Originally Moroccan, Sharifa moved to Italy after marrying her cousin. In this interview with TNF, she tells her story of resilience and courage and shares her views on feminism, Islam, and the veil, explaining how these define her identity and can peacefully coexist.
The interviewer keeps firing questions at her, listening carefully to her answers, perhaps hoping that she makes a faux pas, that she says something wrong. But Sharifa is in control. She does not let the man intimidate her. She has just got divorced in a country which, after nine long years, still feels foreign to her. She needs the job, and he knows that too.
‘I really like you,’ he eventually announces. ‘You are exactly what we are looking for.’
‘Thanks!’ she replies, ecstatic.
‘Shall we go for a coffee to discuss the role further?’ he suggests.
He supervises several tax assistance centres scattered across the whole of the Lombardy region, known as CAF, where both employers and workers can go to get help with any tax-related issues. Many of their customers are Arab immigrants, so someone like Sharifa, with her bubbly personality and language skills, would be a great asset to the business, he tells her.
‘I can already picture you managing the Sesto S. Giovanni branch and expanding it further,’ he says as he sips his espresso. ‘But…’ he pauses.
Sharifa looks at him confused, as she fiddles with her hijab. What’s wrong now? she thinks.
‘You know, there is a girl like you… a Muslim girl I mean…who used to wear the veil and then took it off when she started the job,’ he says, casually dropping the remark in the conversation as if he were testing her reaction. Then he accompanies her to the bus stop, promising her that he would get in touch to confirm an employment offer over the coming days.
A week later, he asks her to reach him at the Milan office. But to her surprise, as soon as she arrives, she is approached by the office manager, a middle-aged Lebanese lady, who tells her that she could have the job, provided that she accepted to take off her veil. She too used to wear it, but had eventually taken it off, the lady explains trying to convince her. Four years have gone by since that humiliating episode, but Sharifa still remembers it as if it were yesterday.
‘I was speechless,’ she recounts. ‘I told them that I would think it over, but I could not sleep for three nights[…]I even asked my family back in Morocco for advice, although, usually, I never do that. My mum told me: “If you like the job, then just take it off”.’ She couldn’t. On the third day, she rejected the offer. ‘I told [the manager] that I am like this. Whoever accepts me, must accept me as I am.’
‘The veil is not just a piece of cloth over my head,’ she carries on. ‘It is a part of me, of my identity. If you are telling me to take it off, you are invading my freedom, my intimacy. And if there is something I cannot accept is people offering me unwarranted advice on how I should dress or eat,’ she states confidently. The hijab is her freedom, she says, noting how the Arabic word means to protect or cover, as one would do with anything precious.
Sharifa is only thirty-one, but she speaks with the confidence and pragmatism of a woman who saw it all in life. However, her struggles did not embitter her. Quite the opposite: she has a cheerful and feisty personality, and contagious, relentless energy. She was only eighteen when she left her village, near Errachidia −one of Morocco’s most ancient cities, in the south-east of the country− her family, and anything she knew behind after marrying her cousin, who worked as a construction worker in Milan. ‘It’s been very hard to move away from my family,’ she says with a broken voice.
‘I come from a large household. I have three older sisters and three younger brothers. As the youngest girl, I was the most spoiled. I did not do any housework as I would ask my sisters to do that for me and I had a very active life. I loved reading and meeting new people. My father had a sort of hotel, and when he was not at home, I would help with the business, looking after the tourists,’ she explains. But after moving to Italy, her life changes dramatically.
She moves into her husband’s family home near Bergamo, which she shares with him, his brother, her sister-in-law, and her husband. Her husband leaves home every day at 5 am to go to work and comes back twelve hours later, leaving her alone with her sister-in-law, whom she has little in common with.
‘We did not speak the same language,’ she says, referring to their different outlooks on life. She misses the freedom that she had back home, where she could spend hours reading a book, rather than employ most of her time cooking like her sister-in-law did. ‘I had to make do,’ she explains. Then, after a short pause, she adds: ‘But I don’t like to make do.’
Indeed, after a few months, she decides to overcome her feelings of loneliness and homesickness and do her best to adjust to her new environment. ‘I could not go back,’ she explains. ‘So, I decided to embrace my new life.’ Her mother-in-law could not understand her passion for reading and poetry. To her, it was just a waste of time.
Despite the lack of family support however, Sharifa did not give in. ‘I learned something from life. You don’t need to wait for people to grant you your rights. You must take them yourself,’ Sharifa says.
She goes to a public library and borrows books in Arabic, enrols at an Italian language school, and starts to make new friends. ‘At first, my husband was not very convinced about me attending night classes. He used to say I did not need to go to school to learn Italian, but in the end, he accepted that,’ she explains, arguing that if you ask someone for permission to do something rather than simply informing them about your plans, they are much more likely to say no. Sharifa does not consider herself a victim. She firmly believes that women can exert a strong influence over men but that often they do not know how to communicate with each other.
As she gradually improves her language skills by chatting to random people and attending a professional baking course, she also starts reflecting on her own faith, researching other religions, and reading the Bible. ‘I did not want to be Muslim by heritage. I wanted to be Muslim by choice,’ she tells me. And that’s exactly how she feels now. She is keen to share her message with fellow women to dismantle the stereotypes portraying all Muslim women as oppressed and submissive. ‘There is [gender inequality] all over the world, and Islam has nothing to do with it. It is the sexist patriarchal culture that is responsible for that,’ she asserts.
‘In Islam, the woman is a queen,’ she says. Sharifa, who, during her thirteen years in Italy held various roles including as cleaner, babysitter, interpreter, and currently Arabic language teacher as well as a carer for an elderly lady, has also volunteered at Caritas, a humanitarian and development agency run by the Catholic Church.
That was where she experienced another episode of racism and discrimination. A lady had entered the office where she worked as a receptionist, but upon seeing Sharifa, she scanned her from top to bottom and addressed her Italian colleague instead, who was working in a different role. Her colleague explained to the lady that Sharifa was the only person who could deal with her enquiry, but the lady insisted that she would wait for her. When she finally accepted to be served by Sharifa, a long queue of people was in front of her. Sharifa looked at the lady and calmly told her that she would get served after them.
‘I explained to the lady that I was volunteering there. Therefore, she should have appreciated that I was offering her a service for free rather than judge me because of my headscarf,’ she points out.
She is definitely an optimist, I think as she keeps talking. Indeed, she can find a bright side, a hidden lesson to be learned, in any of her experiences. ‘That time I discovered who I am, I discovered that I am more than what I thought.’ She laughs. People’s prejudice no longer affects her. She knows that any time a neighbour does not reciprocate her greeting, or someone on the bus changes seat to move away from her or stares at her, they are not doing that because they are afraid of her, but because people are afraid of anything they do not know.
‘My neighbour at first was very distrustful. She would never say hi to me,’ she tells me. ‘One day, since I had not seen her around for a whole week and, being an elderly lady, I got worried, I rang her bell and asked her how she was. She really appreciated that and invited me for a coffee. Since then, we have been meeting regularly. She told me I was like a daughter to her,’ she proudly confesses.
Sharifa, who arrived in Italy not speaking a word of Italian, not only obtained the Italian middle school diploma, but also moved on to attend high school, after being encouraged by a fellow student, a fifty-three-old lady. ‘If she could do that at her age, why couldn’t I do the same?’ she says. I ask her whether she considers herself a feminist. ‘If we are talking about believing in equal rights, yes, I am a feminist. Religion gave us all the freedom and independence we need and more. As a woman, I can do whatever I want with my salary and I don’t need to share it with my husband as he must financially provide for our family, I don’t need to fast if I am on my period. If my inheritance share is half that of a man is simply because I can keep it for myself and I don’t have to maintain my family and children as a man has to,’ Sharifa explains.
She does not feel represented by mainstream feminist movements which are gaining ground across Arab countries, as, in her view, they fail to defend a woman’s right to freedom of choice. ‘If you are a feminist, why don’t you fight for all women then?’ she asks. ‘I defend every woman’s freedom of choice, whether she wants to wear a miniskirt or a veil,’ Sharifa stresses. She criticises what she views as inconsistencies and double standards in Arab feminism discourse, pointing out that in her home country, a woman cannot access certain training academies, become a police officer, or a TV presenter if she wears the hijab. ‘If you want to do something for women, do it for every woman, not just because you are against the veil or the culture,’ Sharifa says.
Despite her marriage ending up in divorce due to some incompatibilities, she holds her former spouse in high esteem. ‘My ex-husband has always been respectful towards me. He is a good, understanding man. He just failed as a husband.’ Some of her friends, however, have not been as lucky, having endured physical and emotional abuse at the hands of their partners. She acknowledges that Arab culture tends to dominate women and limit their freedom but believes that this would not happen if only men followed the principles laid out by their religion.
‘In Islam, women and men are sisters and brothers,’ she explains. What can we do to change things then, to fight the patriarchal mentality deeply rooted in our societies? She has no doubt. ‘A woman should not accept any lack of respect, not even a “shut up!”, because if she accepts to be shut up, she will even accept a beating eventually,’ Sharifa concludes.