As a Muslim woman living in Milan, Sumaya Abdel Qader has committed herself to promoting integration and community cohesion by combating negative stereotypes and violence against Muslim women in Italy. Sumaya’s participation on the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) in 2006 provided her with an opportunity to see and learn about the role that Muslim communities play in developing and working within the framework of governmental and non-governmental institutions dealing with integration and integration issues. Her time in the United States also exposed her to best practices in America, such as the freedoms enjoyed by Muslim women and the leadership roles among Muslim youth.
Although Sumaya has always been a dynamic and diverse leader and scholar—holding three Masters degrees in biology, foreign languages/literature, and sociology—her exchange experience inspired her to invest new energy in developing locally-based activities in order to promote the social and cultural re-positioning of the Muslim community in Milan. Through her work as a cultural mediator, journalist, writer, and project coordinator, she established herself as an accomplished activist for integration and women’s rights.
Soon after her trip to the United States, Sumaya started a blog “Yalla Italia,” the first digital forum for local Muslim youth. Through this pioneering editorial project, second-generation Muslim students strove to define their identify as an integrated community of young Muslims born and raised in the “host” country. As many young Muslims felt they needed to frame themselves and their positions in the community in a different manner than their parent’s generation as a result of 9/11, the Yalla Italia blog became an ideal tool.
In the ten years since her exchange program, Sumaya has undertaken countless initiatives to promote integration and ensure protection for Muslim women in Milan. She recently led a protest to demonstrate against stereotypes of Muslim women after a local Muslim leader stated in public that “good Muslim women do not ride bikes.” Sumaya countered by organizing a public bicycle ride that was joined by Muslim women and the Milanese community at large. Furthermore, after the assaults against women in Cologne, Germany on New Year’s Eve in 2015, Sumaya launched the first training program for imams to guide them in teaching respect for women to Milanese Muslims. The training program, which began in March 2016, is the first of its kind in Italy. Local media quoted Sumaya on the role of imams in violence against women as saying, “[Our leaders] must speak to the community and be able to acknowledge problems when they see them.”
In early June 2016, Sumaya was elected as the first Muslim councilwoman in Milan, providing her with an opportunity to demonstrate her leadership and work for integration at a civic level. Although the first councilwoman to wear the Islamic headscarf, Sumaya has made it clear that she represents all Milanese. The commitment to social change which earned her the position as a municipal councilor in Milan ensures that she will continue to make inroads for integration and community cohesion, not only for Muslims, but for women more broadly.