Italy, a burqa-friendly country?

The decision by a northern Italian city official to allow Muslim women to wear the burqa has sparked consternation in the country, even though at least one minister supported the move.

We have already said several times, and we reiterate it now, that the use of the burqa is unacceptable,” said a spokesman for Interior Minister Giuliano Amato.

A 1975 law, introduced amid concern over homegrown terrorism in the country’s cities, forbids Italians from appearing in public wearing anything which covers their faces. Apart from this law, which appears to apply to the burqa, many politicians on both sides of parliament said the garment was also a humiliating imposition.

I am indignant. Covering up women’s faces is an offence to their dignity,” said Equal Opportunities Minister Barbara Pollastrini.

The burqa used by Islamic traditions such as the Afghan one covers the entire head and body of the woman, leaving only a small grill of cloth in the area of the eyes to allow the wearer to see. Vittorio Capocelli, the prefect of Treviso in the Veneto region, decided on October 5 that it was acceptable for Muslim women in the city to wear the garment as long as they were ready to remove it and identify themselves to police when required.

A day later Family Minister Rosy Bindi, a prominent Catholic politician, indicated her agreement, saying that it was right to be “respectful of the veil” as long as women wore it of their own free will. Evidently, Miss Bindi thinks that the veil is a free choice, in every situation.

The apparent green light for the burqa drew a stinging editorial from Egyptian-born writer and journalist Magdi Allam in Tuesday’s edition of Corriere della Sera, Italy’s best-selling daily.

If the prefect’s decision sets a legal and administrative precedent on a national level, Islamic women could soon be going to school completely covered, be getting hired in workplaces and circulating freely all over Italy,” he wrote.

The prefect appeared to have based his decision on a 2004 police department circular indicating that wearing the burqa was legitimate because it was an “external sign of religious faith”. The circular says that wearing the covering is not a crime and so women should be allowed to wear it in the street or in a mosque. But it also says that it should not be worn in places such as banks or post offices because of the possible “alarm” this would cause to other people. In such situations police can and should identify the wearer.

Italy now has 1.2 million Muslims, making Islam the second religion after Catholicism. The Union of Islamic Communities in Italy, one of the largest Muslim associations, says it manages about 160 mosques. Both the previous centre-right government and the current centre-left one have opted for a strategy of promoting a model of ‘Italian’ Islam which has integration, moderation and tolerance as its cornerstones. A 16-member Islamic Council was set up in 2005 with the objective of advising the Italian government on Islam-related affairs and to form a bridge to the country’s growing Muslim population. One of the Council’s members, former ambassador Mario Scialoja, said that the decision by Treviso’s prefect to allow the burqa was “inopportune”. Souad Sbai, head of an association of Moroccan women in Italy and a member of the Islamic Council, agreed. “Italy is becoming fundamentalist. It’s time to say stop,” she said.

What we can say about this story? First, in Italy there’s always someone willing to believe that wearing the veil is always a woman’s free choice. Someone else, like Mr.Allam, thinks the opposite is true. Second, Italy is always the weird country where an administrative circular can prevail on a law.

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