Chapter 1 Khadija


The migration journey of Khadija’s father
took him from rural Morocco to the urban Netherlands. Several years later, his wife and children followed under the rubric of family reunification. Soon after, Khadija was born on Dutch soil.

The old man with the white beard leaned toward her. He looked like an imam but he wasn't; he called her "my child" though he wasn't her father. He even asked her, in a low-pitched voice, if she had been a nice girl. If she had, he would give her candy; if she hadn't, a spank. Khadija was frightened.

Khadija was five years old, just starting school. The old man was Sinterklaas, a Dutch Santa Claus who shows up every 5th of December. The other kids knew who he was but she had never seen him before, because at her house they didn't do those things. Khadija cried and cried, and the teachers couldn't comfort her.

When I got to school I realized that everybody spoke Dutch much better than me, because they had always spoken it at home. I hadn't; my parents spoke Berber. Dutch, they said, you will learn at school. That's when I realized I was different.

Khadija was born in 1979 in a working class immigrant neighbourhood in north Amsterdam, the fifth daughter of two Moroccan parents. Her father arrived in the Netherlands at the end of the 1960s. Back then, European countries needed Mediterranean workers - Turks, Maghrebis, Spaniards, Portuguese - for jobs the locals rejected. In his homeland, Khadija's father could barely make a living and emigration offered better possibilities. In the Netherlands, he started as a butcher, but stopped because he didn't want to touch pork. He changed jobs several times until he was hired to work in a pharmaceutical factory which, literally, took a piece of him. One can still see the missing bit of his arm, where a machine ate his flesh.

For a long time, Khadija's father lived in crammed rooms packed with other immigrants, away from his family, working full time to send back some money. Ten years passed before he could finally bring his wife and children to live with him. A few months later, Khadija was born on Dutch soil, though she had been conceived in Morocco. She believes this could be so meaningful.

I can't say I'm one thing or the other. I'm a Moroccan Berber who was born in the Netherlands, with Dutch citizenship. I'm both, and that enriches me and troubles me too, all at the same time.

The relationships between North African immigrants and their new neighbours were not easy. Many Dutch thought North Africans were authoritarian and antiquated; many North Africans found the Dutch too easygoing.

Khadija's father was strict. He knew what to do, when, and how, and he expected his family to follow his lead. Sometimes Khadija's mother helped her. For example when he forbade her to take swimming classes because she would have to appear in a swimsuit in front of boys, her mother secretly took her to the pool.

The teachers invited us to meetings and excursions, but he wouldn't let me go. I didn't want them to see this man who didn't look like the rest of the parents, who spoke their language badly, who wouldn't let me do things.

Khadija learned that other rules and customs existed outside her front door. She realized she was living in two different worlds, apart from each other, and she had to find a balance between them. Her parents' traditions didn't reflect her own lifestyle, and Dutch society often didn't understand her choices.

Her father wouldn't let her go out with boys. That wasn't part of their tradition: boys and girls are supposed to get engaged and then married, but they're not supposed to "go out". Khadija did many things without him knowing.

My parents wanted me to be completely Moroccan, but that is impossible for someone who was born and grew up in the Netherlands. I didn't know how to explain to them I belong to both cultures. It's painful to reach that particular age when you think you're smarter than your parents.

Khadija was confused. She wouldn't attend her classes and she lost her chance to go to university. At the same time, she was looking forward to finding her own place. She read the Koran and was very interested in investigating the traditions. One day, at sixteen, she wore a scarf over her head, to see what it felt like. It was a strange experience. She felt as if people didn't see her, or noticed her only because she was different. In those years, Khadija decided to reclaim her beliefs, and now she considers herself a religious person.

I'd say I'm a liberal Muslim. To me, religion is something very personal; I don't like talking about it.

When she finished high school at eighteen Khadija started doing small jobs; but she felt she was wasting her life. She signed up for a pre-university programme, studied law for a year and then, three years ago, started attending philosophy classes, where she is the only Moroccan girl. At first, she couldn't bear her classmates.

They were "Oh so happy" that I was a Muslim! "We know this is very complicated for you but please don't worry, we'll help you.".

Khadija asked them if they knew that philosophy schools had existed in Morocco and the Arab region for centuries.

The one thing I hate is when people try to emancipate me in their own way. Those who say that we shouldn't live the way we do, that we have to take our scarves off our heads in order to stand up and say no to repression. They're asking us to be free - what they consider freedom. Nobody can tell anybody else how to be free. People have to respect us and let us conquer our own freedom in our own way. Then, if we choose to keep our heads covered it's our decision. I can't tolerate that, in the name of tolerance, people tell me how to live my life. I can't stand that they treat me like a moron who doesn't know how to live it.

Khadija goes on, very passionately:

People love to talk about "the oppression of Muslim women", so they avoid their own problems. Here, men are still paid more than women for the same job.1 But they'd rather not talk about that.

Khadija belongs to a generation of young Muslims who are trying to find a way of being Muslim without turning their backs on the Western world where they grew up; a generation in which girls have acquired new social roles, and often are performing better, academically and professionally, than boys. The daughters of migrants are eager to profit from the opportunities they have in their new society, opportunities that their mothers never had.

"Young people of migrant descent often feel caught between two cultures and their struggle to find their place may bring them into conflict with members of their families and ethnic communities, but also with members of their new society. "

In other countries or periods, the immigrants' dream was to see their children become part of the new land and adopt their customs. To many immigrants in the Netherlands, this is the nightmare. There have been brutal reactions, the so-called "crimes of honour", in which fathers and brothers punish women - sending them back to their home country, or even killing them - for having relationships without their parents' consent or for dating men of different descent. Khadija knows about these stories, though nothing like that has happened in her close circle.

Her reaction to the problem:

I don't like blond, blue-eyed guys. I prefer the Mediterranean type, with dark hair and a passionate spirit. But the truth is that you also think about your parents: they'd just drop dead if I ever showed up with a Dutch boyfriend.

Khadija came to feel that things were falling into place - and then there was that afternoon. That afternoon when Khadija saw those two planes crashing into the Twin Towers. First she thought about those poor people, such a terrible thing was happening to them. She couldn't know, at the time, that these images would change so many things for her.

I feel that people are looking at us now with a magnifying glass to lay bare any fault we might have. The media exploit the prejudice against Muslims, and many people just believe them. For them, we people with dark hair and black eyes are all just Islamic terrorists. This has created a breach in society that makes everything harder.

Things have been happening in the Netherlands - the kind of things many Dutch people thought could never happen on their own land. Pim Fortuyn, a new politician, won a wide audience with his controversial views on immigration among other things. He was killed in 2002 by a left-wing environmentalist. In 2004, a Moroccan-Dutch man killed Theo Van Gogh, an outspoken film-maker. Khadija went to a demonstration protesting the killing and demanding free speech for all. She was insulted when some marchers said that she should go back to her country. Khadija had to tell them she was Dutch as well and this was her country too.

If there's a football match between the Netherlands and Morocco, who would you like to win?

Oh, tough question. Very difficult indeed. It's like having to choose between your mother and father, you just can't. Like your mom is Morocco and your dad is the Netherlands...

Now, Khadija works at Het Spiegelbeeld - Mirror Image - an organization created by Saida el-Hantali, a Moroccan-Dutch woman who had the courage to speak out for the first time, about sexual abuse within her community. Het Spiegelbeeld helps Moroccan women to cope with integration problems, domestic violence, sexual abuse and reproductive health issues. It also helps first-generation female immigrants who are getting older and dealing with depression.

These are women like my mother, who stayed at home, always afraid of not being able to understand or being understood, always worried about what others would say or think. I'm lucky, I'm so different.

Khadija is still studying and she plans to teach philosophy. Like all Dutch students, she has a government scholarship. She does temporary work to fill in the gaps. She lives at her parents' house and has a Moroccan-Dutch boyfriend, some years her junior. She's concerned about that, but when she told him so, he said it wasn't important: Khadija bint Khuwaylid, the first wife of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was older than him.

Not long ago, she even considered for the first time moving to Morocco.

I had never thought of living there. I didn't think there was anything there for me. But lately, when I see the way things are changing in the Netherlands, I sometimes think it wouldn't be such a bad idea to live in Morocco. The sad thing is thinking about it for these reasons, isn't it?