Article No. 3
Giving Voice to Dutch Moroccan Girls on the Internet
University, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Netherlands, Islam, girls, websites, Internet, voice
The article is about the discussion board of a
Moroccan website, which has become a big success, judging by the
thousands of messages that are posted daily. The majority of
the visitors are young Dutch Moroccan girls who have discovered the
endless possibilities of this new medium. In this anonymous context,
girls raise all kinds of sensitive issues such as relationships,
marriage, or religion which they would dare not discuss in public.
These discussion boards challenge the traditional, passive image of
women, offering them an opportunity for greater self-expression.
These websites give them a voice. This voice places the emphasis on
agency, acknowledging the speakers’ opportunity to express their
messages. Dutch Moroccan girls are more restricted in their freedom
of movement than boys, and thus, the Internet widens their horizons.
girls learn to be humble and veiled, to obey their fathers and
brothers who monitor their virginity and eventually force them to a
marriage with a partner who is not chosen by them.”
The above quote is
taken from a newspaper column by the Dutch author Elsbeth Etty
(2003). Etty states that the family is a place of “oppression” for
Muslim girls. This quote serves as one example of the various ways
Muslim women are represented by Dutch media. The Dutch media sets
forth the belief that emancipation and Islam are not compatible (Nieuwkerk,
2004; Moors 2005). Moreover, this is not a specifically Dutch
opinion, but part of the West’s growing tendency to stereotype
Islam, producing similar simplistic images of passive and oppressed
Muslim women (Hassan, 2001; Werbner, 2002; Karim, 2005). Much has
been written about Muslim women in the media, but very little of it
is drawn from direct contact. Since the inception of the Internet,
it has been possible to follow the “unheard stories” of Muslims,
including women, on numerous websites and homepages (Mitra, 2001, p.
31; Bunt 2005). In the Netherlands Muslims or Dutch Moroccans
launched the first website Maroc.nl, in 2000.
February 2001 a small group of Dutch Moroccan young men set up the
marriage magazine Yasmina on the Moroccan website Maroc.nl.
The site provides a wealth of information about the arrangement
of marriage parties, health, beauty and lifestyle. The most exciting
part of this website is the discussion board, which consists of
topics about relationships between boys and girls, women and Islam,
marriage and the position of women. This forum has become a big
success, judging by the thousands of messages that are posted daily.
The majority of the visitors are young Dutch Moroccan girls who have
discovered the endless possibilities of this new medium. In this
anonymous context, girls raise all kinds of sensitive issues which
they would not dare to raise in public.
story of how girls appropriate new technology, such as this website,
illustrates the notion that women can also be active agents instead
of passive victims, which was the traditional assumption in most
technology studies of the eighties (Wajcman, 2000). Women are
active consumers, especially in regard to communication (Spender,
1995). Since the Internet is very dynamic, the weblogs, a recent
development where people can publish their diary online, seem to be
increasingly popular among Muslim women (Bunt, 2005).
paper emphasizes how girls achieve agency by appropriating a website
based on their own needs and desires. Discussion of various
sensitive topics implies that girls can make contact with other
people without the social control of their parents, and without
crossing social boundaries. Anonymous participation makes online
forums very attractive. While the debates are for enjoyment,
sometimes verbally abusive language disturbs the course of the
debate (Walters, 2005). Discussion boards must be moderated so that
participants follow the etiquette of the site. Moderators of this
above website are usually recruited from the frequent users, often
those who post ten messages a day.
analyzing the online forum discussions, the relationship with the
real world must be taken into consideration. While it seems that
the website and lived experience are separate spheres, a closer
examination will demonstrate how this medium can provide insight
into the lives of the participants. Ward (1999) argued that an
online community is related to the wider offline world and that the
virtual requires the physical to infuse it with meaning. Wajcman
(2000) calls this interrelated connection “mutually constitutive”
The goal of this paper is to examine
how online forums are made into an appropriate place to raise and
discuss issues regarding the lives of girls, such as relationships,
marriage or religion, thus providing a discursive place for the
exchange of advice and for debate. These online discussions can shed
light on how new information technologies assist in an understanding
of the changing position of Muslim girls in a Western country. As
Illingworth (2001) and Mitra (2001) explained, the Internet is an
effective tool, that can uncover the invisible voice of marginal
groups, particularly women. The Internet provides a new social space
for those who are marginalized and lack social power in daily life
(Wheeler, 2001; Mitra, 2001).
I argue that these online forums provide girls with more
opportunities to raise sensitive issues while keeping within their
social boundaries in the offline world. These discussion boards
challenge the traditional, passive image of women in technology,
offering them an opportunity for greater self-expression. These
websites give them a voice. The next section will focus on the
concept of voice, giving examples of how that voice takes shape on
Mitra and Watts (2002) provide a theoretical lens to achieve insight
into the perspectives of marginalized groups and their use of the
internet (p. 480). Muslim girls in the Netherlands are victims of
forced marriages, arranged by their families, or victims of beatings
by their fathers or husbands. In particular Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the
Somalian Member of Parliament of the liberal right wing party, cites
such images of women in relation to Islam (Moors, 2005; Ghorashi,
Mitra (2001) points out that immigrants are now able to form
networks on the Internet, which allows them to have “a sense of
belonging” (p. 30). Mitra demonstrates that through voicing their
views on homepages a group of diasporic Indians transforms their
identities and images, and challenges some of the stereotypical
images produced by the dominant culture. Marginalized people can
articulate their oppositional ideologies, and question the dominant
view of them, on their homepages. The possibility of hyperlinked
connections with members of their network, and with other
marginalized groups, is important. Berber websites, for instance
Tamaynut.nl, put links on their site for Berber groups in
Morocco, France, and other countries.
narratives produced on the Internet can stimulate the production of
new identities, as Mitra (2001) notes. According to Myra Georgiou
(2002), the Internet offers a new context for thinking about
identity and community. She also emphasizes that the Internet has
become a new means of direct communication for ethnic communities
and an alternative to mainstream media and community discourse.
Many websites created by Dutch Moroccan youths have emerged. These
websites criticize the mainstream image experienced by these youths
and offer an opportunity for them to express their opinions. Mitra
(2001) indicates the potential for entering a dialogue between
marginalized groups and the dominant culture. Both Dutch Moroccans
and Dutch natives who represent the dominant cultural views
participate in web discussions. (Brouwer and Wijma, 2006).
Since voice implies agency, it gives speakers on the Internet
“the opportunity to be the agents” of their own meanings (Mitra and
Watts, 2002, p. 484). Dutch Moroccan youths who post messages on
Moroccan discussion boards express their narratives and views in
their own terms. This expression highlights the structures of power
that underlie the Internet. In traditional media, ethnic minorities
have to struggle to be heard because the power of the dominant
discourse ignores marginal voices. Marginalized groups can become
powerful by creating a web page, or posting a message on a
discussion board, and the ability “to speak” can be more important
than to be “heard” (p. 490).
legitimate voice includes the notion of “truth, accuracy, and
eloquence,” in connection with “lived experience” in a “genuine way”
(Mitra and Watts, 2002, p. 490). The availability of a great deal of
information sources makes it possible for web users to judge the
authenticity of a voice. For instance, the webmasters of the
Moroccan websites criticized the dominant Dutch western media for
their stereotypes of Islam and perceived the sources of Al
Jazeera as more reliable, or more authentic.
appear truthful and trustworthy, the speaker must be able to
articulate “eloquently,” but similarly the reader must be able to
assess what the speaker contributes (p. 491). This can raise
problems for young web users who lack knowledge on a certain topic.
As a result, young Muslims can be receptive to radical Islamic
ideas, a concern for the local Muslim leaders (Labovic, 2005), and
for the webmasters of Maroc.nl. . Many voices can present
their views on a single issue, but the reader judges their
authenticity and chooses a certain perspective (Mitra and Watts,
2002, p. 494).
than thirty Moroccan websites on the internet seeking to present an
authentic image of Dutch Moroccans compete for the attention of a
target group of Dutch Moroccan youths. For instance, Dutch Moroccans
of Berber origin thought the Moroccan websites paid too little
attention to the specific position of Berbers and initiated their
website Amazigh.nl, with their tradition, history, and
culture as the central focus. Also, Dutch Moroccan students set up
the website MaghrebOnline.nl to stimulate the awareness of
various topics among Moroccan youth. The website initiated
discussions on Palestine, Iraq, Guantanamo, and the Arabic European
League. Muslim women, who had more than enough sites on dating,
politics and war, launched their own websites, such as Saloua.nl,
to gain more knowledge on Islamic topics. All these new initiatives
make the Internet a very dynamic place, with different websites
competing to present an authentic voice.
These groups experiment with the Internet, participate in their
online forums, and express alternative voices to those claiming
homogenous and bounded national cultures, as Georgiou (2002) has
noted. In online forums, individuals can claim a space, establish a
visible presence, challenge their own identities, and imagine a
community where they can have a different opinion. Moreover, forums
are places where people can “adopt and adapt the Internet” to their
own needs and views (Wheeler, 2002, p. 3). Therefore, the Internet
is a tool that supports many uses and effects, such as consensus
building and counter discourse.
BACKGROUND OF THE STUDY
anonymity of the online forum raises questions about the identity of
the participants. By applying different qualitative and quantitative
methods of research, I sought to find out more about the background
of the users. In cooperation with students1 I
read numerous online debates, sent an online survey to the users,
conducted offline surveys and interviews among youths, and attended
several public meetings organized by different Moroccan
organizations on social integration or Islam2.
I participated in organizing a national meeting about choices of
marriage partners, distributed a survey, and led two workshops on
The fieldwork I conducted in two digital community centres in
Amsterdam offered an opportunity for informal talk and interviews
with Dutch Moroccan users of various websites (Brouwer, 2004).
Besides these users, I spoke with the webmasters of the websites
Yasmina.nl and Maroc.nl and four moderators. All these
different strategies resulted in approximately seventy-five
visits to the offline meetings made the differences between online
and offline debates more apparent. For instance, more men than women
usually attended public discussion debates, while in online debates
it is the opposite. The advantage of going online is that a girl
does not need to cross any sexual boundary. Less educated youths and
youths under twenty do not generally frequent these public
discussion meetings, though they comprise the majority of the
participants on the discussion boards. These differences make the
online forums unique since they reach more participants than an
Online forums can meet the needs of more people who want to react to
a specific event, such as the murder of a Dutch filmmaker by a young
Dutch Moroccan man in November 2004. A great many media articles in
the media discussed this incident. Since the murderer was a radical
Muslim, Islam was associated with radicalism. Online responses
paralleled various offline debates. This murder provoked numerous
discussions about Islam, drawing in the oppression of women,
focussing on “headscarves” and “arranged marriages” (Nieuwkerk,
2004, p. 233).
Another key point
that web visitors made was on the choice of a marriage partner.
Since it is not appropriate for a Muslim girl to go to a cafť to
meet the opposite sex, the Internet functions as a protected meeting
place. If a girl wants to make a date with a boy, after some chat
sessions, she will meet with the intended party in the company of
friends. This demonstrates how the online and offline worlds cannot
be separated from each other and how youngsters integrate both
spheres in their personal lives.
respondents cite various reasons to participate in online
discussions. The main motive is curiosity about the views of other
Dutch Moroccans. One of them said: “to hear another view can be very
interesting and you can learn something.” This further emphasizes
the importance of having a space of their own, a place where they
can meet with others. One respondent states that it is “cool” to
have such a forum, where you do not have “to explain all the time”
your ethnic background because “we Moroccans just understand each
other.” They might also go online if they disagree with somebody and
want to debate.
Anonymity is a
significant precondition for participating in the debates. One girl
wrote that she attended a few meetings but decided to remain
anonymous: “Personal contact is difficult in our culture; you never
know who you can trust.” The anonymity of the Internet can provide
visitors with opportunities to experiment without the social
confines imposed by the community.
website Yasmina.nl is currently a part of the increasing
virtual community. To become a member of the website, one has to
invent a nickname and register. Most choose a name related to their
ethnic background or place of origin, such as Mocrogirl or
MyssyNadoria. Others call themselves Powergirl or
Missmafia. In the forum of Yasmina.nl, the most popular
board among Dutch Moroccan girls, the themes of love, Islam, and
Asking it Yasmina, participants look for general information
on labor possibilities, school and education, and computer problems.
Subjects relating to Moroccan background, such as seeking
information about Moroccan names and learning the Berber or Arabic
language, have the most page views (March 13, 2006). According to
the responses I received, these topics seem to interest a lot of
another response, members tell a girl not to learn the Berber
language since it is too difficult and that Arabic is more
important. The discussion about the Arabic language lasts almost
seven months and is good for 507 reactions and 14.000 page views. A
girl notes she can speak but not read Arabic. Information is
exchanged on institutions where one can attend lessons. Although the
discussion is conducted in Dutch, the members are seriously
interested in their own language, which can be considered as an
important marker of their Moroccan or Berber identity.
ISLAM AS AN ONLINE THEME
numerous discussions on the forum, members explore how a “good”
Muslim ought to behave in various social situations. Contributors
share personal experiences and invite others to share their
opinions. When discussing Islam, one of the most common themes
involves headscarves. Contributors share their views on whether or
not to wear headscarves, and how headscarves should be worn. For
example, should girls wear headscarves in combination with tight
trousers while attending Moroccan parties? One girl invites the
opinion of other members on this issue (March 15, 2006). In two
days, 75 responses and 527 page views are drawn. The various answers
demonstrate the struggle girls experience in an effort to negotiate
strict Muslim demands placed on them with liberal youth culture.
Girls are criticized for this shameful, paradoxical behavior.
However, other girls try to generate support for the idea that
following Muslim rules is difficult. These girls refer to religious
terms, noting that such a decision is a matter to be resolved by
girl who started the discussion concludes that a headscarf stands
for “decency and protection,” and that covering, in combination with
tight clothes is “playing, not showing respect.” According to her,
modern clothing is acceptable as long as it is “neat.” Another
meaning she attaches to the headscarf is “freedom of choice.” She
acknowledges that girls who choose their religion deserve her full
discussion is mostly conducted by Dutch Moroccan girls, but three
boys who intervene disturb the course of the debate by using abusive
language and challenging the girls about whether chatting with boys
on the internet violates Islamic traditions. The boys then advise
the girls to help their mothers in the kitchen. Although the girls
do not welcome these aggressive statements, they seek to counteract
the boys’ behavior by attempting to initiate a discussion with them.
The “self-correcting” forces in this example are not strong enough
to compel members to conduct themselves in a responsible manner (Mitra
and Watts, 2002, p. 495).
has examined this dominant role of men in online interaction in
several studies and has stated that online communication
discriminates against women. Often this anti-social behavior from
disruptive males results in women starting their own online
communities. Women tend to participate more actively in online
discussions when the norms of interaction are controlled by
moderators. This is why moderation is so important. A dispute,
which harms the website’s authenticity, is the main reason some
girls stop visiting the forums. The girls become disappointed in the
quality of the discussion and move to alternative discussion
website Yasmina.nl provides Dutch Moroccans with space to
publish an online column and to express their views. In one of the
columns, a young female student writes about her decision to wear a
headscarf, focusing on the responses she received from Dutch people
around her (November 17, 2005). In her short column, she challenges
the Western prejudice towards Muslim women which implies that
emancipation and headscarves are incompatible. She articulates her
views on liberation and emancipation, which includes giving equal
rights to Muslims and Christians. She claims that it is her choice
whether or not to wear a headscarf and that Dutch people do not like
outspoken Muslim girls.
Muslim girls find
a place to challenge the stereotypical representation of Muslim
women in the Dutch public media. The girls examine Islamic
traditions, negotiating and disputing with each other about the
right interpretation. These disputes are similar to initiatives
made by Muslim women to find a space where they can discuss the
negative Western negative attitudes towards Islam while contesting
male dominance in Muslim communities. Karim (2005) labels these
types of sites as a “third space,” a place where women can negotiate
different perspectives as presented in women’s offline magazine
Azizah, a journal of American Muslim women (p. 171). In this
journal, women write about their own images and perspectives on
faith, similar to those images and perspectives expressed by Dutch
Moroccan girls. This journal has become a critical medium for
American Muslim women, challenging the homogenous image of Muslim
women as passive and oppressed. Riffat Hassan (2001) observes that
Muslim women find support in the West as long as they are seen as
“rebels” within the world of Islam (p. 208). This explains the
extensive media attention given to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somalian
Member of Parliament who rejects Islam, as a former believer (see
also Ghorashi, 2003, p. 168). However, in Hassan’s view, when
“rebellious” Muslim women discover they cannot identify with
Western, secular culture, they feel isolated and alone. According to
Hassan (2001), little attention is paid to Muslim women who seek to
maintain their religious identity and personal autonomy (p. 208).
But despite these difficulties, through the unparalleled reach and
speed of the internet, there is a “third” space where women can
articulate such feelings.
MARRIAGE AS AN ONLINE THEME
topic of marriage, relationships, virginity, and love are very
popular on Yasmina.nl. Marriage is an important matter to
Dutch Moroccan families. Girls are expected to negotiate with their
parents about the proper age to marry, the background of the future
groom, and whether or not the groom will become a member of the
family. The demand for the bride’s good reputation and virginity,
which is related to the honour of the family, complicates
contemporary Moroccan marriages. While their parents were a product
of an arranged marriage, young girls today have more influence in
the process of marriage (Eickelman, 2002).
become even more complex since the government strengthened the
immigration laws and made it more difficult for youths to marry a
partner from abroad. Of the second generation Dutch Moroccans, 61
percent of girls and 56 percent of boys marry a partner from Morocco
(Sterckx and Bouw, 2005, p. 14). Marriage migration is one of just a
few means of entering the Netherlands, but policy measures in
November 2004 restricted immigration. New immigrants have to a pass
a “civic integration examination.” Since transmigration marriages
end in divorce more frequently than conventional marriages, the
government perceives these marriages as bad for the integration
process of migrant families (p. 15). This issue combined with the
stereotype of arranged marriages as forced have become popular
topics on discussion boards, as well as offline. One of the
significant observations made at an offline gathering is that forced
marriages are prohibited in Islam, and that marriage without the
consent of both partners is not permitted. Clearly, a need for
communication on this complex topic has been articulated, and online
forums meet these needs.
forum of the website Yasmina.nl covers a wide range of topics
regarding marriage matters, such as that encapsulated in the
question raised by a girl who wants to know why Dutch Moroccan boys
prefer brides from Morocco. “They are raised differently,” she
explains. In the lively discussion that follows, various
perspectives are exchanged, with 152 reactions posted and 885 page
views in two days (March 20, 2006). One participant claims girls
from Morocco are “innocent and easy victims,” quite the opposite of
the self-awareness expressed by Dutch Moroccan girls. This view is
disputed by a boy who disapproves of the liberal behavior of Dutch
Moroccan girls. According to his view “ It is not that strange for
boys to go to Morocco for their bride…they have to.”
column published on MaghrebOnline.nl a Dutch Moroccan girl
challenges this choice of a Moroccan marriage partner which she
perceives as a “big gamble.” “Will a suitor really love me?” she
wonders, or “will they love my residence permit more?” She believes
women are under more pressure to marry than men, which can result in
marrying too quickly. Official figures confirm the rise in divorce
among Dutch Moroccan women who marry a partner from Morocco (Sterckx
and Bouw, 2005). The column begins with a description of
“summertime in romantic Morocco,” which within Muslim culture
generally means attending a lot of wedding feasts and looking for a
suitable marriage partner. But when the new marriage partner arrives
in the Netherlands, the columnist observes, the fairy tale soon
comes to an end. The girl concludes her column with a call to women
to follow their hearts and not to be swayed by narrow-minded views.
“A strong woman makes her own decision and a weak woman will be
decided for,” she states. In a sample of twenty responses, most of
the readers compliment the columnist for raising this crucial issue.
Some of the readers frame their response within Islamic discourse by
referring to the Prophet Mohammed’s first wife, who was an
Members use the
forum as an outlet for more personal problems. An 18 year-old girl
who was physically abused during her marriage divorced after eight
months. She wants to marry a 29 year-old man who supported her
during this difficult time. Although his family will never accept a
divorced girl, she thinks she deserves a second chance. She
criticizes Moroccan culture, which is in her case a “true obstacle.”
This message received thirty responses and 339 page views in ten
days (March 13, 2006). All the responses show support for the girl,
stating that she should make her own choice, start an autonomous
life, concentrate on her future, and be independent of this
boyfriend. The responses encourage an examination of Islam. The
girl replies with gratitude and explains that she is living with her
family and attending school.
topic is that of mixed marriages since a Muslim girl is obliged to
marry a Muslim partner, preferably of Moroccan descent. One
discussion is initiated by a 22 year-old girl who has a black
boyfriend and challenges this tradition by claiming ethnic origin or
belief is not important and that love is all that counts. This
debate lasts more than a year (2004-2005) and provokes 774 reactions
from three hundred visitors, stimulating a discussion on acceptable
options regarding marriage partners. However, most contributors
condemn mixed marriages, believing that it is wrong and
disrespectful for a Muslim girl not to marry a Muslim or Moroccan
partner. They are optimistic that her partner will convert to Islam,
and that this will solve the problem. Only a few support her choice
by agreeing that love is important in marriage. Despite the cultural
tradition of a Moroccan marriage as a family matter, the website’s
members encourage the girl and her boyfriend to make their own
criticize their culture, where women have an unequal position, but
they do this within an Islamic context. They concur with Muslim
feminists like Azza Karam (2001), who is trying to find “a middle
course between interpretations of socio-political and cultural
realities according to Islam and Human Rights discourse” (p. 184).
This manner of articulating an opposing view runs counter to the
views of mainstream Dutch discourse, where Muslim women seem to be
emancipated only by rejecting their faith. This point of view,
according to Karam (2001), can only lead to “serious fragmentation
within society, and is thus unrealistic as an option” (p. 184).
These forums and columns on Moroccan websites give girls a chance to
express their views as active agents able to make individual
choices, without disputing Islam as a belief.
Websites and their discussion boards are important initiatives on
the part of Dutch Moroccan youths, providing them with a uniquely
flexible tool with which to exchange ideas and allow themselves to
be “heard.” Understanding the concept of voice, as described by
Mitra and Watts (2002), contributes to studying these online
initiatives. For those who lack a voice in the traditional media,
online websites become a form of agency.
While earlier websites were launched as a critique of the mainstream
media, more than thirty Dutch Moroccan websites have now been set
up, providing space for different perspectives, and affording Dutch
Moroccan youths an authentic voice. Mitra and Watts (2002) introduce
the notion of “authenticity” to express the validity of these
voices, the implication being that they are articulating their lived
experience in a “genuine” and truthful way (p. 490). Although the
notion of authenticity is a complicated concept to operationalize,
the number of visitors to these websites can act as a form of
measurement. The great diversity of the online websites actually
mirrors the offline range of groups and views.
particular have discovered the potential of the websites and online
forums. Dutch Moroccan girls can be considered, in Mitra and Watts’
(2002) terms, as a marginalized group who use the internet to
articulate their position in Dutch society, as well as in their
community. Since Dutch Moroccan girls are more restricted in their
freedom, the Internet allows them to question and challenge cultural
constructs. The Internet also functions as a secure dating venue for
some Dutch Moroccan youths who lack places where they can meet
informally. The anonymity of these forums makes it very easy to
discuss all kind of different issues. Girls are enabled as active
agents, initiating discussions through the forums, writing about
their lived experiences in online columns and acting as moderators,
observing debates. Dutch Moroccan girls have to struggle
against western stereotypes and against the restrictions they
encounter within their families and communities. The internet
offers them a new place, or in terms of Karim’s terms (2005) a
“third” space, beyond the control of their parents. Participants
discuss their own ideas about the role of Dutch Moroccan women in
society, stressing the importance of independence, education, and
making individual choices within an Islamic context. These girls
demonstrate counterviews towards the dominant western image of
Muslim women as well as to their own communities.
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