SABAUDIA, Italy — Go to any public beach in Italy and chances are you’ll eventually see a woman wearing a veil and long skirt. But she likely won’t be a Muslim in a version of the controversial burqini. She will almost certainly be a Catholic nun in her summer habit either watching children in her care or, God forbid, just enjoying some sun, which is considered a human right here in Italy, where the sea defines the majority of the borders.
No one in Italy would dare blink an eye at the sight of a habit-wearing sister at the seaside or even in the water.
“We have nuns on the beach all the time,” Marco Beoni, a barista at a coffee bar along the sea near Sabaudia, about an hour south of Rome, told The Daily Beast. “They go in the water in their skirts and sit on blankets just like everyone else. Who cares what they are wearing. What’s the problem?”
In fact, most Italians are at odds with edicts at several French beach resorts banning women wearing the burqini (also spelled burkini), as the modest full coverage swimwear is called. Even Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls has waded into the debate in Paris, declaring the wearing of the burqini is "not compatible with the values of France and the Republic."
Italy’s interior minister, Angelino Alfano, himself no great fan of immigration or integration of non-Italians into the country, said he thought France was making a mistake by banning the burqini. “We aim to avoid certain prohibitions that can be interpreted as provocations that could trigger retaliation towards Italy,” he said when asked if Italy would follow France in banning what has been interpreted as religious wear on the beach. “After all, the ‘French model’ of integration has not yielded great results.”
It should be no surprise at all that the Catholic Church, for its part, doesn’t see any problem whatsoever with modest swimwear. The head of the Italian bishops, Monsignor Nunzio Galantino, said that caution is understandable, but only when tempered with common sense.
“It’s hard to imagine that a woman [in a burqini] who enters the water is there to carry out an attack,” he told the daily Corriere della Sera in a far-reaching interview on the topic. “I can only think of our nuns, and I think of our peasant grandmothers who still wear head coverings.”
Making an analogy with the wearing of a cross or a kippah, Galantino said, “The freedom to be granted to religious symbols should be considered on a par with the freedom to express one’s beliefs and to follow them in public life. And, let me tell you: I find it ironic that we are alarmed that a woman is overdressed while swimming in the sea!”
Izzeddin Elzir, the imam of the mosque in Florence and the president of Italy’s Union of Islamic Associations, has been posting photos of beach-going nuns in habits since the controversy arose in France. His Facebook account was briefly shut down and he had to prove his credentials after someone reported his account as “fake,” he told Corriere Fiorentino. “I didn’t write a single word on the photo,” he said. “The image of the sisters at the sea speaks for itself.”
Not everyone in Italy wants to let the burqini be, of course.
Roberto Calderoli of the xenophobic Northern League political party, who is busy protesting plans to build a mosque near the Leaning Tower of Pisa, says that Italy should ban the burqini and the burqa—and everything to do with Muslims in between—and launch a national register of imams and make it a crime for them not to openly condemn sharia law. (Burqinis do not cover the face; burqa, typically worn in Afghanistan, is used in Europe now to describe the niqab and other veils that cover the face except the eyes.)
Calderoli is trying to introduce a unified set of rules in the northern region of Lombardy to ban the wearing of burkinis in swimming pools, calling the full body suit “a symbol of arrogance and oppression and violence against women.”
He has so far been unsuccessful because many swimming pools are used for scuba diving lessons, and changing rules to make certain full body coverings illegal while accepting others has proved difficult.
Another surprising advocate of the ban is Lorella Zanardo, a feminist advocate whose documentary film Il Corpo Delle Donne, the body of a woman, about sexism in Italian television, has helped change archaic atttidues towards women in this country. She actually donned a burqini and went to the beach to see what the buzz was about. She says she found it to be “hot, heavy and uncomfortable.”
Even though Zanardo has spent her career trying to make sure women are appropriately covered up in the often blatantly sexist Italian media, she believes, at least in this case, that the covers should come off.
“I defend the right of Muslim women to break free of their cages,” she says. “Immigration should be an introduction to the culture, to the knowledge of rights, customs and traditions of other people. When I travel in the Arab world, I dress simply with a light veil, jeans or trousers. Why is it here we see sad scenes of [Muslim] women in Italy completely covered up and sweaty beside their men who have adopted the local customs and wear light clothes and shorts. Is that freedom? We must not allow the fear of sounding anti-Islamic trump feminism and the struggle for women’s rights.”
The line in the sand may have been drawn in France, but that’s clearly not the case in Italy where, at least for now, the beach is still sacred space for everyone, no matter what they are wearing.