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W. Ugolini ‘The internal enemy other’: recovering the World War Two narratives of Italian Scottish Women’ (2004)

This paper by Wendy Ugolini aims to provide how significant the impact of the Second World War was on the construction of personal identity amongst Scottish Italian women. With reference to the anti-Italian movement, Ugolini shows its personal importance within the life stories given by Italian Scottish women. She argues that the traumatic events of the summer of 1940 provided Italians with the harsh reality of how fragile the foundations upon their acceptance in Scottish society were and how this served to drastically heighten a sense of ‘otherness’ and not belonging.

The author firstly makes a comparison between the aftermath of 9/11 with Muslims being attacked in Edinburgh and Italians facing similar attacks after Italy declared war on Britain six decades earlier in 1940. Police began to arrest Italian nationals between the ages of sixteen and seventy and with Defence Regulation 18B, this meant that a vast number of British people of Italian origin including women were also arrested. Italian women were forced to leave their homes in coastal towns which were designated ‘protected areas’ and relocate twenty miles inland. The paper aims to explore what happened to the women who were left behind to experience racist hostility on the Homefront after the ingrained memories of internment and the tragedy of the Arandora Star; a ship carrying Italian and German enemy ‘aliens’ to Canada and was torpedoed, killing over 400 internees.

Ugolini argues that there has been a tendency to romanticise the presence of Italians in Scotland to avoid stressing the more painful reality of how Italian families were treated. In order to research this, the author interviewed forty-six men and women of Italian origin, all second and third generation living in Edinburgh and other South East regions of Scotland and over half of the group were women. Ugolini emphasises that when her interviewees were asked about the outbreak of the war, they referred to the events of June 1940 rather than 1939, showing that a specific set of memories was held amongst Italians as a group.

The author demonstrates how the Anti-Italian riots were particularly widespread throughout Scotland due to the presence of religious bigotry in Scottish society. She highlights that in her interviews with the women there was a sense of trauma when discussing the riots. As one particular woman, Linda Hunt, told how such a traumatic event like the riots can ‘turn a person’s world into a much more insecure and unpredictable place than before the traumatising experience’. Ugolini continues to describe when the women were asked to relocate, they were given no support or guidance and were left alone to make their own arrangements for their businesses and children’s education. Eight of the women she interviewed had experienced relocation as a child and many had witnessed their fathers being taken away. One woman recalled the heart-breaking memory of the last time she ever saw her father. He was frying fish and chips in their shop and was suddenly taken away in his dirty clothes. Another woman remembered after being relocated, her and her family were evicted from their lodgings in Blair Atholl when the laird opposed finding ‘foreigners’ on his land.

In the places they could relocate to, Ugolini notes how the narratives she received highlight the growth of support networks for Italian women who clustered in areas such as Peebles and Pitlochry. They would find work with other Italian women and seek refuge with relatives, friends or business contacts. She demonstrates that there was a large element of sticking together. However, the enforced congregation of Italian women and their children in the same towns contributed to the growth of marginalisation and exclusion during wartime. Women as young a thirteen and fourteen were faced with the responsibility of looking after families and businesses and many respondents in Ugolini’s paper recall being exposed to xenophobic abuse such as being spat on, having stones thrown at them and being shunned in communal areas.

The author concludes that the narratives she received from women contained a recognition of their psychological fragility which was not present in the narratives from men. Women were more willing to share information on the emotional and psychological impact of being viewed as the ‘other’. Ugolini stresses in her conclusion that the abuse, intolerance and prejudice faced by Italian Scottish women during the Second World War had a long-lasting effect on the construction of personal identity and their view of themselves as being ‘outsiders’. A notable point which the author concluded was that events such as the attacking of Asian shops six decades later have the potential to bring back distressing memories amongst the older members of the Italian community in Scotland. This therefore stresses the argument that the hardships they experienced during the Second World War were so devastating that they still have a significant impact on the Italian community today.

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