Italy: Burqa decision provokes controversy
"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.
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. Centre-left MP Maura Leddi filed a formal request for Amato to explain to parliament why the Treviso prefect had authorised the use of the burqa.
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.
10 October 2007
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