The Different People Creating a “Dutch Identity”

by: apenkava

An outstanding issue with identity is that it is used by many people as a scapegoat and to vilify others. Many people, not just those in the Netherlands, seem to believe that because they identify as a part of a group they will be accepted; as most people know, this is not always true. Identity gives a sense of purpose and belonging to many of the individuals we have read about this week. Identity can be very useful, but it can also make people feel like they cannot do or say something because it might go against their identity. The readings this week present different groups of people living in the Netherlands and show how some of them people use clothing, religion, and political beliefs to form their self-identities.

Hester Dibbits discusses the different types of clothes young Moroccan-Dutchmen wear in the chapter, Moroccan Dutch Boys and the Authentication of Clothing Styles. Moroccan-Dutch youths are constantly a subject of the news regarding crime rates, school dropout rates, high unemployment rates, and the continued rise of religious extremism; as a result, these boys are at high risk of being socially marginalized (Dibbits 11). These young boys use their style of dress to further identify themselves as members of groups within their community (Dibbits 11). Mainly, there seems to be competition between those who wear baggy street clothes and tight fitting Italian designer clothes (Dibbits 11). There is also a third style of dress; those who wear the traditional “jellaba”, however, this is not a popular option because it is often associated with radicalized Islamic youths and jeopardizes their prestige in the general urban youth culture (Dibbits 32). The baggy streetwear comes with an image related to rappers such as Ali B, “guys of the guys”, and “Moroccan problem youths” (Dibbits 16, 28, 32). This style of dress is typically associated with Surinamese and Antilleans (Dibbits 18). Meanwhile, the Italian clothes are associated with homosexuality, social and economic prestige, and lack of masculinity (Dibbits 22). Moroccan-Dutch and Turkish-Dutch are the two groups associated with related to this style of dress (Dibbits 22). Dibbit’s reveals how those are looked down upon, and called “fake”, when those who are not Moroccan-Dutch dress as though they are. “Authenticity” comes from knowing how to dress and how to put an outfit together, with less regard to how their background is “authentic” (Dibbits 13). A main topic of conversation in the chat rooms used in this study is how dress is associated with perceived masculinity and femininity (Dibbits 16). Baggy streetwear is associated with manual labor and physical strength, based on the Islamic views of manhood or masculinity. The tightly tailored Italian styles are intended to be more seductive, and are therefore associated with femininity (Dibbits 16). By choosing a style of dress, these young men are choosing how others perceive them. The youth use their clothes to “authenticate” their different subcultures, Moroccan-Dutch, Antillean, Afro-Surinamese, Turkish-Dutch, etc. Dibbits, through his research concluded that most clothing choices of Moroccan-Dutch boys are made in relation to the physicality and the vernacular that they have created (Dibitts 33). He further concluded that those who wear Italian clothes are seen to be more authentic.

Left: Italian style; Right: Baggy-streetwear style

Herman Roodenburg discusses the disappearing culture of wearing traditional klederdracht on the Island of Marken in the chapter, Their Own Heritage: Women Wearing Traditional Costumes in the Village of Marken. Those who lived on the small island of Marken north of Amsterdam took pride in their tradition and daily habits of wearing their dracht (Roodenburg 246). Much blame in placed on the dyke installed in 1957 that connected the island of Marken to mainland Amsterdam for the disappearing culture of the Island (Roodenburah246).  The women in Marken attire are usually viewed as “relics” of the past and are considered “quaint” or “picturesque” (Roodenburg 245). In the summer, thousands of tourists’ flock to Marken to see the old wooden houses, the energetic harbor and, hopefully, some of the women in their “dracht”. Due to modernization, in the mid 1950’s those who lived on the small island had to start finding jobs on the mainland as the small fishing village could no longer support everyone. Increasingly, frequent trips to the mainland, and an increasing number of tourists visiting Marken, caused many women to change into “burger” for good (Roodenburg 254). The Markeners never wore their costumes for the tourists; it was because of the tourists that the Marken women began to hate the costumes (Roodenburg 247). Those who continued to wear the garments did so for themselves and to preserve the memories of their childhoods, mothers, and grandmothers (Roodenburg 247). Also, there is a more practical reason; what else would these women wear to do their work (Roodenburg 248)? “Although the “dracht” created separation from the modernizing world, it also held generations worth of traditions, and a unique way of life which, unfortunately, has become to be seen only as colorful costumes.

Both: Women in traditional “dracht”

Arnold Karksken’s photographic essay One Way to Live presents eight intimate mini-biographies of eight prostitutes who work behind the Central Station in Amsterdam. These women are just a sampling of the 25 people who are believed to work behind the Central Station (Karskens 69). The combination of story and photos presents to the reader the depth of these women’s struggles. Street prostitution on the De Ruyterkade became illegal in Amsterdam in 1987, forcing many women to move to the Red Light District, not yet an official zone for prostitution (Karskens 69). All of the women are addicted to hard drugs (mostly heroin), and spends hundreds of guilders a day to feed their addictions (Karskens 69, 77). AIDS has become a very real problem and the women seem to operate either oblivious to it, or go to great lengths to avoid contracting the deadly disease (Karksken 76, 79). Many of the women have been in very dangerous situations due to their line of work, but feel they have no other options because they are wanted by authorities in other countries and see this as their only way to survive (Karskens 69, 75, 76). These women live in their own subculture; there is a sense of community, but only when it is selfishly beneficial (Karksken 79). The eight women all have distinct individual backgrounds and have found themselves in this profession for numerous reasons. Some have children and/partners, some are homeless and some live in hotels, some used to have jobs and some have only ever lived within this profession. These eight women are only a sampling of the women on the streets and they are vastly different. Although their line of work has created a subculture for them to be a part of, and has provided an identity of sorts, by no means does this mean that these women are all the same.

Pictured left to right, top to bottom: Michelle, Henny, Judith, Ingrid, Babsi, Sabine, Britta, Martine

These articles present three different subcultures, all brought about by disadvantageous situations. The Dutch boys in Dibbits chapter feel the need to differentiate themselves from other people who are dark skinned, the 20 women on the Island of Marken are the only reminder of a way of life that once filled an entire island, and the women in the photographic essay are fighting to distinguish themselves from one another in order to make more money to buy more drugs. Identity is important in all of these writings but it is not always a good thing. Self and cultural identity is very important to individuals in The Netherlands, as further explored by Burma.

Buruma’s writings in “Murder in Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam, and the Limits of Tolerance” use the death of Theo van Gogh to discuss the uneasy discourse on the Islamic Religion. Hirsi Ali, a Somalian born Dutch politician, used Theo van Gogh, an eccentric film maker well known in Holland for his provocative public statements, to create her short film Submission, which displayed what she saw as Islamic abuse of women (Buruma 2, 4). Hirsi Ali used her identity as a Muslim, or an ex-Muslim, to protect her right to criticize the religion (Burma 5). Hirsi Ali identified as a Dutch citizen (because she has been granted citizenship after she sought asylum), however, this did not stop her critics from telling her to “fuck off back to where you came from!” (Buruma 175). Political outrage resulted from the murder of van Gogh; the man who murdered him, Mohammed Bouyeri, left a note on his body addressed to Hirsi Ali calling her a “soldier of evil” for what her film represented (Burma 1, 5). The mayor of Amsterdam, also mentioned in Bouyeri’s letter, had been a victim of van Gogh’s political statements – van Gogh accused Cohen of being “an appeaser of Islamic extremism” and “a collaborationist mayor under Nazi occupation” (Bruma 6). An intriguing part of Burma’s writing was how, when a television reporter declared “The country is burning” in response to the increased number of arson attempts at places of worship. “In fact, the country wasn’t burning at all… The “civil war” that some feared… none of this actually happened… But the constant chatter … in the popular press… would spark endless rounds of overheated commentary.” The media used the death of Theo van Gogh as a way to promote the view that it is “bad” it is to have so many different types of people living in one place. From the media excerpt, it is obvious to the reader that it is not a new message. Buruma presents the “Dutch Identity” as those who hold the polder model to the highest standard and seek to emulate the golden age of the seventeenth-century. However, from the readings by Dibbits, Roodenburg, and Karskens, we know that is not the true “Dutch Identity”; Holland is a land made up of a multitude of people and these people all deserve to have their identities respected.

Unfortunately, the wide spread acceptance of different identities has had a difficult past in The Netherlands, mostly due to the German occupation during World War II. Simon Kuper’s book, Ajax: The Dutch, The War, is shocking. Chapter six, Sparta: A Soccer Club in Wartime, offers a new look at life in the Netherlands during World War II. Through chapter six the reader can relive day-to-day activities through the complete archives of Sparta Rotterdam unlike any other clubs during the wartime years. The painfully detailed accounts kept by Jos Cohen, a half-Jewish director of team Sparta, offers a new look at how the war affected the lives of those who lived in occupied territory. Contrary to previous beliefs, “people lived much as they had before, though with slightly less food” (Kuper 72) The biggest impact the war seems to have had is forcing the club to expel its Jewish members, although the club seems to have handled this difficult situation tactful and even sent refunds and apology letters to those who could no longer remain members (Kuper 78). For all the good chapter six offered, chapter 14, Soccer Song of the Netherlands, did the opposite. It was shocking to learn that people casually chant ant-Semitic remarks at public soccer matches, and that even the players and coaches get involved. The easy dismissal of these chants as nothing of significance offers insight into how the country has handled the aftermath of the war. “The Dutch rediscovery of World War II had made these [Nazi] symbols into exciting taboos” (Kupper 222). Why was the War ‘rediscovered’? It never should have been forgotten. Former Ajax player, Bennie Muller, related much of the racist abuse he suffered as a player in the 1960’s, and that his son suffered in the 1990’s, to the abuse Moroccan players face today (Kupper 221). World War II ended in 1945; the horrors of the war were still fresh fifteen years later in the 1960’s. Muller’s testimony can be related to Dibbits writings where Moroccan-Dutch boys stuggle to find a popular identity. Those boys who have found an identity, as professional soccer players, should not face further discrimination on the field. The longstanding history of discrimination against “otherness” must change.

Dibbits, Roodenburg, Karskens, Buruma and Kuper all use different styles of writings to present different types of people found in the Netherlands. The Moroccan-Dutch boys use different styles of dress to navigate the urban streets of Amsterdam and promote individual identity. The rich history of the Island of Marken is kept alive through less than twenty women after the peering eyes of “foreigners” marginalized their traditional dress as a tourist attraction. The eight women in Karskens photographic essay reveal the real story behind the women who helped to build the red-light district, unfortunately another tourist attraction that marginalizes the real people who live and work there. The religious and political strife in Buruma’s writings and the anti-Semitism in Kuper’s book prove that there is much progress to be made in order to achieve universal acceptance. These subject studies all strive to show how there are many different groups of people that make up Amsterdam. All of these people call Amsterdam home, and all use the public space of the city to express themselves as individuals.


Ian Buruma, Murder in Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam, and the Limits of Tolerance (New York: Penguin Books, 2006).

Hester Dibbits, “Moroccan Dutch Boys and the Authentication of Clothing Styles,” in Reframing Dutch Culture: Between Otherness and Authenticity, eds. Peter Jan Margry and Herman Roodenburg (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2007), 11-35.

Arnold Karskens, “One Way to Live: Photographic Essay,” Critique of Anthropology 7.3 (1987): 69-79.

Simon Kuper, Ajax, the Dutch, the War (New York: Nation Books, 2012).

Herman Roodenburg, “Their Own Heritage: Women Wearing Traditional Costumes in the Village of Marken,” in Reframing Dutch Culture, 245-258.


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