Dutch Convert to Islam: Veiled and Viewed as a ‘Traitor’
A Woman’s Experience Illustrates Europe’s Struggle With Its Identity
By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 19, 2006; A21
BREDA, Netherlands — Rabi’a Frank sees her Dutch home town through the narrow slit of the black veil that covers her face.
The looks she receives from the townspeople are seldom kindly.
On a recent winter afternoon, the wind tugged at her ankle-length taupe skirt, olive head scarf and black, rectangular face veil as she walked to her car from an Islamic prayer meeting in downtown Breda. Two blond teenagers on bicycles stared, their faces screwed into hostile snarls. Other passersby gawked. Some stepped off the sidewalk to avoid coming too near.
She tried to act like it didn’t offend her. But it did. She knows what they think of Muslim women like her.
“If you cover yourself, you are oppressed — that’s it,” said Frank, a lanky, 29-year-old Dutch woman who converted to Islam 11 years ago, about the time she married her Moroccan husband. “You are being brainwashed by your husband or your friends.”
Or, you’re a potential terrorist.
“Sometimes I make a joke and say, ‘Oh, you don’t have to be scared of me.’ ” Other times, she gets so fed up that she yanks up her hand under her robe like it’s a pistol and shouts, “Boom!”
Frank spoke on a recent day in her living room in this city of 162,000 people near the Netherlands’ southern border with Belgium. “They don’t have the right to treat me different,” she said. “It’s like staring at someone in a wheelchair. It’s not polite. I’m human, even if you don’t like the way I appear.”
This day-to-day struggle for acceptance on the streets of her home town is one woman’s confrontation with a deepening rift in West European societies, where the emergence of a 15 million-member Muslim minority is reshaping concepts of national and personal identity.
Some European governments have passed laws they say are intended to help preserve national identity. Critics argue that the measures reflect Islamophobia and fears of terrorism triggered by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent transit bombings in Madrid and London.
The Netherlands, with nearly 1 million Muslims, almost 6 percent of its population, is particularly on edge. The 2002 assassination of an anti-immigrant politician, Pim Fortuyn, by an animal rights activist was followed by the execution-style murder in 2004 of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who had just released a controversial film seen as anti-Islamic. A young Muslim radical admitted to the killing.
A country with a history of tolerance is now adopting or debating some of the most restrictive anti-immigration and anti-Muslim laws in Europe. One proposed measure would ban women from wearing face veils, called niqab , in public. Another would outlaw the speaking of languages other than Dutch on the street.
Immigrants must learn some Dutch, pass a history and geography test and, to get a feel for whether they can live in this society, watch a film on Dutch culture that includes two gay men kissing and a topless woman walking on a beach.
Geert Wilders, a member of the Dutch parliament, said he was drafting a bill that would ban all immigration for the next five years. “Our culture is based on Christianity, Judaism and humanism,” Wilders said in an interview in his tiny office in the parliament building in The Hague. “We should not be ashamed of it. This is who we are and who we should stay.”
In Belgium, some cities have banned women from wearing face veils and burqas , which cover the entire body and face, in public places. A year ago, France barred women and girls from wearing head scarves in public schools. A London school district has imposed a similar ban.
The Path of a Convert
For natives such as Frank who have converted to Islam, the hostility is often greater than that directed at immigrants.
“They think you are a traitor,” said Frank, whose thin, pale face is framed by long blondish-brown curls. “You’re not acting like a Dutch girl anymore.
“I’m a Muslim, a woman and also Dutch,” she continued. “What upsets people is that I’m a Muslim first.”
Frank can recall the instant she decided to wear a face veil: She had just stepped into Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport last year after making her first hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, and going to Medina, in Saudi Arabia. They are the holiest sites in Islam.
It is more difficult, she said, to describe the evolution that took the former Rebecca Frank to her dramatic decision.
It began at age 14 as teenage defiance. She developed a crush on a 16-year-old Moroccan boy named Ali who had moved to the Netherlands as a child with his parents. He was exotic, he was different — and, to the daughter of a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, he was off-limits.
Over the years, as the relationship became more serious, Ali told Rebecca he could not marry her because she was not Muslim, even though he was not particularly religious. It’s not about Islam, he explained, it’s about culture.
Without consulting him, she began reading books about Moroccan culture and Islam. Then she decided to read the Koran. “I felt like, ‘This is it,’ ” said Frank, whose parents were divorced and who, like many teenagers, was searching for an identity.
When Ali took her to meet his mother and announced they planned to marry, his mother said she would “break both legs” if he did that, Frank said. Her future husband didn’t see his family for the next three months.
Her own mother was so upset over the wedding that she brought flowers to the 18-year-old bride, broke down in tears and left before the Islamic ceremony began. Her father did attend the wedding.
Clothing as a Statement
Like most of her Muslim convert friends, Frank said, she found that the process of fully embracing Islamic thinking and dress was gradual. But eventually the clothing became the outward statement of her identity. “I smiled at all the Muslim women I saw in the streets,” she said. “But to them, I was just a plain Dutch girl with brown hair and blue eyes. I wanted to be recognized as a Muslim woman.”
She changed her name from Rebecca to Rabi’a and began giving lectures about Islam. After she published an article on Islam in a local newspaper, a woman wrote her a letter demanding: “Go back to your own country.”
“I’m in it now!” she thought angrily.
The more Frank studied her religion, the more convinced she became that she should take the final step and wear not only a head scarf but a face veil. “It took me two years to convince my husband I wanted to do it,” Frank said. “He really didn’t want me to wear it because of the reaction when we go out together.”
Frank had begun focusing on the words of one of the Koran’s foremost ancient interpreters, Rasulullah, who warned that “a woman who reveals her body” violates the tenets of Islam.
During her pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia with her husband and mother-in-law, she covered her face in public for the first time. Far from feeling oppressed, she said, she felt liberated.
“It’s like the song,” Frank said. She began softly singing the English lyrics of “The Veil,” a popular song on Muslim Web sites.
They tell her, ‘Girl, don’t you know this is the West and you are free?
You don’t need to be oppressed, ashamed of your femininity.’
She just shakes her head and speaks so assuredly. . . .
This Hijab, this mark of piety
Is an act of faith, a symbol
For all the world to see.
But on the streets of Breda, covered by her veil, Frank stands out as an anomaly — a curiosity to some, a freak to others.
A few weeks ago, her middle son, 7-year-old Ismail, pleaded with her, “Why don’t you take it off? The children are laughing at you at school.”
“I won’t take it off,” she insisted. “For me, it’s like driving a car without a seat belt.”
She gazed out her living room window at the street that winds through her suburban enclave of brick townhouses and front gardens browned by winter frosts.
“I am a Muslim,” she said with finality. “That’s my identity.”