By Bruce Mutsvairo
Monday, February 6, 2006
The Netherlands' oldest political party has come under fire for not allowing women to run for parliament. Lawsuits, funding cuts and one woman working from within have not managed to change the policy.
AMSTERDAM, Netherlands (WOMENSENEWS)--Being affiliated with a political party that doesn't recognize your full membership simply because you are a woman calls for an extraordinary balancing act.
Riet Grabijn-van Putten, a 72-year-old Dutch politician, has spent over 20 years of her long-standing career fighting what she sees as discrimination from within the Netherlands' Reformed Political Party or SGP.
"I am extremely disturbed by the party's position on women," she says, holding a glass of mint tea in her right hand. "Discrimination based on gender is totally unacceptable."
With two representatives in the country's 150-seat parliament and another in the European parliament, the party provides its roughly 25,000 members with a channel for resentment against many features of Dutch society, which has legalized abortion, euthanasia and prostitution.
In June last year, the party's local council in the small eastern town of Staphorst voted overwhelmingly to ban swearing in public.
The deeply conservative, orthodox Christian party, which has continuously been represented in the Dutch parliament since 1922, has made a particular name for itself by not allowing any of its female members to run for office.
Without giving exact numbers, Grabijn-van Putten says her cause is widely supported by a large chunk of the party's female members. In her 1996 book, "I Feel Like Telling It," she details her fight against male dominance in the party and explains that giving interviews to the local and foreign media has been a major weapon in her battle.
Women hold just over one-third of seats in the Dutch parliament, as 58 of the 150 members are women. Suze Groeneweg was the first woman to join the Dutch parliament in 1918, a year before women were granted suffrage.
In recent years, the country has drawn international criticism for allowing the Christian party to operate within its political fold.
In 2001, the United Nations declared that the Netherlands, a parliamentary democracy since 1848, was discriminating against women for accepting the party within its ranks.
Last year a Dutch district court found the party's policy of prohibiting women as candidates was discriminatory and ordered the government to withdraw state funding amounting to nearly $1 million from the party. Lawyers representing the Amsterdam-based Clara Wichmann Institute and seven other women's rights organizations in the Netherlands argued that the party violated the U.N. Convention on Discrimination against Women, which was ratified by the Netherlands in 1980. "My clients started legal proceedings against the state so as to stop it from subsidizing the party," says Tom Barkhuysen, an Amsterdam-based lawyer who represented the groups in the case.
Seeking neutrality on the hotly-debated topic, the ruling center-right coalition appealed the court ruling. Nevertheless, the court's decision to withdraw the all-important subsidy went into effect on Sept. 7 and remains binding. On the same day, the court dismissed a class-action case against the party to open its membership to women.
Christian party spokesperson Menno de Bruyne says that while the loss of the government funding has hurt it has also spurred a new stream of private donations. "We have been receiving a lot of e-mails and phone calls from people asking for our bank account. Most of the people who want to fund us are not members of the party."
De Bruyne says the party's views on women are endorsed by nearly all its female members. "The Bible says women's first priority is taking care of the children and the families," he says "It's wrong to see this as discrimination because there are no signs of inequality in our party as most of the women accept this policy."
Grabijn-van Putten, the veteran party member, disagrees.
"I believe in the Bible as the word of God but I cannot think of any part of the Bible which says women shouldn't participate in politics," she says. "A lot of men are afraid that women will take over the party if they gain full membership but I think it's not about power but equality."
According to party statistics, 58 percent of SGP's voters are female.
Barkhuysen, meanwhile, says his clients are hoping to gain a court ruling to censure the party and appeal the ruling dismissing the class-action suit.
Formed in the southwestern city of Middleburg just after the end of the World War I, the party is accused of strongly opposing gender equity, a charge vehemently denied by de Bruyne.
The party's original charter--like several Christian-centered parties at that time--opposed Dutch women's right to vote, claiming it went against their destiny.
For the past decade, meanwhile, the issue of female candidates has been simmering inside the party. In 1993 a party chair resigned under pressure after declaring his full support for female politicians.
Recent changes in the party have seen women getting the official yet ambiguous title of "special members." De Bruyne says that means they can participate in political debates but are still excluded from making decisions.
"We are in the process of debating the role of women in the party. We just don't want to be influenced by external pressure," says De Bruyne.
Amid the controversies, the SGP party has some staunch supporters. Last year, the Apeldoorn-based Reformatorisch Dagblad, a pro-Calvinist daily, asked why the tsunami hit East Asia in 2004 when there were more signs of godlessness in Holland, a question that created many intense reactions.
And a 2002 poll found 70 percent of the party's youth wing firmly behind the party's position on women.
Annemarie Brouwer, whose husband is attached to the SGP, believes women should leave politics to men.
"Anyone who reads the Bible from the first to the last page knows it by heart that women shouldn't be active in politics," she says.
According to the state-funded Central Bureau of Statistics, 41 percent of the adult population of just over 16 million do not consider themselves as belonging to a religious denomination or ideological group.
However, Grabijn-van Putten isn't optimistic that the party will allow female candidates any time soon.
"I don't really think they will allow women because the conservatives in the party believe they have already made a lot of concessions that are in favor of women even though a lot of women still think the party should do more."
She notes that her husband, a retired party member, fully supports her struggle.
Bruce Mutsvairo is contracted to the AP Bureau in Amsterdam. He has also written for the Christian Science Monitor, Toronto Star, The New York Times and other publications.
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The Reformed Political Party
The Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij (SGP):
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