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Asmaa Abdol-Hamid - her choice to wear a headscarf

 
Photo: Tine Harden
Asmaa Abdol-Hamid came to Denmark as a Palestinian refugees with her family in 1987. Whilst still at school, she became involved in politics in order to combat discrimination. With her election as a deputy MP for the left wing party The Danish Red-Green Alliance in 2005, she threw the country into a heated political debate on whether a practising Muslim woman can speak in Parliament wearing a headscarf.

Asmaa tells her story in "The Invisible Success", a series of portraits of ethnic minority women living in Denmark.


KVINFO/16.5.2007 Both my parents are Palestinian refugees, but they come from completely different social backgrounds. My father grew up in wretched conditions in a refugee camp in Lebanon, with no chance of an education. As the eldest son of 9 children he had to get a job at an early age and help to provide for his family.

My mother’s family, on the other hand, was affluent and lived for some years in Saudi Arabia where my grandfather worked. After her final secondary school exams, my mother moved back to Lebanon to take a teacher training course. Here she met my father and they got married.

In the mid 1970s they moved to the United Arab Emirates where my father worked as a driver and self-employed businessman dealing in, among other things, cars. My brother, four sisters and I grew up in comfortable financial circumstances until my father, like other stateless Palestinians, started having problems with the Intelligence Service.

The background to the situation was that Israel had invaded Lebanon in 1982; as a consequence, most members of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization, ed.) were expelled from Lebanon. The expulsion created problems for Palestinians in the Arab world –in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates, for example. Palestinians could not acquire citizenship in any of these countries, and with no approved nationality they had neither protection nor freedom.

My father was imprisoned and tortured solely because he was a stateless Palestinian. In 1986 the situation was so serious that my mother contacted Dansk Flygtningehjælp (the Danish Refugee Council), which granted us political asylum in Denmark. My father joined us here 8 months later.

Christian society
After a period spent in Sandholm Lejren (asylum centre, ed.) we moved to a house in the little village of Genner in South Jutland. I was just 6 years old, and all I remember about that time is that our Danish neighbours came round to say hello and ask if there was anything they could do to help us – look after the children, for example. Before my father moved to Denmark, my mother had to cope with the practicalities of our daily lives on her own.

“I remember that when we six children walked along the street with our mother, people looked at us in amazement and started counting how many of us there were.”

Early in the morning she would take my two youngest sisters to the child-minder, my three older siblings and me to the local school, and then she went by bus to the language school in Åbenrå. After two months we had learnt so much Danish that we were able to get on fine with the Danish children. We soon made Danish friends and were in and out of one another’s homes and we invited each other to our birthday parties. Our neighbours would ring the doorbell and ask if they could come in and see what kind of food we were cooking.

As soon as he arrived in Denmark, my father also went to the language course in Åbenrå, but he found going to school difficult and he wasn’t an easy pupil. He was often aggravated by some of the teachers’ pro-Israel interpretation of the conflict in the Middle East.

He soon got a job as a Halal butcher and stopped attending the language school. The Arab population of South Jutland needed the provision of Halal slaughtered meat and my father had the authorisation to Halal slaughter animals. He went round to the local farmers and arranged to buy sheep and cows, which he would then slaughter. Later on he opened the first shawarma restaurant in Åbenrå.

We children spent our free time in the local recreation and sports centre, where I played, among other games, handball – a sport I was so good at that at one time I was captain of the team and even invented my own shot technique. My parents did not restrict our activities, and they were happy for us to go to the local youth club, also in the evenings.

During my teenage years, my siblings and I refrained from going to parties and discotheques, but we didn’t consider this any kind of deprivation. I wasn’t interested in ordinary ‘teenager things’ such as, for example, who am I going to get off with today and who’s the dishiest guy? That wasn’t anything I could relate to.

Genner was a safe and comfortable place in which to grow up. It was also a very Christian community, where most of the villagers went to church on Sundays. My siblings and I often took part in the church services – confirmations and at Christmas, for example – in order to learn about Christianity. I think it was fortunate for my family that we happened to live in a community where religion was a normal part of life. It meant that people were accepting of the fact that we were practising Muslims.

It was my decision to wear a headscarf
When I was 14 we moved from Genner to Røde Kro. This was when I made the decision to wear a headscarf and Islamic dress that covered my body. I was the only pupil at my school who wore a headscarf.

Ever since I was very young I’d wanted to wear a headscarf like my mother did. But she had said I should wait until I reached puberty; only then, in her opinion, would I be mature enough to make my own choice. To me, wearing a headscarf was not a question of following a tradition, it was a choice made on religious grounds. My decision had consequences: for example, I had to give up playing handball for the sports club because my style of dress was impractical on a handball court.

At the same time, I was immersed in my Palestinian background and many of my school projects dealt with Palestinians or Muslims in Denmark. Awareness of identity is very important for an ethnic minority.

Had to insist on going to upper secondary school
Moving from a sheltered society to a large town was an abrupt transition. In Genner we were part of a village community, but in Røde Kro we felt socially isolated, even though we maintained contact with our friends in Genner.

At school my siblings and I could clearly see that the teachers didn’t have the same high expectations of our academic abilities as they did of the ethnic Danish pupils. This was obvious, for example, when my oldest sister decided to go on to upper secondary school after 9th class. Despite her high grades, she was told that she should wait, take 10th class and then do a commercial training. The same thing happened for me, and I eventually had to threaten legal action before my lower secondary school would enter me for upper secondary school.

I chose to study at the commercial upper secondary school in Åbenrå rather than at an ordinary upper secondary school, and I have never regretted that decision. The teachers were talented and committed. The subjects related to the reality in which we lived, especially social studies which gave me an insight into how Danish political systems are structured.

“My parents expected us all to take the upper secondary school leaving exam, and my mother in particular was an active parent both in the home and at school.”

I had only been at the commercial upper secondary school for one year when, in 1998, we moved from Røde Kro to Odense. We wanted to live in a bigger town where there would be more opportunities for further education. My mother was very intent on ensuring that her children should have a good education: her advice to us was that education is the key to every door. It was also our mother who went to all the parents’ evenings and helped us with our homework, and today we are all in further education.

The first girls’ club in Vollsmose
Finding somewhere to live in Odense proved difficult. In the end we decided to move into the suburb of Vollsmose, the only residential area in Odense that had vacant flats. At first I was strongly against the decision to move into a ‘socially disadvantaged neighbourhood’, and at that time I couldn’t imagine that I would grow to love living in Vollsmose.

But 78 different ethnic minorities lived there and people said hello and talked with me from the very first day. After a few weeks I felt completely comfortable and safe in Vollsmose, also in the evenings.

I continued my education at the commercial school in Odense, where I quickly settled in and made Danish friends. At first, I wondered why people couldn’t understand what I was saying and kept on correcting me: I mean, I spoke Danish, didn’t I? It wasn’t until later that I realised my South Jutland dialect was causing the problem. I laughed a lot about that afterwards. In the lead-up to the General Election of 1998, while I was in my final year at school, I witnessed the tone in the immigration debate becoming progressively harsher.

Immigrants learnt that they didn’t have the same basic values as Danes, and those of us from ethnic minorities didn’t feel included in the community. Up until then the only difference between me and Danes was that I am a Muslim, but now being an immigrant became a very complex issue: I came from an ethnic minority, was a woman refugee, a Muslim, and so on. Terminology I had to take into consideration.

I found the debate provocative, and it was the direct cause of my involvement in politics. My political activities began in upper secondary school when I joined DSU (Danmarks Socialdemokratiske Ungdom/Social Democratic Youth of Denmark, ed.). I wanted to take part and put my mark on Danish society, and to combat discrimination. I considered studying political science, but eventually decided to apply to the Copenhagen College of Social Work.

My choice of education did not come out of the blue. At home I was used to people coming and asking my father for advice. When we lived in South Jutland he was the imam in a little mosque in Åbenrå. Imam is not a professional title or something you train to be; an imam is someone who leads congregational prayer and is able to preach a sermon. Arab and Turkish people came to the mosque, and in cases of family disputes or internal strife they would approach my father for advice. Today he is a respected figure for his role in the resolution of conflicts within Vollsmose’s Arab community.

Straight after taking my final higher commercial exam in 2000, I started a club for girls, PAF (Pigernes Aktivitetsforening/Activity Club for Girls, ed.). I thought there was a need for activities aimed at the girls living in Vollsmose; I had grown up going to recreation and sports clubs, whereas the girls’ lives here were: school – home, home – school. In addition, I found it unacceptable that, in Vollsmose at the time, immigrant boys who were troublemakers were getting all the attention. A lot of money was spent on them. There was total disregard for the fact that many immigrant girls also had problems, but reacted in a different way – maybe by staying at home and isolating themselves.

My sisters and I started looking for suitable premises. A residents’ adviser found us a little basement room, and 70 girls turned up to the first event we held. The initiative was a conscious effort to promote integration, with the more confident girls helping the less confident girls – an informal mentor scheme. We addressed some problems which the girls could not discuss with their parents or teachers, and they were incredibly positive and involved. As they left to go home, they were already looking forward to the next Sunday event.

We applied for, and were granted, funds for cultural trips to Århus and Copenhagen, and so many girls signed up that we had to say no to some. The girls’ club is still running today, but I am no longer involved in the project. Now it’s the turn for other people to work on it, but I’m still active on several fronts in Vollsmose; for example, I’m the Chair of Bøgeparken residents’ association and have a seat on the Vollsmose Council.

I don’t like the word ‘integration’
In 2004 I finished my training and became a qualified social worker, and I then got a job on a Roskilde municipality project as coordinator of the professional measures undertaken with regard to socially disadvantaged immigrant families.

My point of reference was that I did not really believe in the concept of ‘social inheritance’. The term was used by consultants to place marginalised people in a specific category – a categorisation that was not necessarily of benefit to those involved. People should rather been seen as individuals and be helped to understand the opportunities open to them.

For example, I worked with a family that was experiencing social problems on every level. “Danes don’t like us, so why should we make an effort?” Entrenched behind that kind of attitude, they divested themselves of taking any responsibility for their lives. The father was 40 years old, both the local authority and school had given up on him, and he told me that he didn’t want to go on living. What about your six children, will the local authority have to take care of them? I asked. No, it was important that they did well at school and got an education, he replied. And who’s going to make sure that your children get on well at school? was my next question. All of a sudden the man said that he’d like to spent time helping his children.

So together we drew up a timetable, and I also arranged extra coaching for the children and facilitated a dialogue between school and home. The father felt that he was now of use and he was growing in stature, whereas before he had felt worthless and had not been able to express his feelings other than by saying he felt like a living dead. The scheme was an enormous success: the adults got jobs and the children got on with their education.

As a Muslim I am the target of criticism
I don’t like the word ‘integration’. Everyone uses the word without being able to make any clear-cut definition. Ethnic minorities are not a problem in themselves; when identifying reasons for the lack of integration in Denmark, I prefer to talk about social classes and look at people’s class background rather than their ethnic identity.

There has to be a change, and this is an issue I want to continue working with across a broad spectrum. This was one of the reasons I stood as a candidate in the 2005 local elections for Enhedslisten, in my opinion the party with the greatest awareness of the socially most disadvantaged people in the community. I succeeded in being elected as a deputy member of Odense city council, but had to go through a tough election campaign during which the focus of attention came to be more about my character than my political standpoint.

“Islam is the lens through which I see the world, and it is absolutely possible to implement Islam in conjunction with Danish values.”

Being a Muslim I had expected opposition, but to be accused of advocating gender apartheid took me by surprise. Wearing a headscarf does not mean that I’m oppressed or deprived. The values on which I live my life are Islamic and not Arab. It is important to make a distinction between religion and culture. In many respects, the Arab way of thinking discriminates against women; even though I am an Arab, I don’t make my choices on a cultural basis, but in the light of my religion. Otherwise I wouldn’t have got so far as I have today. My position as Chair of a forum consisting entirely of immigrant men can be challenging to many Arab men.

At the moment I’m studying for my masters in social work at the Copenhagen College of Social Work: a training that widens my horizons and makes me see the world from another perspective. When I have finished the course, I will perhaps go out into the world and work on a project in a developing country where I can use my training to the benefit of others. Husband and children will have to wait until I’ve met the right man. And that hasn’t happened yet.

Translation: Gaye Kynock

 
Background

Born in 1981, Asmaa Abdol-Hamid came to Denmark as a Palestinian refugees with her family in 1987.

Trained as a social worker at Copenhagen College of Social Work and qualified in 2004.

Has worked as a family coordinator for Roskilde local authority.

She is studying for a master’s degree in social work at Copenhagen College of Social Work.

In 2005, Asmaa was elected deputy representative for the political party Enhedslisten, The Unity List, on Odense city council.

Commentator, lecturer and former studio host of the television debate programme “Adam og Asmaa” (“Adam and Asmaa”).

Lives in the Vollsmose neighbourhood of Odense, Denmark’s third largest city, with her parents and siblings.

 
 
A piece of Asmaa's jewellery with text from the Coran. Photo: Tine Harden
 
The Invisible Success
See the project about immigrant and refugee women in Denmark Den usynlige succes



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