March 31, 2004

Et tu, Italy? <:|


Aidan Lewis, Associated Press, 3/25/04
After France, headscarf issue causes ripples in Italy

ROME (AP) - The debate over headscarves that divided France has reached Italy, with a kindergarten asking a Muslim trainee teacher to remove her headscarf because it might frighten children.

The case has made headlines here and prompted debate among politicians and church officials over the role of Muslims in this predominantly Catholic country, just months after a Muslim activist went to court to have a crucifix removed from his son's public school classroom.

The issue arose last week when a private kindergarten in Samone, in northern Italy, voiced concern about the headscarf worn by a prospective intern, Moroccan-born Fatima Mouyache, who was being placed by a teacher training service.

The Miele & Cri-Cri kindergarten said it had agreed to accommodate Mouyache's schedule of daily prayers, but asked the training service if she would be willing to remove her headscarf. The school said it feared it might frighten the students.

In a statement sent to media organizations, the kindergarten said it wasn't acting out of prejudice but merely to avoid "the negative reaction of the children who aren't used to seeing this type of dress" and the possibility that parents might be uncomfortable with it.

In an interview Thursday in the Rome daily La Repubblica, Mouyache said she couldn't understand how the veil, which covers her hair but not her face, could frighten anyone.

If it did make children afraid, she said she could be flexible: "In front of women and children, I can take it off," she said.

After the story was publicized, the town council in nearby Ivrea offered Mouyache a position in another kindergarten and she accepted.

"We decided to offer her a position at the nursery in Ivrea to complete her training, with or without the veil, just as she likes," Andrea Benedino, a municipal official in Ivrea, said.

While saying many Samone parents agreed with the school's position, Benedino said he too didn't understand how the veil could frighten children, noting it was similar to those worn by Catholic nuns.

Italy is officially secular, but largely Roman Catholic.

The Mouyache case was the first one publicized in Italy. It follows last month's vote by France's lower house of parliament to ban students from wearing Islamic head scarves and other religious apparel in public schools.

The French government argued the law was needed to protect France's secular traditions and ward off rising Islamic fundamentalism; critics said it would inflame anti-French feelings among France's large Muslim minority.

Most politicians in Italy's center-right governing coalition have criticized the school and called for tolerance.

"The Muslim veil, worn with dignity and without ostentation, is a harmless symbol of cultural and religious identity that deserves our full respect," Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu said.

But the Northern League, an ally in Premier Silvio Berlusconi's government known for its xenophobia, has spoken out against the veil.

"If someone comes from the jungle and is used to going around dressed like Tarzan, they can do it there, but not here," Northern League senator Roberto Calderoli said.

The Northern League has recently taken up another issue concerning Islam, pushing for a law that would require referendums on requests to build mosques in Italy. The party contends Islamic culture is "historically antithetical" to Italian culture.

Confronted with such positions, even Vatican officials have chimed into the debate. Cardinal Julian Herranz, head of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, told Repubblica on Thursday the issue went beyond whether someone is allowed to wear a headscarf.

"Everybody must be allowed to freely profess their own faith, according to their own conscience, their own traditions," he said.


Posted by shereen at March 31, 2004 04:52 PM