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April 16, 2012, Monday

Dual identity

Exhibitions and political visits are marking 400 years of diplomatic relations between Turkey and the Netherlands. Some of the people involved in the events organized to celebrate this anniversary deplore, however, that the current political climate in Europe and Turkey is creating two parallel discourses that fail to connect. Before President Abdullah Gül had even set foot in the Netherlands, his state visit was already overshadowed by a heated exchange, via the media, between the Turkish head of state and the right-wing politician Geert Wilders, who sees Islam as a dangerous ideology breeding terrorism.

The radical views expressed by critics of multiculturalism often place migrant communities, including the 389,000 people of Turkish origin living in Holland, in an uncomfortable situation. Thankfully, they are plenty of people working to smooth relations and improve understanding between Dutch residents of foreign origin and relatively indigenous citizens. I’ve just spent a few days in Amsterdam at the invitation of the Turkish Workers’ Union in Holland (HTIB), to talk about my work on honor-based violence.

Gender inequality in migrant communities, and violence against women in particular, have become central issues in the debate on multiculturalism. At times, these topics have been seized upon as a pretext to reject the Other. But the fact remains that these problems are very real.

A round table of experts working on violence and gender brought together representatives of the police, social workers, civil society activists (including members of migrant associations) and local politicians, who all try to understand the social mechanisms that underpin forms of violence against women specific to migrant communities, mainly Turkish or Moroccan. The following day, the welcoming atmosphere of the HTIB centre also provided the perfect environment for an informal gathering of young women of Turkish origin -- aged between 19 and 27 -- to discuss concepts of honor, identity, family and ethnic roots in a European context.

The participants were all bright and educated young women. Some of them wore headscarves, which marked them as members of an ethnic community. Others were undistinguishable from their native Dutch peers in the way they dressed. Indeed, what struck me was their body language, which, to me, seemed far more confident and less guarded than that of their counterparts in Turkey. All of them spoke with great warmth and enthusiasm of their regular visits to Turkey, but most acknowledged that in the eyes of their cousins living in Anatolia, they were very free and Westernized. Only one girl said her life was no different from that experienced by her cousins in Samsun.

I don’t know how representative these young women were of the broader Turkish community, but they clearly all felt very comfortable in the Dutch environment they had grown up in. Yet their respect for their ethnic roots and indeed for their extended Turkish family remained strong. The idea that honor could justify killings was alien to them, but they all admitted that avoiding behavior that might bring shame upon their family guided them in their everyday activities. Where the boundaries lay, however, differed greatly between families: some girls enjoyed going to bars and clubs, and they said they enjoyed the trust of their parents. Others, more conservative, led quieter lives.

None of them had experienced direct pressure to conform to social norms or physical violence: they all described a process of negotiations with their parents to define the limits of their mobility. Yet, as the evening wore on and the atmosphere became more relaxed, several recounted events that had affected other young women in the community: a friend of a friend, someone’s cousin, a sister’s friend. One told the sad story of a young Turkish bride from the Netherlands who narrowly escaped death when the man she had just married tried to drown her during their honeymoon in Turkey.

Turkish politicians would have been happy to hear that when it came to choosing a spouse, the majority of the participants favored marrying a Turk. Opponents of multiculturalism, of course, would see this preference as proof that Turks fail to integrate, even if many of these young women were involved in civil societies and all had education and training that made them valuable members of the Dutch community. Only one of the young women stated clearly that her choice would not be affected by nationality or religion. Several did not rule out marrying a native Dutch man or indeed a man of another nationality, but most expressed a strong preference for a partner who shared their Turkish roots. Their sense of Turkishness remained very strong.

Identity is an issue of endless fascination to me, and the evening was a wonderful opportunity to discover the aspirations of young Dutch women of Turkish origin. For them, I think it was a chance to share a slice of life with their friends, but also to become more aware of their power to make their own choices.

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