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Career and Islam: do they go together?

The new world order

Once upon a time there was a world in which every group had its own land, culture, language,and religion. They could call themselves whatever they wished, express their culture and practice their religion. This was the only thing that they knew. There was no one immediately nearby who could be different; it was only “We” and the “Others”.

In the 21st century, a new world order is developing: globalization is knocking on the door of Western civilization. Everybody had already built their own society, each with its own history, philosophy, mentality, tradition, and religion. Then, all of the sudden, some people decided to move. They found the courage to cross both the visible borders of their respective countries and those invisible frontiers that exist in every culture, leaving their well-known world to find a better one – or at least, one they considered to be better.

In particular, many people from poor, highly traditional and religious countries have decided to try their luck in the Netherlands, drawn by its reputation for tolerance, intelligence, progressiveness and acceptance of change. Contrary to what the “nice” Dutch people may have thought, those newcomers were not just paying them a visit – they ended up building their lives in that small and crowded country. This has led to a situation in which more and more immigrants (both legal and illegal) are arriving, trying to find a job, getting married and raising their children in this new society. A large percent of these people come from North Africa and southeastern Europe. Most of them lived in rural and remote areas in their own country; consequently, they are generally quite traditional and religious, in great contrast to most Dutch people. Whether it be the color of their skin, their features, their religion, the way they dress, their original language or their customs, there is always something that will make them ‘less Dutch.’

The Netherlands is still struggling with the issue of how to deal with these new Dutch citizens, and lately, the focus seems to be on those with an Islamic background. The main sentiment heard is that these new Dutch citizens should put more effort into assimilation, and should be willing to let go of certain aspects of their religion and traditions that are not in line with Dutch values.

Anti-Islamism in the Netherlands

In this article, we want to focus on second and third-generation Muslim women who grew up in the Netherlands, and face the difficult task of combining their traditional family life with a more liberal Dutch society. Our goal is to obtain a clearer picture of the current status, possibilities and challenges for a few of these women. We will focus on their professional life, in the hopes of gaining an idea of their views on combining religious and traditional beliefs with participation in Dutch society. Is it possible to combine the two, or does the Muslim woman have to choose? Must you remain a housewife all your life if you want to stay true to your religion and traditions? Or, alternatively, do you have to give up your religion and traditions if you want a career?

To get a more balanced perspective on this issue, we also interviewed Ehsan Jami, a man with outspoken views on the matter who might be expected to take a position exactly opposite to that held by the Muslim women who are the subject of this study. Formerly of Islamic background, he rejected Islam later in life, and is now a proclaimed atheist who strongly believes in Western values and a Western notion of progress. When reading about his political views and his strong and committed opposition to Islam, it may be helpful to consider this background. It is up to the reader to decide whether his views are personal or objective, justified or discriminatory, and whether they ultimately advocate freedom or oppression.

Jami was born on April 20, 1985 in Mashad, Iran, and was raised there. His father is a Muslim and his mother is of Jewish descent, but later converted to Christianity. Political involvement on the part of Jami's father resulted in the family’s being forced to leave the country. Together with his parents and his older sister, the then nine-year-old Jami arrived in the Netherlands in 1994. As a teenager, he became politically active and joined the Labor Party (PvdA) in 2003, going on to found the Central Committee for Ex-Muslims in 2007 together with Loubna Berrada.

Berrada left the committee shortly after it was founded, because she felt that Jami challenged Islam itself to an excessive degree, which had not been her intention. Others seemed to share her view, and when Jami also criticized his own party and compared the Prophet Muhammad to Adolf Hitler, his membership in the PvdA was thrown into question. Eventually, he had to leave. Today, he is the political assistant to the Freedom Party (PVV) member of Parliament, Hero Brinkman. When talking to Jami, it is evident that he is ambivalent towards the PVV and its leader. He is not willing to represent the PVV in Parliament, but nevertheless is willing to serve as political assistant to one of the members because this provides him with a platform for his main concern: Islam.

Jami states that he is not religious but does believe in God, despite not being affiliated with a particular religion. In our conversation with Jami, we tried to play the devil’s advocate in order to encourage him to reveal his own views as much as possible. His main point is that, since the Netherlands is a secular country, there should not be any signs of religious expression in public such as wearing a headscarf, a cross, etc. We asked him if this implies that women should partly reject their religion by not wearing a headscarf; after all, this is the most visible sign of religious expression in the Netherlands. His answer is that most of these customs are not even mentioned in the Koran. Rather, they are part of a tradition which influenced religious rituals in the past. Respecting traditions is acceptable and normal in some contexts; he also has some customs that he respects, such as taking off your shoes when entering a house. The problem is that many of those rituals and customs are discriminatory and reflect a lack of autonomy on the part of the practicer. If a woman has to wear a headscarf in order to prevent an erotic reaction from the men that encounter her, this is proof of inequality, which is in contradiction with the social status of women in modern society. Because this tradition expresses inequality based on gender, and also because Jami is in favor of regulating any overt expressions of religion in public life, he would rather not see any women with headscarves in governmental and public institutions.

Yet, we asked, should the government be worried that forbidding the headscarf would have a completely opposite effect on the Muslim community? Instead of making them feel accepted and encouraging them to adopt ‘Western values’, this radical measure could lead them to turn to their original traditions and religion even more, further separating them from Dutch society. Jami quotes Aristotle: “Law is logic without emotion.” He goes on to explain that every beginning is difficult. Some women will protest, but at the same time, a lot of them will feel free. Their daughters will eventually adopt a new way of living, and the goal – emancipation – will be reached. To underline the urgency of the need for this change, he claims that many Muslim women voted for the PVV precisely for these reasons, which he interprets as a cry for help.

However, there is another potential objection. Article 6 of the Dutch Constitution states that every person has the freedom to choose and practice his or her own religion. Forbidding some of the important rituals and habits of Islam may be in disagreement with the Constitution. If someone considers wearing certain clothes or symbols as part of his/her religion, is it really possible, in a state of tolerance and freedom, to decide that this is no longer allowed? Or, is such tolerance only applied to non-believers?

Jami answers by claiming that wearing a headscarf is not a free choice. Who in their right mind would wear a headscarf or a burqa? According to him, free choice is an illusion in this matter. He is trying to provide a safe place for women, where they don’t have to wear a headscarf. He points out that the same policy was implemented in France, Belgium, and even Turkey, and there were no major problems there; at least, no greater opposition than expected. He goes so far as to say that even to be a part of Islam is not a free choice. You don’t choose it; you are just born into a Muslim family and inherit it. In his opinion, the majority of Muslims are victims, especially women. He has spoken to many such women, who feel pressured at home or suffer from abuse. They cannot be considered to be free.

We tried to counter his argument by pointing out that there are also Muslim women who are successful and powerful in political, social, and cultural life, even while remaining very much connected to their religion. We gave some examples, such as Fatima Elatik, the District Mayor of Amsterdam East. Jami had a particular opinion about these women as well: that they are waging their own war (jihad). In this case, he means a war against Western civilization and its values. According to Jami, they are sending the message that they don’t love this country, and by wearing headscarves they are provoking the Dutch. In saying this, he wants to make clear that he doesn’t hate people, but only certain ideologies. He believes that the West has a superior culture; that the people themselves are not superior, but the culture is. As he likes to put it: “West is the best!”

This is the final statement from this promising young politician. He himself seems to be struggling to find his own identity: rejecting one (Islam) and adopting another (Western), yet not fully knowing what this other identity actually entails. In our opinion, he is not so different from those women who – according to him – are waging their own jihad. Like them, he is looking for his own place and identity in this complex world.

How Muslim women feel

Now that we have spoken about Jami, it is also important to address the views of Muslim women who have to deal with this issue on a daily basis. It should be stated here that, unfortunately, we were not able to reach as many women and get as much quality interview time with them as we would have liked. We tried to contact several successful women with Islamic backgrounds, with sometimes surprising responses. Most of them were only reachable by e-mail, but we also called a few of them and spoke to one woman in person. The positive aspect of interviewing via e-mail was that it was faster, and people could consider their answers carefully. The negative aspect, however, was that we could not ask follow-up questions and guide the conversation in a certain direction in order to get the complete picture. Unfortunately, we were ultimately forced to change the design of our report because of these circumstances, with the result that, despite our primary focus being the Muslim women, we devote a greater amount of space to the interview with Jami. At the same time, however, we feel that this outcome perfectly exemplifies some of the issues we are exploring by illustrating the manner in which this debate has been taking place: the women whom it concerns are not speaking up or are not being heard. In this respect, such methodological problems emphasize once more the necessity for discussing these issues.

One woman, a member of one of the major political parties in the Netherlands whom we spoke to in person, seemed offended by our approach. According to her, it doesn’t matter how religious she is and how she combines this with her professional life. She made clear that her religion is only one of the aspects that define her as a person, and is certainly not the main force behind her ambitions.

Nahed Selim, a Dutch publicist with Egyptian roots who calls herself a Muslim-feminist, responded by saying that she couldn’t answer our questions because she is not religious at all; in fact, she is against the tradition of the headscarf and the other strict rules of Islam. In her opinion, Muslim women should not practice their religion so strictly because this means that they will not be able to integrate into Dutch society properly. In this respect, her views seem very much in line with those of Jami. Selim stated that we had better talk to someone else, because she did not consider herself to be representative of the women we were looking for. However, we strongly disagree. We believe that her story is in fact quite relevant, for the very reason that she is clearly a woman who has abandoned her Islamic background and is successful in Dutch society.

We also asked three other Muslim women to share their experiences, who will only be referred to by first initials. Two of them, B. and P., are of Turkish descent; the other one, W., has a Somali background. All three women are well-integrated into Dutch society and are successful in the professional arena. It is interesting to note that they all seem to hold similarly moderate views on the issue. All state that they do not actively practice their religion, and do not wear a headscarf. They agree that it is important to incorporate certain aspects of Dutch society into your life if you wish to be successful – and that appears to be exactly what they have done.

What they also seem to have in common is the will to succeed. As B. points out, they seem to be highly driven to prove themselves, possibly because they feel that they have to work twice as hard as native Dutch women. W., however, believes that especially within governmental institutions, there is a demand for women with non-Dutch cultural backgrounds. All three point to their cultural background as having contributed positively to their professional life.

What we witness here, then, are three women who have adjusted to Dutch society. Specifically, this means that they have embraced a liberal way of life, do not publicly display any signs of their religion (e.g. wearing a headscarf), and allow their cultural background to positively influence their professional development. There are many Muslim women who are not able to do this, however, and B, P, and W. recognize this as well. As W. puts it: “Muslim women tend to stay in their comfort zone and have trouble with stepping out.” They all agree that this, and not the headscarf, is the main problem. In their view, a woman who wears a headscarf might encounter more difficulties because people have a certain image of such women, but she can still be successful nevertheless.

No right or wrong –just a personal belief

The issue explored through this project remains a difficult one. While we think we can all agree that newcomers have to adjust to Dutch society if they want to be successful, the question that arises is whether a woman who wears a headscarf can be seen as sufficiently integrated. No matter how liberal she may be, the fact that she wears a headscarf is not in line with Dutch customs; this, in turn, can be interpreted as consciously not integrating into Dutch culture.

After speaking with all of these people and examining the issue from different perspectives, we have come to the realization that there is no simple solution. It is not as black and white as we had suggested at the beginning of our report. We can’t say for sure that a Muslim woman must reject her religion if she wants to be successful in Dutch society, but we can agree that she would need to be willing to incorporate at least certain aspects of Dutch society into her life. All of the women we spoke with have done the latter, and we doubt that they would have had the same careers if this was not the case. They point out that there are still too many Muslim women who are not willing or able to follow their lead, and consequently are left behind.

So, what is the best way to assure that these women also have a chance in this society? Jami’s answer is to start a revolution, whereas the women we have talked to (with the exception of Selim) prefer a more moderate approach. It is interesting to hear Jami speak about the importance of freedom, even as others consider his views and the PVV’s views to be in conflict with that very notion. Yet, there is also the contradiction of being openly religious by wearing a headscarf, while living in a society in which religion is considered a private matter. This matter is full of contradictions, but so is Dutch society. We must acknowledge that there is some truth to the words of each person interviewed. Accordingly, when seeking a solution to this problem we should keep in mind the most important Dutch characteristics; namely, tolerance, cooperation, and compromise.

References

Interviews

"P." Customs Officer. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 24, 2010.

Jami, Ehsan. Political Assistant, PVV. The Hague, Netherlands. June 22 , 2010.

"B." IND (Immigration and Naturalization Office) Representative. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 25, 2010.

Selim, Nehad. Publicist. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 25, 2010.

"W." Policy Officer, Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 24, 2010.

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HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2010

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