According to a recent report in national newspaper Trouw, norms of the Muslim majority are beginning to take over in the Schilderswijk, a multi-ethnic area in the Hague. Following last month’s commotion, the Dutch Minister of Social Affairs, Lodewijk Asscher, and anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders (MP) both visited this disadvantaged neighbourhood in the Hague to have a look themselves at this example of unwanted informal social control. In the newspaper article, wearing short skirts and walking dogs were said to be among the unaccepted behaviour on the streets. If groups of orthodox inhabitants are dictating what other people should wear and how they should behave, this is of course very disturbing. On the other hand, the reports are been denied by police and politicians with local knowledge. An independent researcher De Jong, who recently spent months doing fieldwork in the same area, does also not recognize this picture as a dominant one. Yet, the central message and the powerful label of ‘Sharia Triangle’ will stick to this neighborhood for years to come.
Apparently, there is a huge demand for this type of newspaper reporting. For decades, the media has painted a grim picture of urban neighbourhoods that are becoming no-go areas, ghettos, spaces of street terror and now sharia. In a study conducted some years ago by Monique Koemans, 55 Master students of our Urban Criminology course conducted qualitative fieldwork in eleven so-called designated problem areas. Most students were surprised that these neighbourhoods paid very little resemblance to their expectations based on media coverage. They spoke to many people in the streets who did not ignore local problems of crime and disorder, but simultaneously stressed that they liked the liveliness and heterogeneity. There are many different realities in these neighbourhoods that never get any attention.
One of the themes that came up during the research was the anger among inhabitants concerning the media obsession with crime problems and negative reports about their neighbourhoods. Many media reports are viewed by inhabitants to be sensation seeking, reinforcing negative stereotypes of the neighbourhoods and even fuelling aggression which they can subsequently show on television or describe in newspapers. Scandals and stereotypes sell. I am not suggesting that all problems in these areas have been fabricated and should be neglected. But I do find it very frustrating that so much money and effort is put into making less well-to-do neighbourhoods safer places, with many successes as well, and all we hear about is the latest scandal. In this way, people tend to forget that disadvantaged neighbourhoods in Dutch cities are doing well in many respects. The media and their representatives should not be blamed for social problems, but neither can they keep on suggesting that they are neutral observers.
A second observation in several selected areas, was the predominance of men in public spaces, even during daytime. Although this was not something the research was actively aimed at and strong conclusions could not be drawn, this gendered public space was persistently noticed by our student researchers. This seemed to be an underestimated but potentially defining aspect of living in the selected neighbourhoods. To what extent this gendered presence had to do with fear of crime or with other reasons (such as potential social pressure) has not been discovered. This certainly deserves more attention by local policy makers and researchers. Streets should be for everyone, regardless of gender, age and other characteristics.
Creating one hype after another will not help in understanding and, where necessary, solving these issues. Neither will a highly mediatised tour through a neighbourhood following a media hype. It would be more useful if politicians and journalists visited these neighbourhoods more often and, moreover, were more open-minded. This also holds true for visitors to cities. So next time when visiting one of the larger Dutch cities, look a bit further. Go beyond the usual high street commercial areas, spend some time and maybe some money in neighbourhoods that are not as scary as they are often depicted.