When Brescia’s local newspaper, Giornale di Brescia, received information from a confidential source about Sana Cheema, the editor of the pro-immigrant paper, Nunzia Villani, printed it on April 21, fully aware of the “consequences that news of this magnitude can trigger”.
The national media soon followed and one of Italy’s leading politicians, Matteo Salvini, the head of the anti-immigrant, centre-right coalition tweeted, “there is NO place in Italy for those who bring this culture with them”.
The next day, on April 22, Pakistanis gathered in Brescia – an Italian province with the largest accumulation of Pakistanis – for a prescheduled event on Kashmir. Ambassador Nadeem Riaz was attending, along with the Milan Consul General Nadeem Khan. People had questions about Sana, and the Consul General shared the information that he had at the moment. No complaint of murder had been registered and no persons were under arrest. “The lady died a natural death. There is no need to be worried, no need to be scared. God forbid if something else has happened, then, we will officially confirm or deny it here,” he said. The audience – all men – clapped.
A young girl was dead, but in that room, at that moment, the issue at hand was honour. And the applause was an expression of relief. It was a heart attack, not murder. For all those who later turned to social media to question the facts, there were always many more wanting to put the issue to rest. What has happened cannot be undone, was a regular comment. ‘Pray for the departed soul’ was a way of saying, let’s close this topic now.
In the following days, the information continued to shift and the sense of confusion regarding the actual facts gave the community a way out. “Let’s wait and find out what happened” became the line of defence.
Mahmood Asghar Choudhry, a former director with the Italian immigration office, often speaks for the community through the overseas arm of one of Gujrat’s largest newspapers, Jazba. “In the last three days, Italian media has left no stone unturned in shaming the Pakistani community. The reality behind the news has turned out to be something else,” he said on his online video message on Jazba TV.
As it happened, the story wasn’t untrue. The Pakistani community was caught off guard and came under intense scrutiny. In and around Brescia, Pakistanis reported being told off in public places, for ‘killing your daughters and wives’. They were accosted at work by colleagues who demanded to know where they stood on the issue.
In a country reeling from immigration woes, the profiling played well into nationalistic politics. The centre-right mayoral candidate for Brescia, Paola Vilardi said, “Those who want to integrate and share the fundamental values of our culture are welcome, others must know that Brescia is not and will not be their home”.
This can make for an uneasy relationship with locals originating from Pakistan. Nobody quite spells it out but at some point in the conversation they say, “Well, you know how it is for us in Italy…”
As the media has moved on to other crises, Pakistanis in Italy are hoping that the storm has subsided. But they will not be able to escape one that has haunted the community for 12 years.
In 2006, Hina Saleem, a 20-year-old Pakistani woman was killed by her father in a small town near Brescia, and buried in the house garden. The father disapproved of her western ways to the extent that he slit his daughter’s throat 28 times. He got 30 years in prison and later, in an interview from his cell, described the burial as a way of bringing her back home.
Italy was shaken by the horror of this murder. “Hina Saleem was more important than 9/11 in Italy. As a community representative whenever I went to speak to the police for something, I would see Hina’s photograph up in their offices. She became a symbol,” says former Italian immigration director Choudhry.
More recently, in 2011 the Brescian media sprang into fearful action to save Bella Jamila (Beautiful Jamila), a Pakistani girl who missed school for a few days, reportedly kept at home by her family because she was ‘too beautiful’. Teachers, police, local council and the Pakistani Consul General stepped in. There were press conferences and local media coverage with the required stereotypes playing out, including rumours of a marriage planned in Pakistan. Cameras glared at the 19-year-old as she returned to school and a TV presenter asked her school mates about their views on arranged marriages.
The horror of Hina Saleem could not be repeated.
“When Hina Saleem was killed, Pakistanis played a double game,” says Wajahat Abbas Kazmi, an activist and filmmaker who came from Gujrat to Italy in 1999. “When they spoke publicly, they condemned the murder and called it un-Islamic. But among themselves, they used to say that this will set a good example for their girls. I remember this clearly,” he says.
When Kazmi learnt about Sana, he used every social media platform at his disposal to spread the news. Following the information about her natural death, Kazmi and his friends began the #TruthforSana campaign. Now, over 500 people have participated in the online campaign. Of these, only 4 are Pakistani women from Italy.
Kazmi will continue the pressure till the investigation into Sana’s murder meets a just end. Other Pakistanis prefer to wait in silence.
“When the results of the autopsy come, and if it comes to light that the father killed her, we will lead a big protest and also ask the Italians to join us,” says Jabran Fazal, a community representative and an elected councillor from an area in Brescia.
“We must remember that those who denounced (this act) and those who helped us to reconstruct the fragments of truth that make up a very complex picture, are all of Pakistani origin and well integrated: not recognising it would be unjust,” said Villani of Giornale di Brescia during an interview with ANSA Italy.
Young girls from the community are deeply invested in the truth. “Justice should be done, otherwise, every second day there will be a Sana or Hina, silenced or killed in the name of honour, buried deep into the earth in the darkness of the night,” says Sumbal, a 24-year-old girl from the community who met Sana only a couple of times, but knew of her, as did many others. For women mostly confined to their homes, Sana, a hard working entrepreneur, was a role model in many ways.
At this point, Pakistanis in Italy find themselves in a difficult situation, facing two fronts, while preparing only for one.
While focusing on community image, there has been no soul searching, and no reflection on how one of their own could commit this act. There are no plans on how to engage community members to ensure that this doesn’t happen again, and no conversation on why justice should take precedence over reputation.
Read also: Searching for Sana’s truth
Community representative Fazal agrees that the tragedy has not shaken the community into introspection. “We are far from sitting together to think about how to address these sensitive issues within the community. What role should our women play publicly? How can we ensure that this never happens again? What can we change in the future? These are important questions but at this point, on the community level, we are concerned more about whether we should we say something or not, and who should speak or not. We have a long way to go.”