Italy’s reputation for religious tolerance was in the balance last week after a ban on women wearing burqas instigated in a tiny Alpine village began spreading across the country.
An Italian woman who converted to Islam nine years ago and took to veiling her face after performing the Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, has received two fines from the authorities in the village where she has lived all her life.
Sabrina Varroni, 34, converted after marrying her Moroccan husband, with whom she has four children. There are 10 other Muslims in the village, but she is the only who wears the veil. The mayor of Drezzo, the 1,000-strong village near the Swiss border where she lives, has strong views on such practices.
A member of the xenophobic and separatist Northern League, Cristian Tolettini found two laws on the books to help him stamp them out: one passed under Mussolini’s fascist rule in 1931, banning the wearing of masks in public, and another dating from 1975, at the height of the Red Brigades scare, forbidding the wearing of items that disguise a person’s identity. And he has instructed local police to enforce them.
As a result, last week Drezzo’s only policeman handed Ms Varroni two penalty notices on successive days, each for about £25: once when she was waiting at the bus stop for her children to come home from school, once in the municipal office.
The following day she seemed likely to get another if she didn’t remove her veil. Instead she stayed indoors.
Despite the evident absurdity of a village woman known to all the other inhabitants being fined for setting foot outside her home, Mr Tolettini defends his action. For Ms Varroni to go around wearing the burqa, he said, was “a continual and conscious violation of the law” which was “not a question of principle but of correctness. The law of ’75 was enacted in light of the terrorism of the Red Brigades, and today too it seems to me that reasons of security are not lacking.”
Through a lawyer, Ms Varroni said: “I have been wearing the veil for years, I am Italian, raised in Drezzo, and I have never done any harm to anyone. Why are they so furious with me?”
The assault on the right to wear the burqa has been condemned as “an ignoble act of persecution” by left-wingers. Michele Ainis, a legal expert, told the newspaper Corriere della Sera that the law enacted under Mussolini was “one of the most fascist laws in 20 years of fascism”, and that he was sure Italy’s Constitutional Court would overturn this application of it. But this week Mr Tolettini’s initiative began spreading.
Mario Borghezio, a Northern League MEP, said the burqa deserved to be banned because it is “a symbol of the most obscurantist type of Islamic fundamentalism” and has become a “symbol of death” because some of the women involved in the Beslan massacre were veiled.
In parliament, the Minister for Parliamentary Relations, Carlo Giovanardi, told MPs that the ban would be enforced. And in a village near Treviso, in the Veneto region, a Bangladeshi woman wearing a burqa was challenged by a policeman in the street and taken to the police station, where she removed it.