Sveva Basirah Balzini


Photography Miriam Alè
Isabella Borrelli

Sveva Basirah, queer Muslim activist, is a charismatic person. Hir charism transpires also through a screen, during a Skype video call. “Can you hear me?” – the typical question of this new collective ritual of trust in technology. “I hear you”, ze is already connected.
I’m getting an Instagram shitstorm.

What’s going on?
Muslim bigots engage in facist attacks, something that happens in other contexts too. Sometimes they share a photo of me in a group and afterwards, dozens of them bombard me with aggressive messages. This time, I must say, I also “provoked” them because I put a post about hentai and manga fans referring to them [Editor’s note: pornographic and literary products of Japanese origin]. There are many Muslims who find a sort of reassurance concerning a sexist view of the world in most of these productions. On the other hand, however, they also rediscover the element of sex – which is a way of breaking a taboo – and of fetishism very strongly.

In your opinion, what is the link between an otaku – a person with a passion for anime and manga – and Muslim communities?
There are many otaku in the Islamic world, especially in the Malaysian and Indonesian regions. These people are very young, and the manga element somehow represents an escape route. I think that the reflections on the topic of sexuality and the Islamic world are numerous, above all in relation to taboos. For example, I am working on a project “the veil and eros”, an on-going research. I have already analysed over two hundred porn films showing women wearing a veil, among which there are productions made by Muslim people and productions made in the Western world.

How do Western patriarchy and the Eastern patriarchy differ in the way the woman wearing a veil is conceived in pornographic products? Does fetishisation of the veil exist?
There is much fetishisation outside and inside the Muslim community. There has been a sharp increase in pornographic products showing women wearing the hijab [Editor’s note: a veil leaving the oval of the face uncovered] including many sites with cam girls wearing veils as an element of the performance. Among all amateurish products, which to me are the most interesting, two types of veil fetish can be identified. The element of fetishisation in many Muslim communities is forbidden – like what porn showing nuns once represented for Westerners – while a neo-colonial fetishism and the concept of harem are taking hold in the Western world.

Does a reflection dedicated to sexuality exist in the Islamic religion?
Yes, it does. For example, in the hadith [Editor’s note: short transcriptions of the Prophet Mohammed’s words generally used to understand the Qur’an more deeply] – although I disagree on the exploited and politicised use that has been made of it – there are about fifty hadith where the Prophet professes female pleasure and sexual pleasure to his companions. I also find it absurd that they exploit, at the same time, those hadith prohibiting objects from being inserted into the vagina, there were no silicon dildos once after all! [they laugh].

When did you develop self-awareness about converting to Islam?
When I was volunteering at the community of Sant’Egidio, paradoxically. I realised that Islam existed and was not as brutal as they had told me when I delivered after-school learning activities for children.

Can you tell me about a specific circumstance when you felt that your faith was strong?
Perhaps the moment of my conversion. I am the kind of person who slowly develops self-awareness about certain things, which eventually explode. Likewise, there was a time when I needed to feel God so strongly. I converted while I was dating my ex-boyfriend who abused me, he had problematic and toxic behaviours also in the stage of love bombing. I was in a very dark period, I felt lost. So, I went up to the first floor of his kebab shop and started praying spasmodically. I laid my jacket on the ground and began to pray, harder and harder. I was asking God to be there for me. Regardless of the situation I was stuck in, I was not asking God to resolve my painful situation here and now, rather I was asking Him to come into my life, to welcome me. It was a very intimate moment, it was mine. It was the moment when this feeling exploded because I finally let it out. I could finally say it: I saw a liberating light. That day was a watershed between the life I had before and my present life.

You asked God to be there for you and God was there for you.
Yes, although it was not linear all along due to the number of spiritual abuses I had received. After I came out of the closet, everyone thought that I was somehow brainwashed by my abusive ex. I convinced myself of it and questioned myself. I have this memory of myself, burnt into my brain, while I was kneading some dough facing this green wall – completely green – thinking “oh my God, I was brainwashed”. At some point, after talking to one of my Italian teachers, I realised that this was not the case. Without underlying prejudice, she asked me why I had converted. And I started talking about the Prophet, it was then that I realised I really believed. I felt enlightened, as if I were on a cloud: I was walking and didn’t know I was doing it. It was a powerful moment.

Can you tell me about the spiritual abuse you were subject to, if you feel like it?
Whenever I tried to pray in the language, even to fit into what I believed was the “Muslim mentality”, in the Umma, my ex mocked me by saying that I would never be a real Muslim. And thinking about it now, maybe he used to say that because he realised that I knew more than he did, because I was more of a practicing Muslim than him. For example, he would not let me pray and would not teach me how to. You learn to pray not only from the hadith – which are very complicated – but also by taking other Muslims as an example. I learned by watching videos on YouTube.

What role did social media play when learning to pray?
When I think about it, it was not so much via YouTube, rather through a Word document outlining the translation. I learned about it on the island of Capraia where I went to seek refuge from the situation of violence I was subject to, because I was being stalked. I was staying at my uncle’s tiny house in Capraia. I would start praying at night or when he was at work, away from home. It was nice, I was privileged. I remember one night in particular, when I cried on my prayer mat, they were liberating tears. A prayer mat I care dearly about; I had bought it for little money at the flea market. Can you imagine? At the market in Capraia.

It was there for you.
Yes, it was there for me. It was thrilling. I opened the windows, warm air came in, full of oxygen, the scent of an island, of salt, of trees. A starry night, like only an island has. My family was hoping that my faith in Islam would fade, but it has only grown stronger