Last update: 2021-12-09 12:06:20
One attends to theology and religious training, two are city councillors, one is a journalist and one takes an active part in Muslim associations. Five women of the Islamic faith (the new face of an Italian society undergoing transformation) talk about the difficulties and misunderstandings but also the goals they have achieved in their civic engagement.
This is a journey to the discovery of five women. Five Italian citizens of the Muslim faith who are active members of civil society: Francesca Bocca-Aldaqre, Marwa Mahmoud, Sumaya Abdel Qader, Asmae Dachan and Nadia Bouzekri. They are researchers, journalists, city councillors and activists. They are women and workers, mothers and wives. They are single, married or divorced. Their stories offer a cross-section of Italy that is little known or recounted: one made up of work, study, battles for rights and forms of discrimination but also, and above all, nuances and bridges. It is a journey spanning cities and smaller places: Milan and Reggio Emilia, passing through Piacenza, Perugia, Angeli di Rosora, Ancona and Sesto San Giovanni. If one takes a closer look, however, almost all their lives have a more distant starting point: Syria, Morocco, Egypt and Jordan are the countries their parents left before they came to Italy to study or work. Not yesterday but thirty, forty or even fifty years ago. Their voices and their experiences offer a glimpse of today’s Italy because they constitute direct evidence of a historic phase that has seen this country become – for the first time – a land of immigration. And also because these women are already representing the new face of contemporary society, which includes Italian citizens of the Muslim faith.
Piacenza, between Goethe and Islam
It’s a sweltering day at the end of July. The air is heavy and sticky. A strip of whitish light breaks through the low, humidity-laden clouds. Apparently deserted in some places, Piacenza seems to be half asleep. This is what one intuits whilst observing the industrial zone, with its succession of reinforced concrete boxes emptied of their workers away on holiday. It is here, amongst these grey factories deep in the Po Valley, that the Averroes Institute of Islamic Studies has its premises. Francesca Bocca-Aldaqre, the Institute’s director, welcomes us with a kind, shy smile. Before offering us a seat, she explains how the structure is organized. On the left, a warehouse hosts the prayer room and next to that is the room for teaching and the children’s after-school activities.
There are more than three hundred boys and girls attending the centre’s lessons and activities between October and June. “I was asked to direct it because the community needed to teach the children Islam in a different way,” she explains to us at the entrance to her office. “Before that, a sectarian situation was being created, splitting the children originating from Morocco, Albania or other communities. They were studying in different languages and each community was following its own school of law. Over the last three years, we’ve developed a common programme for everyone, with textbooks in Italian. If these places remain as if we were in Morocco or Albania, we risk greatly harming young people because they will feel forced to choose between Italy and their parents’ country of origin and that’s what we’re trying to avoid,” the director tells us in a calm and authoritative voice. The activities are divided into different levels according to age. They include catechism and the teaching of Arabic and the Qur’an but also courses on citizenship that are organized with the National Association of Italian Partisans and the Carabinieri police force.
This is a novelty that she herself introduced in order to “tackle the topic of citizenship and belonging to the Muslim Italian community; even if they are not Italian citizens yet,” she states. Her words reveal the level of her scientific, religious and cultural grounding. And this is not by chance: Francesca Bocca-Aldaqre is not just the Director of the Averroes Institute. She is a scholar, a lecturer in Islamic Culture at the Institute of Islamic Studies in Sesto San Giovanni and a lecturer in Neuroscience at the Islamic University of Qatar. She is thirty-two, has two degrees and an equal number of post-graduate specializations: one in Cognitive Neuroscience from the San Raffaele University in Milan and one in Islamic Studies from the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich. She has nevertheless chosen to devote herself full-time to theology and systematic reflection on the Qur’an and the Sunna, “a discipline where there is more to be done, particularly in the Italian language, since there are still very few Muslims in Italy who are critically reinterpreting their own tradition.”
Is that it? Certainly not! The research that most occupies Francesca Bocca-Aldaqre is her work on Islam and European culture. Her most recent book, Sotto il suo passo nascono i fiori. Goethe e l’Islam (“Neath His Footsteps Spring the Flowers. Goethe and Islam,”) was co-written with the Italian journalist Pietrangelo Buttafuoco and is the result of an investigation into how the German writer and playwright let the Qur’an inspire him in his works and poems. It was a study that allowed her to look more deeply at her own identity as well, linking her culture as an Italian citizen with the Muslim religion. Indeed, for Francesca Bocca (who assumed the name Aldaqre when she married), Piacenza is the “registered designation of origin:” she is the daughter of practising Catholics. She decided to convert to Islam in 2010. “They weren’t very happy about my choice at first. I was in Boston when I decided to identify as Muslim and they did not understand what was happening. When I returned, they understood that this choice changed certain aspects of my life but did not harm our closeness.” And, indeed, in her house they celebrate all the religious festivities: Christmas, Ramadan, Easter and the Feast of the Sacrifice. Life is not without its difficulties and episodes of discrimination, of course, both in everyday life and at work. “If there’s an ambitious research project to be undertaken, it’s taken for granted that I am not capable or am less professional. I don’t know whether it has to do with being a woman, being Muslim or both,” she concludes, smiling.
Reggio Emilia: Social Justice and the Constitution
If for Francesca Bocca-Aldaqre, books, research and university life constitute her special areas of commitment, for Marwa Mahmoud, activism and politics are, in a certain sense, her second home. The appointment with her has been fixed for a scorching midsummer’s morning at the heart of the Robert Baden-Powell Park in Reggio Emilia. In this city, more than elsewhere, the streets recall Italy’s history. From the railway station, one slips into Via IV Novembre, crosses Piazza del Tricolore and heads straight on down Viale Piave, Via del Risorgimento and Via Marzabotto. Anyone looking carefully will immediately notice Reggio Emilia’s multi-coloured spirit. Its inhabitants number 170,000 (of whom 17% are foreigners) and comprise 149 different nationalities.
A quite unique demographic ecosystem. Egyptian by birth and an Italian citizen, Marwa Mahoud grew up here. She’s thirty-five years old, the single mother of a seven-year-old daughter and a graduate in Modern Languages and Literature from Bologna University. Her life is devoted to education, intercultural issues, inter-religious dialogue and women’s emancipation. She has been working for more than ten years at the Mondinsieme (“World Together”) Centre as the person responsible for intercultural education and, in May 2019, was elected a Reggio Emilia city councillor (with 827 preferential votes): the first in the city’s history to have a migrant background.
She’s an energetic, sunny woman and her words are like a breath of fresh air. “My experience as a daughter of migrants and the time I had to wait to obtain Italian citizenship gave me the desire to fight social injustice,” she tells me, in a strong Emilian accent. “After the disappointment we felt when the bill reforming citizenship failed to pass, I persuaded myself that the moment had come to get involved, to talk not just about immigration but also about an already existing social and cultural change. You only need to go into a school to understand this. We, the children of people of foreign origin, can be connectors and bridge-builders. We’re born mediators because since we were little we’ve had to strike a balance between home and outside, between different cultures, languages and religions. And this means we have an added value.” Marwa talks without stopping, quoting Pertini, the Constitution, Naguib Mahfuz (an Egyptian writer and Nobel prize-winner for literature) and Luigi Pirandello, all of whom, for her, represent “literature on both sides of the Mediterranean.”
And then she opens up and talks about herself, without annoyance or embarrassment. She talks about the family that has always supported her (“particularly my father,” she tells me, with a touch of pride, “because he saw a sort of social redemption in me”) and then about her relationship with faith, which she lives in fits and starts. The choice to wear the veil came late, during her first year at university. It was also as an adult that she became fully aware that she could live Islam as an Italian citizen without renouncing her origins. “There’s a question of values such as mercy, peace, brotherhood and tolerance that are tied to the faith and that I share and then there’s a behavioural code that ought to be challenged in order to live in harmony with the society here. The problem is that Italian Muslim women are often rejected by both sides; that is, we’re too haram for the halal and too halal for the haram. We’re too frigid and radicalized for the feminists of the ancien régime and we’re too emancipated for some members of the Islamic community. It’s here that you have to find a balance. I, personally, try to draw attention to rights. If I ask to be respected and not to be attacked because I wear the hijab, I have to recognize the rights of others; regardless of sexual orientation, for example. If you want rights, then let’s fight for mutual rights, which is the hardest thing but necessary. And you can do this if you have the Italian Constitution as your point of reference.”
From Perugia to Milan: Biology, Politics and Active Citizenship
Ideally, the third stage of this journey would begin in the gentle Umbrian hills, setting out from Perugia. This is the city where Sumaya Abdel Qader was born and where she grew up in a Jordanian-Palestinian family that came to Italy more than fifty years ago. Milan, however, is the place “full of potential” that she would never leave, she says, sitting in a gazebo opposite the entrance to Trotter Park, between Viale Monza and Viale Padova, to the north east of Lombardy’s capital.
Sumaya Abdel Qader moved to the North for love when she married her husband and began her university studies. She, too, has two degrees: one in Biology and the other in Linguistic Mediation and Sociology. She has always been active in civil society; from the parents’ committees for her three children to the voluntary work for various associations in her quarter and, at the same time, with the Muslim community. She is one of the founders of Young Muslims of Italy (GMI – Giovani Musulmani d’Italia), has worked at a European level in the Forum of Muslim Women in Europe (EFOMW: now a part of the European Network Against Racism – ENAR), was one of the women promoting and giving life to the Aisha project to fight gender violence within the Muslim community and, as of 2016, she is also a city councillor (and member of the council’s elected majority). “Out of a sense of duty and responsibility, I felt I couldn’t just stand on the side-lines. Knowing that I have access to different readings and different worlds, I’ve always thought that people like me, who had this rich heritage, ought to give something back,” she tells me humbly. It was a brave decision to stand as a candidate and one that was repaid with harsh attacks, insults and threats. “It is extremely difficult for a Muslim Italian woman who wants to engage, especially when she wears the veil. More than ten Muslim girls stood at the last local elections and they were all massacred in the same way.
Despite this fact, I’ve witnessed a great activism amongst women at the social, political and cultural level over the last few years. Why? Because there’s such a will to redeem themselves and be key players, to be in the thick of it.” Her eyes are shining with the passion for civil issues that motivates her. At the same time, however, she does not hide her disappointment with politics, “which has not developed policies on the children of immigrants, has not tackled the issue of citizenship and often criminalises the whole Islamic world.” Sumaya is a frank woman and forthcoming in her criticism of the Muslim community and certain aspects of her religion. “I believe very strongly in God and I’m a practising Muslim. My area of contention concerns issues that I do not understand, such as certain interpretations that are very male chauvinist and very short-sighted. I believe a religion ought to be flexible in relation to time and place, as well as to culture, which advances: it must have the ability to adapt to different contexts,” she explains, without hesitation. And regarding the future, she still does not know what to do when she grows up. Perhaps a doctorate or maybe some other return to her books, her second great passion. Actually, her third, after biology and politics.
The Port of Ancona, Writing and Voluntary Work
If there’s a place that is home for Asmae Dachan, it is without doubt the port of Ancona, its bay and the rugged inlets surrounded by the strong scent of thick Mediterranean scrub. It is sunset and after taking us around the wonders of her region’s landscape—Conero National Park, the Frasassi grottoes and River Esino—our interview concludes here, at the top of Colle Guasco from which the city’s Romanesque-Byzantine Cathedral of Saint Cyriacus rises. Born and raised between Ancona and Angeli di Rosora, with Syrian parents who came to Italy in the mid-1960s, Asmae Dachan is a professional journalist, writer and poet and the mother of two boys. She is a peace ambassador for the University for Peace in Italian-speaking Switzerland and a member of the Scientific Committee of the Senigallia and Ancona University for Peace. She, too, has two degrees: one in Theology and Islamic Studies from the European Institute of Human Sciences in France and the other in Communication from Urbino.
Her career began on local newspapers; first working for the Voce della Vallesina, run by the Jesi diocese, and then for the monthly from the Marches, Mondo Lavoro, for which she was also the editor in charge. In 2013, she made a trip to Syria that changed her life, both regarding work and regarding her relationship with her faith. “I think I found God in a Displaced Persons camp in Syria,” she says, with great sensitivity. “It was my first reportage abroad, in a country that was also my home, and it was a trip that taught me a lot. I learned how to be close to other people’s pain.” In recent years there have been numerous other foreign assignments in Syria, Turkey and Europe, reporting for various news publications such as Avvenire, Panorama and The Post Internazionale. In addition to working as a journalist, Asmae Dachan is often busy all over Italy in conferences and workshops on inter-religious dialogue and peace, engaging with dozens of schools of every kind and level.
Her modesty prevents her from admitting it but it is precisely for her commitment as a journalist and peace ambassador that the President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, bestowed the honour of Knighthood in the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic upon her in May 2019: the highest-level Order in the Italian Republic. And as she remembers that moment, she lowers her head and says, “It was the most beautiful declaration of love I could have received, because I saw the state as something big, embracing its daughter.” A just and well-deserved reward for which she suffered a vile, mean-hearted attack on the web at the hands of certain newspapers and political exponents. “Somebody said that the state had bowed down to Islam. Islam has nothing to do with it. I am Asmae; I’m a person, a citizen who has got involved and will get even more involved for the good of this state.”
Asmae Dachan chooses her every word with zeal: there is not an inappropriate or unseemly one amongst them. “We’re paying the price of being pioneers, the first Muslim Italian women to expose ourselves, although all women in Italy still encounter these difficulties when they step forward.” This is the journalist who brings you to the heart of other peoples’ stories and not her own. Asmae is like that: humble, attentive and altruistic. And between one reportage or conference and another, she also volunteers for the Red Cross. But, “Write that we’re not just serious; that we laugh, joke and enjoy ourselves!” she urges us, with an infectious smile.
From Sesto San Giovanni to Brussels: the World is her Home
The last stage of this journey is Parco Sempione, the large public park close to Milan’s Sforza Castle, “where everyone can feel at home,” as she puts it. “She” being Nadia Bouzekri, an Italian citizen born and raised in Sesto San Giovanni, an historic working-class stronghold in the Milanese industrial suburbs, and the daughter of Moroccan parents who came to Italy in the late 1970s. It was she who chose this place for our interview. Nadia arrives on time, elegant and smiling after work, one almost-autumn afternoon.
She is twenty-seven and has a degree in Modern Languages and Literature. She works as an economic analyst, is the vice-president of the Union of Islamic Communities in Italy (UCOII) and has eleven years of civil-society commitment behind her. Her activism began at the age of sixteen when she participated as a volunteer in the activities organized by the Young Muslims of Italy (GMI). She organized camping trips and awareness campaigns on human rights, met dozens of students in schools to talk about inter-religious dialogue and active citizenship and, in 2016, at the age of twenty-four, was elected president of the association, the first woman president in its history. That was the moment that Nadia began to travel, working actively for young Italian Muslims’ petitions at ministerial level. This is how she remembers it: “I was talking about young people’s rights. For example, about having a multi-faith room at university where everyone can pray, or halal food or a legitimate reason for absence from school during Ramadan. I, personally, wrote “sick” for years. These are the little things that make you feel different.”
Her explanation is simple and clear. In just a few years, her activism began to reach beyond the border. Nadia began travelling in Europe as well; to Brussels, where she worked actively in a series of campaigns with the European Commission and FEMYSO (the Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organizations); this with the aim of fighting Islamophobia. “I realised that, in Italy, one is allowed to express one’s religiosity or spirituality through clothes or a cross. None of that is allowed in France and this idea of extreme secularism denies citizens’ rights. That is to say, it is by renouncing themselves that everyone is equal. I think our Constitution really is the best. In the sense that, on paper, I ought to have certain rights, such as spiritual assistance in hospital, halal food and a prayer room. However, since there’s no Memorandum of Understanding between the state and the community, I don’t have them in practice. But the Constitution enshrines them and for this reason it’s important to get this Understanding and recognize Muslim Italians as citizens on the same level.”
She is not lacking vision or far-sightedness. Or the healthy and natural boldness of her age group. “There’s this idea that a girl with the veil is a saint, a bigot or unable to enjoy herself. I go out, I go and have an aperitif, I go to the gym, I’ve had a steady boyfriend and now I’m single. I’m a Muslim but I don’t represent the whole community. I represent myself. I’m a normal person who works, studies, undertakes things for the society and country in which she lives and works to make her dreams come true. Is that so strange?”
To cite this article
Sara Manisera, “Women, Italian, Muslim: A Journey in Rights, Struggles and Spirituality”, Oasis, year XV, n. 30, December 2019, pp. 114-127.
Sara Manisera, “Women, Italian, Muslim: A Journey in Rights, Struggles and Spirituality”, Oasis [online], published on 30th November 2020, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/women-italian-muslim-struggles-and-spirituality