Sylvana Simons never imagined herself becoming a politician, let alone making history as the first black woman in Europe to lead a national political party. But the rising tide of Islamophobic, xenophobic and afrophobic sentiment in the Netherlands pushed the broadcast journalist and TV personality to leave her successful career in a quest to shake up Dutch politics.
In late December 2016, just a few months ahead of the country’s pivotal parliamentary election on 15 March, Simons launched a new political party. In just a few short months, Artikel 1 has turned the first article of the Dutch Constitution – which explicitly prohibits discrimination based on race, gender or sexuality – into a rallying cry for a “new politics of equality” in the Netherlands.
A party that stands up against the far-right populism of Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV), while battling structural discrimination and inequality, could be just what the Netherlands needs. Despite its reputation as a beacon of liberalism, racism in the Netherlands manifests itself in a multitude of ways: from police brutality and racial profiling against ethnic minorities, to the disproportionately high number of young people of Moroccan heritage who leave the education system without even a basic qualification, to the fact that nearly 50 per cent of non-white Dutch citizens are unemployed.
As well as a progressive outlook on the environment and education, Artikel 1 is also proposing the extension of parental leave, a national poverty alleviation plan and greater investment in mental health services. But it is the party’s message of inclusion that breathes fresh air into an election period that has been dominated by the debate about – but not with – immigrants, and the perceived threat they pose to traditional Dutch values, culture and identity.
“We are continuously fed with fear: fear of the other, fear of something as abstract as Islam,” Simons tells Equal Times. “But we are done with traditional politics. I am convinced that we have to do this all together. We are responsible for one another. We need to take care of each other, of everyone that’s here – and that includes refugees.”
Artikel 1 is fielding 20 candidates in Wednesday’s elections and while the Dutch system of proportional representation means that the party’s chances of winning a seat in parliament are slim, Simons is already thinking ahead to next year’s municipal elections where traditionally under-represented groups can make a bigger political impact.
Despite the presence of high-profile politicians such as Rotterdam mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb (the first Muslim to lead a major Dutch city) and Ghanaian-born Labour MP Amma Asante, women only represent just over one-third of all politicians in parliament, while Dutch citizens with immigrant backgrounds take up just seven out of 150 parliamentary seats.
As a majority female, immigrant and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) party led by a woman of Surinamese heritage, Artikel 1 has been adamant about fairer representation in governmental institutions and the workplace. Simons has even managed to put the issue of diversity quotas on the national agenda.
A big win for Wilders?
But it is the power of another demographic that feels left behind that could lead to a big win for Wilders. Riding high off of Brexit and the victory of President Donald Trump in the US elections, some polls predict the PVV could become the largest party in parliament with over 25 seats. Wilders’ blend of economic nationalism, anti-Islam, anti-EU and anti-establishment rhetoric appeals to members of the white working-class who feel they have been badly affected by austerity measures, threatened by mass migration and fearful of the possibility of terror attacks.
While the ruling coalition between the Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and the Labour Party (PvdA) have publicly refused to form a government with Wilders if he wins the biggest majority, they have also failed to distance themselves from some of Wilders’ more extreme pledges, including to ban the Koran, close all mosques and Muslim schools, and end immigration from Muslim-majority countries.
In a campaign ad published across major national newspapers in late January, the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte warned that those who “abuse our freedom here to ruin the order of things” should “act normal, or leave.”
This echoed a previous statement the VVD party leader made about a clash between Dutch Turkish protesters and a journalist, saying that those who violate Dutch values should just “get the fuck out”.
This political climate has helped create a deep sense of vulnerability for the Dutch citizens of Turkish, Moroccan, Surinamese, Antillean and other non-western backgrounds who make up over two million of the country’s almost 17-milion population.
“Of course, you hear that some people are afraid. They wonder what will happen if Wilders wins and some are contemplating a Plan B, just in case,” says Ibtissam Abaaziz, a sociologist researcher and board member at Report Islamophobia (Meldpunt Islamofobie). “Then there are others who say: ‘Well, just let him come to power because how much worse can it get?’ It seems that Islamophobia has become so normalised over the past few years that a lot of people have surrendered to it.”
But there is still a sense of hope, Abaaziz tells Equal Times, particularly with Dutch citizens of immigrant heritage forming their own national political parties for the first time. As well as Artikel 1 there is DENK (Think), a party set up by two former Labour MPs of Turkish descent. Simons herself used to be a member of DENK, and according to Abaaziz, any electoral gains for these parties will bring “a voice” to counter the aggression of the “assimilate or leave” rhetoric in mainstream Dutch politics.
From the streets to parliament
With various candidates coming from LGBTQ, feminist, refugee and anti-racist activism, Artikel 1 is in many ways the result of a new wave of social movements that have emerged in defence of minority rights in the Netherlands.
The party’s warm relation to activism—or politics of the streets—is also what has made the theoretical framework of intersectionality, formulated by the US legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, a fundamental part of its political outlook.
“When we talk about elderly care, we consider that immigrants also need care,” Simons says by example. And with regards to LGBTQ rights, Simons says that policy-makers must remember that ”a gay person is not by default white – there are also lesbian Muslim women”. This particular point challenges the idea – popularised by the openly-gay far right politician Pim Fortuyn in the early 2000s and now generally accepted in mainstream discourse – that the presence of Muslims in the Netherlands poses a fundamental threat to gay rights, and therefore to the very essence of Dutch liberalism.
But while traditional politics usually ignores these nuances and the movements that bring these issues to the fore, Simons sees activists as a “source of inspiration, information and power for politics.”
“It’s the people on the streets that bring about change. They set the agenda on important issues,” says Simons, who has also campaigned to see an end to the Dutch blackface tradition of Zwarte Piet, a key issue for the country’s anti-racism movement. “Activists are our allies.”
Yet it is Sylvana Simons’ very presence as a black woman in a position of power that makes for an unprecedented shift in the country’s race relations, according to Gloria Wekker, a professor in critical race theory and intersectional feminism at the University of Utrecht. Wekker is also an Artikel 1 candidate in this week’s elections.
“This is a historical moment. We are no longer objects but acting subjects,” she says. “For black Dutch people it is very important to see that we do not have be satisfied with place 38 on an electoral list. That we can do it ourselves.”
But Simons’ decision to enter the political arena and challenge the country’s racism in the very belly of policy-shaping and making has been far from easy. Although she had previously received hate mail for her political views during her time as a media personality, this dramatically worsened when she joined DENK last May. In one of the worst incidents, a widely-circulated meme featured her face superimposed on an image of a lynched slave.
“What she does by being who she is – a very eloquent black woman who has her opinion about things and who raises the issue of racism openly – is a breakdown of all the stereotypes that exist about black women: that they must be cheerful, sweet and kind, and bring sexual pleasure,” Wekker tells Equal Times. “All of that she overturns.”
“That’s why she awakes so much hatred and resentment. The hatred against her isn’t small,” she insists. “But all that pus has to come out. That’s really what’s in there: 400 years of a mentality formed by the colonial past. We haven’t let that go and it is still playing out. This has to be removed, roots and all. There’s no other way. We have to go through this.”