ROME Hundreds of thousands of women rallied in Rome and other cities on Sunday, incensed by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's sex scandal which they say has disgraced Italy.
"Women are offended. The image of our country that Berlusconi is presenting to the world is just unbearable," said 52-year-old Roberta Nicchiarelli at a rally in Rome.
The protests in more than 200 towns in Italy and even some cities abroad reflect growing anger among women at the prostitution scandal that has engulfed the premier, who has long counted conservative women among his key voters.
"I voted for him in the past, but I am really disappointed. I hope things will change," said former Berlusconi voter Pina.
Members of the premier's ruling center-right PDL party branded the protests as a radical, politically motivated act by the opposition, but political party flags were noticeably absent from most rallies.
Prosecutors filed a request on Wednesday to bring Berlusconi to trial, accusing him of paying for sex with a nightclub dancer known by her stage name "Ruby" when she was under 18, which is illegal in Italy.
The 74-year old billionaire premier has dismissed the accusations as "disgusting and disgraceful." He says he has done nothing illegal and that he is the target of those who wanted to carry out a political "coup by moralists."
Leaked wiretaps from the investigation have been splashed over newspapers for weeks with references to bundles of cash, talk of sex games and gifts that would-be starlets received after attending parties at the media mogul's villa.
"I love my boyfriend for free," read one banner in Rome, where crowds of women of all ages packed into a central square flanked by husbands, brothers and male friends.
"It's a scandal. I do not believe in his values, his behavior and the way he treats women. Italy doesn't have a future if these are the values that sustain us," said Paolo Campedel, attending a rally in Padua in northern Italy.
Photos and videos of a growing list of young women from the fringes of show business alleged to be connected to Berlusconi have been plastered over Italian television and media websites, often showing them in erotic poses or in their underwear.
"Women in Italy are only seen as objects of desire. We want a country with more dignity," said Patrizia Rossi, a retired teacher among tens of thousands attending a rally in Milan.
The case has provoked a backlash among some women who have long complained about how they are portrayed in the media, including television owned by Berlusconi's Mediaset empire, on which girls are commonly seen in skimpy clothes as cameras zoom in on their breasts and legs.
Campaigners say the increasingly one-sided image of women as sex objects has promoted a culture in which women see selling their good looks as the only route to success in a country where a third of young people are unemployed.
"Big boobs, small hips, and always available: it's almost become a dictatorship because television, the newspapers, only present this model of women," said Lorella Zanardo, author of Il Corpo Delle Donne, a book about the image of women in the media.
The protest, organised on the Internet under the slogan "If not now, when?," was supported by several prominent Italian authors, actresses and politicians and accompanied by an online petition to defend female dignity.
The sex scandal in mainly Catholic Italy has revived opposition calls for Berlusconi to resign at a time when he is clinging to power after a split in the PDL party last year.
His former ally-turned rival Gianfranco Fini said on Sunday that the latest scandal has made Italy a laughing stock.
The prime minister has survived sex scandals in the past and some of his most staunch supporters attended pro-Berlusconi rallies earlier in the week, while branding Sunday's demonstration a puritanical and politically motivated ploy.
Opinion polls show the sex investigation has damaged Berlusconi but has not delivered a knock-out blow. With the divided opposition presenting little threat, he could return to power if an early election were held.
The women's protest follows several anti-Berlusconi rallies this week. President Giorgio Napolitano has warned tensions are too high and told Berlusconi at a meeting on Friday that Italy risked being pitched into early elections as a result.
(Additional reporting by Philip Pullella, Giselda Vagnoni, Cristiano Corvino in Rome, and Martin de Sa' Pinto in Padua Editing by Maria Golovnina)