By NBC News Producer
NBC News
updated 9/21/2004 1:09:12 PM ET 2004-09-21T17:09:12

An Italian woman who is married to an Arab man and converted to Islam, has been ticketed twice in the past week for wearing a burqa in her small village in the province of Como. 

The dispute, which may eventually reach Italy's highest court, highlights growing unease in this staunchly Catholic country over a growing Muslim population.

Many Italians are unhappy with the impact of immigration from Islamic countries. Prior to the controversy in Como, there was a public outcry when a judge agreed last October to a Muslim activist's demand that a crucifix be removed from his son's classroom wall.

The number of Muslims in Italy is growing. According to the latest data, there are now between 700,000-1 million Muslims living in the country, out of a population of 57 million.

Convert to Islam
Many right-wingers in Italy believe that the violent world triggered by 9/11 is simply today’s version of the Moors versus the Crusaders of a thousand years ago.

To them this is a clash of cultures, east against west, Christ against Mohammed, harsh theocracy versus indulgent democracy. 

In Drezzo, on the outskirts of Como in northern Italy, a skirmish is under way.

Sabina Varroni is a 34-year-old woman who has lived in Drezzo for many years.  She’s married to a Moroccan man with whom she has four children, Sarah, 10, Omar, 9, Delel, 7, and Imen, 5. 

Now that she has converted to Islam she has decided to observe her religious obligations by wearing the full burqa, the solid veil covering the entire face rendered infamous by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

When she started wearing the burqa in public, Mayor Cristian Tolettini got an earful of complaints from local women who didn’t like the new style one bit and were not about to tolerate it.

The mayor gave in to the pressure and instructed the one municipal policeman in town to crack down on Varroni with a ticket.

Violation of arcane law
The ticket was based on the violation of Article 85 of a package of security laws imposed in 1931 under the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, which forbids citizens to “mask themselves in public.”

But the text of the law is not specific as to the covering of one’s face.

Indeed, in that interpretation, people would not be able to celebrate Carnival here and even nuns' habits could conceivably be in violation of the law.

Michele Ainis, a law professor at the University of Teramo told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera that he’s certain that the mayor will lose the legal battle when the issue goes to Italy’s constitutional court. 

He said the security decree was one of the “most fascist laws in 20 years of fascism,” and each time any part of it has come before the court it’s been thrown out as unconstitutional. 

The first time an article from the decree was challenged was in 1956. In that case the article in question was number 68: “It is forbidden to have dancing parties without prior authorization from the chief of police.”

A more recent law which prohibits covering one’s face was the result of political unrest and extremist terrorism in Italy during the 1970’s. But the spirit of that law was to prosecute the more violent political protesters who turned out in ski-masks and bandit-like bandanas to hurl Molotov cocktails at police.

Determined
Meanwhile, Varroni said she will not abandon wearing the veil. The town’s one law enforcement officer, Fausto Cattoni, told the Corriere that he doesn’t have a choice. He has to do his job and has to keep giving her these tickets that cost approximately $48.

Varroni has hired a lawyer and said that she’s perfectly willing to take off her veil to identify herself to a police officer, as long as it’s a woman.

But Mayor Tolettini says the town of 1,100 people cannot afford to hire another police officer.

A resident who spoke anonymously to Corriere said, “We are afraid. How do we know it’s always her under that veil? Italian laws should be respected, and if she wants to dress like that she should go to her husband’s country.”

While the town awaits a legal ruling, Italy’s President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi -- in a speech for the opening of the school year on Monday -- denounced those fomenting antagonism between cultures, although he made no reference to the dispute in Como.

In a plea for the release of the two women aid workers held hostage in Iraq, Ciampi said that Italians “reject this clash of civilizations” that the terrorists are trying to foment.

“Their plan is to drag humanity down into a conflict of civilizations and religions; such conflict does not exist, we don’t want it and we refuse it with all our might,” Ciampi said.

Stephen Weeke is the NBC News Bureau Chief in Rome.

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