Young Muslim women struggle to find and protect their identities in a changing Italy.
Muslim women in Italy have it hard. They are surrounded by Christianity and Italian culture, but want to follow their parents’ rules.
An Italian boyfriend might be able to convert to Islam, but how can you even meet an Italian male who is not Muslim?
“Our boyfriends must be Muslim for Allah’s sake, not for us,” said Iman Garche, 24, who is studying English and French at the University of Urbino but also lives in Pesaro with her Moroccan family.
About 17 Muslim families, most of them from Morocco, live in Urbino, say members of this small Muslim community. Lubna El Badaoui, 22, works at L’Angolo Kebab restaurant. Her mother sometimes makes bread, called khobz in Arabic, and sells it to neighbors. “It is really hard for me,” says the daughter, “as I have to feed my mother and two brothers.”
Her father came to Urbino 20 years ago to find a job. In the 1990s, people from developing nations saw Italy as second America. After her father came, Lubna arrived in Urbino at age 6 with her mother and two brothers. She attended kindergarten, primary and high school.
She dropped out the university after a year and a half. Following religious custom, she wears a scarf that covers her entire head except for her face.
“Wearing a scarf in Urbino makes me confront problems when I look for a job because they don’t want to recruit me,” she said in Italian through a translator. She feels discriminated against, even though people do not say anything directly to her related to her manner of dress or religion.
The construction company that her father ran here went bankrupt, so he returned to Morocco to find a job. It was the same for many Moroccans who came to Italy for jobs in recent decades. When the economic crisis hit, they decided to go back.
One of the essential duties of Muslims is to pray five times a day. El Badaoui does this, sometimes in restaurant where she works and sometimes at home. Performing religious duties in Islam is called jihad, although the word is also used in less positive ways in today’s charged political atmosphere.
“Jihad is very different from terrorism,” El Badaoui says. “Terrorism is to kill innocent people and civilians. But jihad is like to go to Palestine and Syria to help their own brothers. People who name Islam as the religion of terrorism want to ruin Islam.”
Majdoline Omri, 22, who is studying law at the university, agrees. “Islam is the religion of peace; in fact Islam means peace,” Omri says. “So I am really horrified by terrorism of radical Muslims. I do not understand why they do this.”
Omri does not wear scarf. “I do not wear a scarf because I want to be a lawyer and I do not want people to judge me due to my religious clothes.” Like El Badaoui, Omri says Urbino residents, especially business owners, look for Muslim employees who do not wear a scarf or other traditional Islamic clothes.
Omri’s father works for a company that produces safety equipments for employees to protect them from injury from machines.
In accordance with Islamic rules, adherents do not eat pork or drink alcohol. Omri follows this practice of abstaining, but says some Muslims here drink alcohol and eat pork as Italian people do.
Iman Garche, the language student, is allowed by her parents to have a boyfriend, but she wants only a Muslim one. She, too, wears a scarf.
“I think like what El Badaoui thinks about terrorizing of Islam,” said Garche. But she once had an experience in Urbino that angered her so much that she made light of this issue. “I was sitting with my friends in a park and a guy approached me and asked: Do you have a bomb with you? I said I have one at home; next time I will bring it,” she said.
The majority of the population in Urbino is Christian – and mostly Roman Catholic, in name if not practice. As a matter of principle, there is no negative prejudice against the Muslim community.
Jacopo Mauzini, who is studying communication at the University of Urbino, does not call himself Christian but says he does believe in God. “Muslim people here are closed [off from] our culture but we do not have any prejudice against them because we do not care about what people believe and practice,” Mauzini said in English.
Raffaella Sarti, a lecturer in Political Science at the university, said that immigrants in Italy generally divide into religious or national groups, but Muslims in particular either completely integrate themselves into Italian culture or completely isolate themselves from society. She said that prejudice again Muslims by Italians tends to correlate with political and religious affiliation. “People who do not want to see Muslims here are conservative but others who do not mind Muslims living here are secular,” she said.
The deeper divisions between Muslims in Urbino and religious Italians are not only cultural, but theological. “To me,” El Badaoui said, “Christianity is a religion that is very, very wrong. How can a God be crucified and be taken on a cross? We believe in Jesus as a prophet but not as God. We can not give a physical aspect to God who created us.”
So, like many Muslims here, she gives priority to Islamic rules rather than Italian culture’s norms. For example, El Badaoui has visited a church only once, on a primary school trip. “Otherwise I do not see any reasons to have been to church,” she said. “I am not even curious about it.”