abandoned a press conference in Sicily to fly to Rome, where he met with his lawyers and advisers. The Prime Minister and El Mahroug both deny they ever engaged in sex, though El Mahroug, now 18, says she did receive money and jewelry from Berlusconi. And while the premier admits to calling the police station, he has argued that he was carrying out the duties of his office and trying to avoid a diplomatic incident. Berlusconi's lawyers are also expected to argue that El Mahroug is a year older than official documents indicate.
Berlusconi and his allies have repeatedly characterized the accusations as the work of a politicized justice system bent on undermining the democratically elected Prime Minister. Speaking to Italian reporters about Tuesday's ruling, Piero Longo, one of Berlusconi's lawyers, said, "We didn't expect anything different." On the fact that the Prime Minister would be tried by female judges, Longo added: "Great, ladies are welcome and sometimes even pleasing."