Assistant professor Pelin Gül came to the Netherlands in search of freedom and safety, she writes, only to find that the same silencing and intimidation that was happening in Turkey, is happening in the Netherlands.
I was a teenager during the years when Turkey was on the verge of either joining the European Union or slipping into an Islamic authoritarian regime. One of the men who was running for prime minister in 2003 was a populist Islamist who had recently been imprisoned for inciting religious hatred. Leftists in Turkey, including my friends and family, knew that if this man came into power, it would be a huge step down for human rights, democracy, gender equality, and freedom of expression.
I remember how disillusioned I was when I came across international news and European politicians in the Netherlands were talking about how a ‘moderate’ Islamist leader would be good for Turkey. I thought to myself: why would Europeans, who we look up to for their strong endorsement of secular values and political and civil liberties, think this man was the right leader for my country?
I quickly realised there is no freedom for someone like me in my home country. I was a feisty girl, a non-believer with ideals that were progressive both socially and with regard to gender. I wanted to wear shorts and cycle in the busy city streets. The only times I truly felt free and safe were when we gathered with my family and friends and could share what newspapers and books we were reading openly.
So, at age seventeen, I went abroad to study, with the support of my foresighted parents who agreed that I’d be happier in classrooms where scientific and critical thinking are allowed, openly discussed, debated, and evaluated.
My journey in search of freedom of expression took me to Canada, the Netherlands, the UK, and the US. I was looking for a place where I felt at home, where I belonged. Somewhere I could settle down. It had to be somewhere close to home, so Europe, but not the UK, not after Brexit… I started wondering if I should go back home.
How could a Dutch university, even after #MeToo, not set its values straight and prioritise protecting Susanne?
I turned on the news from back home. It was March 2016, just a few days after International Women’s Day. A female academic from Boğaziçi University, Esra Mungan, was arrested for ‘terrorist propaganda’, because she was among the 1,128 signatories of the Academics for Peace petition, calling for an end to violence in Kurdish cities. They put her in solitary confinement for a month to intimidate academics. How ruthless can men in power become when they hide behind groups?
I started my job at the University of Groningen in 2021. Sure, it was definitely the right place to cycle wearing shorts, but was it also an academically free country? Could academics here write about unpopular, intellectual views on gendered institutions, politics, and culture, without fear of backlash?
A year into working at the UG, I came across Susanne Täuber and her inspiring work on preventing gender harassment in academia. Only a few weeks after this encounter, I found out the UG wanted to fire her for a ‘damaged work relationship’ instead of recognising and rewarding her for all that she has done for social safety. It was the same silencing and intimidation that was happening in Turkey, but now it was happening in the Netherlands.
As if this was not enough of a disgrace, the court’s decision that the university could fire Susanne Täuber was made on International Women’s Day. She heard about it in front of a crowd of students and staff who were protesting in support of Susanne and women’s rights. How could a Dutch university, even after #MeToo, not set its values straight and prioritise protecting Susanne?
Social psychology literature tells us that a false sense of agency is worse than no agency at all. The idea that we can create organisational change if we put in enough effort and energy is insidiously damaging to our well-being if at the end of the day, we face the exact same backlash that we are used to from our home countries. I’m not sure where I will go next, but I know for certain that psychologically this isn’t a place I belong.
Pelin Gül is assistant professor of social psychology at Campus Fryslân.
I think a lot of us international students (especially those coming from countries with poorer socio-economic statuses) have felt the same way about coming here to Groningen as dr. Gül describes in this op-ed. It is very disappointing and disheartening to see just how backwards and unaccepting many of the Dutch people are, while Netherlands is constantly praised in the international media as one of the most developed countries in the EU. There are so many social issues here which have only been accentuated by the influx of international students and migrant workers, which wouldn’t be a problem in itself, but there is so little will from anyone in power to try to improve anything at all, and so very little compassion for the struggles we have to go through as non-Dutch nationals while living here.
So thankful for your words. Never thought something like this could happen in 21st century. Nor in the Netherlands – all that is so deeply disappointing. I really hope it will be looked upon as a great disadvatage to/of UG by reflecting people.
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