Cultural Integration of Muslim Women

Strasbourg, Plenary  Session – Hemicycle, 28 October 2010

Speech by Naima AZOUGH, former member of the House of Representatives of The Netherlands

Dear ladies and gentlemen,

I am very honoured to be asked to comment on this draft resolution on the integration of Muslim women in European cities, as this is a very important subject. Anyone can see there have been fundamental developments in the major cities of Europe. Changes that may be welcomed by some and abhorred by others, but that should be the topic of discussion nonetheless.

In this resolution composed by the Committee on Culture and Education and its rapporteur Amy Koopmanschap I find many good and interesting ideas to support Muslim women to empower themselves. Ideas that I hope everyone of you will look at sincerely as you all are at a key position as Member of the Council of Europe to elevate women’s positions in each of your countries.

My mother arrived in Holland many years ago as a young and bright Moroccan woman. Had she had the chance to learn Dutch right away she might have had many more opportunities instead of waiting until she was in her fifties when it was much more difficult for her. Integration is something you have to facilitate by acting as soon as possible. Many problems we are confronted with nowadays in our European cities  might have been prevented at a much earlier phase.

My speech contains two parts. First I would like to comment on some of the key conclusions of this resolution and later I would like to put forward some ideas that I found a little lacking.

First of all I would underline the importance in this resolution of education and work. It’s the education stupid, one could even say. The more young women are educated and economically independent, the more they will be able to participate as valued citizens of your countries. My parents came here as almost illiterate migrants to work. And thirty years later I was a member of Parliament, one of my sister a journalist, the other a judicial advisor and my brother works in security. That is a major leap in social possibilities. And this is happening in your country as well, thanks to many dedicated teachers. Therefore it is vital to provide suitable language courses for the language of the host countries as soon as possible. Education, education, education.

Secondly, I want to stress the importance of not Islamising the debate and the Muslims in your country. I found it refreshing in this resolution that it said that Muslim women have the right to explore their cultural identity. This is indeed important but Muslim women have to do that themselves. Muslim women are more than just that, Muslim. Let me give an example: when I was growing up in Rotterdam as a little girl, I was Naima, I was the daughter of a Moroccan migrantworker which brought with it some negative attitudes and racism but I was also one of many kids in school and the neighbourhoods. I am so glad I did not grow up in Rotterdam nowadays, as I would be Naima, the Muslim girl, with all the strings attached. We Islamize the debate everyday, everything seems to be linked to Islam. Criminality, low levels of education, backward attitudes etcetera, but by making it all about Islam you are creating a corset for these Muslim women. Because they feel obligated to choose. Between the country they live in, or the community they come from. Between a new road to take as emancipated Muslim women or the patriarchal traditions they feel their parents stand for. This is detrimental to Muslim women. It is as if you force them to choose between their father and mother. They want to be both: citizens of their countries AND loyal to the religion and culture they were brought up in. It should not be a choice like ‘you’re with us, or against us’. You are either a Muslim or a valuable citizen. I am a Muslim citizen, and a woman, and a progressive, and a mother. I have many identities, just like you. So why should I be just one identity: Muslim.

The third striking aspect I found in this resolution is the importance of a dialogue that goes both ways. Integration is not just about integrating migrants from muslim countries in to your own country. It is also your responsibility as politicians to involve the host communities in your country. Therefore I find Resolution number 7 vital. It is necessary to prevent a growing hostility towards each other. Therefore you should be sensitive to each other’s feelings. Both the muslim communities as well as the non-Muslim communities are citizens of your country. They should feel heard and taken seriously in their fears and worries. It is good to organize for example swimming facilities for the first generation of older Muslim women, because otherwise they would not swim at all. But never exclude other non-Muslim women if they also want to participate in these facilities. They will feel excluded in their own city, and this is a very dangerous emotion. It wreaks social turmoil as I can see in my own country with the rise of extremist right wing political ideas.

Now I would like to point out two aspects I found missing in this resolution:

Segregation. To enable cultural integration, Muslims and non-Muslims have to run into each other. At the supermarket while shopping, at school bringing their children, in the streets living next to each other. The reality alas nowadays is different. There are many segregated neighbourhoods in your cities where you can grow up as a young girl of Turkish or Pakistani descent and the only ‘white’ people you will meet is your teacher and your doctor. This is in my view an underestimated problem. Not only is it more difficult to learn the language of the host country in a natural way, by playing and studying together. Also you do not learn the invisible cultural codes every nation, every country has. To succeed professionally it is vital you know these invisible codes. But also the segregation works both ways. The host communities do not get to know their Muslims as neighbors, as colleagues, as friends. This alienation creates more alienation. If the only information you get about Muslims is through television and newspapers, you will never get a real image of your Muslims co citizens. The other problematic consequence of segregation is that it makes it more difficult for young Muslim women and men to choose their own path. With segregation in very homegenic communities of only Turkish or Pakistani descent, there is more social pressure to adhere to certain traditions. It is logical, it was easier for me growing up in a mixed neighbourhood even though it was a poor neighbourhood to learn Dutch, to feel Dutch and to go own my own way.

And secondly: Involving youngsters and women in your policy making. My experience as a politician has taught me that sometimes policy makes are a bit lazy. If you want to involve the Muslim community in your country, do try to involve a diverse population. Not just the older Muslim men, but also young Muslims and Muslim women. It is easier I know to reach to the phone and call the organisations you have been dealing with all the time, but they sometimes do not represent the whole Muslim community.

Let me conclude:

As a politician of Muslim descent, as a Muslim progressive woman, I have two enemies: on the one hand the extremist right wing movements that are growing steadily in Europe and want to take away my rights as a Muslim citizen. And on the other hand, the extremist Muslim movements that want to take away my rights as a Muslim woman. Both of them are enemies to me, and I would call upon you to make that distinction as well, and to fight both tendencies along side of me.

And remember, in these times emotions might run high, anger and fear being explosive ingredients. But I would recommend to try to keep the discussion on integration and Muslims as rational and temperate as possible. As far as these passionate subjects go, I always say keep a cool head and keep your heart warm.