As soon as the sun fades behind the concrete blocks surrounding Malatesta Square, groups of women dressed in colorful shalwar trousers emerge, seeking some relief from the warm Italian summer.
“Two days after I arrived here from Bangladesh, I started crying,” says Sumi, 25, scratching her hijab. She just got married to her cousin, who works as a baker in Italy.
When he proposed marriage, Sumi was initially happy to relocate to a foreign country. “I thought we would visit Pompei,” she says.
For now, they have no opportunity to travel. Her husband works at night, so life has become quite tedious: she sleeps in the morning, cooks for him in the afternoon and occasionally manages to meet her aunts.
Sumi earned a law degree in Bangladesh and is keen to find a job — against her husband’s wishes: “He said ‘No, you are a housewife.'”
“The majority of Bangladeshi men want to coop up women,” says Salma Akhter Zaman, “otherwise they would open their eyes and realize they have rights.”
Zaman also comes from Bangladesh and has worked as a cultural mediator in hospitals, schools and public offices. She says attending language classes is the best way for the newcomers to dive into Italian society. “But some husbands even refuse those. They fear that their wives might become more independent.”
A minority within a minority
According to the Interior Ministry, almost 140,000 Bangladeshis live in Italy with a permit, the second-largest community in Europe after Britain.
Francesco Pompeo, an anthropologist who studies their lives in Rome, estimates that the real number is higher: “A third of them has no regular residency permit,” he says. There are currently just over 38,000 women, accounting for less than a third of the community.
“They are generally young wives who came here to reunite with their husbands,” say researchers Katiuscia Carna and Sara Rossetti, authors of the book Kotha — Bangladeshi women in the changing city of Rome.
Migrant men reaching Europe in search of profitable employment are called Probashi — essentially expats. After a few years abroad, their families find them a wife and arrange a marriage in Bangladesh.
When they come home and meet their future brides, their tales get embellished, so that the pride of their communities remains intact. “Migration is a family project, and those who travel usually represent their gems,” says Rosetti.
A harsher reality often awaits in Italy. Many leave large, cohesive families behind and end up sharing small houses with other couples or single men.
Since their husbands work hard and come home only to eat and sleep, the world of these women shrinks to the size of their tiny bedrooms.
‘My job gave me a boost’
“I was dead inside. Italians had their friends and families. I had nobody,” says Sultana, 46, behind a counter covered with neatly folded saris and full ankle-length skirts known as lehengas.
Loneliness prompted Sultana to open the first traditional fashion shop in the neighborhood of Tor Pignattara 18 years ago. “The shop gave me a boost,” she says. “Many women now pass by, it’s like having an extended family.”
She readily recognizes that the support of her husband Nurum was pivotal. “I was freer than the others also because he has always believed in me.”
In the same neighborhood, self-support organizations are being created to help fellow Bangladeshi women. On a Thursday night, the charity Mohila Somaj Collan Someti meets at Laila fashion, another traditional clothes shop near Sultana’s.
In four days time, the association will hold a community picnic under the Marmore waterfall. The shop’s staff have already booked two buses.
“We simply try to help our fellow women,” says Laila Shah, 46, who chairs the association. She believes that men still exert too much control over their wives. “Language and a lack of jobs: these are the issues the women face in this community.” According to the Interior Ministry just over 10% of the 38,000 women work regularly.
The next generation
“I would love to see Bangladeshi women smoking and hanging out at night because that would tear stereotypes apart,” says Sahila Mahiuddin, 28. When Sahila speaks passionately, she waves her arms around in the most typical Italian way.
Her family raised her as an open-minded woman. When her mother granted her permission to stay out at night, she gave her a simple piece of advice: “Hide from other community members.”
“Bangladeshis are obsessed with ‘Manush ki bolbe,’ which means ‘What will people say,'” Sahila says. She’s worked as a cultural mediator and insists that this attitude leads to harassment and violence among some couples that is usually covered up.
Like many of her fellow second-generation Bangladeshi-Italians, Sahila loves the culture of her family, but cannot stand prejudices and stereotypes. “[The Prophet] Muhammad’s first wife was a skilled merchant, so those men who use religion to justify their sexism are mere opportunists.”
She says that things are slowly changing, with Bangladeshi women working as caregivers, cultural mediators, waitresses and even as hairdressers.
Today, the rebellious years of fighting her mother are behind her. She graduated from La Sapienza University, got married to a Bangladeshi man and now works in a fiscal advisory service.
But her feelings haven’t changed: “When I think about my future as a mother, I just want my children to be as free as they can.”