How much do we know about Islam and how much do we think we know? How does a Muslim woman live and how do we imagine her life? An interview with Abir, a young Italian Muslim woman of Moroccan origin.
In the world there are many preconceptions about Muslim women. "They must have little freedom", "She is like a prisoner, she cannot express herself". "She is oppressed, there are many rules that she cannot change”. "I wonder what number of wife she is and what will she do with her life, because with her clothes I cannot get an idea of her." "We do not know their culture and they are stigmatized by news of wars and conflicts." All these sentences were spoken by Western people. How much of this is true?
While we now connect with Skype, Abir and I met at a conference in Alexandria and Cairo, Egypt, in May 2015. It was a meeting of 60 young people who lived in different countries in the Mediterranean Sea region and we came together to work and dialogue for peace. Among those 60 people, perhaps the one who surprised me the most was Abir, because she "pulled the veil" to my preconceptions about Muslim women.
She caught my attention, not because she was one of the first Muslim women I got to know, but because of her characteristics: her ease, extroversion, and colorful personality, dressed in black; her smile and her designer glasses, covered by a shiny headscarf.
One day, after breakfast, we were with other friends chatting, when suddenly we were startled by the sound of the adhán (call to prayer). Abir, very respectfully, asked us to be silent. Unintentionally, each one spontaneously made a personal prayer. How many gods had been invoked in a moment? Only one. Because although we do not have the same faith, we do share the same God. The adhán finished, we looked at each other and immediately we resumed the conversation with a joke of Abir.
Abir Biro El Khalqi is 22 years old, she has a contagious laughter, a loud voice, and a sense of humor loaded with sarcasm. Her parents are Moroccans. In their youth, they went to look for a better future in Italy, where she was born. Abir works, she wants to be a journalist, she volunteers, and she used to play basketball until time became too short to go ahead training.
What surprised me most about Abir was when she started speaking Italian with a strong regional accent. The same Italians are surprised: "They say I speak better than they do," she confesses with a smile. And I broke my first preconception: Why a Muslim Arab person cannot be from a country like Italy and speak Italian as Italians do? Are we in the era of globalization or not? If intercultural relations are already an ordinary fact, then why an Argentine who is living in Spain does not seem strange to me? Like a Syrian in Jordan or a Nigerian in South Africa! And so what? Why does it seem strange to me that an Italian woman is a Muslim Arab?
To see beyond
She is attractive in any context, although at times she would like not to be. She lives in Treviso, near Venice, in the Northern Veneto region. Up there, the extreme right-wing party “Lega Nord” (Northern League) governs, and many citizens are avowedly anti-Muslim, anti-African, anti-Arab, anti ... Usually people’s stares are set on Abir, thus producing in her a reaction with which no one would want to cope: "They look at you as if you were the terrorist on duty and you had a bomb under your veil, and it all gets very serious. At the time of Charlie Hebdo's attack, people were even more afraid of us. They take a distance, they let you through. It's ugly, because they think: 'they're all the same, they are all terrorists.'"
"Very often you feel trampled, also because not everything that is communicated is true. The media exaggerate and make up false situations, and eventually people understand what they want. You come to feel useless." However, she adds: "Nonetheless, you cannot blame them after what the media say, it's real that they make you afraid even of your next-door neighbour. It is necessary to know and not to judge. Through dialogue, we can generally make people change their mind. We do not always succeed, but we try."
When I ask questions related to her religion, even if they are formulated in the singular, she answers in the plural. I sense that they are a true community, a family, something great and transcendental that she chooses and loves.
She tells me that in recent years, the number of people who convert to Islam is on the rise, even if Islam is stigmatized. "As a result of prejudices, many people want to know more about what it is about and, when they understand it, they are converted," she explains. This has absolutely nothing to do with terrorist groups calling themselves Islamic. Whoever is converted, is attracted by the Qur'an's message of love, not by pathological forms of extremism.
At one point, I thought of asking her: "Abir, the image of Muslim women, for Westerners, corresponds to people deprived of freedom, oppressed ... Do you feel free?" "Absolutely," she replied. I believe her. Her face, her calm, everything speaks of freedom. After a brief pause, she continued: "Unfortunately, people say that Muslim women are subjected, because they generalize what happens in certain countries, but not out of a religious approach, but a cultural one. If you go to Iran, for example, it is undeniable that women are oppressed, but not because of Islam, which, on the contrary, tends to enhance women. In particular, I feel absolutely free. I am not subjected at all, I feel free to choose."
Then I asked her if, in her opinion, Western women are free. Her answer was really impressive. "Not necessarily, I think the word 'free' is a big one. Western women enjoy freedom of thought, no doubt about it. But I also see that women are very much used as an object, with this preconception that a woman must be a certain way, because otherwise, she is not a real woman or she is not a pretty girl, etc. It's ugly, because those ideas are dangerous. On the other hand, there is that ‘little issue’ that a woman is not valued or cannot impose herself by her intellect and intelligence, but only by her figure, her body, her beauty… although I think it is getting better recently.”
In the seven days that we were together in Egypt, Abir never repeated a hijab. She told me that she loves them, she has hijabs of many colors and for different seasons. As I became more acquainted with her and other Muslim young women from Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey, I found out that their veil and clothing, which according to our Western paradigm are considered oppressive, actually give them more freedom: they do not feel objectified in relation to their bodies. She makes it clear: "it is not compulsory to cover yourself, you do it if you are convinced, and nobody can force you". The black dress is one of the favorite clothes "because it is the traditional dress of Saudi Arabia (where Mecca is located, hometown of Prophet Muhammad and holy place of pilgrimage of Islam), called abaya," she adds.
And how about the myth of polygamy? A theme that in the West was generalized and vulgarized with the passing of time. "Having many women is considered retrograde. It is not the case anymore. The reality is that men cannot even manage with one woman. Imagine with more than one," she mocks and we all laugh. Then she explains that "the Prophet was married to four women, not because he did the good life and for the sake of pleasure, but he married them to save each of them from a different context."
Abir is like all other girls. She likes the social networks, she travels, she wants to make a career, and she has many friends. "I went for a trip with my Italian friends for a few days and it was great, because since it was Ramadan time (ninth month of the Muslim calendar in which daily fasting is implemented, as a practice of faith, from dawn until sunset), my friends sought to understand, to test, to get to know... I feel that I am not different. I also have my Muslim friends, with whom we do many things every
day, we work together in the Association, etc."Abir is like everyone else, but she is also different. She has her causes and makes her choices. She works full time as a volunteer in the Association Islamic Relief Italia, where they carry out humanitarian work for emergency situations like Syria, Pakistan, or Ethiopia. They raise funds at major events and then go to the affected places to help out: "Three days ago I went to a refugee camp in Greece. We brought humanitarian aid to Muslims who were living their Ramadan and to all others. We worked 'on the front line'."
During my conversations with Abir, the issue of the world situation arose. Conflicts, wars, and refugees, and how the West seems to be returning to its most ominous past. Abir in a sentence sums up the most important idea: "Either we join or we head to something not good at all".
"The truth is that nobody helps us. Neither the politicians nor the media: nobody. We are in a bad situation in this sense." Then we must meet them, talk, give them a voice. Because when we meet someone who is "different", we realize that we are not the only ones in the world, we do not possess the only truth, and we are not always right, but we nearly always have prejudices. And in the end, the funniest thing of all is that, as a matter of fact, we are not as different as we imagined.