Interesting faces Interesting stories

Ibtissam Ouaali

When people told me that I was different, I did not feel that that was a compliment

Can you tell us something about your youth?

I was born in Vlissingen. My grandfather comes from Morocco and he arrived in the Netherlands as a guest worker in the 1960s. Eventually he also brought his family here. My parents were married in Morocco but then also came to the Netherlands. I lived in Vlissingen for six years and after that my parents moved to Brakel, a small town close to Den Bosch. As a child, you initially do not realise that you are different but it was in the school yard that I first noticed that I did not belong there at all. Children can be very cruel. Fortunately we soon moved to Den Bosch. At home I learned that school was very important and that you need to work harder than other children.

Why did you have to work harder than others?

They never told me in so many words but I had to prove myself more. You heard so many stories about Moroccans. I did not want to fit that stereotype image. When people told me that I was different, I did not feel that that was a compliment. I was also the only foreigner who finished their studies at an academic school and I only had Dutch friends. I viewed myself as nothing but Dutch. I had been born here and spoke the language much better than Berber. However, when I started studying, I became aware that I would always be both. When I am in Morocco, I remain a Westerner who visits Morocco and in the Netherlands I nevertheless remain a Moroccan. However you seek to avoid it, the way in which people view you has an effect on how you view yourself. The Dutch find it very difficult to understand the impact which that has on you as a person. You only know what discrimination is once you experience it yourself. I always joked with a girlfriend when they asked us what we wanted to become later on. “A white man”, we then said.

What did you do after secondary school?

I was good at English and really enjoyed reading, so I studied English. When I received a bursary to go to America in the summer, I realised that studying English would probably not be enough and for that reason I started a second programme of study, which was international relations and political history. Before that I had also spent a year in Dublin as part of an exchange programme. Everything was very different in Ireland. When I was there, I was Dutch. You are not placed in a box. I experienced the same thing in America but that was mainly because I was not black and did not wear a headscarf.

Did it please you more to be seen as Dutch?

Yes, because you’re not immediately placed in a box. I did not have to be concerned about that.

You have just completed your B.A. What are you going to do now?

I would like to specialise in gender studies and development cooperation. I have noticed that I am very good at relating certain aspects of my studies to myself.

Mention an example.

When I decided that I wanted to be different from other Moroccans, it felt as though I was disowning my own culture. Or if people say to you, “You are quite beautiful for a Moroccan girl,” I felt that there was something so wrong with such a statement. You feel guilty because you almost take it as a compliment. Yet it is so denigrating.

Many people don’t realise this themselves….

No, and what is worse is that, if you challenge them about this, they start to view you as an angry black woman. They say, “What are you being so difficult about?” or “Don’t take it so personally”. When it comes to beauty – to mention just anything – the norm is still white and slim. That is the ideal image. I have curls but at secondary school I used to straighten my hair quite often. Now I no longer do this and because it is too much trouble but also on principle. “Hair is political,” says Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi, a Nigerian writer, and I also noticed this very much. There are minor things which play a role. Fortunately, I have not experienced real “in-your-face” racism very often. Yet when I used to accompany my parents to the park, it was always possible that someone would begin to berate us and shout that we should return to our own country.

How did your parents respond to that?

My parents try to ignore it. Yet when I heard it for the first time, I really became very angry. We were simply walking on the street! And these are things with which I still secretly have difficulties quite often.

Would you like to use your studies to change that somewhat later on?

At university I have been involved in this sort of thing for some time now. For example, I did a course on homosexuality within the Moroccan community, simply because it occurs. It is denied but I think that it needs to be open for discussion. A few years ago I saw a Moroccan boat during the Gay Pride parade. I spoke to those guys. Generally speaking, there is much that is concealed within Moroccan culture. You do not talk about specific things, certainly if you live in a Moroccan neighbourhood with a great deal of social control. My research has revealed that it does not have so much to do with religion but more with a certain macho culture.

Would you like to continue doing this type of research?

I think that the academic world holds great appeal for me. Yet I am also drawn to the practical situation. Such research into homosexuality is something you could easily develop further and use for informational purposes or in education. Development cooperation is also something which interests me. It is very close to home

Do you have more Moroccan friends now or do you still find yourself moving predominantly in Dutch circles?

I have a few Moroccan friends at university but my circle of friends is not as multicultural as I would like it to be.

What do your parents think of your studies?

I have since spoken to my parents about the research which I do. They have shown themselves to be very understanding and find it particularly interesting. They are also aware that I am very involved in feminism. And my best friend is a homosexual. They know that too. And it is not a problem for them. You have to give those things time but now and then you also need to exert a bit of pressure to talk about them.

Surely they must be very proud of you?

Certainly, I note that too. I have a very close relationship with my parents. It is for this reason that I am also increasingly more appreciative of Moroccan culture. It is a beautiful culture, something of which you may be proud. I am simply over having to apologise for what I feel. I like the Netherlands, I love living here and I am Dutch. Yet I am also Moroccan. And I’m not going to choose between the two. But I may be critical. I have an opinion.

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