Italy and the Veil

Berlusconi's dismal reputation on gender equality puts a new spin on his country's debate over wearing the veil

Ruggeri Sep 2 p.jpg

Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Rome / Reuters

ROME, Italy -- Under the guise of "female empowerment," members of the Italian parliament are supporting a bill to ban the full veil worn by some Muslim women. But Italy has much bigger problems than its citizens' clothing choices.

Italy is faced by a worsening debt crisis, rife corruption, and the "bunga bunga" scandals of Premier Silvio Berlusconi's rule. The country should, perhaps, be spending energy on topics that could potentially help more than the 3,000 people in Italy that this bill would affect. Worse, there's absolutely no evidence that banning a clothing item helps anybody at all. Except, that is, for lawmakers, who can distract Italians from the bigger problems at hand -- and win plaudits for their "human rights" work.

Given Italy's dismal reputation when it comes to sexual equality, that's pretty bold. A survey last month found that Italian women are the unhappiest in Europe; far from the stereotype of the cheery Italian "mamma", two-thirds of women say they regret having had children. Women are a smaller percentage of the labor force in Italy than any other EU nation but Malta, they earn 20 percent less than men, and they hold only seven percent of Italy's positions in corporate management.

Embodying, and in some ways causing, the problems is Berlusconi who has (allegedly) been convincing women as young as 17 to partake in his parties involving stripteases and sex in return for such "gifts" as political appointments.

Perhaps coincidentally, a member of Berlusconi's own party proposed the ban on veils. Whether or not the ban is meant to be a distraction from other problems such as gender inequality and fiscal ruin, it is definitely a mistake. As in France and Belgium, Italy's law proposes to ban the "full veil," one of a multitude of headcoverings along with a niqab (face-covering), or more notoriously still, the burqa. Thanks to the Taliban's deserved notoriety, most Westerners conflate any full covering with cruelty and misogyny. But Afghan women wore the burqa, which they call the chaderi, long before the Taliban existed -- as early as the 18th century. It's no surprise, therefore, that many still wear it now that the regime is out of power.

One thing that's often missed in the debate over "the veil" is that, for the women who wear the covering, its meanings are as many-layered as the garment itself. In one study on the chaderi's usage, most Afghan women who wore the covering were nonchalant. They made it seem "nearly equivalent to the Western raincoat," reported study author M. Catherine Daly. When pressed, women told her that they wore the chaderi for its protection -- both from weather and unwelcome male attention.

The chaderi has social functions, too. With its abundance of cloth and craftsmanship, it's often seen as a sign of wealth and class -- although in the late 20th century, as upper classes started dressing more like Europeans, the chaderi started to connote country bumpkin. The covering also symbolizes honor. One woman told Daly that if her husband didn't buy her a chaderi, she'd think he didn't appreciate her.

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Amanda Ruggeri is a freelance journalist living in Rome. She has written for World Policy Journal, Mother Jones, The Guardian, and Global Post, among other publications.

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