'It's more awkward as a Muslim woman at home'

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Photo: Sarita Agerman
16:00 CET+01:00
Sarita Agerman, from the UK, chose Bologna on a whim for her Erasmus placement and never imagined she'd return after graduating. She speaks to The Local about being a Muslim in Italy and becoming a permanent resident.

What made you decide to return to Bologna after university?

I'd love to have a unique answer but I'm afraid I have to churn out the age-old cliché of returning to Italy for love.

I met a man while I was studying in Italy as an Erasmus student and came back after I'd graduated to be with him and to explore my interest in being an English teacher.

What were the main differences between life in Italy as an Erasmus student and as a permanent resident?

The main difference is a change in mentality. When you're an Erasmus student, you're consciously aware that time is flying by and you'll be going home soon. So you learn enough Italian to get by.

You memorize the important words like 'sciopero' (strike) and 'in bocca al lupo' (the Italian equivalent of 'break a leg'), but you won't worry yourself about bureaucratic language, formal Italian or the dreaded 'passato remoto' (past historic tense).  

As an Erasmus student, bureaucratic problems become the basis of a hilarious anecdote at the next dinner party. As a permanent resident, they become the bane of your life. You'll still enjoy ranting about them to your nearest and dearest though.

Without the excuse of being an Erasmus student, you begin to feel embarrassed in social situations and realize you've got to knuckle down and learn some serious vocabulary, not just the rude words and funny expressions!

Thankfully, being in the workplace means you're surrounded by people of all ages and so you're suddenly exposed to new ways of speaking and more obscure idioms.

It's at this stage that you'll have your first fully-fledged dream in Italian, you'll watch a programme and realize you understood it without subtitles, or you'll recall a conversation but won't be able to remember if it was in English or Italian.

How easy was it to find work in Italy?

I was incredibly fortunate to find a job in a relatively short amount of time. After only a week or so of searching I was given a job with a private school and I've been working there for nearly three years.

While I was searching for a teaching post, I found that a lot of my inquiring emails went unanswered and that the best way to contact potential Italian employers is to phone or, better yet, go in and speak with them face to face.

Several schools only spoke to those who had full TEFL qualifications but that isn't always necessary. English teachers are in demand in Italy, whether it's for extracurricular lessons to children or helping adults who are hoping to boost their CV.

What's it like being a Muslim woman in Catholic Italy?

I haven't had any particular difficulties in Italy as a Muslim woman. Although the comparison between nuns and hijabis is often overdone, I think the presence of nuns wandering around Italy means that the idea of covering one's hair for the purpose of modesty is not such a foreign idea.

In fact, the Italian politician Roberto Maroni once said, “If the Virgin Mary appears wearing a veil in all her pictures, how can you ask me to sign on a Hijab ban law?”

I actually find it more awkward being a Muslim woman in my own country. I'm more likely to be approached or challenged by random strangers in the UK than I am in Italy where, for the most part, people let you get on with your business. 

How do people tend to respond to the hijab?

As odd as it sounds, once the hijab is on, you quickly forget it's there. The only time that I'm reminded of the fact that I wear it is when I get on the bus: I'm suddenly face to face with a wall of stares. Reactions range from wide-eyed wonder to scrunched up confusion.

To say that Italians stare at me just because I'm in Islamic clothes wouldn't be entirely true though. Staring is pretty much a cultural norm in Italy. It was quite a shock when I arrived (as a non-Muslim) and realized that Italians don't avoid eye contact on public transport or bury their heads into newspapers and pretend to read as Brits do.

Once I'd got over my initial self-consciousness of wearing a hijab, I stopped worrying about people staring at me.

If I wasn't wearing the hijab they would be staring at the blinding paleness of my skin anyway! So instead I smile back and then retreat to the comfort of my British customs and gaze out the window, avoiding all eye contact.

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Can you see yourself staying in Bologna-long term?

I would love to stay in Bologna for longer. I've loved the experience of getting to know the city and how it's gone from being a city that I chose on a whim (after consulting Wikipedia one day) to being the place I call home.

Tell us something most people would not know about Bologna.

Bologna is a city of dog-lovers. Although most people live in apartments and grassy spaces are scarce, most residents have got a dog. And the dogs go everywhere with them.

Don't be surprised if you spot a canine face peering out at you from behind the clothing rail at H&M or hear the pitter-patter of paws going down the corridor at work.

If you want to strike up a relationship with a Bolognese resident, the first thing you should do is ask them about their dog!

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