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So You Think You Know Muslim Women? Campaigning Against Stereotypes in the Netherlands

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In February 2012, Pakistan’s first Oscar was taken home by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy who brought Pakistan’s acid-violence problem to the world stage with her documentary Saving Face. Four months later, Fatou Bensouda took office as chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. In September that same year, Samira Ibrahim filed an international lawsuit against Egypt, after its military court exonerated a former military doctor who conducted “virginity tests” on female protestors in March 2011.

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, Fatou Bensouda, and Samira Ibrahim have a number of things in common. They stand up for truth and justice in the face of ostracism and public scrutiny; they press governments to support the quest for justice; they change the legal, social, and political fate of victims of human rights abuses. They are powerful women—powerful Muslim women. This contrasts sharply with stubborn perceptions in Western Europe that stereotype Muslim women as repressed, submissive, and in need of rescue.

Over the past decade, anti-Muslim sentiments have run particularly high in the Netherlands. The Dutch Muslim women’s organization Al Nisa works to challenge misconceptions about Muslim women. The emancipation of Muslim women has always been key to its mission, but over the course of its 30 years of existence, the organization broadened its mandate, explains Al Nisa chair Leyla Çakir: “Thirty years ago, our primary objective was to share information about Islam. We found it increasingly important to raise awareness amongst Muslim women about the role they can play within Muslim communities and Dutch society. Nowadays, we focus more and more on improving the position of Muslim women in Dutch society.” The current focus is a much needed additional line of work for Al Nisa. After over a decade of polarization over the (in)compatibility of Western and Islamic norms and values, Islam is often understood as a static and homogenous ideological system, in which gender relations are fundamentally unequal.

The relationship between men and women has been a central theme in the arguments of those criticizing Islam in the Netherlands. Pim Fortuyn, the flamboyant anti-Islam populist, argued that Islam was a backward culture that failed to treat women as equal citizens. After Fortuyn was murdered in 2002, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Theo van Gogh, both outspoken critics of Islam, took over where he left off. Together they wrote and directed a provocative 11-minute film entitled Submission. Submission criticized the mistreatment of Muslim women under Islam, featuring the stories of four women pleading with God for release from domestic, social, and marital bondage. After Van Gogh was murdered and Hirsi Ali left the Netherlands in a row over her Dutch citizenship, their arguments found a new advocate in the xenophobe populist Geert Wilders. Wilders successfully ran his 2010 national election campaign based on banning mosques and burqas, arguing that the latter is a symbol of Islamic oppression which is humiliating to women. Continuously referring to burqas, female genital mutilation, or honor killings as inherent to Islam, Wilders hardly ever leaves an opportunity unused to reiterate that this religion has brought enormous human suffering “for its own followers and their families—and especially for women and for non-Muslims.”

These recurring images, printed in newspapers and beamed into Dutch homes, left a legacy of particularly persistent stereotypes facing Muslim women. Al Nisa works to challenge these mainstreamed misconceptions through innovative campaigns. Al Nisa cleverly uses well-known slogans and quotes for their campaigns. For their Real Dutch campaign ahead of the 2010 elections and their Burqa Ban campaign in 2011, Al Nisa effectively turned Wilders’s intolerant and offensive statements on themselves. One of the examples relates to an interview with Geert Wilders discussing potential protesters against a ban on headscarves, where he declared himself ready to “eat them raw.” Al Nisa took the quote, and combined it with a poster image of a Muslim woman with a headscarf eating raw herring (a commonly eaten Dutch delicacy) in typical Dutch manner. Wilders’s quote of hatred was instead used to communicate an image of integration and the diversity of Dutch identity.

When Geert Wilders withdrew his support for the minority government coalition in 2012, Al Nisa launched its latest campaign Do you know me?, which kicked off with a one-minute video on YouTube. The campaign called for politicians and the media to stop wasting valuable time and money on misleading and manipulative political symbolism and far-fetched legislative proposals, including those proposing a ban on face veils and dual nationality. According to Al Nisa chair Leyla Çakir, it is time for the Dutch to turn back to realistic optimism. And they have plenty of reasons to be realistically optimist, underlines Çakir: “Muslim women in the Netherlands are strong and emancipated, and they are stepping to the fore more boldly than ever. They work in national politics (Wassila Hachchi), are the face of national media (Naeeda Aurangzeb), and hold prominent positions in the legal field (Famile Arslan). There are many other Muslim women who are active and influential in their personal and professional environments. The challenge of our time lies in the pursuit of a fair and equal situation for Muslim women in Dutch society that recognizes, acknowledges, and employs their talents fully to the benefit of our society.”

Al Nisa’s “Do you know me?” campaign was supported by the Open Society Fund to Counter Xenophobia, part of the Open Society Initiative for Europe.

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