“YOU’RE from Pakistan, right? I can tell from the nose!”
I was sitting in the airport transit area in Bahrain when this young Pakistani girl ran up to me. Her name was Sitara. She had been living in the Italian town of Brescia with her parents for a few years. Her father wouldn’t allow her to go to school, so she would always get into discussions with him. That’s when he decided it was time to send her back to Gujrat and get her married, just like her more traditional sister had long before her.
“So you’re going back to get married?” I asked.
“There’s no way I’m boarding the connecting flight to Pakistan!” she laughed. “I have some money, I’ll figure something out.”
I never heard from her again. This was seven years ago, but not much has changed for young women in Brescia today, the city in the northern region of Lombardy, Italy’s industrial hub, with the largest Pakistani minority in the country. About 70 per cent of the 118,000 Pakistani passport-holders live in and around the area, and only about 37pc of the total are women.
“You heard the story of one Sitara, but in Brescia all the stories are like that,” says Wajahat Abbas Kazmi, a Pakistani activist and film director living in Italy. Wajahat used to be a member of the community of Brescia until he decided to break his engagement and come out as being gay. His family left the city shortly afterwards to move back to Pakistan.
“My parents had spent years building a reputation for themselves. I didn’t fit in anymore,” he continues. “I was afraid of the consequences, which is why I told them over the phone before moving to a different city.”
Last week, Wajahat launched the campaign #TruthForSana on social networks after the case of Sana Cheema, the 25-year-old Italian Pakistani from Brescia, who died while on a trip to Pakistan visiting family, began making headlines. Investigations in Pakistan are still on, but the Italian press seems to have closed the case: Sana was murdered for so-called honour after refusing to marry the man her family had chosen for her.
It was easy for them to jump to conclusions due to the troubled relationship with this particular Pakistani community and the precedent of the 2006 murder of Hina Saleem, a 21-year-old from Brescia who was killed by her family for “becoming too Western”. At a moment that sees Italy as the main country of arrival for migrants in Europe and after a very polarised election that saw immigration at the top of the debate and resulted in Italians voting anti-establishment and for far-right parties in record numbers, people seem to be waiting for immigrants to make a false move.
Italy has made the mistake of dealing with the migration situation as an emergency from the start. This didn’t help integrate migrants and favoured the creation of small, closed communities. All the unfounded fears of migrants stealing people’s jobs, of Islamisation of the West, of an increase in crime, come out when a story like that of Sana is reported.
“The hijab she would have never worn while alive, was put on her dead body,” wrote one national newspaper in Italy. “She died where she was born, but where she never wanted to return,” wrote another. “This is how Muslim fathers keep them away from temptations,” was another’s headline.
Islam and its alleged incompatibility with the West is at the centre of the debate around this case. Honour killings are being labelled as a Pakistani phenomenon, connected to religion and a patriarchal society, and not to social class and education.
“My friends messaged me asking me if I’d heard about Sana,” says Iqra, a 19-year-old law student of Pakistani descent. “I had been watching the media coverage of the case and began getting worried about the future. Issues like these touch you personally. The media is spreading prejudice against our community by generalising the situation of all Pakistanis in Italy. We’re not all like that.”
Iqra grew up in Italy, studied in Italian public schools, and perfectly blended within society, yet she loves wearing traditional clothes and two of her best friends are second-generation Pakistani immigrants, just like her.
Thousands of Pakistanis reach Europe every year. They are mostly young, unskilled men with rural backgrounds. They seem to believe that they can come to this country and live without ever mixing with “the other”. Their purpose is usually to make enough money to support their families back home or to build a house to go back to.
“I wouldn’t kill my daughter if she wanted to marry an Italian,” says Waqar Amin, who was born in Italy and is expecting a baby girl. “I wouldn’t be happy and I would tell her I disapprove. We shouldn’t hate Italians, especially since we live in this country, but our culture is different.”
Even if police end up revealing that Sana Cheema did die from natural causes, it will be too late to stop the backlash this case has caused on the entire Pakistani community in Italy.
Published in Dawn, April 29th, 2018