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Short skirts and short tempers: Italy's media and Islamophobia

How did a tiny, inconsequential bit of local news in Amsterdam get picked up and made a major discussion topic in Italy's media?

Alessio Colonnelli
2 April 2016
marzan.jpg

Michela Marzano. CC.

Desk clerks working in the Amsterdam district of Nieuw-West are allegedly no longer allowed to wear short skirts or dresses at work.

According to Amsterdam’s Central Works Council, female officials received an email from their team leader saying that they are no longer allowed to wear knee-high boots and short skirts. Local broadcaster AT5 reported that the team leader believes that people who visit the district office may find the clothing offensive.

This tiny piece of local news, of which you’ll find hardly any trace internationally, was nonetheless widely reported in the Italian newspapers. Il Giornale, Libero and Corriere della Sera led the way. The sober news portal Il Post sensibly asked its readers why in their view the non-event in the Netherlands caught on so well among Italian commentators.

Il Giornale claimed that “the Netherlands ban miniskirts to avoid offending Muslims,” while Libero bizarrely published “Goodbye miniskirts, we expect a future with the veil: in the Netherlands they forbid them so as not to irritate Muslims.” Distortion is not the word. Consider also this: the day after the Paris attacks, Libero published as the main headline of the day: “Bastard Muslims”. (Just so that you know the type...)

But can anyone really imagine the Dutch forbidding mini-skirts nationwide for fear of offending Islam? Three categories of people were insulted here, in one fell swoop: Italian readers and their intelligence; the Dutch; and all Muslims.

The usually moderate Corriere della Sera surprisingly showed no more sense; it reported on the news on 29 March and even devoted two in-depth editorials two days later. The authoritative paper managed to get the superlative thinker Michela Marzano to write an op-ed on this supposed banning of short skirts.

Marzano drew comparisons with the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s visit to Italy, during which a couple of naked statues were covered up upon his firm request. This was also blown out of proportion by the Italian media: prime minister Matteo Renzi was apparently bending his knee to an obscurantist invader.

Twisting cultural matters can make a brilliant political dagger, at times. It certainly worked on that occasion – Renzi was made to look like a complete fool. Anything goes in the Italian political arena (you can use Iran, Nieuw-West or the back of beyond, whatever) with backstabbing allowed at any given opportunity, no actual reason given.

So, it’s like some papers have an agenda to portray Islam as menacing European values of liberty and personal freedom. Marzano – a former leftist member of parliament – also explained that we, as men, should not accept things like avoiding shaking hands with a Muslim woman.

This happened to me once in London, having been invited for a coffee by a Muslim friend, one woman I was introduced to didn’t want to shake my hand; yet, she politely acknowledged me and explained, in a classic London twang, that this was because of her religion. Fine, I thought.

Incidentally, how many people did I meet in Northern Europe, where people tend to be less touchy-feely (a trait that can invade your personal space, when uninvited, displaying a sense of entitlement), ʽforgot’ to offer their hand to me when introduced? Shaking hands is great, but it doesn’t always happen and that’s OK.

The author of the other Corriere op-ed, Pierluigi Battista, droned on about Mary Quant, Swinging London and the Rolling Stones, implying that we must reject such sweeping attacks on freedoms. “Those centimetres of visible skin [represent] the freedom emancipating us from the chains of morality.” Yes, absolutely.

But the point is: who on earth is telling us that mini-skirts should be banned? Who’s threatening us as a civilization? Let’s name names, please. Otherwise, we are just filling up blank pages and unnecessarily sowing the seeds of suspicion in some along the way. That’s how you start breaking up communities. But have you given much thought to this if you’re a well-paid journo writing for a national paper and living in a privileged environment? Many Muslims happen to be working class living in the cheaper parts of our towns – easy targets.

To transmit the message that the public should be warned of an imminent avalanche of tyrannical hordes, and that we should all feel indignant about it, is an insidious game. Away from artificially lit news desks, the reality is that Muslims live alongside us. They are among our colleagues at work. By far and large, they are tax-paying, law-abiding decent members of our communities.

It’d be disastrous for everyone to end up looking at them suspiciously because of what we read in the news and follow-up comments based on irrelevant minor events masterfully blown out of proportion for reasons that sometimes are difficult to fathom.

In a statement, “Amsterdam Town Hall said there was no ban on short skirts being put in place and that the email had been sent as a clarification following an internal dispute, and not in response to any complaints received by the public,” pointed out Il Post, also specifying that no-one had ever mentioned Islam or the possibility that Muslim citizens in the neighborhood felt offended.

Something’s up in Italy – and not only there.

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