[Italian Woman’s Veil Stirs More Than Fashion Feud, October 15, 2004, By IAN FISHER]
DREZZO, Italy – The immediate issue is how one woman in one tiny town in northern Italy dresses, so it made a certain kind of sense for Giorgio Armani to weigh in. His opinion? A woman should wear what she likes, even if what she likes is a veil that hides her face completely.
“It’s a question of respect for the convictions and culture of others,” Mr. Armani, the fashion designer, said in a statement released late last month. “We need to live with these ideas.”
He was speaking out in defense of Sabrina Varroni, a Muslim woman from this town near the Swiss border who has been fined 80 euros, about $100, for appearing twice in public wearing a veil that completely covered her face. Her punishment has won cheers from some Italians and has horrified others.
Mr. Armani’s views were just one of the particularly Italian twists to questions facing much of Europe over its uneasy relationship with Islam.
The case of Ms. Varroni is not a simple one about religious freedom. Drezzo, population 1,800, is controlled by the Northern League, a political party in Prime Minister SilvioBerlusconi’s governing coalition that has advocated the secession of northern Italy and strict controls on immigration. The case has been viewed by some as a telling clash of two ideologies: Islam versus Italian xenophobia.
To fuel that view, the mayor here, Cristian Tolettini, fined Ms. Varroni under a 1931 Fascist-era law banning the wearing of masks in public. The Italian press got into the act when a reporter from the Milan newspaper Il Giorno showed up in Drezzo last month completely veiled, and was promptly fined, too.
Ms. Varroni, 34, a mother of four, is not one of the thousands of poor Muslims who have immigrated legally to Italy in recent years to seek a better life, or among the thousands more who have arrived illegally. She is a native Italian who grew up in Drezzo and married a Tunisian more than 10 years ago, converting to Islam. Late last month, she wrote an impassioned letter to the Italian president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, complaining of threats to her and her family and begging for help.
“I’m scared of the violence that this unwanted publicity will seek out,” she wrote. “I’ve never tried to proselytize, or use my veil as a provocation. What harm am I doing? I am not masked. I’m simply wearing a veil that is obligated by my faith.”
Similar arguments have been made by female students in France, Germany and Turkey, which restrict the wearing of a less severe symbol of Islam, the head scarf, in schools. In June, the European Court of Human Rights rejected an appeal by a Turkish student, saying such laws “can be justified” to prevent fundamentalist groups from pressuring women to wear such symbols.
The problem in Drezzo, which has a handful of Muslim immigrants, started two years ago when Ms. Varroni showed up at the town hall, wearing a veil that covered her entire face. In a telephone interview, she said she began wearing the veil, called a nikab, about five years ago.
“I wear the veil because it is a law,” she said. “It is an obligation of my faith.”
The mayor saw it differently.
“I was stupefied,” Mr. Tolettini, then the deputy mayor, recalled. “We have a lot of Muslims who live here, and they don’t dress like that.”
He asked her to show him her face so that he could identify her. She said, according to Mr. Tolettini, that she would reveal her face only to a woman. Mr. Tolettini said he decided to let it go, but warned her that laws prohibited appearing in public with a concealed face.
No problems occurred until July 2004, when she went to the town hall again and Mr. Tolettini, now the mayor, was there.
“My authority and my duty was to have her identified,” he
said. “She clearly refused.”
The laws Mr. Tolettini cited are in dispute. Italy has two such laws, neither of which anticipated the issue of Islamic dress codes: one from 1931, under Mussolini’s Fascist rule, and another, enacted in 1975 when fear of the Red Brigades guerrilla group was high, forbidding disguises that mask a person’s identity.
This summer, Mr. Tolettini drafted a new local law, although a regional judge annulled it last month, saying that Mr. Tolettini did not have the authority to issue local laws that duplicated national ones.
On Sept. 17, Ms. Varroni, veiled, went to pick up her children from school. The town’s sole police officer issued her two fines totaling 40 euros under the old national laws. The next day, she went to the town hall again in her veil, and was fined another 40 euros.
Ms. Varroni’s lawyer, Serena Soffitta, said the fines represented a personal vendetta against her client and were an example of the Northern League’s opposition to foreign immigration.
“She is the only person in that town who wears a veil,” Ms. Soffitta said, adding in a reference to the Northern League, “They only want Italians in Italy.”
Mr. Tolettini denies this, saying he is not part of the party’s more reactionary wing. To him, the matter is both simple and crucial: No one is above the law, he says, and allowing people to hide their identities, even for religious reasons, is a threat to public security, especially at a time of widespread fear of terror attacks.
“I don’t think that she is dangerous at all,” he said. “But the type of clothing that she wears, that is dangerous. It could result in something that we regret very much. It’s a problem of security. It’s a problem of public order.”
For the last few weeks, the case has stirred up Italy, both in favor of Ms. Varroni and against her. Hard-line members of Parliament have supported Mr. Tolettini for upholding of the laws, and Cesarino Monti, a Northern League senator, has proposed an even tougher one: a fine of up to 5,000 euros and up to six months in jail for people who cover their faces in public.
Mr. Monti pointedly excluded events in which Italians often wear some kind of mask, like fans at sporting events and revelers at public festivals like carnival.
The opposition, meantime, has condemned what it says is overzealous application of the law in a way that, its leaders say, sends a message of intolerance toward Islam and foreigners.
“If you let young girls who come into this country dress themselves, to wear what they feel is comfortable, you’ll see that eventually they will change,” said Maria Luisa Campagner, a regional official with the center-left Daisy
Party, a coalition of parties that includes the Italian People’s Party, the successor of Italy’s Christian Democrats. “They may arrive wearing the chador, but they’ll end up wearing blue jeans and new hairstyles.”
Meanwhile, the Association of Muslim Women, a group with about 600 members in Italy, says Islam does not require covering the whole face, and that Ms. Varroni should consider a less extreme veil.
“We don’t want this phenomenon to explode,” said Asmam Dachan, the group’s spokeswoman. “We already contacted her to tell her that Islam doesn’t demand this, and that it is better to meet with the mayor and work something out, especially in this delicate moment.”
So far, Ms. Varroni has refused to pay the fines, and her case has begun working its way up Italy’s legal system. Her lawyer said the case stood as an example of the new challenges Italy is facing with a rising population of Muslims and a test of how well the nation will deal with those challenges.
“For us, this is new,” Ms. Soffitta said. “There is no law that says a burka is legal or illegal. Until now, we haven’t needed one. We’ve let good sense be our guide.”