De Fabel van de illegaal 48, autumn 2001

Author: Inge van de Velde

Feminism in the debate on multiculturalism

Recently liberal and conservative men have started abusing feminism. In the debate on multiculturalism these opinion makers continually connect patriarchal viewpoints and behaviors one sided with immigration and Islam. Some of them even try to replace the political contents of feminism with a new patriarchal ideology, hostile to women.

In these debates we can distinguish several false argumentations. Liberal opinion makers act as if the emancipated position of most Western women is their own liberal merit, as part of a superior Western tradition. At the same time they contrast this supposedly completely equal position of Western women with the supposedly totally backward position of women in immigrant communities. They create an apparant antithesis between on the one hand emancipated white women and on the other hand not emancipated oppressed Muslim, black and other migrant women. And so these women are made into a symbol of the other, or literally: the stranger. In this way these opinion makers stigmatize immigrants and refugees, and they also totally deny the possibility of immigrants having Left and feminist ideas.

Patriarchal import?

During the debates on multiculturalism many opinion makers have said that they worry because of the "patriarchal culture" that immigrants were importing into the Netherlands. "Tolerance has to be defended against moral constraint. In public life there is not be any place for tendencies which want to abolish the separation of church and state or the equal rights of man and woman", said Paul Scheffer.1 "Who really cares for the good of migrants should do everything to make them participate in the dominant culture, to seduce them to comply with the emancipation of women. When somebody claims that it is normal to beat your wife, to marriage off your daughter, then we should explicitly say: we do not accept that point of view. I furthermore see large differences in the way we think of hierarchy, violence, of the relations between men and women", Paul Schnabel added.2 Pleading for "a greater Dutch self consciousness", conservatives like Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and Ab Klink joined them: "We will never allow women to be excised, and neither will we have abortion based on gender, and girls also have compulsory education." 3

Similar opinions were voiced during the debate on the scarves of immigrant women. The editor in chief Ciska Dresselhuys of the feminist magazine Opzij (Move Aside) started it: "In immigrant coffee houses I do not accept sexism, the excision of women is taboo, and editors wearing scarves are not welcome at Opzij." 4 Dresselhuys confirms and reinforces the prejudiced image of the voiceless, submissive and dependant Muslim woman. In the eyes of the liberal opinion makers Dresselhuys is the figure head of Dutch feminism. Opinion maker Paul Cliteur labeled scarves as anti-feminist of non-feminist symbols.5 A lot of women applauded Dresselhuys. In the national daily Trouw Heleen Ietswaard wrote for example: "And there should be no place for cultural utterances of women's oppression, not on the streets, nor at work or on school. On the working place you should dress according to our norms." 6 But instead of twaddling on scarves feminism should criticize the patriarchal contents of all world religions.


Some time ago el-Moumni, an imam in the Netherlands, publicly claimed that homosexuality is a disease. In the debate following his remark opinion makers stressed the same antithesis between the "intolerance" of Muslims and the "tolerance" of the "enlightened Western society".7 "Nobody wants to exchange the Dutch vision on homosexuals for the Moroccan one", Paul Schabel said earlier during the debate on multiculturalism.2

In these 3 debates opinion makers always talk as if men like themselves produced the emancipation of women and homosexuals instead of the women's, and the gay and lesbian movements. In a way they steal the result of decades of struggle and encapsulate it within liberalism. Once living social movements, feminism and the lesbian and gay struggles threaten to become parade horses of the liberals, who use is against the multicultural society.

The contents of feminism

Conservative opinion makers even go as far as to force feminism to their will.8 They try to redefine it and fill it up with their own ideas in a way that they can use feminism for their own political purposes. Their final goal is to turn the ideals of feminism against the liberties of women. "By behaving 'modest' or 'chaste', a women will feel a lot stronger. She's the one who decides who get's to admire her body and who not, she remains in control emotionally by only sleeping with the man who has showed himself worthy of it. The man who acts like a 'gentleman' and respects her, and who shows that respect by marrying her forever without the possibility of divorce. In that light women wearing a scarve are possibly the most radical feminists ever."

Conservative opinion maker René van Wissen is enthusiastic about young people in America who reject sex before marriage. "One would think: there's nothing wrong with that? Isn't that the ultimate form of being in control of ones own body? Shouldn't feminists be very glad that young women can nowadays self consciously and in all freedom claim they have no need for meaningless sex? The right to say no, that's what it was all about back then?" 9

The oppression of women's sexuality with rules on modest and chaste behavior is presented here as the summit of autonomy and as characteristic of the self conscious woman. In this way conservatives offer their own interpretation of feminism and try to silence women.

The real opponents

Feminists and immigrants are not each others opponents. They do have a common enemy: liberal and conservative men. They want us to believe that the liberation of "the Dutch women" is completed. But that's not true. Violence against women and the exclusion of women are still structural problems in this society. In the struggle against this "Dutch women" will sooner find allies with among black, immigrant and refugee women than with these paternalistic liberal and conservative men.