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A better world still starts with ourselves

23 Oct

‘We, the peoples of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war..’

This week, it’s exactly seventy years ago since the United Nations were officially established in the town of Lake Success, USA. The world’s most optimist political experiment to date.
Do you think these nations would have been so determined to unite when deep down inside they did not believe it was possible to create world peace, even though many scaremongers liked and still like us to believe differently?

Nowadays, not a lot of that original optimism seems left. People seem to mostly complain about the UN. That it’s a huge talking machine. That bureaucracy is slowing things down. That the organisational structure is not up to date. That in the end, it’s all about the money, or the arms industry, or the G7. That the Security Council is paralysed by its veto system. That the Milennium Goals have not been met. That the UN have not succeeded in preventing war in Syria. Or Sudan. Or Mali. Or former Yugoslavia. That it’s ridiculous that the UN Human Rights Council is chaired by someone from Saudi Arabia. That Ban Ki Moon has the charisma of a goldfish.

All true.

But the biggest problem is not the lack of trust of others. It’s a lack of trust of the UN in itself. Do they still believe in it, in their power to save us from the scourge of war? Or have they settled for the status quo? Seventy years on, not a lot seems left from the orginal optimism of those determined peoples.

The PR machine likes us to believe differently. If you wouldn’t know any better, the UN look like an international music venue, where stars and heads of state can lay their humanitarian eggs. Plenty of volunteers: Agenlina Jolie, Emma Watson, Leonardo di Caprio, Stevie Wonder, all are eager to drop by for the good cause. A speech, a nice photo op with Mister Ban, and bam, another press release is sent. But this ‘Malalisation’ of the UN, with all its good intentions, is not helping them at all. The last thing the world needs now is another speech with another selfie with another star.

Far from the spotlights and red carpets those same UN are struggling with huge deficits. Lots of donors are not stepping up to the plate when it comes to the cold hard cash. Recently, researchers at the Global Policy Forum warned about the growing gap between the world’s problems and the UN’s capacity solve them. Furthermore, there seems to be an increasing financial dependance on big multinational companies, who by sponsoring the UN are buying more and more influence.

Rather than putting themselves on sale, the UN should believe in themselves again. In the feasability of that radical idea of seventy years ago: that it’s in fact possible to create a better world. The world nees that kind of optimism now more than ever. But all of that starts with ourselves. The UN is just as strong as its member states make her. We, the peoples of the United Nations.


Long live feminism 4.0!

8 Oct

Making yourself known as a feminist is no walk through the park, as I know from experience. The reactions to such a coming out vary from stupid (‘do you actually shave your armpits?’) to scary (‘feminazi’s like you should shut up’). But mainly, as a feminist, you have a lot of explaining to do. Whether that whole ‘women’s thing’ is still necessary. What I think about the debate for gender quota for positions of power. Whether I believe women are better. And what all of that means for men. Not to mention the reactions from feminists themselves. Because just like any other ideology, feminism has liberals and orthodox too. Who, just like the Remonstrants and the Contraremonstrants in the history of Dutch Protestantism, love to tell each other who is right and who is wrong.

An older lady once told me I was a hypocrite for wearing nailpolish and lipstick, and calling myself a feminist at the same time. Of course those were mutually exclusive. Was that what she and her sisters had been fighting for all those years? What was I thinking!

Today, self-proclaimed feminists such as Miley Cyrus and Beyoncé are being blamed with the exact same hypocrisy. Performing in a sexy outfit, dancing in front of a sign that says FEMINIST in huge neon letters? According to the orthodox that’s like cursing in a church.

But I think it was exactly what feminism has been lacking for years: a popularised version, a translation in everyday language, which has made its ideas and legacy – unfortunately still relevant as ever – accessible for a much wider audience.

And that audience is eager for a new feminist sound, as was proved once again at De Balie in Amsterdam this week. I got to interview Naomi Wolf, rock star of the so called third feminist wave, during a programme called Feminism 4.0, which sold out in no time. There even was an online black market for tickets. A full house with enthusiastic young women (and a few brave men) proved it once again: feminism isn’t dead. It’s very much alive and kicking.

It was touching to see them waiting in line, collecting names and emails after the show, to hold on to the energy of that evening and turn it into action. Inspiring to see how a new generation of women is making femimism their own, with lots of room for difference.

Interesting questions were asked, that evening. Whether transgenders are allowed to join the conversation about the female body. How we get men on our side. And whether there is enough space for other stories than those of white, western women.

If there is one thing that the new feminists have in common, it’s the fact they don’t want to be put into a box. They make a strong case for intersectionality: thinking about different forms of exclusion at once. And they’re right, those feminists 4.0. Because it’s no longer about who’s right. It’s about people still not having equal rights.

Eid without sheep

24 Sep

Once upon a time there was a boy on a chopping block. How he ended up there? God had told his dad to kill him, and the boy thought his dad should listen to God. Cause wasn’t God always right? ‘Don’t worry dad’, the boy said, even though he was scared. ‘I really don’t mind.’

As a kid, I always thought it was a horrible story. I didn’t understand how Isaac, cause that’s what he was called in my children’s bible, didn’t put up a fight or run. And how Abraham’s love of God was apparently stronger than his love for his own son. Trust they called it? I called it betrayal. And why didn’t Isaac’s mom didn’t come to his rescue?

As I got older, and had read not only the grown folk’s bible but also the koran, I wondered whether Muslim kids were just as horrified by the story of Ismael and Ibrahim, as they were called, as I had been. I was quite shocked to find that the exact same story that had always frightened me, was at the basis of the most important holiday on the Islamic calendar: Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice.

Not exactly a feast for a convinced vegetarian such as myself. But try to explain that to your neighbour who with all the best intentions puts a bloody plastic bag in your hands. ‘Eid mabrouk, a blessed feast!’. Because that sheep, I was told, is traditionally cut in three pieces: one for the family, one for the neighbours and one for the poor. Lucky me.

Many of the refugees who have reached our country over the past few weeks, must have celebrated their feast just like that. Piece of meet for themselves, for the neighbours, for the people who were less well off. Praying at the mosque. New clothes for the kids, presents, some extra pocket money maybe. But I’m afraid this year most of them don’t get to buy a sheep, or toys or new clothes for the kids. Cause those people who are less well off, well, that’s them now.

They must feel out of place today, during the Feast of Sacrifice, Eid al-Adha, without sheep, without family even sometimes, without mosque or the neighbours. If you’ve lost almost everything, how do you celebrate your faith in God?

Would they follow the news on their smartphones, the digraceful shallowness that’s been domininating the debate on their future for days, weeks, months? The talks in Brussels that rapidly reduced them to numbers, to for or against, to yes or no? The negotiations on quota, people calling for measures to ‘close the borders’? The naysayers, the haters, the tsunamipreachers?

I hope not. God, I hope not. I hope they will hear about how many volunteers have signed up to help at the Red Cross, how people are donating their time and clothes, how many kids are helping them at school. Yes, I truly hope that they feel welcome, especially today. That ‘they’ become ‘we’ and that that warms their hearts on this cold Eid.

Ramadan for dummies

18 Jun

Today, about one and a half billion muslims around the world celebrate the start of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, during which there will not be any eating, drinking, smoking, sex, cursing, lying or gossiping from dawn untill sunset. At least, that’s the idea. But whether or not all those one and a half billion muslims actually manage to observe it, that’s another question.
Because a month of spiritual and physical abstinence is easier said than done, I too noticed when I participated for the first time.
I was living and working in Tunisia at the time, where most of the country seemed to slow down a notch those days. It was a hot late summer, and already after half a day of fasting my head started spinning. I could manage the not-eating-part. But Lord, did I crave a sip of water. How hard it was to concentrate on my work, let alone keep my cool in traffic, where everybody else was probably just as dazed and confused as I was. Thankfully, there were nice neighbours, friends and colleagues, who invited me over to break the fast with milk, dates and a bowl of steamy lentil soup. I can still taste it.
What a different experience I had back home in the Netherlands, where I had to explain at least ten times a day what Ramadan was all about, why I participated, being a non-muslim. Wasn’t that very bad for my health? And wasn’t I even allowed a mint, against that bad breath? And shouldn’t I really have a glass of water? And how did I know when it was ok to eat? And wasn’t it hard, all by myself? And wouldn’t I die of starvation, after 30 days of fasting?
No, I never died. Thank God. After those first days of suffering (symptoms: dizziness, headache and fatigue) you get into a special kind of groove, where oddly enough there seems to be more space for rest and reflection than for the sounds of that empty stomach. And yes, bad breath unfortunately comes with temporarily shutting down your digestive system. A mint? No, thanks. No water either. Not even one sip? Not even one sip. Not even when noone is watching? No, not even when noone is watching.
Why I participated then? Because in these times of increasing contrasts between those who do and those who don’t participate in our global ratrace of consumption, I found it a rather refreshing experience to consciously distance myself from my needs and wants for a month. To learn how to control and restrain myself for 30 days, whenever my heart or body spoke to me. To be able to once again focus on ‘being’ in stead of always having to ‘have’, ‘say’ or ‘do’. And all of that following the rythm of the sun and the moon. Now you tell me: when was the last time you got to do that?

Freedom, that’s what I wish all muslims this Ramadan. Freedom to be, to believe, to pray, to fast, or to choose not to. رمضان كريم, Ramadan Kareem, a blessed month of fasting.

Walking the talk

25 May

When my grandmother was born, women did not have the right to vote or to be elected. Her father did not think girls’ education was that important, so he pulled her out of school so she could help around the house. When my mother was born, women did not have the right to buy a house or open a bank account without the consent of their fathers or husbands. Female civil servants getting married were usually fired the next day. And when I was born, rape within marriage was still legal.

By now, women outnumber men in higher education in most countries accross the world, women have the right to vote and to be elected and drive cars and open bank accounts in all countries but one, and sexual and gender based violence is considered a crime almost everywhere.

We’ve come a long way. But we’re not there yet by far.

Too often, I have to defend myself when I call myself a feminist. Too often, I hear sighs and chuckles, even at political meetings, when I ‘pull the gender card’.  Too many girls are still kept at home from school, forced into early marriage or genital mutilation. Too many women still suffer from violence, sexual harrassment and rape. Too many women don’t have decent work, and don’t receive equal pay.

That’s why I was so happy to be asked to co-write, together with Jamila Aanzi and Hedy d’Ancona, the Gender Action Plan for the Progressive Alliance Gender Equality and Decent Work conference, which took place in Rotterdam from 22 to 23 May 2015.

We may have come a long way, but we’re not there yet by far.

That’s why we call for:

more awareness, political, economic and social participation, equal pay, financial independance, gender quotas for positions of power, equal job opportunities and equal access to health, education, housing, childcare and social security, more inclusive legislation, public and workplace safety and bodily integrity, sexual and reproductive rights, no more stereotypes and discrimination, more cooperation with social partners, female entrepreneurship and property rights, recognition of female farmers and, last but not least, gender parity in parliament and government.

The Gender Action Plan was adopted unanimously last Friday. That’s great news for all men and women who care about an inclusive world, but it’s only the beginning. We may have come a long way, but we’re not there yet by far.

Now, it’s time to walk the talk. Are you walking with me?

Kies een vrouw!

17 Mar

In case you missed it: there are elections tomorrow, here in the Netherlands. Tomorrow, on March 18, 2015, we will elect our water boards, and, most importantly, our provincial representatives, who in their turn will elect the senate. Not unimportant, I’d say.

Over the past few weeks, I have been trying to convince people (f/m) to vote for a woman. Kies een vrouw, as we say in Dutch.


My efforts were often met with scepticism. ‘Why vote for a woman when we have equal rights anyway?’ some people said. Or ‘I vote for the best candidate, not because of their sex, but because of their qualities’.

It probably won’t surprise you, my dear readers, that I beg to differ.

As long as men and women aren’t equally represented in positions of power, the (s)hevolution I so often write and talk about is not quite finished yet. It’s as simple as that. Because in order for the butterfly effect of women to fully flourish, we need to be able to spread our wings from a place where it actually matters. And let’s be honest: from the world of academia to talkshow tables, women are simply too few and far between to make some serious impact. The higher you climb, the less women you’ll find. The world of politics is no exception: there’s only ONE female Commisaris der Koning (King’s Commisioner, or Governor) in this country, and not even a third of our provincial council members currently are women. We can change that tomorrow. YOU can change that tomorrow.

Why I think you should? Because we live in a representative democracy, which is currently not quite representative. Because women and men are equal, but not the same. Because diversity in itself means increased quality. Because, as piles of research suggest, investing in gender equality is not only the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do.

My dear grandmother, who would have turned 96 last week, was born in the year women in this country got the right to vote. She always used that right to the fullest, and inspired me to do the same.

Women and men fought for your democratic right. Please use it democratically. So please repeat after me, loud and proud: ik kies een vrouw!

Breaking the silence

13 Mar

Dear readers,

My 2015 had a rather rocket-like start. I started writing a new bi-weekly column for Dutch daily Trouw, I started teaching two classes at the Haagse Hogeschool , and, together with Petra Stienen and the lovely ladies at Spitz continued our Kracht on Tour road trip with Minister Jet Bussemaker to promote financial independence for women, Not to mention my work for Zuidas Amsterdam, an exciting new project with the guys at This Memento, and hosting a bunch of supercool events, such as the Movies that Matter Film Festival, the Vrijheidslezingen at De Balie  and the Power of Entrepreneurial Women World Wide conference. And then there’s being a board member of the Dutch Red Cross, a trainer for the Foundation Max van der Stoel, a speaker and panelist on women’s rights, a yogi, a daughter, a friend..

And still. All of that is no excuse for being out of touch for so long. So that’s why I am breaking the silence to write you this short update. So you know I am still alive. Very much so indeed!

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