Forcing a party to accept women easier said than done

Ridderkerk has a large Reformed Christian community.

By Emilie van Outeren

The Dutch fundamentalist Calvinist SGP party may no longer ban women from seeking political office. The question now is whether the SGP can be forced to put women on the ballot, and whether any even want to run.

Ridderkerk is one of those Dutch towns where the fundamentalist Christian party SGP is omnipresent. In the March local elections, the party garnered 18 percent of the votes in this municipality of 45,000 near Rotterdam. Mrs. K. Leenheer is one of the firm supporters of the Calvinist party here, but she can never represent it. The party is firmly rooted in the Bible and believes a woman's duties are in the home, rather than in leadership positions outside the house. Only men appear on its ballots. Not that the 53-year-old would ever want to run for political office. "The Lord gave us women our place in the family," she explained.

Last week, the Dutch high court confirmed earlier rulings that the SGP's policy regarding women is unconstitutional and at odds with international civil rights treaties. The case dates back to 2003, when a number of advocacy organisations challenged the party's all-male ballots. In a final verdict, the high court ruled that the Dutch government has to abide by the UN convention on discrimination against women and therefore can't condone the discriminatory practice by the SGP. The court stated that citizens who want to exercise their religion or beliefs in a democratic state should always do so within the limitations of the law. Everyone's right to vote or run for office "without discrimination because of their sex" is "essential to democracy", the court stated.

The question is what the courts and the government can do to make sure the SGP abides by this ruling. It seems unlikely that the party will soon start opening up its ballots to women. If only because few women will want to run for the party. The party has only allowed women as full members since 2006.

Who is being discriminated?

Although the Netherlands is known as a secular country, it has long given (orthodox) religious groups the freedom to maintain their own public schools and political parties based on a very strict reading of their scriptures. The SGP was founded in 1918 as the political body of the strict Reformist Protestants who mostly live in the so-called Bible belt, a string of villages that stretches from the tip of Zeeland in the southwest to northern parts of the province Overijssel. Its small but reliable electoral base is only sufficient to earn it two of parliament's 150 seats, but it is a force to be reckoned with in several municipalities.

Women such as Mrs. Leenheer feel anything but subordinated. "Women all want an equal place, but from a biblical perspective, the man has been put above us. I don't feel discriminated against at all. I feel privileged the Lord gave me this place in the family."

The mother of six called her husband over to stress her point. Mr. T. Leenheer (55) doesn't reckon the high court ruling will change the party. "I think this will remain a matter of principle. We should not let the government or a judge make us disregard heavenly justice," he said. "We have to try to explain the way we see this, in light of the Bible. If that isn't respected, we are the ones being discriminated against."

The party has said it may take its case to the European Court of Human Rights, but Tom Barkhuysen, the lawyer for one of the organisations that challenged the SGP, believes its chances there are slim. "The high court ruling is based on the UN women's rights treaty. The court in Strasbourg is unlikely to distance itself from that," he said. "The Netherlands is behind in Europe when it comes to women's emancipation in politics. In Belgium and France, parties are only allowed to participate in elections if they have an equal number of men and women on the ballot. In France, they even have to alternate."

Changing electoral law

In order to really force the SGP to put women on their ballot, the Dutch government will have to change the electoral law, said constitutional rights specialist Alex Geert Castermans. "The ruling says the state has the obligation to make sure women can exercise their right," he said. The government has three options to ensure that. It can either change the law to correspond with those of its southern neighbours. An alternative could be to end subsidies for parties that discriminate against women. The most radical option would be to ban these parties from participating in elections at all.

The issue has been a hot topic within the party’s rank and file for some time now. A 2003 survey showed only 28 percent of the older members want women to become elected representatives, but 60 percent of the younger members are in favour.

Cornelis van Pelt, another Ridderkerk resident who votes for SGP, applauds the high court ruling. "Great. I think women should be allowed in parliament," the 74-year-old said. "The older members are against this, but anyone born after the [Second World] War feels differently. The party has to be pragmatic, or it may disappear completely."

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Election 2010