April 11, 2017

Femmes for Freedom

Feminist activism in the Netherlands

There is an idea in the Netherlands – as well as in other Western European and North American countries – that feminism is no longer relevant here. We are ‘beyond’ that: women have their rights, and are now emancipated and equal. But if we look at the situation intersectionally – taking into account that women can experience oppression based on their class, religion, or race/ethnicity – then a more detailed and nuanced picture comes into focus.

That’s why Mama Cash funds not only women’s, girls and trans groups abroad, but also right here in the Netherlands – groups like Femmes for Freedom.

Religious divorce

You want a divorce, but your husband refuses to consent to the dissolution of your marriage. This is what happened to the Dutch-Pakistani Shirin Musa. Her husband agreed to the civil divorce, but not to the religious divorce. Shirin was the first Muslim woman to institute legal proceedings in the Netherlands to get a religious divorce. In 2010, the court dissolved her religious marriage and she finally regained her autonomy. Infused with fighting spirit, she founded Femmes for Freedom at the end of 2011. Femmes For Freedom advocates for marriage freedom: the freedom for women to choose their partner, to choose if they want to marry, and to leave their marriage when they want to.

The number of women held captive in their marriage is not recorded and thus unknown, but an estimated 3000 women are forcibly married in the Netherlands ever year. Femmes for Freedom define both situations as forced marriage. Shirin says, “This occurs in both Jewish and Christian communities, as well as in Muslim and Hindu communities. We are mostly talking about migrant women who have dual nationality and/or were married in their homeland. The family law in their country of origin applies in this case. That inequality in foreign family law has a direct impact on Dutch migrant women. But these women are Dutch citizens, so our government has to safeguard their rights.

Change in the law

Femmes for Freedom, which consists of Shirin and two staff members aided by a team of permanent volunteers, runs support groups and a legal services counter for women who live in marital captivity, where they can exchange experiences and receive advice on conducting divorce proceedings. The organisation also work on prevention, campaigning, information provision, and social and political consciousness-raising. Shirin: ‘Thanks to our lobby campaign, the legal definition of a forced marriage in the Netherlands was broadened […] This means that the Netherlands is the first country in the world that has defined marital captivity as a criminal offence.’ As a result of Femmes for Freedom’s lobbying efforts, the government has also established a ‘Forced Marriage Unit’ (Landelijk Knooppunt Huwelijksdwang & Achterlating) and in 2017 this will be expanded with more means to help Dutch women and girls abroad.

Keeping activism strong

To get more people actively involved in working to end marital captivity in the Netherlands, Femmes For Freedom has started the ‘Buddy Project,’ training volunteers to support women who are trying to leave situations of marital captivity or marital violence, and trying to navigate the social welfare system and the legal system in the Netherlands.

Shirin believes that a new feminist wind of change is needed in the Netherlands. ‘The women’s movement is very fragmented. Unfortunately, many organisations have been slimmed down or disbanded. That’s a shame, because it is essential in order to demand a strong women’s rights policy in political circles.”

Mama Cash is still going strong – but to sustain ourselves and the groups we support, we need you to become part of the movement, too. Even if you don’t consider yourself an activist, by donating to Mama Cash, you help keep local feminist activism possible, and you become a crucial part of the action. With every donation of 20 euro (30 euro outside the Netherlands) you’ll receive a gift of a ‘Feminist with a To-Do List’ notebook.

Your contribution counts. Keep activism alive!

This article was adapted from an earlier piece on our website.

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