On She Goes

Not Your Bella: On Street Harassment in Italy

“He thought I was a sex worker and wanted to buy my body for the night.”

Yasmin Yonis
Yasmin Yonis
November 21, 2017
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It was at dusk in early spring and I was waiting at a crowded bus stop in Verona, Italy after getting back from a weekend with a family friend in Milan. I was anxious about boarding the right bus to get back to the apartment that was my home for my 10-week study abroad program. I didn’t speak Italian, and it was 2011: city-wide free Wi-Fi wasn’t a thing yet. I was so occupied with intently scanning the incoming buses for the correct line that I didn’t notice an older Italian approaching.

He shook his keys at me, repeating “bella, bella” at me to get my attention. He gestured toward his car, expecting me to follow him. I looked at him with confusion. I didn’t know what he wanted and I was weary of strange men. It slowly dawned on me he thought I was a sex worker and he wanted to buy my body for the night. I didn’t speak Italian, there was no one to call for help, and the people around me pretended not to notice. My dark skin reflected the moonlight, and I thought of how Black people’s bodies have been bought and sold for hundreds of years, with Black women expected to sexually service white men. But I was not for sale.

In the Italian Alps outside of Verona, Italy.
photo by Yasmin Yonis

I was almost 22, a college senior in my last semester of school, and I was studying abroad in Italy. I had chosen Verona—a wealthy Italian city known for being the setting of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet—largely because the program had a two-month winter break that allowed me to go back home to Somalia for the first time since my family and I became refugees and fled our homeland when I was just three years old. Though my first memory is in a refugee camp and I have always felt displaced, that night at the bus stop was the first time I felt displaced from my own skin.

People had always assumed my body didn’t belong to me because I was a Muslim woman. I grew up wearing hijab and had a modest dress code of long-sleeved shirts and skirts. Those who viewed Islam as something strange and antithetical to women’s rights attempted to take away my agency. In their eyes, I was merely a pathetic girl whose body was not her own, whose sexuality was controlled by the men in her life—an object to be pitied and saved. In the States, those who held these stereotypes were surprised by my take-charge attitude and activism.

My Black African female body symbolized something to be plundered and hated.

While my hijab was a sign of modesty, it did not keep men from hypersexualizing me. My Black African female body symbolized something to be plundered and hated. I was both an object of desire and an object of contempt. Everywhere I went in wealthy Verona, I was shocked by the frequency of the overt racism I encountered.

I was used to racism and Islamophobia, having grown up in Georgia, a state that reminded you it missed the days when Black people knew their place but one that pretended otherwise in daily interactions. The KKK still met at Stone Mountain, racists felt comfortable publicly spewing commentary reminiscent of the 1960s, and Confederate flags proudly flew on trucks.

But Italy was different: I was faced with overt Islamophobia and racism on a daily basis. I would be met with icy stares everywhere I went—an older Italian man once growled at me in Verona’s town square—and I felt unwelcome the instant I walked into stores. Their cold shoulders only slightly thawed when they heard my American accent. The only people who were friendly to me were the African and Arab immigrants, but I rarely encountered them. I never felt lonelier.

In Milan, Italy.
photo by Yasmin Yonis

I remember in the movie Love and Basketball, a character raved about how Italian men loved Black women and pursuing her during time playing for country’s national women basketball team This was just one of the anecdotes I had heard about Italian men putting Black women on a pedestal. But I knew the world doesn’t love Black women. Wanting our bodies is not the same as wanting us. We are objects to be consumed. But I wasn’t just a Black woman. I was African in a country that was receiving an influx of asylum seekers from the continent.

When I first trekked to the immigrant section of town, filled with mostly Africans, I was surprised by the number of interracial couples—African women with Italian men was a frequent sighting. Eventually, I realized that I rarely saw them outside the context of young African women entering an Italian man’s car. I don’t know if they were sex workers, but I did know that many African women were shut out of Italy’s formal economy. Despite their education and the careers they left back home, they were pushed into sex work to survive. I didn’t know their stories, but I did understand that they needed to survive and that this was an avenue many felt was their best option.

I could feel his gaze as if it was nails digging into my skin.

Even older women were not safe from the attempts of men to buy their bodies. I visited my friend’s aunt who lived in Florence, where an older man came on to her at a restaurant. After she brushed him aside, he set his eyes on me. I could feel his gaze as if it was nails digging into my skin. I grew up seeing young girls and women being catcalled, groped, and sexually harassed, and I experienced it myself at times, but I was shocked to see an older woman having to endure the same harassment.

The way they sexualized me and their hostility only stung more because of Italy’s colonization of Somalia. Italy’s history as one of Somalia’s former colonizers only made things worse. Italian forces invaded, tortured, and killed my people. The women were raped, and decades later I was enduring their sexualized violence. The hypersexualization of Black women includes a horrific history of violence in Europe, the Americas, Africa, and around the world, and the trauma of colonialism passes down through generations. It hurt to see it repeat itself decades after formal occupation ended.

The reality of traveling as Black women means that the world isn’t always considered ours. Yet, I still love traveling.

Before my time in Italy, I spent two months visiting Somalia for the first time on my own. Growing up in the States in an area without my community, I soaked in everything I could about my people when I was there—the way we talked and walked and lived beautifully. I saw how colonization had pillaged our land and continues to contribute to mass violence. Italy had pitted different groups against each other, putting some in power and discriminating against others. A few decades after independence, violence erupted after the president was removed through a violent coup by groups that were tired of not having power. Going from Somalia and Italy was jarring. I was in awe of Italy’s grand cathedrals, breathtaking Italian Alps, and Michelangelo’s David but I felt isolated. I was a Black Muslim woman from a working-class family and all my peers in the program were wealthy, white students. Not having any friends to confide in made the harassment harder to bear. I was lonely and sometimes scared. My saving grace was other Somali women who made me feel like their younger sister wherever I met them.

It was these Black women who reminded me that my favorite part of traveling is meeting beautiful Black people everywhere I go, strangers that turn into friends, and if I am lucky, even family. It is because of the love these women showed me that all the racism and sexualization I endured in Italy didn’t take away my hunger to experience the world. The reality of traveling as Black women means that the world isn’t always considered ours. Yet, I still love traveling. Italy made me want to travel to the kind of places that feel like home. I have found that home in Black people in every new country. I’ve found it in Somali sister-friends in London and Toronto, afro-Cuban tour guides in Havana, and kind Gambian brothers in Marrakech’s souq (marketplace). It turns out that the same skin fetishized in Italy has served as my passport to experience everything beautiful about the African diaspora, reminding me that in every new country, there will always be a place that feels like home.