A recent column by Murtaza Haider about Canadian-Pakistanis discussed very well the issue of assimilation and difference in values among the locals and the immigrants who in this case were Pakistanis. Looking around Europe, this seems to be the biggest issue in national politics. The issues of assimilation and the cultural shock that Pakistanis face are very similar to the immigrant population in the Netherlands.
The major immigrant group in The Netherlands is from Muslim countries of Morocco and Turkey. The issue of their assimilation has become so vital to the Dutch society that the last general elections were dominated by only this theme along with issue of economic recession. Populist leaders like Geert Wilders of the movie “fitna” fame, came to power with a mandate of saving the country from becoming “NethArabia”. The Dutch, anti-immigrant sentiment rests on many complaints like the lack of participation of immigrant women in public life, the introduction of a different culture in their neighborhoods, the headscarves of women, the rise of the mosques in their cities and the lack of integration of these immigrants in public life. As with most immigrant populations in most developing countries, these minorities are normally poorer as compared to the Dutch families and many rely on social security benefits. This, in turn labels them as lazy or exploitative of the social security system.
The Dutch government has taken the integration of immigration issue very seriously and introduced many steps to ensure greater participation of the immigrants in the Dutch society. At the heart of these policies is ensuring greater involvement of the immigrant women in public life who come from very conservative backgrounds. One of the very talked about policy is the compulsory Dutch language exam, which every spouse has to take in their home country before being able to join their partner in The Netherlands. To me, personally, it is more a policy of segregation of families than integration. It is obviously targeted at the Dutch immigrants who want to marry someone from their native country. While I do not find that justified, I do see the point of this rule – how many times have we heard about cases of domestic violence in immigrant women who are not at all aware of their rights in their new country or who cannot speak the language to be able to make contact with the world outside their home. Such a language requirement is expected to reduce the vulnerability of the immigrant women and make them equal to the native Dutch women regarding their rights and treatment. Another big policy step is the “inburgeringscursus” or integration courses that were made compulsory for immigrants and anyone who wants to get the Dutch nationality.
The course is very interesting: it teaches the immigrants about the history of the country, the culture, the etiquettes and the way of life in The Netherlands. As a compulsory part of the course, all participants have to complete a series of tasks which include things like opening a bank account, filing a complaint at the city hall, writing a letter to some government department, sending out greeting cards to their neighbors etc. Again, the purpose of this exercise was more targeted towards the immigrant women who barely leave their homes in many cases. By compelling them to take part in society through these tasks, the government aimed to achieve some integration of the immigrants and reduce friction in society.
While, I personally believe that a culturally diverse society is more productive and tolerant, I also understand the insecurity in native Dutch people regarding the immigrants’ way of life. Once, I asked a Dutch friend why it matters to them that all women participate in public life or what harm is a simple immigrant housewife doing to them. His reply was that it affects the “rights’’ of the native Dutch women. They are put in a situation where they have a comparison with someone who has entirely different values about the role of women and that is why it is not workable for the whole society to have two entirely opposing systems of treatment of women.
It seems sometimes that most cultural and social conflicts among the immigrants and the natives revolve around the treatment and status of women. The vision about women and their participation in public life is always at the heart of such debates. The reason perhaps is that the treatment of women and their role in public life is one of the most contrasting features of cultural differences among the traditional and the liberal societies. The main threat that both sides always feel from each other is centered on the role of women. Liberal values regarding women, whether they are good or bad are most of the time unacceptable and unfit for the conservative way of thinking.