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Muslim Sisters
November 21, 2022

We do not want to change minds but we want to bring a self-representation

The voices of Kawtar Faik and Aicha Traore, interviewed by Sara Manisera, FADA Collective

Blackn[è]ss fest is the first festival in Italy which presents a re-elaborated version of the African lineage universe. Events and roundtables are organized both to think about the concept of being black, following a path of decolonization of the language, and to discuss topics such as mental health issues linked to racial profiling, discrimination, racism, and also music, cinema, media and representation of black people . 

Voice Over Foundation chose to accompany the festival in this path and it decided to tell stories about it through the protagonists' voices during the whole year. 

Interview with Kawtar Faik and Aicha Traore, co-founders of Your Muslim Sisters Chitchat, first podcast for Muslims and non-Muslims created by veiled Italian women. 

Q: What is your name? Can you tell us who you are and what you do? 

Aicha: I'm Aicha, I'm 25 years old, I graduated in midwifery and for the past couple of years I moved to London where I work as a midwife and originally, I'm from the Ivory Coast, if anyone is wondering (laughs). 

Kawtar: I'm Kawtar, I'm 25 years old, I'm from the province of Vicenza, I studied at the University of Padua orthoptics and ophthalmic care and today I live in Udine where I've been working for almost two years. I am originally from Morocco. 

Q: How did the Your Muslim Sisters Chitchat project come about and why did it come about? 

Kawtar: Aicha and I studied together in high school and many times we talked about the need to do something for the community, particularly to give a voice to the second generation. In 2020, during the pandemic, we decided to launch the podcast to turn our idea into something concrete, then the Instagram page was born to share podcast chats. From this initiative we invited people, guests and created this virtual community. 

Q: Have there been any unexpected results from this podcast? 

Aicha: I think it mostly comes from people's comments. Once a lady wrote to us saying that she saw hijab as an imposition and thanks to our podcasts she changed her mind. We don't aim to change people's minds, we want to bring a self-representation of who we are and then everyone reflects on it. Or, another time, a girl contacted us saying that the teacher in class had mentioned us. These are results that we were not aiming for but make us proud. 

Q: Does the need for self-representation stem from the fact that there is a lack of space for real representation in the media, especially traditional media? Does it? 

Aicha: In traditional media there is a lack of these voices and a lack of direct narration by the protagonists. When you tell about the other person, without knowing them, there is a deficit of narration, because it is difficult to represent the other person's point of view. 

Kawtar: As much as you are the one telling the story, you show your person, unfiltered. 

Q: What are the most common stereotypes about people of the Muslim faith? 

Kawtar: There is always a tendency to think that the Muslim family is more closed, more conservative and that women are considered inferior, subordinate. Conversely, people think that Islam is a non-open religion, even though, in fact, it is a welcoming religion. 

Aicha: There are many families of the Muslim faith where the woman is put in the background and where there is a strong patriarchy however this is not related to religion but to the cultural heritage of the countries of origin of the parents of these second generations. I have met Italian kids, 100 percent native, from Italian generations, who have a similarly conservative mentality. You wouldn't say "it's associated with their Christianity or their religion". Unfortunately, sometimes cultural values get confused with religious values that are passed off as cultural but have nothing to do with the dictates of religion. The cultural community is too often mistaken for the religious community. Another big stereotype is to think that all Arabs are Muslims. I will never tire of repeating it: in the world Muslim community, the Umma, Arabs are 20 percent. The typical average Muslim, if we were to portray him, would be someone from Indonesia or Malaysia. 

Q: For an Italian Muslim woman who wants to engage is very difficult, especially when the woman wears the veil. Nevertheless, I have seen in recent years a great deal of activism among women, socially, politically and culturally - from you, through Marwa Mahmoud, to Sumaya Abdel Qader to Asmae Dachan, just to name a few. Why? Because there is so much desire to redeem themselves and to be protagonists, to be there, to take the public space. Is that the case? 

Kawtar: Yes, although I don't agree with the word "redeem" because it seems like we were stuck or limited before. I would define it more as a desire for self-assertion because the Italian society of now is not the society of 20 years ago but it is a society that is changing where there are so many people who want to self-determine, assert themselves and tell their experience because each experience is different from another. 

Aicha: Our generation has had to mature in order to have the tools for dialogue and self-representation. Twenty or twenty-five years ago, there was no one from the second generation and so Sumaya was alone while today there are so many second-generation daughters and sons present in different fields, from comics to medicine, from journalism to fashion, from art to music. 

Q: So many young people leave Italy due to lack of job opportunities. Among them, there is a percentage of the so-called "second generation" who choose to leave because of career blocks, prejudices they face. Is that the case? 

Aicha: I agree with that. Many choose to leave because of an economic issue, as, moreover, do many young people who are not part of a minority because they struggle to imagine a future in Italy. Add to that the competition in the job market: it is already difficult to find work, then if you are also discriminated against because of your appearance or visible signs of faith, the difficulty increases. Many people leave because of a question of identity because they don't feel free. In Italy, if I wanted to dress a certain way, I know I would attract attention, my faith would always be seen in a certain way making me feel like "sorry to bother you." People experience different racism and discrimination here in Italy. Some experience them better, some worse, some for a mental health issue prefer to leave, some want to go abroad for experience. 

Kawtar: I chose to stay, I wanted to try to have an experience abroad but always with the idea of coming back because Italy for me is Italy. I understand, of course, the difficulty for a person who belongs to the minority to find work in Italy. It depends on the context, the area, your fate and luck. There are those who find themselves surrounded by people who have a "good" mentality but there are also people who are more closed-minded. There are so many factors to consider. 

Aicha: I emigrated for an economic issue and I would go back to Italy today but for my faith, here in London I feel more relaxed because it is a multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious city. Even just the fact that during the hospital internship you can go and do a prayer and you have a room to do it ... In Italy it doesn't exist. Here, however, it is normalized. Or even on clothing; today I go out in jeans, tomorrow in an abaya because it's more comfortable for me. No one discriminates against you with the look. These seem like small things but they are not. It's not like everyone knows your religion but there is a climate of tolerance and respect for the other, which is not the case in Italy. 

Q: How do you normalise all this in Italy? 

Aicha: For the new generations something is changing, thanks to these pages, to the internet... The problem is that Italy is not a young country... (laughs). It would be desirable for the traditional media to be more inclusive. It would take an opening from the upper echelons, from the older generation, which I don't think will happen. 

Kawtar: Italian generations with a migration background are still few compared to other countries, then our Italian society is old. Change must also come from the institutions. I don't think we will bring change but our generation can and must work to get into high positions to change the mentality. Even today when I work in a hospital, patients ask me 'but where are you from?' And I answer 'I am from Veneto', and you see they struggle. It's the first time they see a doctor wearing a veil and they are curious. In addition to doing my job, I have to explain my origins to them, which is fine with me, but it shows that there is still a lot of work to be done. Something is moving but we are only at the beginning. 

Q: We met at Blackness Fest. What do you think about this festival and why is this safe space important? 

Aicha: A space designed to create, connect, learn, share moments of anti-racist reflection is always welcome even if there aren't many of them and it's good to see that we are moving in this direction. It was a very inclusive environment not only in terms of the audience but also the food. In line I asked if the meat was halal, and the girl says 'of course it's halal because this is an inclusive space'. I have never been to a secular event where the meat was halal. So yes, it is a safe space and it was a nice moment of exchange and getting to know so many people with so many experiences from all over Italy. It's that part of Italy that they never let you see. 

Q: Dreams and projects in the drawer in the future? 

Aicha: We have an event in the next few weeks with Francesca Bocca on mental health, both from a psychological and a religious point of view. We are definitely privileged to talk about these issues compared to our parents because they had other priorities once they emigrated, but I think it is really important to address certain issues, to clear them through customs and bring them to the centre of public debate. 

Kawtar: The other big dream is to do a Muslim festival in Italy, so to show the Muslim community live. There are not only Arabs when we talk about Islam in Italy, there is not only the theological in Islam but there is so much more... Starting with the food! We would like to organise a Muslim Fest, like the one in Canada, open to everyone, not just Muslims, but which could serve to learn something new. 


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