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Different Women, Similar Struggle? Inclusive Feminism and Muslims in the Netherland

“Fighting for basic rights—that’s what women have in common. The right to work if you want to, the right to social and economic freedom. Muslim women are fighting for equal rights, white women are fighting for equal rights. Why can’t we work together?”

---Samira Abbos, Journalist

Just as tensions were starting to abate in Dutch society following the hysterical reaction to the murder of right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn, things suddenly heated up again. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a controversial politician with the liberal party VVD, launched her movie Submission in August 2004. The subsequent assassination of the movie’s director, Theo van Gogh, by Muslim extremist Mohammed B., reignited the debate about Muslim integration in Dutch society. This time the firestorm focused on Muslim women’s emancipation. Despite good intentions to address sensitive topics of domestic violence, arranged marriages and unwanted veiling, the terms deployed in the debate — namely, static, oppositional, and overly generalizing terms such as “Muslim women”  and “non-Muslim women” — effectively polarized society and hindered the debate (one still urgent and ongoing) from the outset. In this paper, we strongly question this rigid binary. We argue that the subsequent misunderstanding and generalizations that arose from this polarization limit opportunities for all feminists, laying fallow to what could otherwise be fertile ground for self-reflection and common struggle.

Rajae el Mouhandiz sipped on her coffee at the outdoor café terrace in Amsterdam. “When I was fifteen I had to leave my family and my community,” she explained matter-of-factly. “They just didn’t understand that I wanted to be a musician, a rock star, because they expected me to become a mother and a housekeeper and to choose an academic study instead of art.” She is 26, of Moroccan descent, and one of the faces of a new generation of women from a Muslim background growing up in the Netherlands. Rajae makes “universal” music with Arab-Moroccan influence. She has an oval face framed by dark, boisterous hair, and dimples in her cheeks. Despite being rejected by her family and many in the Moroccan community, she exudes the smiling glow of someone who has followed her heart. “Are you a feminist?” we ask, and she smiles, nods, explains. “I am an undercover feminist,” she says, “because although I am a role-model for many young Muslim girls for having made my own choices—against my male-dominated tribe— I am also proud of my roots, and that is in my music.”

What happens to women like Rajae? Strong women, women who dare to challenge the communities they grew up in—and if necessary, move outside those communities? And what happens to those women who don’t want to completely sever ties with their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, just because they have dreams and visions at odds with the prescribed gender roles of their community? Many Dutch Muslim girls lead a double life for fear of shaming their family and facing harsh repercussions. These girls hide the fact that they go out, drink alcohol, and have boyfriends from their parents. How do they negotiate the competing loyalties  to their religion, society, and individualism, and “tribe,” (as Rajae characterizes the Muslim community) faith and feminism? 

Our interviews with different women of Muslim background in the Netherlands, made demonstrably clear that a single template for navigating this dilemma does not exist. Some women argue strongly that their faith can lead to their own empowerment, allowing them to carve out a feminist space within Islam and Muslim communities. Yet even within this position, there are significant differences. Some, like the author Nahed Selim,  adopt a more liberal, personal, and non-literal interpretation of the Qu’ran and the Hadith. The converted Muslim feminist Ceylan Pektas-Weber, chairwoman of Al Nisa,  an organization for women of an Islamic background, pieces together an eclectic and creative reading of literal texts. Other feminists, such as Emely Nobis, Assistant Editor of the mainstream Dutch feminist magazine Opzij,  question the validity of a feminism that remains within the patriarchal structure of Islam (or any religion, for that matter). Nobis, just like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Opzij head editor Cisca Dresselhuys, imagine feminism to be a linear project of women’s emancipation that necessarily progresses towards secularism, individualism and sexual liberation. They exhort Muslim women to stand up for their rights and challenge continued injustices within the Islamic community, such as female circumcision, arranged marriages, honor killings, and domestic violence against women. 

Such feminists call for a so-called ‘Third Wave’ of feminism (one that would follow the suffragette movement in the 1900s, and the social, economic, and sexual rights movement in the 1960s). This feminism is directed at (and claims to speak for) Muslim women. According to Nobis, feminists from the dominant mainstream have a luxurious position, and so bear the responsibility to fight for the rights of silenced and oppressed women. 

Often, however, the debate and this fight tends towards withering criticism, leading mainstream feminists to overlook the positive, emancipatory changes that have been occurring within Muslim communities in the Netherlands for quite some time. These changes have been slow and gradual, taking a variety of forms that remain largely unacknowledged and undervalued in the dominant discussion. Even when mainstream feminists have applauded positive developments within the Muslim community, while still maintaining their right to speak in the name of silenced women, we find two main missteps in this generally negative and counterproductive approach. 

First, the current debate contains the unsettling spectacle of white women speaking for their Muslim sisters. To avoid this, and to allow Muslim women a voice in how they think emancipation can be achieved, the negative tone should be replaced with a collaborative and encouraging approach that recognizes—and more importantly, learns from—reformers and emancipators within the Muslim community.  

Second, the dominant debate overemphasizes the negative aspects of Islamic women’s position—and this assumed knowledge must be questioned. By continually dwelling on circumcision and honor killings, are more pressing issues ignored? Or are arranged marriages per se negative? Of course, the more egregious abuses against women should always be on the agenda, but perhaps they can be better understood and fought against by focusing on factors other than Islam. Socio-economic position, rural and educational background, Somali tradition, and cultural factors should be scrutinized as well.

We view the discourse about emancipation of women with an Islamic background in the Netherlands as an illustration of the growing polarization within Dutch society between a majority and a minority population. Currently, the majority (mainly white, native, Dutch and often male) determine the conditions, terms, and discourse of women’s emancipation. Off center-stage, however, in the wings, feminism is a heterogeneous movement with many different strategies for emancipation. By placing feminism within the rigid binary of Muslim and non-Muslim, women walk away with stereotypical notions of “Western” and “Islamic” feminism. In addition to locating the latter outside Western civilization, these terms frustrate meaningful dialogue. Despite their differences, women struggle for many of the same issues. Samira Abbos, a prominent journalist, writer, and media figure,  argues convincingly that “fighting for basic rights—that’s what women have in common. The right to work if you want to, the right to social and economic freedom. Muslim women are fighting for equal rights; white women are fighting for equal rights. Why can’t we work together?” 

An ‘inclusive feminism,’ to borrow the terminology of Ceylan Pektas-Weber, is nearly non-existent in the Netherlands. Such a feminism recognizes differences (without scorn and negative judgments) yet works toward common goals: freedom for women to make their own choices, equal rights, combating inequality stemming from constructed gender roles. The dominant discourse of women’s emancipation—perceived by Muslim women as fueled by the values of secularism, individualism, and sexual liberation—is a model that many immigrant and Muslim women do not identify with. Subsequently, an “Islamic feminism” is constructed by and in opposition to this Western feminist project, and reified by some Muslim women themselves. An inclusive feminism would bridge various forms and recognize different strategies on an equal basis, so that one form does not dominate the other and determine the conditions of emancipation. Inclusive feminism would accept veiled women as both emancipated and Dutch; provide spaces such as prayer-rooms for Muslims in public buildings and schools; value women-only venues for their own sake. Inclusive feminism would acknowledge that feminism and Islam are not mutually exclusive. This is a tricky proposal—especially because the current feminist debate is also part of a larger crisis and debate concerning Islam, sectarianism, and secularism—but all the women we interviewed wanted respect and acknowledgment of their position from other feminists. 

Sorting out the real differences in feminist goals (i.e, do Islamic women have different goals than non-Islamic women?) from those differences that are conjured up and exacerbated by the prevailing discourse is not an easy task. Our purpose is not to claim a seamless unity among feminists; rather, we want to recognize these differences in position and background without balkanizing feminism into entrenched camps of Islamic feminism, lower-class feminism, Jewish feminism, secular feminism, etc., all have their own valid distinctions but do not have to be exclusive.

One of the first adverse consequences of the regrettable and artificial separation between Muslim and non-Muslim feminism is that they are held accountable for national and geopolitical events concerning Muslim women. For instance, Dutch women with an Islamic background are asked to answer for Muslim women’s oppression outside of Europe. In order to be “true” feminists, Dutch Muslims are expected to reject the symbols of that oppression. Explaining Opzij’s official policy against hiring veiled women, Nobis argued that Muslim women in Europe have a responsibility to discard veils “in order to express solidarity with those women who do not have a choice.” Some women with an Islamic background, like the author Nahed Selim, agree with this position. Some don’t. The point is that no single model of feminism should be imposed or expected of women with a Muslim background. 

Defining “them” as singularly “Muslims” and demanding “them” to feel responsible for other Muslims places immigrants and Muslims in a defensive, constricted position, leading to a regrettable reluctance to publicly criticize abuse from within immigrant communities. This has detrimental effects for Muslim women’s emancipation and for their decisions on how to emancipate. It also becomes tricky for non-immigrant and non-Muslim women to address oppression of Muslim without being lumped in with women like Ali and Dresselhuys. Muslim women then often negatively stereotype non-Muslim feminists as promiscuous, masculine, individualistic, and atheist. Rajae illustrated one of these stereotypes, stating that “all Western feminists are masculine.”

In addition, asking Dutch Muslim women to answer for women’s oppression in other parts of the world reduces their identity to “Muslim,” ignoring or downplaying other aspects of their lives. Samira Abbos, for one, chafes under this reductionism, insisting vehemently that “not every issue relating to emancipation of women with Muslim background can be linked directly to Islam.” She argues for a context-specific analysis of women’s oppression in migrant communities, urging for a close look at cultural, social, and economic causes of headline issues such as veiling, arranged marriage, and domestic violence. Factors such as immigration, class, race, education, and nationality (recognizing differences between Moroccan and Turkish forms of patriarchy) play a significant role in the oppression of Dutch Muslim women.  

Dr. Rosi Braidotti,  a noted feminist scholar and activist at the University of Utrecht, argues that “the discussion should not be about preserving the pride and reputation of Islam—it should be about the real oppression that is happening.” Muslim and immigrant women, doubly oppressed within a minority community, are placed in a very uncomfortable position. Understandably, then, many become defensive and mute concerning abuse within their community. Rajae pithily summed up this dilemma: “I cannot attack my tribe without attacking my own identity.” If Dutch society vilifies Moroccans, for example, and Moroccan men oppress Moroccan women, who can Moroccan women ally with? Many Muslim and immigrant women are unfairly forced to choose between their husbands and outside feminists. 

We have three recommendations. First, in order to combat misogynistic, abusive, and macho behavior within migrant communities, feminists must also bring in the men. Second, optimistic developments within the immigrant community, not just negative ones, should be stressed. Third, bring a diverse coalition of feminists onto the stage, highlighting different approaches to emancipation so that one feminist discourse does not hijack the debate. 

 Expanding on the third point, it is unsettling to note that Western feminists often fail to recognize the contribution that feminists with an Islamic background could have upon their own struggle. There could be an enriching dialogue between different feminists on a number of issues. Adelheid Roosen, actress and director, argues convincingly that Muslim women and native Dutch women have much to learn from each other, especially concerning sexuality. Roosen conceived of and directed The Veil Monologues, a theater-piece featuring four Muslim women inspired by Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. Roosen remarked, as did Emily Nobis, that while Muslim women’s sexuality may be “in a jail” (referring to the subjugation of women’s bodies through arranged marriages, female circumcision, and forced veiling), Western women have become, in a way, trapped by the boundless freedom of sexual liberation. 

Ceylan Pektas-Weber, for instance, would like white and non-Muslim feminists in the Netherlands to recognize that equality does not necessarily demand gender-mixed spaces in every situation: sometimes a women-only venue can be intimate, liberating, and even empowering. The issue of gender segregation in public and private spaces surfaced when we met with Wijnand Hollander, the male director of Marmoucha, a Moroccan-Dutch organization that aims to promote and provide venues for Moroccan art and music in the Netherlands. The hip, professional office was awash with posters of Moroccan live concerts, cultural events, and festivals that the organization has sponsored. The whole staff—young, smartly-dressed Dutch and Moroccan men and women—buzzed around the office, preparing for a trip to a Moroccan music festival. Wijnand explained that Marmoucha recently decided to hold a women-only concert, in order to attract a new audience. He was shocked at the overwhelming success: “We had grandmothers, married women, young girls—all of whom would not have been able to come out if it was a mixed-gender show.” Rajae, who performed at the concert, was also enthusiastic and positive about the opportunity it provided for women. Viewed pessimistically, the women-only concert could be seen to reinforce sexist codes regulating women’s space; but both Wijnand and Rajae were upbeat about the positive, empowering effect of the concert for women of all backgrounds.  

Having taken into account that the current misguided debate about Muslim emancipation is counterproductive for immigrants (despite good intentions to address existing abuses within their communities) and also for other women, what, then, would an inclusive feminism look like? And how can abuse and oppression of Muslim women be tackled from inside and outside immigrant communities? 

As for the first question, we refer to Rosi Braidotti’s call for silencing paternalist and Orientalist voices such like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Cisca Dresselhuys and revitalizing the important work on immigrant and Muslim women’s emancipation that has already been underway. The debate about oppression of Muslim women was alive and well long before Ayaan Hirsi Ali bounded on stage. Although we agree with Emely Nobis, Adelheid Roosen, Nehet Selim and many others, that women such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali should have the right to stand up and speak out about injustice within immigrant communities, we disagree with the approach. If Ayaan ‘opened up the door to talk about women’s emancipation,’ as her staunchest supporters claim, she did so with a hatchet. We firmly believe that women’s emancipation should be dealt with sensitively, contextually and respectfully.

This does not mean a backslide into spineless cultural relativism—we also firmly believe that women’s emancipation is a common struggle about opposing gender inequality, questioning constructed gender roles, and fighting for equal rights. Necessarily, then, the situation of Muslim and immigrant women in the Netherlands affects all women. Opzij assistant editor Nobis paints a troubling picture of the potential consequences for non-Muslim women, of staying silent about oppression of Muslim women. “If society becomes increasingly conservative and inward-oriented, it threatens my freedom as well, and that is one reason some Western feminists get involved.” In Nobis’ nightmare world, a real possibility exists of a regressive alliance between an arch-conservative Dutch Christian party, the SGP, and a future Muslim conservative party, resulting in a rollback of women’s rights in the Netherlands.

As for how to tackle current abuses and patriarchy in immigrant communities of Islamic background, current work that bridges several forms of feminism should be focused on and stimulated. One avenue for stimulating this type of inclusive feminism would be to recognize similarities between feminists who work within religion. In the Netherlands, there are certainly Christian and Jewish feminists. Linking their struggle with Muslim feminists who also forge a feminism that challenges patriarchy from within their religion would be a very fruitful endeavor. 

Ceylan Pektas-Weber, along with second wave feminist Anja Meulenbelt, works closely within several immigrant Muslim communities. “I see many strong immigrant and Muslim women, serving as mentors, role models, and activists in their buildings and in their neighborhoods,” she said. “What Al Nisa wants to do is connect and link these women together to strengthen these women in this process.” Ceylan has also organized meetings in mosques, with imams, to address the issue of domestic violence. “The imams, Ceylan recounted, were relieved that someone was there to discuss these issues with them, and find solutions, rather than just attack them.”  

This method—supporting and connecting with feminists more oriented towards grassroots organizing and  social work, and who are deeply rooted in local communities—can be very fruitful and should be strengthened. Such an approach highlights that much of the patriarchy and oppression Muslim and immigrant women face is not due to religion, but to ground-level factors—culture, immigration status, employment, class, education—and a ground-level approach may work best. Another example of positive initiatives that should be supported and expanded, is Mozaiek, an organization for immigrant women. Located in the predominantly immigrant and Muslim district of De Baarsjes in West Amsterdam, Mozaiek uses a pragmatic and reality-based approach to combating oppression. Through sexual education classes, art workshops, and language courses led by educated women from each immigrant community, Mozaiek empowers women to stand up for their own emancipation. 

Through our analysis, and by interviewing an eclectic mix of women within Dutch society, we became aware of the risk of an increasing polarization within Dutch society. The current debate has been steered by a few feminists who urge Muslim women to emancipate—but on their terms, and with their model of feminism. The loudest voices in this debate seem to neglect to acknowledge the history and continued struggle against oppression inside and outside immigrant communities by continually stressing oppression. By starting from a linear model of emancipation, the dominant feminist discourse divides, rather than unites, women. Ironically, this approach is self-righteous, and also paternalistic. The current call to ‘emancipate’ Muslim women, despite good intentions, often denies Muslim women the right to choose how they want to emancipate. Furthermore, such an approach sets up a monolithic, static concept of Muslim, disregarding the variety of perspectives within Islam and immigrant communities—and also discounting the subsequent diversity of strategies for emancipation.

It is time to truly come to terms with modern-day multicultural society. We prefer the vision provided by an “inclusive feminism.” In order for this to actualize, different forms of feminism should be recognized, valued, and respected, whether secular or religious. Only when all feminists can engage in criticism and self-reflection, recognizing limitations and boundaries to their own position, can an enriching dialogue occur about what true feminist emancipation means. 




Wijnand Hollander, director and founder of Marmoucha, an organization that supports Moroccan and Dutch Moroccan musicians, by putting on live music shows, organizing events, forums, and showcases.

Najia Silfane, host in Mozaiek, a government-sponsered organization providing courses, information-evenings and support for immigrant women.

Emely Nobis, Assistant Editor of Opzij, the first and leading feminist magazine of the Netherlands. 

Samira Abbos, a journalist, writer, and media figure in the Netherlands. She just published a new book, The Muslim Does Not Exist (freely translated), stressing the variety within Islam.

Ceidan Pektas-Weber, chairwoman of Al Nisa which used to be an organization exclusively for women like herself, being converted women to Islam, but now being an inclusive organization for all Muslim women. 

Raeja el Mouhandiz is a female musician and performer of Moroccan descent with ambitions to write a comic book featuring a Muslim girl who uses her multi-functional veil to travel around the world and get in and out of adventures.  

Nahed Selim, an Egyptian born Dutch author who wrote a book called The women and the Prophet, in which she defends a feminist and free interpretation of Islam.

Rosi Braidotti, a postmodern feminist born in Italy, raised in Australia and living in the Netherlands, teaching women´s studies at the University of Utrecht.

Adelheid Roosen, an established actress, theater maker and teacher who directed The Veil Monologues, based on the concept of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues.



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HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2005


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