Kirsten van den Hul on Next Generation Please!

When did you last use a stereotype what was it? And can stereotypes serve a function?

The last time I used a stereotype? Last week. I was in Alexandria, Egypt, where I was introduced to a young lady called Selma. She and I started talking about hairstyles (quite an interesting conversation, since hers was invisible under her head scarf) and before I knew it we were discussing relationships. “How come a beautiful girl like you is not married?”she asked me. I explained that marriage was not necessarily my ultimate goal in life, that I was perfectly happy without a ring on my finger, and that we would see what the future might have in store. Then, of course, I asked her about her marital state. She told me she just got married two months ago. “That's great, congratulations!” I said. “So how did you guys meet?” She told me she and her family thought it was time for her to get married. After all, she wasn't getting any younger. A cousin knew a distant relative who was looking for a wife. To cut a long stort short: they went on a blind date (with a chaperone, of course) and before Selma knew it, she was married.

My first reaction was “poor girl!”. The stereotype that pushed its way into my head was that of the oppressed, helpless, arranged bride, who was forced into a marriage she did not really want, with a guy she did not really know. A distant relative, for crying out loud!

But Selma set me straight, right then and there. Apparently, the stereotype had made its way to my facial expression. “You look at me like I deserve your pity. But have you considered the possibility that I am perfectly happy with this arrangement? I have a lovely husband, we have a lovely appartment, his family is happy and so is mine. As if dating is such great fun. Endless waiting for him or her to call back. Endless doubts about whether or not he or she wants the same thing, and whether you are exclusive or not. Endless drama when he or she breaks it off. We at least knew what we were going after from the very first date. No doubts, no drama. Just a simple understanding that this is what we both wanted. So please, spare me your pity. Maybe I should pity you, poor European feminist!”

Wow. Caught in the act, without a word to say for myself. So much for the poor, oppressed, helpless arranged bride scenario. Selma was no stereotype. Selma was three-dimensionally happy.

So should we just get rid of all stereotypes? Or can stereotypes serve a function? Sure they can. Take Selma's husband, Samir. After my enlightening conversation about their marriage, I was very much looking forward to meet Selma's other half, so when she invited me over for dinner I didn't think twice. And there we were, Selma and I, in her crispy clean kitchen. She asked me to help her dice some tomatoes, while she was stirring the soup. “Does Samir ever give you a hand?” I asked. Selma laughed. “What do you think?”she said. Frankly, I did not dare to think anything, after my last stereotypical error. “He is not used to do anything around the house. His mother treated him like a little prince. I'd love for him to help out, just like my father used to help my mom in the kitchen. But hey, what can I do? That's just who he is.” To prove her point, Samir shouted from the living room: “Selmaaaaa! Where is dinner? I am starving!”

“That's what I mean!” said Selma. So Samir was in fact a three-dimensional stereotype, when it came to the division of tasks. I told Selma I thought she should bring it up, ask him to help her out, tell him she was unhappy with how the tasks were split between them. “Oh, trust me, I tried. And I will keep trying. But Samir is Samir, and there is nothing I can do about that.”

Just when I finished dicing the tomatoes, Samir stuck his head around the kitchen door. “Ladies, what's keeping you so long? I need food!”

I looked at Selma, who was solemnly stirring the soup. “Samir, why don't you give us a hand, if you are so hungry?” I said. He started laughing. “Wow, Kirsten. I had heard about feminists but never thought that they really existed. But you, you truly live up to the stereotype, don't you! No wonder you are still single!”

Who is my European icon, was the question I was sent. To be completely honest, this has been the toughest question I have been asked since I started writing for the Narratives for Europe project. Do I have icons? Sure I do. Nelson Mandela. Madonna. Toni Morrison. Aung San Suu Kyi. My grandmother. But are they European? Only my grandmother is, although I doubt whether she would call herself “European”, or be comfortable with the label “icon” for that matter. My guess is she would call herself Dutch, or even “Groningse”, the region she is originally from. She was born in 1919, the year in which Dutch women got the right to vote. My gran could not finish her school, since she had to look after the house after her mother passed away.
In those days, Europe was a geographical concept rather than a political let alone monetary union.

During her lifetime, she has seen the continent change. She got married and started a family in the midst of war. Raised a family in post-war austerity. Saw cars and television make their entrance. Her offspring got opportunities she never had growing up. She has seen her daughters and granddaughters graduate and travel the world with their Burgundy red passports, seen her son marry a man and universal suffrage, something her mother could only dream of, is now common in most of the world, while war is something most people only know from tv.

So maybe that is why my gran is my European icon. Because she stood tall in the winds of change. Bent like a tree, but always bounced back up, protecting her family and making sure they (we) had what she often had had to do without. Reading her life story is understanding the history of Europe. Rule of law, equal opportunities, open borders: all of this was unthinkable only two generations ago. We've come a long way indeed. And my gran? She's come a long way, too. 94, and still going strong. 

Thinking about the story of my gran, I realised how many of the advantages of being European are often either unrecognised, taken for granted, or lost in a whirlwind of austerity packages, unemployment rates and referenda. Ask a random person about Europe and chances are you get a negative reply.  “Europe is taking my tax money. Europe is in crisis. Europe should forget about the Euro. Europe is run by guys and gals in Brussels wearing grey suits.” And yet, there must be millions of grandmothers and grandfathers in this continent who have seen their offspring travel, study, work and think freely and in peace, because Europe allowed them to do so. If I would be given the task to remake the EU's image, I would set out to capture some of these family portraits accross Europe. Interview grandparents, parents and children, about their hopes, fears and dreams. Generations of Europe: a road trip. I would for example travel to Gdansk, Poland and interview grandparents who remember the German occupation and Soviet annexation of their city. I would interview their children, who grew up behind the Iron Curtain and witnessed the Solidarity strikes. And their children, who may live in London or The Hague, enjoying the benefits of Schengen and Erasmus. From Athens to Amsterdam, from London to Milan: I'd capture the voice of generations of Europeans, who've come a long way, just like my gran.

I'd make short video portraits and air them on tv, accross the continent, around the Eurovision Songcontest, UEFA Champions League games, European qualifiers. Subtitled, of course.

Cause let's be honest: Europe is not just some guys and gals in Brussels in grey suits. Europe is its people. It's time we hear those people speak.