How to break open closed-up communities and deal with harmful traditional practices

There is so much to share. Where do I start? Well, maybe with sharing a bit of the conversations I had with different organizations, governmental bodies and ministries. I participated in different researches and reports. I asked for collaboration with different municipalities and other parties. Likewise, I had a lot of personal conversations on harmful traditional practices within a variety of closed-up communities in the Netherlands and abroad.

Let’s not kid ourselves: the problems that we have within the closed-up communities are global and are far more severe than “just” horrific individual suffering and lack of self-determination. In other words, freedom of choice, speech, thought and action in the broadest sense. One individual case that can be prevented is already enough of a reason for awareness and change. Let alone, the current status quo in the world. Thus, the risks of those issues are far greater than we think, even causing collective damage, for instance terrorism.

Harmful traditional practices

For those who are (luckily enough) not familiar with harmful traditional practices, let’s start with an explanation of what it is. Harmful traditional practices are forms of domestic violence such as coercion, mutilation, or oppression that are built on the back of Orthodox or conservative traditions and views on sexuality and male-female roles.

Harmful traditional practices include honor-related violence, forced marriages and abandonment abroad, marital captivity, female genital mutilation and forced isolation (the so-called hidden children or women). Harmful traditional practices can occur among all walks of life, different ethnicities, backgrounds, or classes. Such practices take place in union with a certain collective ideology within a closed-up community. Basically, there is nothing wrong with traditions in themselves. However, those will be harmful if the traditions interfere with self-determination, freedom of choice and a safe home. Harmful traditional practices restrict people’s rights and freedom and are therefore also a violation of human rights.

Let me provide some solutions to break open closed-up communities and prevent inhumane practices on an individual as well as a collective level. The details of those are far more complex than portrayed in this list. There is so much more behind the ideas, especially when it comes to the different approaches for implementation. Governmental support is needed. New regulations are needed. In short, this list is just a starting-point for the next steps.

Side note: to break open closed-up communities does not mean that communal elements have to be forbidden, for instance communal gatherings. It means that the laws, legislations and general norms and values of a country are complied with, which is the biggest problem within closed-up communities, as the leaders and people just won’t. They will only comply with the rules created by the leaders centuries ago and with current leaders, who will decide for the individuals of that closed-up community. Those leaders have no civil education and do not accept expertise of civil disciplines, such as psychology or pedagogy.

Solutions to break open closed-up communities

  • Break taboos. I am a true advocate of that. I fundamentally believe that there are no taboos. If taboos do exist, it offers an invitation to take a really good look at why.
  • Keep the conversations going – as honest as possible. Create a non-toxic environment and safe context to have those conversations. That is not easy at all because if people do not participate opportunistically, it can end up in loss. Oftentimes, different interests are at heart. People within the closed-up communities, especially the leaders, are not interested in continuing the conversations. They only have an eye for their concerns, path of life and belonging, exactly as they are used to for centuries after centuries. This is why I had to cry and laugh simultaneously when Dutch governmental representatives talked with me about ‘a change of mentality’. People within closed-up communities are almost always not interested in a change of mentality, until they notice that more and more people within the group are interested in it and are demanding it to keep being part of that group, thus to keep that identity. Or, until there is more at stake for them personally.
  • Make a clear distinction between the community, the closed-up collective and the individual who wants freedom. To have the right – thus integer and humane – conversation, it is important to know how to make a distinction between all parts of the challenging ecosystem and to know what is what.
  • Don’t generalize. There are many Orthodox people who do make individual freedom possible. Those people are your allies to make change possible.
  • Be clear and unapologetic about human rights. Take a stand against hate speech and against excluding people. For instance, tolerating ideologies in which gays are being sentenced to death is absolutely scandalous.
  • Break open the closed-up ‘web’ as I call it, in order for individuals who want to leave, to do so freely. Oftentimes, they will be worked against, or manipulated to stay / return to the community. Mostly, in order for the generally applicable laws, regulations, norms and values ​​to be checked.
  • Similar to integration courses that countries have to transmit the local norms and values, countries should have mandatory courses for closed-up communities. Thus, not only for integrators, but for all leaders, children and parents. Continue testing consistently to know whether a community will comply with the civil common grounds or not.
  • Encourage children from closed-up communities to meet children from other communities from an early age. Oftentimes, this is not allowed. Children will be isolated from the rest of civil society.
  • Children belong to all of us. This means a shift in mindset. If we see that children are abused in closed-up communities – this happens in our streets and neighborhoods, mind you – we all have a duty as citizens to be aware of this and to do something about it. People can do more than they think. For example, read about children’s rights. There are 54 of them. Remember: you can always (!) do something.
  • Focus on change from within the closed-up community and from outside. Yes, we should not forget to celebrate progress. For change from within, we need people with courage. People who dare to step out of line, to speak up and who can withstand the pressure from others. Besides, lean on the people who put things on the agenda from outside the closed-up community, which is something that I do. Collaborate; there are many people in similar positions who can reinforce each other.
  • Lean on role models for progress. For example, I was the first in our group of girls who dared to go to another school. After I left, more girls followed.
  • Work with people who know those closed-up communities from the inside out and who understand the cultural and religious codes, to be able to know what is happening and to maintain integrity. Whatever happens, maintain humanistic principles.
  • Last, let me also share something specifically related to the Jewish communities and the current diversity and inclusivity policies and public debates. Oftentimes, the Jewish community is seen as ‘white’, but that is absolutely not the case, given the identity, recent history and contemporary anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is significant in all sorts of shapes and forms. It restricts people in many ways in society. It cannot be overlooked or denied. Furthermore, it needs to be recognized as such. Having the right contexts in place is a must to find the right solutions for all problems that have to do with closed-up communities and harmful traditional practices.