The senate effect

By Anne de Vries and Hannah van der Wurff

The Dutch provincial elections of last Wednesday ignited a discussion on the political polarisation in the Netherlands. The Stand went out on the streets of Groningen to ask those who voted, for their thoughts.

In the elections on Wednesday, 56.1% of those 13 million people eligible, voted for the Provinciale Staten and waterschappen (provincial states and regional water authorities). Some view voting as their civic duty, some don’t. The other group is comprised of those who have no idea what voting on the provincial states and regional water authorities actually means.

The provincial states, of which there are 12 in the Netherlands, have seven core tasks to execute over their four year period. These core tasks range from urban planning, regional economy, transport and climate regulation, as well as electing the Dutch senate.

The elections for the regional water authorities, the regional institutions that decide over water management, were linked to the provincial elections in 2014 in the hope the voting percentage would increase.

The results

The outcome of the recent elections shocked left-wing Netherlands, as political newcomer Forum for Democracy (FvD) collected 14.4% of all votes nationally. This unexpected political surge led to a tie in senate seats between FvD and VVD, the neoliberal conservatives who have been heading the government since 2010.

“I wonder where this is going to take us,” says an elderly woman when stopped in front of the Groninger Museum. Holding back tears she says: “We had a very important period of peace after the war [WWII] and for me that feeling is fading.”

The crossing in front of the museum is crowded with trainloads of people passing into the centre from the central station. Even with all the noise, the woman’s message is clear. When asked what she wanted her vote to mean, she says she wants “peace, human connection and integration.”

FvD’s new prominence on the Dutch political stage didn’t go unchallenged. Some call their standpoints on the political system, race, climate change, the EU and immigration ‘controversial’, while others laud them for nestling between the conservative and globalist VVD and the radical anti-Islam PVV.

In Groningen, a miscalculation cost the green party PvdD one seat, after the FvD managed to manifest five provincial seats instead of the preliminary four, when the polls closed. While the greens GroenLinks dominate the municipal council in Groningen’s last election, the recent provincial elections granted them a mere one seat advantage over FvD.

The turnout

This year, just like the years before, the turnout for the provincial elections is low when compared to that of the national parliamentary elections. This isn’t unusual, and it’s rather a trend that doesn’t only go for the provincial elections but all elections, as the figure below shows. For the past 10 years the parliamentary elections have drawn out most voters.

What is especially interesting, as visualized below, is the difference between the national turnout, and those of the province and municipality of Groningen. While this follows the general trend, it overtakes national numbers on occasion.

“Turnout is an indicator for the importance the electorate attaches to certain levels of government,” says Eddy Habben Jansen, the director of the political educational institution, ProDemos. He predicted that the turnout for last Wednesday’s provincial elections would be relatively high compared to previous years because “there is quite a bit of focus on the cabinet majority in the senate,” which are in turn elected by the provinces.

When we consider the turnout for the Provincial Elections in Groningen this year and those for the past ten years, this does show. It’s a small increase, but it’s there.

Habben Jansen introduces the ‘senate effect’ as an indicator for sudden higher turnouts for provincial elections. Political tensions and a near cabinet majority show how these abstract elections can in turn “be transformed into national elections instead”.

On the Gedempte Zuiderdiep in Groningen, these sentiments were affirmed by a young man, who told The Stand that the electoral power of the provinces was the precise reason he went to vote to begin with. But, the elections “felt less important than the parliamentary elections”.

This senate effect, in combination with FvD’s growing supporters-base of dedicated voters frustrated with the current political climate, prompted the current senate construction.

“An excellent opposition party”

In front of Groningen’s synagogue on the Folkingestraat, The Stand speaks to a FvD supporter. He considers the election’s outcome “outstanding” and embraces the “countermovement against recent years of political foul play.”

Although he wouldn’t want to see Thierry Baudet, the highly controversial party leader of the FvD, behind the prime minister’s desk, he says “Forum is an excellent opposition party, as they call out the elephant in the room for what it is.”

Criticising the VVD’s vision for “managing the country as if it were a company” he calls out VVD’s stable voter-base for “structurally giving the rest of the Netherlands the finger.”

“That is why I think it’s good that someone like Baudet stands up. But still, I wonder if anything will change, because people like him aren’t wanted in the Netherlands.”

Carved out of wood

By Annewil Schippers and Juliane Glahn

Blue, pink, black, small and large – clogs of all colors and sizes decorate the shelves of the Van der Meulen shoe store, located in the small Dutch village of Eenrum, in the north of the province of Groningen. Here, we meet Robert van der Meulen, who has been making the traditional Dutch footwear for over 30 years. He leads us through his workshop, where he turns tree trunks into wearable clogs (called “klompen” in Dutch) nearly every day.

The first thing Robert does when he goes from the front of the store to his adjoined workshop in the back, is to take off his regular shoes and slip into his own pair of black clogs. “Otherwise, you’re permanently vacuuming the store,” he jokes. Wood shavings and dust cover the floor and stick to the shoes of whoever sets foot in the workshop.

Countless wooden shoes are stashed here: they are stacked in small piles on the floor, placed on every table there is, and lined up on the shelves. Robert estimates that he makes “a few thousand” wooden shoes every year.

A piece of history

Though many think of the clog as typically Dutch, the wooden shoe has its origin in the north of France. For centuries, the footwear was popular in countries throughout Europe, such as Norway and Italy. Clogs made their way into the Netherlands in the 16th century and reached their peak of popularity in the early 20th century.

The Van der Meulen Klompenmakerij (clog workshop) is a family business. Four generations have mastered the clog making craft. In 1900, Robert’s great grandfather, Douwe, opened the shop. His son joined the business once he was old enough.

In 1920, he went to Germany and brought back machines that helped produce the shoes. “He was one of the first in this area to have machines,” Robert explains. The use of machines severely sped up the process and reduced the amount of work that had to be done by hand.

Robert himself started making clogs in 1985. Together with his father, who is 79 years old, he still makes the traditional wooden shoe to this day.

In this video, he shows us part of the clog-making process.

A disappearing craft

Wood from the neighborhood, mostly willow, is used for the clogs. “We go through several trunks per week,” he says. Once Robert gets to work, the room is filled with the sound of machines whirring to life, and metal scraping wood. Robert cuts the blocks into the desired size, and (with a bit of help from a machine here and there) forms them into the typical shape. He then polishes them, and adds some carvings. For one pair, he needs roughly 45 minutes. As a finishing touch, he adds different colors. “Red is frequently sold, blue is frequently sold, pink, purple… and even black.”

The wooden shoe might be a stereotype of the Netherlands, but the amount of people making them is quite low. “There are around ten companies that still produce clogs to wear,” Robert says. Others make smaller versions as souvenirs or produce the wooden shoes for museums. The Van der Meulen Klompenmakerij is the only clog workshop in the province of Groningen.

People who still buy clogs wear them for gardening or handiwork. Robert makes shoes in all sizes – for adults, but also for little kids. “These clogs are often given as birth gifts.”

After Robert, who is now 55 years old, the family business might stop: “I don’t think anyone will follow after me,” he says. For now, however, he and his dad continue the craft and do not plan on stopping anytime soon.

Women Who Explore Groningen: These boots are made for walking

By Natalie Lange

Overlooking the busy Gedempte Zuiderdiep street, the cacophony of laughing and chatting women in the cozy café, drown out the sounds of passing vehicles. These women have never met before, yet I can see the first bonds of friendship forming. This is the maiden meeting of the group, Women Who Explore Groningen, a women’s group founded by women, for women.

Kayla Ihrig (25) who works as a freelance graphic designer, is an international ambassador for Women Who Explore, and she recently started the first Women Who Explore community in the Netherlands, here in Groningen. She sees value in bringing women together and was inspired to start a group for like-minded women in the city.

“I hope it becomes a place of real community, where people know each other’s names and lives, and are excited to come together. I think it will happen, which to me is really the dream,” says Ihrig.

Women Who Explore is a community for women of any age and nationality. It is an international organization that focuses on group outdoor events with the goal to connect women who enjoy exploring nature. The organization started in Canada, but now has groups in the States, Africa, Philippines and Europe.

As an ambassador, Ihrig organizes monthly meetings, using a private Facebook group to connect with interested group members. “A happy, active group is my goal, whatever that number looks like,” she says.

Ihrig herself moved to Groningen from Chicago only nine months ago. “Moving here was a massive change in every way,” she says. She moved to Groningen for her partner and didn’t have any real attachment to this place initially. After a while, she managed to meet friends through Facebook groups and the expat community of the city, which helped her a lot to acclimate to life as a Groningen resident.

“Part of my motivation for starting the group was to get to know the Netherlands better, to feel more connected to the country and see what beauty it has,” says Ihrig. Her vision is to meet up twice a month, once outdoors, exploring the Netherlands, and another time over a cup of coffee in the vibrant city of Groningen. 

The Women Who Explore Groningen community was founded in February 2019 and gained more than 200 members within the first week of its creation. The organization is the second women’s group existing in Groningen. Unlike Young Women of Groningen Meet Up, which focuses on social events within Groningen, Women Who Explore focuses on exploring the outdoors all around the Netherlands.

The first meeting of the group was held on Sunday the 17th of March 2019 at the Taveerne Rabenhaupt and was attended by around 30 women.  

“I was really happy with the turnout, but I was much more excited to see people talking, making new friends, and being excited about doing things together” says Ihrig. She received a lot of enthusiasm from women about finding a group to go do things with. “I’ve been really touched and energized by the feedback and interest,” she says.

“The sky is the limit for the group.”

The smiling face that walked from Lebanon to Groningen

By Gabriele Cruciata

As I sit in a coffeeshop in the south of Groningen, I’m surrounded by four or five people and the smoke they produce. I’m waiting for somebody to appear sooner or later on the other side of the creaking door.

When a man with a white-and-grey curly ponytail shows up at the door, I only need a couple of seconds to realize he’s the man I’ve been looking for. The door opens, he enters the smokers’ land and shakes my hand. “Hi, my friend, how’re you doing?” he asks, and takes a seat.

He grinds his weed, pillowing it on a rolling paper in a tobacco mix. He doesn’t say a word. He lets his fingers run gently on the paper and meet his tongue. He adjusts, takes the lighter, breaths in and out. The smoke surrounds us.

“Do you know what my name means?”, and I wonder why I get fascinated when I’m the one supposed to ask questions here.

“It means smiling face. When I was born, smiling was the very first thing I did,” he laughs.

Growing up in Lebanon

Today Bassaam is 61 years old. He spent the last twenty years in Groningen enjoying the relaxed city rhythms and vibes. But the decades he’s taken off are more like the rest of a warrior than a simple whim.

He breathes in and out, leaving a cloud of weed smoke in the room. “When I met weed for the first time, I was a child, like seven or eight. I was looking for my father in the fields, and saw him from the distance putting some green leaves in a cigarette. ‘It’s to relax,’ he told me when I asked. But I only realized what actually went on that evening years later.”

“I grew up in a small mountain town in Lebanon, a bunch of kilometers from the Syrian border. Dad was a farmer, mum a housewife. They ran away from Palestine in 1948 and stayed in a shelter camp somewhere in Lebanon during the Arab-Israeli war.”

Starting from 1948, a steady stream of Muslim Palestinian refugees moved to Lebanon, tipping the religious balance in the region. By the end of the fifties, the first serious violent episodes between Christians and Muslims were reported.

Yet, in the sixties and seventies, Lebanon was a rich country in the Arab region. Its capital, Beirut, was known as the “Arabic Paris”, the finance center of the Middle-East. Despite its small size, the country was a melting pot of different people representing centuries-old history.

“My life has been normal until I was 15, maybe 16. Then I remember we started to feel like there was something serious going on. It was 1972 or 1973, and it was clear something was about to happen even if we were living in a little town.”

 Two years later, Lebanon was in the middle of a violent civil war.

“Have you ever seen someone dying?”

On 18 January 1976, Bassaam’s life changed forever. “The Christian army entered a shelter camp in Beirut. It was a carnage. Men, women, children. Everybody died, and I was angry as hell.” The episode he refers to is known as the Qarantina massacre, where 1,000 to 1,500 Muslims lost their lives.

“I joined the Muslim forces some years after that slaughter. I was enthusiastic, I wanted to fight for my identity, for my rights. At that time, I thought Israel and the Christian forces were evil, and you know, when you’re young you think you can change the world and you’re even willing to join a fucking war if this is necessary. You may die for your ideas and principles.”

When he talks about the war, he starts trembling on his chair. The smoke rings he creates become blurry.

“Have you ever seen someone dying? I mean, violently. Blood, wounds, broken bones,” he asks me.

No, I haven’t.

“Can you imagine what it is like inside you?”

No, I can’t. How is it like?”

“Well, at first you’re happy. Because you know, you saw your comrade blown-up, you saw the violence, you saw the victim, and you think ‘well, it means I’m right, I have to fight this war ‘cause this is what these beasts do’. You think the hard part is watching them die. No, no, man. The hardest part is yet to come”.

So, what’s the hardest part?” “It’s when you realize you’re doing the same to other people with the weapons you’re holding. It’s the reason why I quit.”

Walking to Europe

When Bassaam left Lebanon, he was 23 or 24. He can’t remember. He decided to follow his brother’s example and go to Europe. As an illegal migrant, he had to walk all the way to Greece, his feet covered with blisters and wounds. “I had an old backpack with me, with some necessary food, water, clothes and a blanket. And a lot of weed,” he laughs.

“That journey is the big thing in my life, more than the war. I had no idea of where I was going. All I knew was that I wanted to save my life.”

During the two months he spent walking with a small group of other refugees, Bassaam used his weed to get some relief and, most importantly, to get memories of his youth back. “I was very young, but already had a long tail of bad experiences behind me. This plant helped me remember the good things I wanted to live for. Laughing with friends, chilling, sharing food. In a certain way, it helped me understand my destination during a journey with no destination.”

Once in Europe, he worked in five different countries and visited 41 nations around the world. He’s been a carpenter, a factory worker, a mechanic and so much more, all in just one lifetime. He looks like he’s about to reach nirvana as he rolls another joint. It’s a ritual where fingers, paper, spittle and a natural plant all converge in one stick able to permeate his lungs.

 “I think I’ll probably have enough of Groningen in some years.”

Where are you planning to go?

“I don’t like planning.”

Is there anything you’ll be looking for?”

“Yes, for sure.”

What?” “Another country with legalized weed.”

Tippelzone

Tippelzone Shutdown – A Tug of War Between Policy and Reality

By Clémence Waller, Edward Szekeres and Valerie Scholz

Used condoms stuck to trash cans, empty metal booths, puddles on the pavement. Silence in the air. In the final months of the Groningen Tippelzone, sex workers are left out in the cold due to stigma and bigotry. It’s the calm before the storm.

For retired sex worker Carmen Kleinegris (61), life proceeds in waves. The crest: a carefree moment, a young girl sitting in the passenger seat of an expensive sports car, blonde locks of hair dancing around her head, marvelling at the glistening sea in the moonlight. The trough: seven men around her, hours of agony, a rape that she will never forget.

“I am still an outsider 40 year later because of my experience”, sighs Carmen who went on to work as a social worker after 5 years of prostitution that helped to pay for her education.

Sex work is a highly stigmatized occupation in Dutch society. In fact, it is not accepted as a profession at all. “You have a stamp on your head: you did an abnormal job.” This reputation remains for a lifetime.

Women like Carmen feel isolated from society. “It often feels like you´re from the moon,” she says. Others are shamed into hiding part of their identity and history: “You are included in society as long as you shut your mouth about your work.”

Carmen is fighting a losing battle. Her country, the Netherlands, is dismantling one of the main features of its famously liberal prostitution policy. Dutch cities are shutting down their legal street prostitution areas, these areas are called Tippelzones. The Groningen Tippelzone will be closed down by March 2019 while the one in Utrecht will follow suit later that year.

The Groningen Tippelzone

 

A Place to Work

A small white container house hidden under overarching branches marks the entrance to the Groningen Tippelzone. This is the Housekamer. It offers a safe resting space, medical care, hot beverages and a dedicated area for drug use.

The pick-up area offers three plastic shelters against the cold autumn winds. Large bricks at the side of the road ensure that women cannot be injured by cars driving by. The road leads to an area of compartments for sexual intercourse, each separated by a wall for privacy and equipped with a trashcan for condom disposal.

The place might seem grim, but it offers something sex workers need, and don’t have when working the streets: safety. “A Tippelzone is a place where street prostitutes can legally do their job, in a controlled area”, Carmen explains. The sex workers are registered, the area is overseen by police forces and aid is provided by volunteers and social workers.

A typical workplace

Safety and Professionalism

Tippelzones were first introduced in Holland in the 1980’s, as a measure to remove street prostitution and heroin addicts from the city centre. They made the providing of health and social services for sex workers easier. The confined space allows for immediate countermeasures in case of rape and rooms for safe drug use.

The installation of Tippelzones also increased the professionalism of prostitution, according to Carmen. During her 5 years of managing the Huiskamer Aanloop Prostituees (Living Room for Prostitutes) in the Utrecht Tippelzone, she taught and organized regular courses for sex workers ranging from make-up and hair tutorials to sexual education. This was done not only for the women’s safety and education, but also to improve the image of prostitution within society.

 

No Future for Tippelzones?

While sex workers defend Tippelzones because of the safety they provide, their arguments are not often heard. The Groningen municipality decided to close the Tippelzone because they consider it to be “inhumane”. With this measure, they hope to have “fewer women in an unsafe environment”.

Not only has the city turned against the concept of the Tippelzone, but aid organizations have also turned against the Tippelzone. The Salvation Army and other charitable organizations are already working hand-in-and with the government, aiming to reintegrate former sex workers into regular life.

The Salvation Army feels that the concept of the Tippelzone is outdated. Times have changed, so have the sex workers. Before, drug-addicted prostitutes worked to afford drugs. Nowadays, women enter the Tippelzone clean, but sometimes slip into addiction due to the strains of the job and the high availability of drugs in the area. According to Carmen, around a third of the women working in the Utrecht Tippelzone are drug addicts.

“The most important thing is the women” explains Salvation Army specialist for the Tippelzones, Ineke Van Buren. She disagrees with sex workers who defend their profession, like Carmen Kleingris. “None of the women want to work in prostitution in the future”, Ineke adds.

The Salvation Army partners with the municipality to offer individual and voluntary step-out programs for the prostitutes. “We ask them, how can we help you to fulfil your dreams?”. Even after 20 unsuccessful rehab therapies, the women can always return for help. “People are not hopeless, there is always hope and we will always keep hope”, says Ineke.

But Carmen disagrees: “All these programs are just to keep everybody still.”

 

“Society is Getting Prude”

Despite good intentions, reality sometimes differs. Many sex workers disagree with the notion that the closure of the zones will lead to any positive effects on the health and safety of sex workers. They believe these closures will push them further into the shadows and make their profession more stigmatised, ostracised and dangerous.

“The entire system is a mess!” Mischa (41), a former Tippelzone sex worker, exclaims.

Despite the closure of the zone, these women will continue their work, only in riskier conditions. They will take their clients to abandoned places, hiding from both police and fines but also from safety. Even going online is dangerous, resulting in fines or worse being made homeless by landlords, she adds.

“These women feel like they have their back against the wall,” says Gonnie Lemckert (74) local charity worker and head of Straatmadelief, a sex worker aid society. Being a retired sex worker herself and having supported the prostitutes of the Tippelzone in Groningen for over 18 years, Gonnie knows “these women don’t trust anybody”. This makes counselling by organizations difficult.

Carmen believes, public perception contributes to the stigmatisation of prostitution. “We don’t want you there, so we thought the best thing is, you are going to stop. That’s bullshit”, she says.

The controversial idea that no woman wants to work in prostitution and wishes for a “normal life” has bewildered Carmen all her life. Sex work is normal to Carmen. “Many people work with their bodies in factories, handicrafts or construction why is sex work different”?

 

Tipplezone-Free Netherlands

Sex workers find that the proposed governmental measures are theoretically efficient, but doubt they are realistic. Mischa worked as an interviewer for a study investigating stigma and violence against sex workers in the Netherlands.  

The results of this research, conducted by Soa Aids Nederland in collaboration with PROUD, the Dutch Union for Sex Workers, show that prostitutes tend to enjoy their freedom, independence and find work enjoyable. This raises the question if integration into “normal life” is even desirable amongst the majority of sex workers.

Thirty years ago, society accepted prostitutes, today opinions have changed. These women face an uncertain future. Municipal policy and an increasingly conservative society further the stigma towards prostitution.

When asked what will happen to these women after the closure, Mischa laughs sarcastically. “I think they are going to marry and have a bunch of children and be a good housewife for the rest of their life”.

A life of crests and troughs have taught Carmen a valuable lesson: “It’s shit now, it’s really pure shit now… but maybe tomorrow it’s better”.