Dutch Muslim women striving to integrate

Amsterdam, Netherlands - At a time when the headscarf is a hot issue in Europe, it comes as something of a shock to meet Fatima Elatik.

This feisty 36-year-old - who combines her headscarf with bright red lipstick - is mayor of Zeeburg, a large multicultural district of Amsterdam.

She is the first Dutch-Moroccan woman to become a district mayor - quite an achievement for a woman whose mother arrived in the Netherlands 40 years ago, unable to read or write.

"My mum first held a pen to write her own name once she was 60," Fatima recalls.

"And now she sits next to me when I read the newspaper, reading the words with me."


A short walk from the mayor's office, I find out what the Dutch authorities are doing to help migrant women adapt to life in a modern, secular society.

Marion Huisinga runs courses teaching immigrant women basic skills.

On the day of my visit, some 20 women, most of Moroccan origin, are learning to speak, read and write in Dutch.

The youngest is in her 20s and has brought her new-born baby along in a pram. The oldest, Rahma, is 74 - and one of Ms Huisinga's star pupils.

Ms Huisinga has to win the trust not only of the women but of their husbands. Some are reluctant at first, she says, but they usually come round.

The courses are about much more than language. Ms Huisinga takes the women to the beach or the zoo, or one of the city's famous museums.

For many of them, getting out of the house is itself an achievement.

Wayward sons

As they talk and sip Moroccan tea, the women seem relaxed. But their lives are often hard.

One of them, Zara, is divorced and has to look after four boys on her own.

Mothers worry that, out on the street, their sons may get drawn into crime, drugs or extremism.

Young Muslim men have been the focus of concern here since 2004, when a 26-year-old Dutch-Moroccan, Mohammed Bouyeri, stabbed to death the controversial film-maker Theo Van Gogh.

I had visited Amsterdam in the aftermath of the killing, when young Muslim males were under a cloud of suspicion.

It was a bad time to be Dutch-Moroccan. A traditionally liberal society was polarised and ill at ease.

Young Muslim men told me they were routinely turned away at discotheques.

The problem has not gone away. But now a Dutch-Moroccan hip-hop artist, Casablanca Connect, has produced a video called "Members Only" to highlight the issue.

Rather than being made to feel worthless, he told me, young Dutch-Moroccan men need to be encouraged to feel they really belong in Dutch society.

That is not easy when the anti-immigrant Freedom Party - led by Geert Wilders, an outspoken critic of Islam - is gaining an ever bigger following.

Mr Wilders wants the authorities to halt all immigration from Muslim countries.

Coping with change

Dutch Islam has many faces. I visited a progressive mosque, whose administrator is a 24-year-old woman.

And I tried - and failed - to visit an imam associated with the conservative form of Islam known as Salafism.

The imam - accused in the Dutch press of promoting intolerance - agreed to see me, and then changed his mind.

This is a community in the throes of change - yet still in many respects traditional and patriarchal.

Someone who has to deal with the social problems of male-dominated families is Samira Bouchibti - one of four Dutch-Moroccan members of parliament and Labour Party spokeswoman on youth and family issues.

She is concerned about forced marriage, which still occurs despite efforts to outlaw it.

Part of Ms Bouchibti's brief is gay rights - something many Muslims would be unwilling to take on.

I ask if there is any tension between her faith and her commitment to equal rights for gays.

"No, never," she replies, "because my God loves all the people - gay, black, white, religious, not religious. My God loves everybody."

It is a very enlightened, very Dutch view - even if conservative Muslims would take issue with it.

I left Amsterdam feeling young Muslim women may be coping with the challenges of modern life rather better than the young men.

The girls are seizing their chances, says district mayor Fatima Elatik, whereas the boys have a tough time dealing with Dutch society.

They find it hard to get jobs and to be accepted.

"It's easier to be named Fatima," as she puts it, "than to be named Mohammed."