Novelist Naema Tahir is no stranger to breaking with established traditions.
Her fifth book which is published next October, discusses the issues surrounding Muslim women who choose their marriage partners.
The subject material hints at autobiography. More than a decade ago, Naema stood firm against parents determined that she would accept an arranged marriage.
“If I chose myself to marry someone my parents arranged, that would be ok,” says Naema, as she prepares to take part in a Council of Europe human rights television programme on the right to free expression.
“But I didn’t choose it. It was forcibly put on me and I had to say no. It has been the most painful part of my life.”
Although Naema now 40 and her parents have reconciled, the experience may have strengthened a willingness to challenge orthodoxy.
Certainly the process of “critical rethinking” that it demanded continues to mark her work both as a writer and as a public intellectual. It is a process Naema encourages.
Naema’s first book ‘A Muslim Woman Unveils,’ published in 2005, tackles issues of inter-generational conflict, identity and migration.
The follow-up Dutch best-seller ‘Prized Possession’ (2006), deals with the reproductive and sexual rights of three Muslim women.
It helped to catapult the former Council of Europe human rights lawyer into the Dutch media spotlight. She has remained there ever since, staking out positions on religion and migration which strike at the heart of the Dutch debate on multi-culturalism.
A Council of Europe report published last February on the Netherlands, underlined how fraught the issue has become in a country noted for its tolerant and relaxed attitudes to social questions.
“The overall tone of the public discourse in the Netherlands and the new integration policy, with its particular focus on the preservation of the Dutch identity, have had negative consequences on the preservation of a climate of mutual understanding between the majority population and the ethnic minorities,” the report revealed.
Undaunted, Naema enters the fray with advice for the country’s immigrants.
“If they are not integrating well, we should hold them accountable for their lack of willingness to become part of this society,” she says.
Naema also focuses her attention on the Netherlands’ Muslim community.
“There should be a discussion on Islam,” she declares. “There should be a discussion on the norms, the rules and the practice. It’s in all our interests.
“There is not always equality in those rules for men and women. There is not equality for a believer and non-believer. It‘s a religion which is monopolised by men. It’s a religion where critical thought was apparent until 11th century and then it stopped.”
As an introspective writer, Naema is not a natural fit for the slaying of sacred cows. She is determined not to be seen as a politician and is wary of the public gaining an understanding of her work solely through the media lens.
“I wish to inspire and not injure,” Naema says. “Being a member of the new immigrant communities, I felt it was my duty to communicate to the larger European group because there’s so much misunderstanding and fear.”
A self-described “Pakistani-British girl who lives in Holland “ and one who has also called Nigeria and France home, Tahir rejects any comparison between her views and those offered by the assassinated Dutch critics of Islam Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh.
“If you write about a hot potato issue like Islam, there is always a fear. But my biggest fear is being misunderstood. It’s really easy to take elements of what I say and put them in isolation as a headline. It does sound provocative.
“My task is to write in as nuanced and as detailed a way as possible, so that people cannot politicise the work.
“If that would be my fear that rightists would hijack my work, I would never be able to write critically. Critical thought is the only way to open up. I don’t do it to criticize the community I come from. We have so much opportunity in the West but you have to be more ambitious that just wanting to integrate.”
Ambition, encouragement and positive-thinking are key to understanding Naema’s approach to multi-culturalism, which requires all groups in the Netherlands to face up to hard truths.
“We should criticise both sides,” she declares. “Migrants are worried about the closed attitude of Dutch people. We Dutch tend to say that we are open to diversity but I sometimes doubt if that is the case.
“There is this abstract on the one side Islam and the abstract of the West on the other side. We have to smash into pieces these abstracts and bring them to smaller elements.
“When we do that, we’ll see there is no clash. There are many levels on which people encounter. There is actually more communication and connections than a clash.”
The stakes may be high but Naema, who is also a visiting professor at the University of Leiden, remains optimistic about the future.
“I don’t really believe that it’s going to go badly,” she says. “People who have this attitude of critical reflection and introspection welcome new views, fresh ideas and even criticism.
“In the next 10 years we are going to see positive things coming out of the Muslim community. Muslim women will be more aware of their rights and be able to communicate about their rights. I want to write about that.”