Harmful traditional practices in closed-up religious communities

Minister Karien van Gennip of Social Affairs and Employment and Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf of Education, Culture and Science wrote a letter to the parliament about the so-called Multi-Year Plan for Self-Determination 2022-2025 to work on a change of mentality within closed-up communities and to increase the basic financial skills of women in dependency situations. In other words, a plan to encourage self-determination, which is still not self-evident for a large group of people in our society. I have some questions. Nah, what am I saying? That’s a pro forma statement. I am very concerned.

Saying it like it is and using adequate language is essential

Freedom to make your own choices, for example to determine who you want to be, what you believe in and how you want to organize your life, is so self-evident for so many people that they cannot comprehend what it does to individuals, successive generations and the collective when that is not the case. For example, an enormous number of people within closed-up communities, including children, still have to deal with forms of coercion daily.

The national government defines closed-up communities as follows: “in which the interest of the community is put above that of the individual”. True, but that is an extremely narrow definition. I would add a whole list of characteristics. Anyway, that is not important for now because otherwise I will become too technical and will write an entire book on the subject in no time. This piece is already becoming a long read. What matters is that we have to break open closed-up communities, keep children safe and uphold human rights.

To respond to this, the government recognizes that despite the positive values and traditions that can be found in the various closed-up communities, there is also considerable social control and peer pressure. This leads to a violation of the individual’s right to self-determination, which becomes tangible through harmful practices such as forced marriage, abandonment abroad with no official papers and means, female genital mutilation or honor-related violence. Not to mention the suffering LGBT+ people face. Note that the government removed the word ‘traditional’ between harmful and practices. That means that they don’t understand a thing. Saying it like it is and using adequate language is essential to progress. Thus, harmful traditional practices.

According to the government, these practices do not belong anywhere, certainly not in the Dutch constitutional state. Great, but again a conceptual issue: if you really want to understand, don’t just talk about social control and peer pressure. Those words feel like you’re drinking a rosé instead of a full-bodied red wine, with three-quarters of water poured into the glass. I repeat what I mentioned already: talk about forms of coercion. That is the reality.

Multi-Year Plan for Self-determination 2022-2025

Together with civil organizations, the government wants to reduce cultural oppression in the Netherlands through a preventive approach. In the letter, I read about a multi-year plan, the ministers suggest a €300,000 amendment allocated to organizations fighting against cultural oppression and wanting to promote self-determination. The amendment specifically focuses on promoting women’s financial independence in dependency relationships within closed-up communities. Because Pharos, the National Expertise Center Honor-related Violence (LEC EGG), Andersson Elffers Felix5, the National Center for Forced Marriage and Abandonment, Safe at Home and the Verweij-Jonker Institute have been able to demonstrate the urgency of the matter enough. They did this on the basis of numbers and biographies (yes, including mine). One story is one too many, I read. That soothed me a bit because that’s how it is.

But the relief I felt was short-lived. Because I then read: the Dutch Annual Integration Report 2020 of CBS shows that various groups of women with a migration background are lagging behind in terms of socio-economic positions compared to women without a migration background.

The Action Plan on Employment Discrimination 2022-2025 is also discussed. And then the main points of the Multi-Year Plan for Self-determination 2022-2025 are being discussed: increasing awareness on one’s own autonomy and personal freedom, initiating a change of mentality within closed-up communities, stimulating financial self-reliance and supporting parenting questions related to self-determination. Plus cultural-religious dilemmas and issues that play into the division of roles between boys and girls. Then it is substantiated why the Civic Integration Act 2021 offers municipalities many opportunities to better support this group.

The document continues with some summaries of what is already going well in the Netherlands, again based on many parties involved. And of the plans to enable future professionals to work in a culture-sensitive manner. Preferably evidence-based learning from practice to improve processes and to stimulate support from all collaborating parties as quickly as possible for sustainable embedding. Yada, yada, yada…

… A total of €1.2 million is available for the implementation of this multi-year plan in the period 2022-2025.

The problem lies in ‘migration background’ and ‘culture sensitive’. Good Lord.

Large group in all ‘sorts and flavors’

Well, an excellent plan of course and I support it for ten thousand percent. Let it be clear that the risk of harmful traditional practices in families with a migrant background is real, as are extremist consequences for the collective and transgenerational consequences that can be viewed from various disciplines. But let it also be clear that a migration background does not equate exclusively to Islamic influences, or to exclusively the first and second generations. With your sustainable participation keys to be able to live in freedom, I quote bitterly from the document. And with your cultural sensitivity. You mean cultural relativism.

Look, a large group in the Netherlands who are confronted with forms of coercion in closed-up communities – or ecosystems in a broader sense, for example family systems – are not sent abroad to undergo female genital mutilation. Speaking of grasping an inconceivable phenomenon, also for me.

Nor am I talking about the large group of people who belong to what I call ’the fluff cases’. In other words, the proportional secularization processes of, for example, faith-leavers who have not experienced unimaginable forms of coercion, who have not had to make absurdly large sacrifices and who are not dealing with issues in the long term because of the process they once initiated. About the liberal and somewhat rebellious or individualistic minds who grow up in privilege, warmth, love and all possible stability and simply chart their individual path. A path that is slightly different from the closed-up system they come from. Sometimes with a blissful trust fund as a warm blanket wrapped around their lives. Well, yes.

And I am certainly not talking about those who hijack these themes just for fun journalistic and socially engaged productions, or discussion groups that everyone can cling to by recognition. Or elitist and anthropological, purchased study trajectories. Of course, there is space for all these groups and perspectives. But right now, it is about the social urgency which is being obscured. For change, so what the government calls ‘sustainable embedding’. That is why we need to understand what we are dealing with. Because lately, we have been so obscured as a society – including our media landscape.

I am talking about a large group of people in all ‘sorts and flavors’ of closed-up communities that we have in the Netherlands, including very different types of migrants than the ‘usual suspects’ from the letter to parliament and including third generation plus. People who are being isolated, beaten, belittled, persecuted, brainwashed, controlled, smeared, ranked, educationally disadvantaged, married off, abandoned abroad, banned and more. People who have to deal with completely different rules in that closed-up system than the collective, human law, family law and criminal law frameworks. In other words, with practices arising from persistent ideology, coercion and rules arising from the phenomenon of ‘playing one’s own judge’.

And what about the people in that group who sincerely believe that they want to live by those rules? Often, those are young people who cannot foresee the long term. For example, the young people who ask to be married off because that is social, desirable and tradition within the group. But who then run into a brick wall. Are we going to do nothing about it because there is no coercion? Or do we at least keep in touch to check in from time to time?

Not cultures act, but people do

The reality surrounding these kinds of ‘interpersonal living structures’ often still exceeds our imagination. That is why you cannot bet on cultural sensitivity, although I do understand having a good intention. Perhaps I am now the oversimplified activist and strict whistleblower because I have lived through all of this myself. Then so be it. But I keep on believing that cultures are not equal and that too much individual suffering without proper compensation or any form of justice has occurred due to that cultural relativism. Not for any political reason, but purely for humanism and common sense.

Culture changes through interacting with each other. Within a group, social differentiation can be promoted, which can have extremely dangerous consequences for humanity. And in any case, it is important to realize that not cultures act, but people do. This can be done by first understanding other zeitgeists and then supporting individuals in the here and now, when relevant, in their liberation.

All this is not to ask for attention as an activist, whistleblower, or expert by experience. But again, to provide clarity in an obscured society. And yes, there are plenty of people – children for heaven’s sake – who are literally dealing – or who have dealt – with harmful traditional practices in our streets. Sometimes, you wouldn’t expect that of them. It takes one to know one.

I don’t mind sounding a bit sour. I’m not just going to write that off on the gray sky and buckets of rain. I write it off on the fact that everything always remains a game of interests, in which integrity is often hard to find. After all, it is all about who you are and how much power you have in the game. That is what this letter to parliament once again endorses in my view. That should be improved.

Somehow, this affects me more now than, say, when I was a teenager. Because then, little integrity didn’t surprise me that much. And then, I had the deepest conviction that we as humans can move mountains. Now I am a 37-year-old woman and integrity is still often hard to find. Plus, you can want to move mountains all you want, but if you don’t get all stakeholders involved – read the support from third parties to whom you are at the mercy of – then your ideas remain hopelessly romantic and philosophical intentions. Great input for a novel rather than for real life.

Let me take this one step further with a side note: even in today’s integrity industry, there are experts who really show no sign of integrity, based on their behavior and choices. Not having licenses for the researches they conduct, for example. Or publicly castrate others – as an ‘integrity expert’. Or as a ‘big consultancy player’ with substantial integrity violations, now penetrating the integrity industry, thanks to their name and fame. And so on, and so forth. We live in a time in which integrity has permeated the conversation everywhere, but in which the phenomenon is also gradually being eroded. All of this, while there is nothing more essential to live by: integrity.

One more side note, one closer to home so to speak, in other words the closed-up community where I come from. Simone Kukenheim – D66 alderwoman in the municipality of Amsterdam and deputy mayor: care, youth care, public health, vocational education and sport, as I read on LinkedIn – becomes the new member and vice-chairman of the Council of Supervision at the Jewish Social Work organization called JMW. Sounds like a major win for the organization. But what does that mean in practice? Is she going to cover the group I just outlined in the context of harmful traditional practices? I remain curious.

Let me close by getting to the point and going back to the letter to parliament: how much budget of that €1.2 million will be allocated to the group I just talked about? Or will the usual parties have to continue to handle these issues, with all the limitations that entails? We will have to wait and see.

The Dutch version of this article was published by BNNVARA, Joop.