In November 2018, Italian aid worker Silvia Romano was abducted by gunmen linked to the Somali armed group al-Shabab in northeast Kenya. At the time of the attack, which left several injured, Romano was a volunteer for an Italian NGO in an orphanage in the village of Chakama.
The news of the kidnapping of Romano caused not only sadness and worry, but also controversy in his country of origin. Right-wing politicians and public figures, as well as members of the public, accused the aid worker of "looking for trouble" while traveling to Kenya and said she should "have stayed in Milan and helped people over there".
They called her decision to go to Kenya as a volunteer aid worker an expression of "bravado" and said she was looking for Warning. These accusations have been countered by outraged liberals who have spoken of the "importance" of young idealists like Romano who go abroad for voluntary aid missions and help those who need it in from other countries.
In the weeks that followed, the news cycle continued and discussions about Romano and the work she was doing in Kenya slowly ended.
However, this month Romano found himself at the end of the right wing attacks, this time not only for going to Kenya and "causing trouble", but also for voluntarily choosing to convert to Islam during its ordeal.
The outpouring of Islamophobia and hatred
When Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced on Twitter on May 9 that Romano had finally been released, most Italians were delighted. Shortly after, however, it was revealed that the aid worker had chosen to become a Muslim during her 18 months in captivity at al-Shabab and that she had changed her name to "Aisha". This alleviated the festive atmosphere and led many Italian citizens to question Romano's motivations for going to Kenya in the first place.
After Romano landed in Rome wearing a light green jilbab – a loose-fitting dress that covers the entire body and is often worn by Somali women – his conversion quickly became the sole focus of right-wing Italian media. They published “before and after” photos showing the “transformation” of the humanitarian worker and embarked on a quest to shed light on “the mystery surrounding the conversion”: was she forcibly converted? Has she been brainwashed? Was she a victim of Stockholm syndrome?
"We have released a Muslim woman," said the conservative daily Libero Quotidiano, as if only Italian Christian citizens, and not Muslims, deserve to be protected by the government of the country they call home.
"Islamic and happy. Silvia the ungrateful," reads the front page of an article by Alessandro Sallusti, editor in chief of Il Giornale. In the same article, Sallusti accused Romano of wearing "the enemy's jihadist uniform" and claimed that his conversion was as absurd as a Jew returning from a disguised concentration camp in Nazi.
Several right-wing politicians also took advantage of Romano's ordeal and conversion to promote Islamophobic opinions. Right-wing League party leader Matteo Salvini, for example, described the kidnapping and conversion of Romano in an alleged clash of civilizations, and claimed that "Islamic terrorists" had won "the cultural battle in the name of the Islamic veil and conversion ". Salvini MP Alessandro Pagano called Romano a "new terrorist" during a parliamentary session.
The aggressive and adversarial coverage of right-wing media of Romano's release and conversion to Islam, coupled with hateful and discriminatory comments from League politicians, has shown how entrenched Islamophobia has become. in Italy.
But Romano was not only targeted by these usual suspects.
Some Italian feminists also attacked the young aid worker for converting to Islam and wearing "Islamic clothing".
Prominent feminist historian Nadia Riva, who in the 1980s was one of the founders of the influential and radical feminist group of the Cicip & Ciciap club, for example, in a Facebook article, called Romano a "smiling woman" in a green recycling bag. " Stating that Romano's jilbab is a symbol of male oppression rather than an expression of her religious identity, she explained that she couldn't believe that a woman would choose to choose her. 39; dress this way of their own free will.
Many Italian feminists came to the defense of Romano and moved away from Riva's controversial comments. However, the fact that some prominent Italian feminists have deemed it appropriate to attack another woman because of what she chooses to believe and the way she chooses to dress has demonstrated how much she The idea of moral superiority is integrated into certain parts of the Italian and Western feminist movement. .
Reproduce the “myths of the white savior”
Italian liberals and the left wing openly condemned the hatred Romano received for his conversion to Islam and celebrated his return to the country. Their response to the right-wing hate rhetoric surrounding the release of the aid worker, however, was equally problematic, albeit for different reasons.
In their response to the entire Romano saga, liberal media organizations and Italian public figures tried to highlight the human side of the story and celebrated his safe return without any reservations. But in their undoubtedly well-intentioned celebration, they promoted deeply ingrained stereotypes that are highly prejudicial to Africa. They not only portrayed the continent as a wild and abandoned place, but also hinted that Africans needed "white saviors".
Liberal newspapers have published countless images of Romano surrounded by Kenyan children, but have not attempted to preserve the privacy of these children as they normally would with European children. These images and the articles that accompanied them were the perfect reproduction of decades of "white savior" myths, which spoke of selfless Western men and women who traveled to Africa to "save" African children without any agency.
The main center-left Italian daily La Repubblica even published an article claiming that Romano "had been betrayed by the same village that she wanted to save" – an assertion that reaffirms the baseless and damaging tropes about the ingratitude of Africans in the face of Western attempts to "save" them.
One of the most obvious reproductions of the "white savior myth" came from the best-selling author and vocal antifascist Roberto Saviano. In one article published in La Repubblica and on his Facebook page, Saviano portrays Africans – perhaps unintentionally – as people living in a desolate place who need help and advice from the West.
In her article welcoming Romano to Italy, Saviano described the Kenyan children she worked with as "forgotten and abandoned" and said that they will likely become al-Shabab fighters themselves in the absence of western "saviors" like Romano. Ignoring Kenya's own struggle against the armed group, he even went so far as to say that a "young European woman who arrives unarmed to stay by the children" like Romano is the "great enemy" of these terrorist organizations.
This story is not only problematic and simplistic, but also misleading and paternalistic. It presents a decontextualized image of the region and ignores the role that Europeans themselves have played and continue to play in the ongoing calamity in the Horn of Africa.
Indeed, according to a study published in 2018, many orphaned children in Kenyan cities like Chakama will not go to Somalia to fight for al-Shabab, but will most likely travel to nearby international tourist sites like Malindi, Mtwapa or Mombasa to try to earn a living. life. There, the biggest threat they face would not be the possibility of radicalization, but of being pushed into the sex trade. In these regions, it should be noted, the main clientele of sex workers is mainly European sex tourists, including Italians.
Italian media coverage has also ignored Italy's past crimes in Africa. While newspapers and TV channels discussed the role played by Turkey in the liberation of Romano and claimed that the country was now "the new master of the Horn of Africa", their nostalgia for the time when Italy had power over these parts of Africa was evident. Of course, in these reflection papers, there was no mention of the catastrophe that the Italian colonial enterprise had caused in the Horn of Africa in the last century.
In the absence of relevant thoughts and critical comments, one of the few voice of the choir was that of the Somalo-Italian writer Igiaba Scego, who took the opportunity to remind people: "Italians must be decolonized from their own colonial imagination. Even in language, we carry too many legacies, not only of fascism, but of the rhetoric typical of the 19th century. "
There is not much to gain from questioning Romano's motivations for embarking on a voluntary relief mission to Kenya after his 18 months of trial and his safe return . We must do everything we can to protect this young woman from attacks by the media and right-wing Italian politicians, who target her only because she has chosen to convert to a religion which they consider to be "the # 39; enemy ".
However, we should also not ignore the harmful stories that some organizations and figures in the liberal media use to defend the aid worker.
While we must reject Islamophobia – whether it comes from right-wing figures or renowned feminists – we must also challenge the discourses that present millions of Africans as savages who must be saved by altruistic Westerners.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.