A few miles from the Vatican, Najat Hadi kept house with her husband, his other wife and their assorted children, an unhappy home with a hateful woman 10 years her junior and a cruel spouse who left her with a jagged scar peeking from her collar.
Finally, she says, her Egyptian-born husband, who worked in Rome making pizzas, beat her so badly that she left him. But he kept her children.
Thousands of polygamous marriages like Hadi’s have sprung up throughout Italy as a byproduct of a fast-paced and voluminous immigration by Muslims to this Roman Catholic country.
Despite the obvious culture clash, Italian authorities largely turn a blind eye, leaving women in a murky semi-clandestine world with few rights and no recourse when things go especially badly, as they did in Hadi’s case.
“It is absurd that in a civilized country like Italy, so little is acknowledged about this,” said Souad Sbai, a Moroccan-born Italian lawmaker who has emerged as a one-woman champion of female Muslim immigrants here.
Italy is one of several European nations faced with the issue of polygamy. In Britain and Spain, where large Muslim communities have also settled, some officials favor recognizing polygamous marriage as a way to ensure the wives’ access to pensions, medical care and other state benefits.
But Sbai, who has lived 27 of her 47 years in Italy, thinks that misguided attempts at cultural sensitivity backfire when customs that stray into illegality are tolerated. Italian law sanctions marriage between a single man and a single woman only.
Sbai estimates that there are 14,000 polygamous families in Italy; others put the number even higher. Many take advantage of the so-called orfi marriage, a less formal union performed by an imam, that does not carry the same social or legal standing as regular marriage.
She is convinced that the polygamists in Italy are practicing a more fundamentalist and abusive form of multiple marriage. Because they feel so threatened by the Western culture around them, the men often imprison their wives and confine them to a life of solitude wholly dependent on the husband.
“They are kept in a kind of ghetto,” Sbai said.
When Sbai recently created a hotline for Muslim immigrant women, she was inundated with 1,000 calls in the first three months. To her astonishment, she had tapped into a hidden community of women desperate for information, many trapped in violent, polygamous households, isolated and lonely.
Hadi, a Moroccan, had endured beatings and humiliation because she felt she had nowhere to turn. She said she met and married her husband in 1987 in Italy, where she was visiting on holiday. They had a religious ceremony at a local mosque and a legal wedding at the Egyptian Embassy in Rome. Over the next decade, she gave birth to four children.
Then, one day in 2000, Hadi returned from a vacation in Egypt, where she had taken the children to spend time with her husband’s family. In her Rome apartment was a new woman. Her husband had married again while she was gone.
“I returned and found her in my house,” Hadi, 46, said. Hadi said she at first challenged her husband but then decided there was little she could do.
“He said, ‘I’ve married this woman.’ I wanted to know why. I told him to send her away. He refused. But where could I go with four children?” She tried to accommodate the other woman, an Egyptian whom Hadi describes as full of hatred.
“I tried to accept her, for the children,” Hadi said. “But she wasn’t a woman with a brain.”
Her husband’s beatings got worse, landing Hadi repeatedly in the hospital. The pale scar on her chest is a remnant of the time she says he took after her with a knife.
Then, about a year and a half ago, he turned on the children. And that was when she decided she had to go. From other Moroccan women, she learned of Sbai’s center and prepared to file a criminal complaint against him. But he seized the children and fled to Egypt. Hadi has not been able to move authorities to help her regain custody.
Sbai, the politician, remembers polygamy from her childhood in Morocco. There, at least officially, the husband could marry no more women than he could adequately and justly care for. Here in Italy, she says, polygamy is often distorted. The immigrant experience is turned on its head: regression and isolation instead of integration.
Of the hundreds of women Sbai hears from, most are Moroccans and illiterate, at a much higher percentage rate than in Morocco. That also tends to isolate them, a condition compounded by mistrust of Italian authorities and fear of the unknown.
Aliza Kalisa, 50, joined her Moroccan husband in Italy in 2001. They had been married for many years, but when she arrived in Rome, she found he had used his time here to take on a second wife.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she recalled asking him.
“I needed a woman here, and you were in Morocco,” he responded.
Kalisa was devastated. She lived with her husband, his other wife and the woman’s two children in a one-room apartment, where she was forced to sleep on the floor and listen as her husband and the younger woman had sex. He treated her badly, flaunting the second wife like a prize and forcing Kalisa to do the housework and care for the children -- the second wife’s children.
He forced her to fork over all her earnings as a maid in an Italian family’s home. He beat her. Kalisa thinks the other wife delighted in the abuse she suffered; the woman peppered Kalisa with taunts that she was the favorite.
“I had been his wife such a long time,” Kalisa said. “Then I was like the servant.”
When, at the end of her rope, she threatened to leave, her husband locked her in the apartment for 10 days. Eventually her screams prompted an Italian neighbor to call the police, and Kalisa was able to leave. At Sbai’s center, Kalisa is learning to write her name for the first time.
Zora, a Moroccan who has lived in Italy for 27 years, met and married an Egyptian in Rome in 1989. Though he swore he was single, it turned out he had another wife back in Egypt. Zora (who asked that her last name not be published) learned of the marriage when a grown son from that union showed up at her Rome apartment.
“I was speechless,” said Zora, who is 52 but looks 35.
Zora began to suspect that her husband’s son was molesting her son, who was 6 at the time. The boy was bruised and terrified to be left alone with his older half-sibling. She, in turn, was terrified to say anything to her husband. When Zora confirmed that the abuse was taking place, her anger overcame her fear. She grabbed her son and fled.
Sbai, the politician, helps women such as Zora get or keep jobs, however low-paying, and begin to navigate the basics of Italian legal red tape. Zora, for example, is trying to have her son’s name removed from her husband’s passport and added to hers to prevent him from taking the boy and leaving the country. The women are also receiving elemental education and are given access to a psychologist, though counseling has been slow-going because most are reluctant to discuss their ordeals.
“We are not at the point of integration yet,” said the psychologist, Lucia Basile. After what they have been through, “we first need to teach them that they have dignity and that they exist.”
Hadi, for one, has taken up that cause. As she campaigns for the return of her children, she has joined Sbai’s office, works the emergency hotline and is reaching out to other Moroccan and immigrant women to inform them of their rights and opportunities.
“It’s always the women,” she said, “who pay the price.”