By Giulia Dessì
Earlier this month, Italian aid worker Silvia Romano arrived home after being freed from the Al Shabaab terrorist network, who is suspected to be behind her kidnapping in Kenya two years ago.
However, while many are celebrating her safe return across the country, the media has latched onto the fact that she claims to have freely converted to Islam, wears traditional Muslim garments, such as the jilbab, and now goes by the name Aisha.
“I converted to Islam, but it was my free choice,” Aisha Silvia Romano told the investigators, according to the news agency Ansa.
The media’s response was brutal. First, the front page of the daily Il Giornale published the headline, “A slap to Italy. Islamic and happy. Silvia the ungrateful,” shortly followed by, “We paid 4 millions to save her, but the volunteer came back with the uniform of the jihadist enemy” while blaming her for converting to Islam on her own free will in the subtitle.
As if this wasn’t enough, Il Giornale’s editor-in-chief compared her return wearing Muslim clothing to “a concentration camp prisoner coming back dressed as a nazi.”
The right wing daily, Libero bemoaned the fact that “We freed an Islamic one,” and blamed Romano for being “soft” with the “Allaah terrorists,” musing that overenthusiastic imams were likely looking forward to seeing her.
This kind of Islamophobic discourse is not uncommon in the right-wing Italian press, but what is striking in this case is the level of rage and violent language that has been directed at Romano, specifically.
“We witnessed a media which-hunt that is violent, misogynistic, racist and Islamophobic”, said Italian-Syrian journalist Asmae Dachan, speaking to the many intersections of hatred on display in the press coverage of the Italian aid worker’s release.
“There has been rage against a victim, unleashing hate, resentment, and a mentality that are all worrying,” she continued. “What leaves one speechless is that some hate speech does not come only from keyboard warriors, hidden behind internet anonymity, but also from people that hold prominent political and cultural positions.”
Aisha Silvia Romano was attacked for wearing “a horrible table cloth”, “a rubbish bag”, “a gift to the terrorists”. She was accused of having betrayed those who saved her, to have wasted Italian taxpayers’ money, and to be a “neo-terrorist” while the hashtag #StockholmSyndrome trended on Twitter.
Behind these attacks, there is a not-too-implicit imaginary of what Italian society is and should look like. According to Monica Massari, Associate Professor of Sociology at the Department of International, Legal and Historical-Political Studies of the University of Milan, the fact that she was a woman, and more specifically a white woman who decided to convert to Islam after being captive of an Islamist group was crucial to the unleashing of hateful remarks.
“It [her conversion]was interpreted as an unforgivable betrayal towards a social construction which is quite false, even though it continues to be successful,” said Massari, speaking to the Italian media’s obsession with Italy as a racially, ethnically and religiously homogenous nation.
“A social construct that is completely mystifying and erroneous, is the one that represents Italian society as homogenous, catholic, white, ethnically uniform. This is something that has stopped existing for years.”
Equally central, in provoking public outrage, was the fact that Romano defied the victim expectations. “I’ve been strong. I resisted,” she said with a smile.
“She doesn’t cry. She smiles. It is a revolutionary gesture that creates disorientation among some people,” Massari continued, applauding Romano’s tenacity, and the way it has confused right wing media outlets.
“She’s not a mute victim, or prey. She does not adapt to the figure of the crying victim, but rather asserts her resilience. And this provokes envy, as a deep underground social sentiment, against those who have strength and identify in what they believe in.”
Compared to the conservative press, the Italian liberal and left-wing media used more moderate tones, but in their fixation on the conversion there surfaced some prejudiced remarks against Muslims, and an unethical intrusion in Romano’s private life.
In the left-wing daily La Repubblica, the Moroccan writer Tar Ben Jelloun, known for his 1990s best seller “Racism explained to my daughter,” criticized Romano’s conversion. He stated that Romano appeared in the “uniform of a hard-line, integralist, and anti-Western Islam. If she truly resisted, he mused, she would have not espoused the ideology or religion of her oppressor.
Asmae Dachan felt her conversion should be a private matter.
“There shouldn’t have been a discussion about this [the conversion],” she said. The media’s persistence has been so great that Romano needs police protection.
“These are sensitive, private elements of a person’s life that shouldn’t be publicized, let alone a vulnerable person who has been the victim of a kidnapping.”
In addition to invading Romano’s privacy, the liberal press betrayed a clear lack of knowledge regarding Islam and the Global South, mislabelling the jilbab as “traditional Somali dress,”- something that Igiaba Scego, Italian writer of Somali origins, points out doesn’t exist.
Some outlets have attempted to counter the flood of hatred against Romano. Columnists in Il Corriere, Il Manifesto, and Il Fatto Quotidiano, have denounced the sexism that underpins the attacks, highlighting that a number of kidnapped men have converted to Islam, and did not receive such a torrent of abuse. They also criticised the framing of Romano as naive— which appeared since her abduction, notably her depiction as Little Red Riding Hood, the sweet but gullible girl with an urge to do good.
While these critiques are important, there has been a distinct absence of reflection on the origins and pervasiveness of Islamophobia in Italian society (with some exceptions), particularly shocking when considering Italy’s colonial past in East Africa. After being declared an Italian protectorate at the end of the 19th century, Somalia became an Italian colony in 1908, and continued to be so, with fluctuating degrees of control, until the nineteen sixties.
“There hasn’t been a discussion about why she was kidnapped, and especially the relations between Italy and Somalia,” Massari said. “None of this has been object of public debate.”
Romano’s case brings to the surface a range of different forms of discrimination that overlap and intersect. She is an object of both Islamophobia and sexism, rendering her simultaneously dangerous and naive, powerless and overconfident. Her white skin, seen beneath the jilbab, is a threat to the illusion of cultural homogeneity around which Western European national identities are built. But will the media challenge why this makes Italians so uncomfortable? If left alone, it will only keep reinforcing the stereotypes that perpetuate it.