by Betty de Hart, Euromix Principal Investigator, 2 April 2021
In the run-up to the Dutch elections on 17 March 2021, with four female party leaders, Dutch media discussed the sexism and hate messages that they faced on social media. This happened in response to opinion magazine De Groene Amsterdammer’s analysis of the large number of hate messages that female politicians receive. De Groene concluded that women more than male politicians were attacked in very personal ways: with comments on their gender, their looks and the dresses they wear, as well as their families.1
Sigrid Kaag, leader of the progressive-liberal D66, received most hate messages; one-fifth of the reactions she received was hateful and sexist.2 In her own words, this was because she represents everything that is the ultimate horror to part of the public: a powerful woman, a cosmopolite, married not to just any foreigner, but to a Palestinian, Muslim husband. She was faced with fantasies about her sex life and complot theories on her collaboration with Islam. She has been labeled a ‘terrorist-lover’ and ‘Palestinian hugger’.
Obviously, she was not the only female politician meeting with the combination of sexism and racism. Especially black female politician Sylvana Simons (BIJ1) who has suffered severe harassment continuously for years since she publicly spoke out against racism for the first time in 2015 on national television, and Kauthar Bouchallikht (GreenLeft) who is of Moroccan descent, Muslim and wears a headscarf, were the targets of racist hate reactions.3 On the other hand, they also received a lot of support and both were elected and are now Members of Parliament.
This blog, however, focuses on Sigrid Kaag, in order to explore how the attacks on her can be explained from her having a mixed family. It addresses the question what these attacks reveal about the obsession with white women in mixed relationships, especially those with Muslim husbands.
Dutch media on Sigrid Kaag’s mixed family
Kaag became leader of the political party D66 in 2020, six months before the elections took place. During the campaign, resulting in her party gaining four more seats in parliament, she presented herself as a ‘new kind of leader’: positive, progressive, and inclusive. She was not shy in speaking out against racism, for instance during the Black Lives Matter protests, as well as against sexism. For instance, on International Women’s day, she publicly criticised prime minister Mark Rutte for frequently interrupting female cabinet ministers, more than the male ones during cabinet meetings.4 In addressing racism, she regularly referred to her Palestinian husband and their four ‘mixed descent’ children, bringing in her own experiences with racism. She said that she looked at society through the eyes of her children and husband.5
The hateful attacks started when she became Minister of Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation. in 2017. Her political loyalty was put into question because her husband is Palestinian, especially by extreme-right parties and online posts. Hateful attacks were uttered mainly on social media. However, it is striking how frequently the mainstream news media too mentioned her Palestinian husband, even where it is not relevant to her politics. For instance, she was questioned about the division of tasks between her husband and her in the upbringing of their children and the fact that the children used her and not her husband’s last name in job applications.6
In the final TV debate the night before election day the extreme-right political leader Geert Wilders called her out as a ‘traitor’ because she had worn a headscarf during a visit to Iran as Minister of Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation.7
At several instances, she explained the critique she met with on social media from being a member of a mixed family. Answering the question on what she did wrong, she said: I married Anis (her husband).8
In short, while some tried to question her loyalty to the nation because of her mixed family, Kaag herself aimed to present herself as someone with a broader perspective on race and diversity, stemming from her positionality as a white woman having a mixed family.9 Considering the electoral gain for her party, this appealed to part of the voters.
In the Dutch context, it is exceptional that politicians, or any other public figures for that matter, speak out about being a member of mixed family and, from that standpoint, reflect on racism and discrimination in Dutch society.10 Although there are few, she is not the only Dutch politician putting forward their mixed relationship in building a political profile. An example is Niels Van den Berge (GreenLeft) who stated: ‘Since I have been married with a fantastic woman of color, discrimination and exclusion are close by. I see what it does to her and to other Dutchmen of color’.11 Another is Pieter Omtzigt of the Christian-Democrats (CDA) whose wife is a Syrian-orthodox from Turkey and also a politician in the same party. However, Kaag has been the only one who was so publicly and frequently attacked because of her mixed family.
Gender and crossing group boundaries
Even though white men also violate racialised group boundaries when they engage in interracialised relationships, this is legitimised by white male privilege. From this perspective, it is not surprising that Kaag, as a white woman, is the politician facing the most hostile reactions from the Dutch public.
This is because women ‘embody’ the boundaries of the nation, carrying the ‘burden of representation’ as ‘symbolic bearers of the collective identity and honour’.12 The reaffirmation of boundaries of whiteness thus requires the surveillance of white women’s behavior.13
Hence, white women transgressing racialised borders are seen as the greater threat to white identity. Women are particularly likely to experience gender backlash in domains where gender roles are highly salient, such as in the domain of sexual behavior and partner choice. 14 Consequently, the costs of crossing racialised group boundaries are higher for white women than for white men. The hostile reactions that Kaag received can be understood as a form of social punishment for her ‘deviant’ partner choice.
In our Euromix research project, we have established that regulators (e.g. legislators, politicians, bureaucratic national and local authorities, police) across time and place were obsessed with relationships of white women and racialised men. Even if their numbers were low, such relationships incited anxiety, anger, hostility and violence. Discourse and news-media largely focussed on such relationships while state officials tried to discourage them through regulations ranging from prohibitions of interracial marriage, relationships and sex, to premarital counselling ‘warning’ white women of the dangers of marrying ‘other’ racialised men.
In the Netherlands, too, newspapers and popular culture have largely focussed on relationships of Dutch white women and racialised men.15
Even one marriage could incite a huge amount of public and media attention surveilling and scrutinizing the couple’s every move.16 On the other hand, we have found an absence of attention for black women in interracialized relationships.17 In conclusion, the considerable amount of media attention that Kaag received, apart from the more general sexism directed at female politicians, can be attributed to this obsession with mixed relationships of Dutch white women through which the gendered and racialised boundaries of the Dutch nation are drawn.
Marrying a Muslim
Another reason for the hostile response is that Kaag’s husband is of Palestinian and Muslim background. Although he is a self-identified atheist, he is socially classified as Muslim, because of the stereotyped and orientalist conflation of Arab countries, and people, with Islam.
The obsession with Dutch women marrying Muslim foreign men is hardly new and goes back to the colonial period of the Dutch East Indies. It was particularly strong in the 1960s and 1970s when labor migrants from Turkey and Morocco were recruited to work in the Dutch industry and some of them married Dutch women. Although the actual numbers of such marriages were quite low, the Dutch government developed premarital counseling in order to warn Dutch ‘girls’, as they were commonly called, of the dangers of marrying Muslim men.18
In the current Dutch debate, in which Islamophobia is omnipresent, it is especially women who face the repercussion of the Dutch obsession with Islam.19 Islam is presented as backward, static and traditional, while ‘Western culture’ is constructed as modern, dynamic and progressive.20As Dutch white women who married a Muslim did so willingly and intentionally, the liberal and emancipated inclinations attributed to Dutch women as representing Dutch modern culture, now turn against them: their choice for a Muslim husband demonstrates their stubbornness and naivety; against better judgement, they ‘dabble’ into such a marriage, which will undoubtedly turn out to be a disaster. They lose the qualities attached to ‘us’ and are attributed the qualities of ‘them’, resulting in a loss of social status.21
Although Kaag is a woman in a privileged position of political power, she is attributed these characteristics and consequently othered. As a woman married to a Palestinian, she becomes aligned with terrorism (‘terroristenliefje’) and Islam. Her ascribed identity becomes dependent on that of the stereotyped, racialised identity of her husband, and her loyalty questioned. Her social punishment is that she is no longer considered ‘truly’ Dutch and no longer considered one of ‘us’.
The negative reactions that Sigrid Kaag met with were not only because she is a female political leader but also part of her social punishment for being a white Dutch woman with a mixed marriage, for marrying the ‘wrong kind’ of man. It is part of gendered and racialised boundary work that excludes such women from those who reproduce the nation. It shows that mixed families and relationships continue to be problematized until today. The social punishments, with continued online-harassment, remain severe.
Whether Kaag’s positionality as a white woman with a mixed family also results in a different kind of politics, is a different matter, as some critics have pointed out.22 In the end, that is a matter of political choice.
- Misogynie als politiek wapen (2021, March 3), De Groene Amsterdammer; Klaver staat nog steeds achter kandidaat Bouchallikht (2021, November 17), NOS.
- Misogynie als politiek wapen (2021, March 3), De Groene Amsterdammer.
- Simons needed police protection. 20 people were convicted for threatening her. See also Sylvana Simons (Bij1): ‘Bij ons is antiracisme geen bijzaak’ (2021, 8 March), Het Parool; Sylvana Simons (BIJ1): ‘Ondanks alles ben ik vrijer dan ooit’ (2021, 18 March), OneWorld.
- Vrouwelijke ministers vertellen openlijk hoe hun het woord werd ontnomen (2021, March 12), NOS.
- Minister Kaag over racisme: ‘Hé, donkere kinderen. Niet van jou zeker?’ (2020, June 8), RTL Nieuws; Minister Kaag bekijkt racisme vanuit de ogen van haar kinderen en haar man (2020, June 7), FunX.
- D66-minister Sigrid Kaag: Nederland moet een vrouwelijke premier krijgen (2019, August 24) AD; Discrimination on the labour market is a serious problem in the Netherlands, as demonstrated by research by Social Cultural Planning Bureau in 2020. A change of the last name is sometimes used as an effort to prevent such discrimination. See Andriessen, I., Dijkhoff, J.H., Van der Torre, A., Van den Berg, E., Pulles, I., Iedema, J., & De Voogd-Hamelink, M. (2020). Ervaren discriminatie in Nederland II. Den Haag: SCP.
- Geert Wilders noemt Sigrid Kaag een verrader om hoofddoek in Iran (2021, March 17), Metronieuws.
- Tan, S. (2021). Sigrid Kaag: Van Beiroet tot Binnenhof [VPRO-documentary].
- The potentially greater awareness of white women in mixed relationships of racism has been noted by Frankenberg and Twine. Frankenberg, R. (1993). White women, race matters: The social construction of whiteness. University of Minnesota Press; Twine, F. W. (2011). A white side of black Britain. Duke University Press.
- See our earlier blog on mixed families and Black Lives Matter: De Hart, B. (2020, October 16). Black Lives Matter and ‘mixed’ couples and families in the media [Also in Dutch]. Euromix project.
- GroenLinks. Niels van den Berge. Last retrieved on March 24th 2021 from: https://www.groenlinks.nl/kandidatenlijst/Niels-van-den-Berge
- Yuval-Davis, N. (1997). Gender & Nation. SAGE Publications Ltd.
- Stoler, A. L. (2001). Tense and tender ties: The politics of comparison in North American history and (post) colonial studies. The Journal of American History, 88(3), 829-865.
- Stillwell, A., & Lowery, B. S. (2020). Gendered Racial Boundary Maintenance: Social Penalties for White Women in Interracial Relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000332
- Kamminga, M. (2013). Grensoverschrijders: De beeldvorming van bi-culturele relaties in Nederlandse dagbladen; Altena, M. (2012). A True History Full of Romance. Mixed Marriages and Ethnic Identity in Dutch Art, News Media, and Popular Culture (1983-1995). Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
- De Hart, B. (2019, March 28). An Exceptional Marriage Upsetting Colonial Orders? [Also in Dutch]. Euromix project.
- Mustafa, N. (2021, March 19). Black Women and Interracialized Relationships. Euromix project.
- De Hart, B. (2017). Protecting Dutch girls from the Harem: Premarital counseling for mixed marriages with Muslim men. Journal of Migration History, 3(1), 78-103. See also Hondius, D. (2000). ‘De “trouwlustige gastarbeider” en het Hollandse meisje. De bezorgde ontmoediging van Italiaans- en Spaans-Nederlandse huwelijken’, Migrantenstudies 16(4), 129–145.
- Sayyid, S., & Vakil, A. (2010). Thinking through Islamophobia: Global Perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Vellenga, S. (2018). Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in the Netherlands: concepts, developments, and backdrops. Journal of Contemporary religion, 33(2), 175-192.
- Prins, B., & Saharso, S. (2008). In the spotlight: A blessing and a curse for immigrant women in the Netherlands. Ethnicities 8(3), 365–384; Roggeband, C., & Verloo, M. (2007). Dutch women are liberated, migrant women are a problem: Evolution of policy frames on gender and migration in the Netherlands. Social Policy and Administration Issues 4(3), 271–288.
- Tabili, L. (1996). Women “of a very low type”: crossing racial boundaries in imperial Britain. In Frader, L., & Rose, S. L (Eds), Gender and class in modern Europe. Ithaca, New York and London: Cornell University Press.165–190.
- ‘Welke overmoed bracht de kosmopolitische Sigrid Kaag naar de polder? (2020, July 7), Trouw; De man van Sigrid Kaag is Palestijns,’ zegt D66 als je dit aankaart (2020, December 2), Het Parool.