Ayaan Hirsi Ali

AMSTERDAM, The Netherlands (WOMENSENEWS)–With Dutch Muslim extremists threatening her life, Somali-born Dutch parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali dove into hiding last November.

Days earlier, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh had been ritually slaughtered in Amsterdam by extremists angered by his film, “Submission,” about the abuse of Muslim women. Hirsi Ali, who wrote the film, the killer declared, would be next.

Now, two months later, she has returned to work, resuming her role as a beacon of hope for thousands of Dutch Muslim women. For in the shadows of the famously tolerant and peaceful Netherlands has long lurked a secret it took Hirsi Ali’s courage to lay bare: Honor killings.

Because these killings long were kept hidden and unspoken in the Muslim community, the actual number of such murders that occur in Holland every year is unknown, though Hirsi Ali believes it could be as many as 50, possibly more. While Muslims account for less than 6 percent of the Dutch population, Muslim women are 60 percent of those in battered women’s shelters. The government was reluctant to talk about the situation, Hirsi Ali says, because they believed tolerance required respecting different cultures and traditions.

That changed once Hirsi Ali entered the public eye in early 2002. Then a researcher for the Dutch Labor party studying integration problems within the Muslim community, she began speaking out, describing the abuses she had seen while working as a translator in women’s shelters here. Politicians–and the media, especially–listened: Hirsi Ali was herself a Muslim (though she renounced Islam after the events of Sept. 11). If she said wife beatings and honor killings were actually happening here in Holland, the thinking went, it must be true.

Corroboration came in October 2003, when a teacher overheard two mothers discussing why one of his students, 18-year-old Dutch-Turkish Zarife, had not returned to school that fall. (Dutch officials do not release the last names of the victims of family violence.) Her father had taken her to Ankara in August on vacation, the teacher learned; when they arrived, he shot her. The teacher alerted the police, and the story made headlines Holland-wide. Zarife’s crime, according to Hirsi Ali: She’d been seen going out with Dutch girls, and without her scarf.

Since Zarife’s death, subsequent honor killings have been harder for many members of the Muslim community to hide. Like 32-year-old Gul, who was shot by her husband almost a year ago for requesting a divorce. She reportedly died at the door of a women’s shelter in North Holland–the third honor killing at a shelter in 10 months’ time.

Or Nuray, reportedly assassinated in her sleep by her father while her mother and her uncle stood by watching. “Kill her,” Nuray’s uncle is reported to have said before the fatal shot was fired, again according to local press accounts. She, too, was seeking a divorce.

Import Brides and Import Grooms

Many of the victims are “import brides,” brought from Turkey or Morocco and unprepared for life in Western Europe. Others are Dutch-born wives of import grooms their families–most of whom came here as guest workers in the 1970s
–force them to marry.

But radical Islam, according to Dutch Secret Service reports, is also growing among Dutch Muslim youth–especially second-generation men–inciting clashes between them and increasingly Westernized Dutch Muslim girls and young women.

Says psychiatrist Carla Rus, who counsels Muslim and non-Muslim domestic violence victims, these girls stand “with one leg in Dutch society and the other in their traditional Muslim culture.”

Often, they find themselves forced to choose between the two worlds–a conflict that Rus links to a rate of suicide and suicide attempts among Dutch Muslim girls that is five times that of non-Muslims. (Hirsi Ali, meanwhile, believes some deaths officially classified as suicides were not suicides at all).

“All these girls want,” says Hirsi Ali “is to lead a normal life in Holland. Instead, just being seen with a boy–especially a non-Muslim boy–becomes a death sentence.”

Even being perceived as dressing improperly creates risk. Hence, many women here are kept–or stay–locked inside their homes. Gynecologists also report some Muslim girls seek hymen restoration surgery before marriage, lest their premarital sexual experience–a crime that could cost them their lives–be found out.

‘She Knew the Consequences’

Not all honor-related violence involves killing: One woman’s husband reportedly simply poured hot oil in her ears. “The problem,” Hirsi Ali says, “is that these actions are acceptable to the community.” Even a victim’s own parents–also living in Holland–have been known to congratulate her attacker. “They say, ‘she didn’t behave. She knew the consequences.'”

Rus emphasizes that such problem families are a minority. “But if 60 percent of the women in the shelters are Muslim, there’s a problem you can’t ignore.”

Like Hirsi Ali, she contends the problem originates in interpretations of the Koran, though Rus also blames the Dutch, whose “misplaced respect” in an effort to promote cultural freedom permitted sexual and physical abuse, child abuse and honor violence to proliferate without the intervention that takes place within ethnic Dutch families. When in 2003, a 36-year-old Afghan woman was murdered by her estranged husband in Maastricht, along with her 10-year-old daughter, lawmakers struggled to find an appropriate response: Should the killer be prosecuted according to standards of Dutch law or Islam?

That debate continues following each such crime and no standard has yet been set. Similar questions have come up in Great Britain, which has also reported honor killings in its Muslim community, leading former Home Minister Mike O’Brien to describe multiculturalism as an excuse for “moral blindness.”

But Sezai Aydogan, a government advisor on Muslim family issues and director of TransAct, a Dutch center for the prevention of sexual violence, views things differently. Yes, he says the number of Muslim women in shelters is disproportionately high, “but often they are often immigrants with few contacts here, whereas the Dutch can find shelter with family and friends.”

Aydogan also rejects claims of a specifically Islamic component to honor crimes, though he acknowledges the influence of passages in the Koran that call, for instance, for a “corrective smack” when a woman disobeys her husband. In 1997, a survey found that 43 percent of Dutch women agreed with the statement “I have been the victim of violence by a partner one or more times.” In 2000, in a similar survey among Dutch-Muslim women, 24 percent agreed. While this reflects Islamic taboos against speaking against one’s family, observes Aydogan, it also shows a different attitude towards the “corrective slap”–acceptable to many Muslim women, an act of violence in the minds of women from the West.

Forging Different Solutions

Unsurprisingly, then, those in Aydogan’s camp and those in Hirsi Ali’s are forging different solutions, with one side reaching out and the other clamping down.

Now a member of Parliament under the VVD, or Libertarian Party, Hirsi Ali has used that authority to develop legislation facilitating divorce for victims of domestic abuse, ban female circumcision and demand deeper investigations into the deaths of Muslim women.

Further, Integration and Integration Minister Rita Verdonck, a strong supporter of Hirsi Ali, recently enacted laws making honor crimes easier to track: They will be registered specifically as such whenever possible, as determined by specially-trained police. Doctors performing physicals on Muslim women will be required to report cases of female genital mutilation and those who perform them will be prosecuted.

For their part, TransAct and other NGOs have taken an educational approach, working through local mosques to teach men to be less violent to women and creating videos aimed at stimulating discussion and recognition of domestic violence in Muslim homes.

But for their differences, what the two sides share is a willingness to act, to speak of what for so long was the unspeakable. The silence has been broken.

Abigail R. Esman, a freelance writer based in New York and Amsterdam, writes often about post-9/11 culture in Europe, and is working on a book about Muslim women in the West.

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