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My Japanese ballad

Japan has always been a country that I saw as the definition of mystery and cultural richness. This year, I visited the home of sakura and green tea, and my trip was quite exciting – although a bit shorter than expected.

COVID-19 has hit us all like a storm. Everybody has been affected by this invisible force, and we all have had to adjust our lifestyles accordingly. For me, the spread of COVID-19 resulted in the end of my semester abroad in Japan. One and a half year ago, I had already started preparing for Japan because I knew it would be a totally different world for me. I had never been to Japan before, I didn’t speak the language and I also didn’t know much about Japanese culture (I have never even read a Manga or watched the classic Animes!). I guess everyone has their own goals for their semester abroad, and mine was to experience this totally new culture and come back speaking at least basic level Japanese. 

Unfortunately, my Japanese semester started at the same time as something else – the COVID-19 pandemic. Soon it became clear to all of us that it was best to spend this time in the safety of our homes, so after two weeks in Japan I returned back home. It was not the experience I was hoping for, but in the two weeks that I did spend there I could still experience a bit of ‘normal’ Japan.


In this post I want to share my short, but lovely experience of Japan with you. I won’t talk much about my Coronavirus experience here, but more about the beauty of Japan that I could experience before the country went into lockdown.

Osaka

I started my trip in Osaka, famous for its shopping districts and food markets. It felt like the perfect place to start: a big city with skyscrapers everywhere, but still not too big to feel intimidating. My hotel was only a short walk away from one of the main shopping districts, Dotonbori, which to me was the perfect place to let the vibe of this foreign country sink in. The first two days I simply spent walking among the shopping streets, trying new foods here and there. At the time, the COVID-19 outbreak was not as severe as in Europe and the US yet, so there were almost no governmental measures – in other words, the streets were still filled with people.

Despite many countries around the world going into lockdown, Japan was still crowded in early March (Osaka)

Osaka has many different kinds of shopping districts, traditional Japanese shops, but also more Western inspired shopping malls with H&M, Zara and the like. Apart from that, there is one district that is completely dedicated to the Western culture: away from the busiest streets, there is a small, fancy district called the ‘American village’. I didn’t really plan to come here, but as I was walking and walking, I somehow ended up in this place. I felt like I had literally stepped out of Japan for a moment, because not only the shops were ‘Western’, also the streets and even the buildings were Western looking.

Osaka Castle

On my third day, I took a trip to Osaka Castle. Because it was a bit outside of the city and the weather was perfect, I rented a bike and cycled up to the castle. It turns out that exploring Osaka by bike is one of the best things you can do: in just half an hour, I raced through the busy streets and colourful buildings, through the hectic big city life of Osaka, and it gave me a very different impression of the city than I would have had walking through it by foot. 

The cycling to Osaka Castle was along a beautiful road, especially once I reached the parks surrounding the castle. Japan is famous for its incredibly beautiful gardens, so you can imagine that cycling through a Japanese park on a sunny day is like a dream come true. The castle area was surrounded by a water belt and a big stone wall. Along the stone wall, smaller forts sat to protect the castle from every corner.

The water belt around the Osaka Castle area

As I was cycling towards the main castle, I passed by more greenery, and I saw several beautiful shrines where religious followers were praying. I had never been to a Shinto shrine before so I entered the shrine to take a look. Besides the beautiful architecture of the buildings, I noticed small wooden boards that people were writing on and hanging on one side of the shrine. These little boards are called Ema, and they are used to write down your deep wishes and desires, in the hope that the spirits or deities will make them come true. 

The Shinto shrine at Osaka Castle. On the left you can see the board where people can hang their Ema.

FYI: Shintoism is a form of belief that is unique to Japan. Many people compare it to religious belief, but the Japanese see it more like a part of Japanese identity. Shinto involves the belief in many kami (deities), which are sacred spirits. A kami can be a nature aspect (like a river) or a deceased person (among others).

on Shintoism

When I finally arrived at the main castle, the sun was about to go down. The castle was sitting on an impressive stone podest and had golden tips. Together with the sunset backdrop, the scenery looked truly majestic.

The Osaka Castle.

Unfortunately, the castle itself was closed due to corona precautionary measures, but I still stood there for almost half an hour, just looking up at this incredibly beautiful building where once aristocracy lived and ruled. Every tree that was placed in the open space in front of the castle seemed like it was placed there for a reason, and the gnarled branches of the trees almost felt like obedient followers bowing down to the royalties residing inside the castle.

Kuromon Market

Another highlight in Osaka was my visit to Kuromon Market. I actually came here because I watched the Netflix show ‘Street Food’, and one episode was shot in Osaka and explored their food markets. This market was different, but in a way also similar to German or Dutch food markets: I had seen food stands with local delicacies before, advertised by shouting vendors or smiling faces. Because I didn’t look Japanese, most vendors let me stroll around in peace so that I could take my time looking at everything. At Kuromon Market, it was mostly fish and fruit that was sold. What I found most interesting was the octopus: octopus is very popular in Japan and is eaten in many different ways. Osaka is especially famous for Takoyaki, fried balls filled with octopus. It’s not really my type of food, maybe because I see octopus more as a highly intelligent predator rather than food on my plate. I wish I could have pushed that thought away though, because the Takoyaki looked delicious!

Shinsekai

On my last evening in Osaka, I cycled through the city at night and ended up in Osaka Shinsekai, a fancy little shopping district with a huge looking tower. At the top of the tower I could see just how big Osaka really is, it seemed to stretch as far as my eyes could see. Normally, I was told, this area is really busy, especially at night. But in this district I could already tell that Coronavirus was keeping people in Japan away from public life.

Shinsekai district, Osaka, at night.

Verdict: I really loved Osaka! I recommend this city as a good start for any first-time Japan visitor, since the city gives a good impression of a big Japanese city, but is still not too busy – so you can really dig and get to know the different districts. Osaka is considered Japan’s food capital, so for anyone who loves food (which I guess is about everyone), it’s great to get to know Japan’s culinary side as well! Osaka gave off a young and hip vibe, with lots of nightlife and great shopping opportunities. If you are new to Japan and want to experience the Japanese metropole, then Osaka is a great place to start!

Nara

Nara was at the top of my Japan list ever since I had first heard of it. This city is just a 15 minutes train ride away from Osaka and is home to many many famous shrines and temples. But what makes this city truly special is this: hundreds of wild deers freely walk around the whole city. The Japanese people believe that the deers are holy protectors of the shrines and temples and therefore reside in Nara in such high numbers. 

To take in as many shrines and parks as possible, I rented a bike again and cycled from temples to shrines. As soon as I approached the open space of the temples, the deers were everywhere. They were laying around, sleeping, or chasing food bags from tourists.

Nara deer, relaxed enough to let me take this photo.

I first stopped at a big open space housing the Kofukuji Temple. This temple consists of several buildings and a very tall pagoda (see picture). Centuries ago, Nara used to be Japan’s capital and their most powerful aristocratic clan, the Fujiwara Family, built the Kofukuji as their family temple here. I was immediately convinced that this family must have been wealthy, because the buildings were such a work of art. When I entered one of the buildings, the Eastern Golden Hall, a group of pilgrims were holding a religious ceremony inside. In this building, there was a large statue of the Yakusha Buddha, so I was not surprised to see a religious sermon in front of it.

The Central Golden Hall of the Kofukuji temple.
This building burned down centuries ago, and was rebuilt and only recently opened to the public again. You could clearly see a strong orange theme in this hall.
The five-stories tall pagoda of the Kofukuji Temple. This is the second tallest wooden pagoda in Japan.
The Southern Octagonal Hall of Kofukuji.

Afterwards, I cycled to Nara Park, a huge park with hundreds of more deers and some hidden gems, like botanical gardens and museums (the botanical garden was absolutely gorgeous because all the flowers were just coming out!). Here, I found more beautiful shrines that were almost hidden away in the trees but once you found them, they had glorious entrances. 

This one for example, had a few hundred lanterns at its entrance.

Entrance of the Kasuga shrine, Nara’s most famous shrine.

This is Nara’s most famous shrine, the Kasuga Tasha. Just like the Kofukuji Temple above, the Kasuga Tasha was built by the same powerful Nara family, the Fujiwara. Although this shrine is so famous, its entrance is almost hidden away within the park. One thing that is so special about this shrine, is its many many lanterns. On the photo you can see that the stairs to the main entrance are lined by hundreds of stone lanterns. Each of these lanterns stands for a donation by a company or a person to the shrine, so these lanterns just keep adding up. And FYI, the botanical garden in this park also belongs to this shrine.

More stone lanterns…
…and more stone lanterns.

FYI: Next to Shintoism, Buddhism is the major religion in Japan. Buddhists generally aim to follow a spiritual path of suffering to ultimately reach the state of enlightenment. A Buddha (‘enlightened one’) is someone who has left greed, hate, desires and other worldy things behind.

on Buddhism

Verdict: Nara is great for tourists who don’t have the time to visit several different cities, but who still want to see a lot of Japanese culture in a short time. This city has soo many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in a close distance from each other, that it’s really easy to see most of them in one or two days. Just be aware that almost all temples and shrines have an entrance fee (around 10 Euros per building). But if you don’t want to pay the fee, you still get to see the buildings from the outside, which is already enough to make a nice memory. For those who are travelling with kids, the deers make this place an unforgettable experience for the whole family. Be cautious of your belongings though, the deers are quite good at grabbing food from tourists! Rent a bike to loose less time in-between temples and shrines, and if you want to have a nature break, make sure to also to cycle through Nara Park.

Kyoto

Higashiyama

While Nara felt like a nature trip mixed with some sightseeing, Kyoto was like a spiritual getaway. I totally felt the vibes of Spirited Away here (which is one of the only Anime I have watched, and has made me thirsty for more). First, I visited the Higashiyama district. This area is filled with shops selling traditional Japanese dishes and accessories. Besides that, most people walking around this area wear traditional Kimonos, so it made this district perfect to experience traditional Japanese atmosphere.

The streets of Higashiyama.

The streets of Higashiyama were full of tourists, and they all seemed to go in the same direction. I followed the busy street without much plan because every corner looked equally interesting to me. The stream of people brought me to one of Kyoto’s most famous Buddhist temples, the Kiyomizudera. This temple (which is a UNESCO world heritage site since 1994) is famous for its huge wooden stage that sticks out above the 13m deep hillside below (this is a super beautiful viewpoint in autumn when all the red maple trees are surrounding the temple area!). It was a really fun walk up to the temple because there was so much to see, including views of the temple from far away. The Kiyomizudera has a really impressive entrance: before you can enter the main temple, you have to go through a big open area that is home to a red-coloured pagoda and several deep-red shrines. Due to the Coronavirus, the main temple was closed down, but walking around the pagoda area alone was totally worth it.

Vibrant red was one of the key features of Kiyomizudera. It was this colour that lured me here.
Like many temples, this one also had a pagoda. But I had not seen one in such a beautiful colour before! The details in this heavy-work pagoda were visible much better through the coloring.
Small, gate-like buildings were standing in every corner of the temple’s entrance area.

After the visit to the temple, I walked down to Kyoto’s most famous Geisha district Gion. Many people come to this district in the hope to see a Geisha since Gion is the biggest and most famous Geisha area in Kyoto. I took the route from Kiyomizudera towards the Yasaka pagoda, which is one of the symbols of Gion. Apart from that, this district is full of traditional wooden merchant houses. This was one of my favorite experiences of my time in Japan, because the wooden houses made it feel like I was walking through an old Japanese movie.

An absolute highlight was the Starbucks in this street: true to the style of the other houses, the cafe was built like a traditional wooden house as well, even from the inside. The ‘Starbucks’ label and the menu were the only things that gave away that this was Starbucks (you could order sakura muffins here, so this was definitely more Japanese than the average Starbucks). I ended my Gion visit at the pagoda of the Yasaka shrine, another beautiful tower overlooking the streets.

The streets of Gion, with the Yasaka Pagoda in the distance
The best Starbucks I have ever seen!

Arashiyama

My second day in Kyoto was spent in the beautiful Arashiyama district. I really wanted to visit this district because of the Tenryuji temple which is ranked number one in Kyoto’s five great Zen temples. The landscape garden inside the paid area has still maintained its original structure from when it was built in the 14th century(!) and was one of the most beautiful gardens I have ever seen.

The beautiful Zen garden of Tenryuji.

From the north exit of Tenryuji, it was a one-minute walk to the place I wanted to see the most: the Arashiyama bamboo forest. Right next to the temple, there is a small network of alleys that are surrounded by tall, light green bamboo trees. Walking through here is just like walking through an enchanted forest. It is an experience like no other. Everything looks green and mysterious, and you can see the sun rays dancing through the trees when the sun is shining. I was almost expecting to see some fairies flying around! Of course this place was crowded with tourists, but I could sneak in some photos without the crowds.

Looks like a fairy tale right? While I walked through here, I thanked the person who had the idea to randomly plant hundreds of bamboo trees in this spot. We need more of those people!

After this walk, I made my way to a nearby viewpoint of the surrounding Arashiyama mountains and river. I ended my day with a walk by this river, where hundreds of couples were canoeing on. Arashiyama is a beautiful district, no matter which route you walk. This place was definitely one of the highlights for me.

Verdict: I would recommend Kyoto to anyone visiting Japan. I must say that the city centre is not that interesting at all (at least to me it wasn’t) – in that sense I liked the city centre of Osaka much more. But if you are ready to travel to the different districts around Kyoto’s centre, then you can experience some really nice, traditional Japanese atmosphere. This is especially because most people that come here (tourists as well) come dressed in traditional Kimonos, which makes the experience even more real. Also, like I mentioned above, in Gion you have the best chances to spot a Geisha! (But, remember to remain respectful when you see one, in recent years there have been more and more complaints about overly enthousiastic and even rude tourists.)


My trip to Arashiyama was my last one in Kyoto. After this, I headed towards my host university, Kwansei Gakuin University in Nishinomiya. Once I arrived in my student apartment, the situation around COVID-19 worsened in Japan as well and I went into self-quarantine. It was a lonely and scary experience, staying in a small apartment on my own, but that’s a story for another time. I stayed in my student apartment for two weeks, until I got news from the German government to return home. 

My last weeks in Japan might not have been what I wanted them to be, but that doesn’t take away my experience before that. Japan is a beautiful country, rich with culture and tradition. My trip to Japan was a bit like one of those music ballads: a really beautiful song that you want to keep listening to, but you can’t because it’s tragic at the same time. Of course I am sad that I could not see more, but I am also so happy that I could see a glimpse of it in the first place. I will come back one day to experience what I could not see yet, and to appreciate the country even more than I do now.

For now, I hope I could give you some helpful insights into the places I visited. At the moment the Coronavirus has most of us staying at home, but let’s hope that we can get back to exploring the world as soon as possible!

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The Danes and feminism

While I was strolling through the beautiful city of Copenhagen, not only organizations were on my list to interview. I was also interested in how individual people who live in Denmark experience gender (in-)equality in the country. One day I decided to visit the University of Copenhagen in hope of finding someone to talk to – the result are three conversations with four people who are currently living in Copenhagen. I have asked each of  them to tell me About their experiences with feminism.

Jerry, IT-worker

Experiences Denmark as gender equal, but that the topic doesn’t affect him much

I work in the IT-Department at the University. Personally, I have never had any direct experiences with feminism. I know that the situation for women is pretty good here in Denmark, just like Denmark is doing well in many other aspects as well. But I can also see that women are being treated equally at my work: There are just as many men as women working in IT nowadays. And in many other well-paying fields, there are even more women than men working/employed. There are certain professions that are prone to gender inequality but that’s not the case in the IT-department. I haven’t been working here long enough to say something about the past in IT though but today women are completely accepted if they work in IT, even if they do the ‘geeky’ stuff that would be considered as cliché men-stuff. In general, your job depends more on what you’re good at than on what gender you have. Gender unequal professions are maybe HR with more women, and in Public Health Sector nurses are often female while doctors are often male, although that is changing: today, more than 50% of medical students are female. But as I mentioned, the topic of gender is not something I think or talk about often with my friends. In the public debate it is often discussed, but not in my private life.

ME: And what do you think of the living Standards in Denmark in general? Do you like living here?

JERRY: I like Denmark. Our way of organizing society works really well, for example we have good measures that ensure that nobody will be too poor, everybody gets health insurance, and there are equal opportunities here. But to have all these things, we also have to pay relatively high taxes and share a lot of personal information with the government. And there are people that think it is intrusive what the government does with our private information, but for me that’s not a problem. I and many other Danes don’t see the government as something foreign but as a part of us, so that we can live with the intrusion into our privacy. Plus I don’t mind paying high taxes, because I know that it gives societal benefits in turn.
I think problem might be that people have fought hard for it in past, how our workplace is organized for example, it was a hard way. But nowadays people are getting a bit too used to how well we as a country are doing: more and more liberal voices are saying that we should pay less taxes. I think that is because people are getting spoiled; they forget how Danes before us have fought for an organized workplace and equal opportunities for everyone. And they also forget that high taxes pay off more in the long run, like when a family member falls sick and you need medical care for them. 

 


 

Diamond, international student from South-Sudan

A beautiful shot taken by Diamond herself

 

Denmark gives safety to the women living here

I am an international student from South-Sudan, and I’ve lived in Denmark for two years now. I don’t know all the updates on the feminism-debate in this country, but from what I can see, Denmark doesn’t keep a big difference between men and women. First of all, it is obvious that Denmark is a relatively safe environment for women to live in. For example, I don’t experience much catcalling here. I can go out at 2am in the night without major problems; in other places I have lived in that has been very different. I still remember the first time I went cycling in the night here in Denmark, all I could think of was ‘What if something happens, what if something happens’, because I had almost never done that before. So I feel very safe living here as a woman.
But it goes beyond just feeling safe: the government here is really taking measures to make things gender equal. The most striking thing for me in that sense is parental leave. After you have a child, the fathers actually also get days off work! I find that wonderful. And in general, I have seen that fathers spend a lot of time with their children here, be it outside in parks, going grocery shopping or doing other things together. It is really nice to see that fathers are so invested in their children’s lives. For someone like me who comes from a patriarchal society, that is very impressive.

ME: And how would you judge the gender equality in your study field?

DIAMOND: I am doing a full-time Master in Global Health with a specialization in Disease Burden, Challenges and Changes. I really enjoy my study, and I feel like my faculty is relatively gender balanced; the head of our department is a woman, for example. Also, the ratio between girls and boys studying with me in my faculty is 40/60 I would say. But I do feel like later in the job market, there is a global trend of men earning more than women; regarding this conflict, Denmark is making efforts to find a balance. In general I would say that Denmark is gradually trying to close the gender gap, for example their recently elected a female Prime Minister. All in all, I think Denmark is not completely at the top yet, but they are surely trying their best.

 


 

Ida and Laura, Danish teenagers

It can sometimes be dangerous for a girl here

IDA: I think men and women are really equal here, but I do feel like men get higher-paid jobs than women. Even though I feel like girls often give their best in school, sometimes even more so than boys, they still can’t manage to get certain jobs. 

ME: And if you compare to other countries in the world, are you happy to be a Danish woman?

LAURA: So if I compare to other countries, one really big and important thing for me is that in Denmark, women can choose who they want to be together with and who they want to marry. And the fact that women are easily able to get an education and a job here, that is also a big benefit about living in this part of the world. 

ME: And do you hear many people talking about gender equality in Denmark? Do you guys talk about it with each other?

IDA: No, we don’t hear it a lot. And we also don’t really talk about it with our friends. I think that’s maybe because gender-topics don’t affect us so much right now, as they may affect girls of our age in other countries. 

ME: And is there anything, any aspect of being a Danish woman, where you think ‘This needs to be changed’?

IDA: One aspect that I find difficult to deal with is the risk of being raped as a woman. You almost never hear that a man got raped, it’s almost always women who are victims of such crimes. And because of that, it can sometimes be scary to walk on the street at night. I don’t think you should be afraid to go out at night just because you are a girl or a woman. So that’s still an aspect that could be changed more – the safety of women. 

 


 

I really enjoyed talking to these people. Our conversations gave me a completely new look on feminism in Denmark: It is one thing to read about the progress Denmark has made in articles or on Wikipedia, but it is something entirely different to talk to people who actually get to experience the situation daily, in their everyday life. These interviews showed me how different your viewpoint about the same topic in the same country can be. While Jerry does not get affected much by the debate around feminism, Diamond, coming from a different country, can easily count the positive aspects of gender equality in Denmark compared to other places she has lived in. Ida and Laura, two Danish girls, on the other hand, are aware of the benefits of being a Danish woman, but also see threats that are still existing towards women in their country. This leads me to the impression that even though Denmark might have come quite far in gender equality compared to other countries, this does not necessarily mean that women or girls in Denmark feel safe or equally treated. Besides that, if you don’t want to be involved in the gender equality debate, that is also possible; the fact that Denmark deals with gender equality more than other countries, does not mean that everybody gets affected by this topic in their everyday life.

 

– Saira

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KULU – empowering women in development

I started off my series on Scandinavian feminism by meeting up with Kvindernes U-Landsudvalg (KULU) based in Copenhagen, an organization that is known to be a central contributor to women’s rights in Copenhagen and internationally. Even though the organization was on holiday officially, the Chair woman Janice Førde and secretariat coordinator Ruth Ejdrup Olsen were so friendly to give me an hour with them and have a talk in their main office.

ME: Thank you so much Janice and Ruth for sitting down with me! Let’s start at the beginning. How and why was KULU created?

JANICE: KULU was started 43 years ago in connection with the first UN women’s conference in Mexico in 1975. That was because even though that time was the beginning of the decade for Women’s development, development was still not really about women, they were rather left behind. So that’s how KULU actually started, with the mission to involve more women in development. The purpose of KULU was that member organizations would get together and ask: How can we achieve more gender equality in development? That was the start of it.
I myself became an activist in 1987/88, when I joined the Women’s House Association – it was called ‘Red Stockings’ back then – which is still a member organization of KULU today.

RUTH: 1975 was the International Women’s year and the start of the UN’s decade for women. In 1974, some Danish women organizations started to work together on giving information about women in developing countries. That was very rare information back then, because at that time people did not have so much knowledge about the situation for women in developing countries. Therefore, these Danish organizations decided it was time to spread such information. KULU’s mission today takes that a step further: We want to give information and also advocate for women’s rights in developing countries and in Denmark. And we do that by for example pushing government agendas to have more gender-sensitive policies. We have also started actual development coorperation with our Southern Partners.

ME: So do I understand it correctly that KULU acts as a lobbyist for its member organizations?

JANICE: Yes, but not entirely. We do things together with our 23 member organizations and advocate them on bigger platforms, but KULU has also had the role to actually influence their member organizations. For example, big organizations like Oxfam IBIS have asked us in the past to suggest women speakers for panel debates, and KULU has also been able to push for integrating women’s rights in macro-economic development issues. In that sense we have affected our NGO-partners. But yes, we do exist by fundraising.

RUTH: One important achievement that we had was in 1987, when we had a big role in the first ‘Women in Development Strategy’ for Denmark’s government. Back then we had invited partners from the South to advocate for this strategy. In accordance with the first International Women’s Conference in Mexico (1975), we agreed that all governments should include women’s rights and empowerment into their policies.

Janice Førde (to the right), Chair woman of KULU, and Ruth Olsen, secretariat coordinator of KULU

ME: Let’s talk about Denmark compared to the rest of the world: The fact that Denmark is positive about feminism is well-known. From the outer perspective it seems like you as a country have made it far regarding gender equality. Do you agree that you have come far, now that you have worked so closely around this topic for many years?

JANICE: In general, Denmark has been positive about feminism for a long time, but having words on paper that are nice is something different than the actual practice. So that’s our job and our members’ job, to make sure that those words are put into practice and into policies.
I think it is true that we are doing well in comparison to the rest of the world. But still, women are not equal to men here in Denmark. There is still a wage gap for the same work, pensions are lower for women for reasons such as maternity leaves, and so on. So there are a lot of areas where gender equality has not been reached yet, it still has to be worked on all the time. But I think that people here tend to relax and think ‘Oh we’re doing so well, we’re among the top’, but actually you have to keep fighting for the things you want because if you don’t, then the things you achieved could be turned back, and that’s not what you want. So I would say Denmark is pretty good – but there’s still work to do.

Denmark is doing pretty good, but you have to keep fighting for the things you want.

ME: And what would you say is the biggest challenge for the Danish woman today?

JANICE: Certainly one big challenge we have today is the inequality on the labour market. For example, the type of access that women have to certain jobs like managerial positions, etc. Regarding women in leadership, Denmark is actually still very low compared to other countries, today we have up to only 6% of women in leadership positions. One factor that causes this is that men in leadership positions tend to recruit men, and you would think that women on the other hand would tend to recruit women, but unfortunately also some women might rather recruit men.

ME: Oh, that’s suprising!

JANICE: Yes, and this leads to the situation that we still have today, namely inequality on the job market. But it’s hard to say if that is the biggest challenge we have today, because there is still so much work to do.

ME: So as you mentioned, there is still work to do in Denmark, but you also work on the international platform. Where does the focus lay for KULU? More on the national or on the international level?

JANICE: It’s both levels: we have to advocate and influence our colleagues but also the government and the officials (that’s the national level), and since we are a part of the EU we also go up to the EU-level. In Europe we are members of the WIDE+ Network (Women in Development Europe Plus) which is based in Brussles since 1985. It has been our linking advocacy office towards EU policy: WIDE+ has member organizations but also individual members; and in 2012 due to the economic problems it was temporarily closed but later opened again. We’re part of the network, and we’re working on getting funds for it, as it has been a very important source of advocacy towrards the EU. On the international level there are UN bodies like the ‘Commission on the Status of Women’ each year in which we want to participate and do activities aorund the priority and review topics. So as you can see, we are active in a number of processes on different levels.


Info: The ‘Commission on the Status of Women’ (CSW) is a functional commission of the United Nations Economic and Social Council. The CSW works as the UN organ that promotes gender equality and women empowerment. The commission holds an annual two-week session with representatives of UN member states, civil society organizations (such as KULU) and UN entities at the headquarters in New York. Together they review progress in implementing the Beijing Platform for Action (1995) and its subsequent updates and dicuss processes and gaps in the global gender equality.


And not to forget, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is very important for us which also operates on the international level as well as national levels. Our main focus areas are SDGs 1 (No Poverty), 4 (Quality Education), 5 (Gender Equality), 10 (Reduce Inequalities within and among countries), 13 (Climate Action), 16 (Peace, Justice & Strong Institutions) and 17 (Partnerships for the Goals).


Info: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development contains a plan of action to achieve peace and prosperity for people and the planet. At its heart lie the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 17 goals that if achieved hope to make the world poverty-free, gender equal and prosperous.


ME: On the national level, how exactly do you try to press the Danish government to implement more gender-sensitive policies?

JANICE: Regarding our member organizations, we coorperate with member organizations such as MS-ActionAid and Oxfam IBIS because they are active around SDG 10. For example, now we are planning some joint activities, including a public meeting to get the word out there. Also, we have a Southern partner connection. If we want to influence authorities on the other hand, we have meetings and activites with different parliament members and/or government officials. We can count several political parties among our members: the Social Democrats, the Red-Green Party, the Socialistic Peoples Party and the Social-Liberal Party. We also have meetings with DANIDA which is the development wing of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs here in Denmark.

ME: Judging from the broad range of activities that KULU engages in, I can imagine that your member organizations also come from diverse backgrounds. Can you give examples of the member organizations within KULU today?

JANICE: We do have some very big organizations like Oxfam IBIS and MS-ActionAid which are very busy with their own programs as well, so we are always trying to find ways to enhance our coorperation. Another one would be the Danish Women’ Society which has been very active sitting on KULU’s board and doing projects together with KULU.
Danish Women’s Society has been really pushing against the everyday sexism which has been like a campaign, looking at how women and girls are subjected to sexism daily. This campaign was started even before the #MeToo movement. People could write on their Website and share their stories for example. So we as a development organization are mainly focused on women’s rights and empowerment in development, while some of our member organizations like the Danish Women’s Society are busy with the national conditions here in Denmark, like the everyday sexism against women. Another big problem that girls are facing today is so-called ‘revenge porn’, where especially men are sharing intimate pictures of their girlfriends on the internet, and there have been Danish women who have come forward with their stories and have become spokespersons for this topic. We as KULU can then draw on their information and connect these members with our Southern Partners for example.

ME: It’s very interesting to see how your organization works to advocate other organizations, and how that works both on the national and the international level.

JANICE: Yes it is! I think the fact that we are an umbrella organization gives us strength to accomplish certain things. I remember that some years ago, there was a trend among organizations to form cooperations and communicate with each other; but some time later, another trend started where organizations wanted to prove and improve themselves, so the communication among each other got lost for a large part. But as an umbrella organization, we can now enhance the communication again, and we can show that all our member organizations have strength. For example, there have been moments when we have been working on something and one of our member organizations had the expertise on the topic so they cooperated with us on the issue.
Another benefit of being an umbrella organization is that we know a lot of people that are experts in their fields. And so it has happened in the past that we have been able to suggest such female experts to member organizations for a meeting, like ‘we can get you into contact with this or this expert’, and when we do that we mostly refer female experts to them. That is a really nice thing because most of these internatinal panels consist only of men and they don’t even know female experts that they could recruit for their panels, so we can bring them into contact with the female experts that we know. There are so many female experts in all these areas, and we are always happy to suggest such women to our member organizations. That is an important role that we have, and it is an example of how the national and the international level are linked.

Most organizations don’t know female experts themselves. [Therefore] KULU is always happy to suggest such women to our member organizations to improve gender equality.

ME: From what we have talked about so far, it seems that there is a broad range of activities that KULU engages in. I would be interested in how a day of work in KULU looks like?

JANICE: Yes that’s very true, we are working with far too many issues at the same time, and unfortunately we have too few people that are actively engaged here in KULU. So most of the time it’s like juggling balls in the air while at the same time trying to focus on the things that have to get out of the door. The daily work is trying to deal with multiple issues.

ME: And how many members do you have exactly?

JANICE: So we have 21 member organizations that all count as 1 member although they can have hundreds of members within their organization. Apart from these 21 member organizations we have around 300 individual members which is actually not enough for all the work we do here at KULU. Therefore we always try to engage more active members. But we also have working groups, for example on partnerships with women’s organizations in DR Congo and in Mali at the moment. When KULU and these working groups have meetings, we also try to encourage people to work together with us on issues and thereby become an active member of KULU.

ME: Do you feel that now that feminism has become more ‘popular’, there are also more people who are willing to be active in feminist organizations like KULU?

JANICE: So for a long time, the word ‘feminist’ was a radical, dirty word. Now it’s back ‘in style’ which is quite interesting. It’s not because the political content of feminism has changed, but just the way we look at it today has changed.

‘Feminist’ used to be a radical and a dirty word

But I don’t know if that is making people also more active in feminist organizations. I certainly hope so! One thing that I do notice is that there is the risk that other ‘popular’ topics may overshadow the topic of gender equality so to say, for example the topic of climate change. I completely agree that climate change calls for urgent action, and KULU has also worked with gender-justice in climate change in Mali, but we should not forget about the links to other topics that are also important such as gender equality.

ME: With so many issues that have to be worked on, how do you as an organization agree on which issues to focus on?

JANICE: That is mostly decided in our annual meetings. One thing we do is take the SDGs as a reference point. All SDGs have to be implemented of course, and one of our goals is to get a gender-perspective into all 17 SDGs. We try to do it in connection with the different partnerships that we have, like in Mali and in DR Congo at the moment. Also, our 2030-agenda working group has a goal which is to get 17 active members in the group.

ME: Janice and Ruth, it has been a pleasure talking to you both. Thank you very much for your time! I have one last question: How can you volunteer for KULU and become an active member?

JANICE: It would be great to see new faces here at KULU! If you are interested, you can join a working group that you affiliate with; and if it works out then you are able to influence something in that specific area and you can ‘own’ that issue. An individual can do a lot in KULU if they are active. And, also non-Danish individuals can volunteer with KULU, in the international work groups for example. We always encourage volunteers to send a CV along so that we can see how and where they can fit into what we are working on at the moment.

ME: That sounds great! KULU sounds like a great opportunity to achieve something for gender equality! I applaud the work you are doing here, and look forward to the next projects KULU will tackle! Thank you for your time again!


If you are interested in the working groups KULU is working on at the moment, go visit their website www.kulu.dk (also available in English!)
For people who are interested to volunteer at KULU, you can send an email to kulu@kulu.dk

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Copenhagen – Impressions

Before I went to Copenhagen, I expected my visit to be rather underwhelming: My google-search made me feel like the city was comparable to any big European city. When I actually arrived here, I was on the contrary, verysurprised. I must admit that Copenhagen took my heart by storm. My prior expectations did come true in the sense that Copenhagen is ‘just’ another big European city with nice architecture and great shopping options. But what I didn’t expect to find here was the amount of personality in the city. Even though you are in a capital city, you don’t get lost in anonymity and in ‘mainstream’ shops and lokale. There are two big streets for the shopping lovers and brand-hunters, but otherwise, each street has its own charm, with pretty little shops that all have their own vibe going on. On top of that, Copenhagen is full of beautiful picturesque buildings, that all contribute to the old city charm – and I surely underestimated just how nice it is to walk in such old streets!. And not to forget, the ease with which Danish people seem to go about their day is highly contaminating!
Obviously I also had an agenda for coming to the city – to inquire on gender equality in Denmark. In the following, here are some impressions of Copenhagen and how the city deals with gender equality.

Female traffic Lights

 

I have not seen this anywhere else than in Copenhagen yet. In some crossings, the pedestrian traffic light symbols showed a female figure instead of a male! There are already some big cities around the world that have made traffic lights more ‘female friendly’, for example some streets in Melbourne, Australia, and in Madrid, Spain. We are all so used to seeing a red or green man up there on the street lights, that we probably don’t even notice anymore that it’s always a male figure and never a female. Copenhagen did notice and decided that a woman also deserves to tell us when to wait or when to walk. Something that never even crossed my mind!
However, the idea to show female figures on traffic lights is not taken up positively by everyone. The biggest argument against this change has been that cities should rather tackle more ‘serious’ problems such as unemployment and criminality.

Female Warriors

Part of the Nationalmuseet (Danish National Museum) is an exhibition on the Vikings, since they make up part of Danish history.
The exhibition is now being showcased in a prime place within the museum and pays a lot of attention to the women of the Viking era as well, to the extent that the only posters that I could find while roaming around the city, showed female Vikings and no men! A clear statement that says that women could also be strong warriors. This feminist message can also be found on the website of the museum itself where an entire page is dedicated to the Viking woman. Here, Scandinavia during the Viking era is called the ‘pioneer of equal opportunities’: women could already then choose themselves who they wanted to marry and had the right to divorce. In general, Viking women seem to have possessed more freedom and rights than women elsewhere in that time.

This poster has a clear feminist message: Women can also be warriors.

To be honest, I didn’t expect that at all. So for me, this was very interesting to learn and I can therefore recommend visiting this exposition in case you want to learn something new about the Vikings! But I must also say that it seemed to me as if the museum was trying to convey the most positive message about Viking women as possible, and the fact that I could only find posters with Viking women felt a bit strange to me. In general, there is a fine line between advocating for equal rights of the genders, of for more rights of women. And I find it quite interesting to see how different organizations, like the Danish National Museum, interpret feminism in different ways.

Prime Minister

Mette Frederiksen

In the end of June, Denmark elected its new government. For the second time in a row, a woman was elected for prime minister, this time a woman that is the youngest Danish prime minister to ever be elected (Mette Frederiksen is 41 years old). In addition to that, Frederiksen’s has recently selected a pregnant woman as Minister of Culture, a quite uncommon thing to see. This caused quite a fuzz in the country, since the Minister (Joy Mogensen) is a single mother and people are questioning her ability to raise her child single handedly and performing her job at the same time. By selecting her for this job, Frederiksen sent a clear message to employers across the country.

In general, my first impression of Copenhagen was very positive. So far, the general idea that Scandinavia, and therefore also Denmark are high up in gender equality, has been more confirmed than disconfirmed. What I don’t know yet however, is how people and organizations think about this topic. To find out more about this, my next post will be an interview with KULU, an organization that is a central contributor to the women’s rights in Denmark and for women internationally. After that, I will interview individual people on the streets on their experiences and opinion with feminism in Denmark. And lastly, on my way back home in two weeks, I will stop by the Danish city of Aarhus and visit their Women’s Museum. I am curious to see if the organizations and people in Denmark experience it the same way that the world does!

Stay tuned!

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Feminism – the Scandinavian story

Hey guys!

It is summertime again and for me it’s time to continue exploring feminism in a new corner of the world. And my second stop is – Scandinavia!
Starting from next week, I will go on a road trip through Denmark, Sweden and Norway. This means a lot of travelling but also new posts, this time about women in Scandinavia. I expect this to be veery different than what we saw in Morocco, not to say the opposite: while Morocco for a large part is trying to fix more basic problems in the gender gap like autonomous choice of partner and the right to pursue a certain job, Scandinavia has worked itself through most layers of the gender gap and is now busy with the top layers like equal respresentation of men and women in top position jobs. But let’s have a look at what exactly makes Scandinavia so interesting.

In many respects, the Scandinavian countries have made it to the top of the list. High living standards, good infrastructure, and a global leader in terms of green energy and innovation are only some of the positive aspects Scandinavia is famous for. One aspect that is of particular interest to me, is the quite low gender gap compared to the rest of the world. Many issues of gender inequality are already ‘solved’ in Scandinavia: gender equality in the public sector is as high as almost nowhere else in the world, there are genereous maternity leaves, and men and women are almost equally represented in parliament, just to name a few things. Sweden even calls itself the ‘first feminist government’ in the world – a quite bold statement. When taking a closer look at Sweden’s political parties, this doesn’t even seem so far-fetched anymore. Many Swedish parties have feminism included in their programme, and several political parties are led by women.

Sweden’s Deputy Prime Minister Isabella Lovin surrounded by a group of women. This photo supposedly is a mock against Trump signing the anti-abortion measure.

However, issues of gender inequality remain. In the private sector for example, men are greatly overrepresented in management positions. And also Scandinavian people experience daily sexism, but it is definitely a completely different league than most other countries.
After having been to Morocco, I am looking forward to getting to know life as a woman in the area that calls itself the ‘most feminist part of the world’. Is it really that amazing to be a woman here? And what struggles do women experience on a daily? What is there to improve?

But let’s first dive into what and where Scandinavia is. Most commonly, the term Scandinavia includes the countries Denmark, Norway and Sweden. It’s still debated whether Finland and Iceland should be counted in as well but for convenience, we will count only Denmark, Norway and Sweden. One of the major reasons that the majority of people think of this specific array of countries as one group is the fact that the three countries all speak languages that stem from Germanistic languages. Also nice to know: Scandinavia is the birthplace of the Vikings!

Denmark

Being the southernmost country of Scandinavia, Denmark lies above Germany at the North Sea and the Baltic Sea and has more than 400 islands. Don’t get fooled by its relatively small size  – Denmark is repeatedly reported to be the happiest country in the world! Also, the Danish landsize is actually not even that small: the giant country of Greenland belongs to the Kingdom of Denmark as well. It is seen as one of the most liberal and open-thinking places in the world, also regarding women’s rights. The capital of Denmark is Copenhagen.

A look at Nyhavn pier with colorful buildings and boats in the Old Town of Copenhagen

Sweden

Apart from free-roaming Moose (which I would honestly loove to see), Sweden is a pretty amazing country as well. To the sides it lays imbedded between Finland and Norway and touches the Baltic Sea. In many ways, Sweden paves the way: for example in recycling. Sweden is so good at recycling that nowadays it even imports the waste of other countries like Norway. That’s the way to go! Also, Sweden has lifted the legal ban from gay relationships since 1944 (!) and has one of the smallest gender gaps in the world (more info about this in my post about Sweden!). Another nice fact for especially travellers: Sweden is one of the few countries in the world where it is allowed to camp anywhere in the nature you want. Considering the amazingly beautiful landscapes in Sweden – thumbs up!

Stockholm, the capital of Sweden

Norway

Last but not least, Norway is the biggest and northernmost Scandinavian country. The northernmost point of Norway is infact so much up north, that you might think yourself to be at the North Pole – lots of ice and twice as many polarbears as humans inhabit this area.

Honningvag, the northernmost city of Norway, illustrates how far up north the country reaches

This doesn’t make Norway a sad or depressed country, since it ranks quite high on the global happiness scale. Apart from Honningsvag, more interesting things can be found in the north of the country: during summer you get to experience the sun that never goes down (the midnight sun) and during winter the amazing polar lights can be viewed here for several weeks. Also, Norway is home to more than 1,000 Fjords which is the highest concentration of Fjords in the world and attracts many tourists to the country every year.
Like its sister countries, Norway can showcase one of the highest living standards of the world along with a comprehensive social welfare system. The capital of Norway is Oslo.

Norway has the biggest amount of fjords worldwide, and they all look like the playground for a mystical saga

As you can see, the Scandinavian countries seem to be quite comparable in terms of quality of life and happiness index. Earlier we saw that also in terms of gender equality, all three countries seem to have reached a high level. But are the countries really that comparable? Or are the differences within Scandinavia bigger than one would expect? And how is life as a woman in each of these countries?
These and more questions I aim to answer in the next three weeks. I hope you enjoyed the first post of this new series – and that you will stick with me on my journey through the Nordic region!

 

 

 

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The start of a new journey

If a few years ago anyone would have told me that I would be here writing my first blog post, I would have probably rolled my eyes up to the ceiling. But apparently, miracles do happen.

Hey guys!

My name is Saira and I am currently studying psychology. Like so many other students, I imagined my studies to be something like a magical wand that would open my eyes to the hidden secrets of life: Who am I? Who do I want to be? What do I want to do with my life?

And it went that way, well, at least kind of. I still don’t know the answers to the big mysteries in the world. And I still don’t know why dinosaurs went extinct. But apart from that, I do have a much clearer picture about myself.

I have changed the way I think about life. Up until two years ago, I followed a very boring and unsatisfying way of living. I was staying on the safe side, had a strict plan for how my studies would go, when and which job I would pursue, and I would punish myself whenever I failed to follow my plan. In short, I tried to live an unremarkable life that would please the people around me. This attitude led to a lot of insecurities, and no personal happiness. But the last two years changed my way of thinking. I definitely needed a push and some major life lessons… But that is a story for another time.

So, who am I today? I have grown into a positive-minded person who wants to pursue her dreams – even if that means going against all odds. Although for someone in my situation, that can be difficult.

Let’s talk about this blog!

The first question popping up in your head after landing on this blog probably was: What the hell does parindah mean? So let’s take care of that question first. Parindah is the Urdu word for bird (For anyone who has no idea what Urdu is: it is one of the official national languages of Pakistan). Next question: Why did I choose bird to be the name of this blog?  Well, for two reasons. First of all, since my childhood, my family and friends have been lovingly calling me parindah, and that is because of how my nose is shaped! When I laugh (and I laugh A LOT), my nose bends a little downwards, just like a bird’s beak. Yeah, I have a very funny family…

The second reason for this name is at the same time the reason I started this blog. As I said, I have not always been someone who stands up for herself. On the contrary, I used to bow my head down to what other people told me. In a way, I felt like my culture expected this behavior of me.

But let’s go back in time. My family originally comes from a small village in Pakistan. Since my birth, we have lived in Europe. This makes me someone who stands halfway in two cultures: the Pakistani culture and the western culture. I am extremely grateful to have grown up in both these worlds – both gave me their own valuable norms and traditions. Both have made me the person I am today.

But it was not always easy. In Europe, I saw how women could do basically anything they wanted, from being a singer to being a doctor. Not bound to many expectations, it seemed so easy for them to pursue their personal dreams. (Of course the situation in Europe was or is not that uncomplex – this is just how my young eyes perceived the world.) In my family’s village in Pakistan, the situation was a bit different. There it was more common to stay at home as a woman, with your own happiness being much more intertwined with your family’s happiness. I personally don’t think that this lifestyle made the women in the village less happy, in fact they seemed to be very content with their lives.

But that was not really the life I wanted to have. And at that point in my life, this was a very difficult situation for me.

Who is my rolemodel? Do I have to choose between the two cultures? And if I try both, which values should I pick from each?

Questions over questions. I didn’t know which side to turn to. I still remember so clearly that throughout my youth, I would have phases when I’d feel more western, and phases when I’d feel more Pakistani. But to learn how to get the best out of both worlds, man, that was a long ass way.

My Pakistani background didn’t force me to go a specific direction but still, I personally felt obliged to follow the cultural norms of my village. By now I know that I don’t want to live a life feeling forced to do this or that. I welcome and appreciate both my cultures, but I now want to choose myself which values of each will follow me along the path.

Just like the younger me, I know that so many young girls are in a similar situation – standing between two cultures and not knowing which side to turn to.

And this is why I started this blog.

I’m writing for like-minded people, or people who just want to follow my own journey. A journey of someone who is trying to find her happiness by going out of her way. Breaking free from expectations and conventions, maybe even going unconventional ways? Who knows… Just someone who is trying to spread her wings like a parindah. Among other things, writing this blog is my way of being free.

I want to share my own journey with you guys, and I want to go beyond that. In the following blog posts, I will be travelling to Morocco to talk to other women about their lives, struggles and dreams. This will be the start of a series of posts on women and their role in society.

I have always loved talking to other people about their unique life stories, and this topic in particular intrigues me very much. I have had problems finding my own worth as a woman in the past, and I am very excited to hear other stories about this topic.

So what can you expect from this blog?

A lot of talking about me. My personal life, travel blogs, basically just about anything. And unique life stories of other women around the world!

Are you just as excited as I am? Yes? Then I hope to see you around more often!

xx Saira

Disclaimer

All my experiences are completely subjective and do not intend to hurt anyone. I am not talking about the culture as a whole but rather about my very personal situation and experience.

Sweden: feminism in progress

My first day at the Gay Pride 2019 began at the Pride House. (For those of you who don’t know what the Pride House is, read my last post here!)
I was really excited that day, probably even the most excited from all my interviews I have ever held before. Why? Because this was my first time talking about the LGBTQ movement. Up until now, I have focused on the heteronorm perspective: There are men and women, and they don’t get treated the same. But (hopefully) everyone knows that that’s not the whole gender-story. A large part of the world does not identify as the sex they were born into. Therefore, it is really important for anyone who talks about gender equality to also talk about the LGBTQ movement.

In this article, you will read my conversation with Anna Stendin, an activist at the front of the LGBTQ movement in Sweden and speaker at the Pride House. Anna has worked with the anti-discrimination bureau of Uppsala, a city close to Stockholm, for the past seven years and educates companies and organizations on discrimination. I had the pleasure to talk to them about their work in more detail (Anna is a nonbinary trans which means that they don’t identify as either man or woman. They ask others to use they and them as personal pronouns when talking about Anna in third person).


Hey guys, my name is Anna! I work in one of Sweden’s 17 anti-discrimination NGOs. To be more specific, I work on educating others about anti-discrimination in all parts of Swedish society. We mostly do our work through lawyers who help with the legal processes at court or who give free legal advice to people that have been discriminated.
There are seven grounds of discrimination in Swedish law, which all have been a topic in my work one time or the other. Two of these grounds are specifically aimed to protect sexual orientation and transgender identity and/or expression.


To understand discrimination in Sweden, it is important to understand it’s seven grounds. The Swedish Discrimination Act defines the seven grounds of discrimination as following: it is prohibited by law to discriminate against someone based on their sex, transgender identity or expression, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation and age.

While this seemingly includes many areas, the Act it a civil act which only protects certain, designated areas in society, such as working life, education, health care and some more. This means that the Discrimination Act does not protect situations that take place between private individuals such as neighbours or friends. Also, the content of TV and radio is not regulated, even if it is being discriminatory.

This can lead to problems when such private conflicts arise and cannot be helped by the law. However, in that case other laws can protect crimes between private persons.


In my work, the aim is to educate on how to prevent discrimination and promote equality through identifying these norms and structures. For example, one social norm is the idea that everybody is ‘born heterosexual’. Many, if not most people believe in that social norm. But that means that everybody who is not heterosexual, like lesbians, gays, bi- or pansexuals, falls outside of what has been considered ‘normal’. Since our society is not built around the idea of accepting all sexualities, most people who are not ‘straight’ experience discrimination at some point in their lives. It’s important to identify these social norms because they are so embedded into our societies.

One social norm is the idea that is everybody is ‘born heterosexual’. And most people believe it.


What’s also important in my job is to identify the legal background: What is discrimination from a legal perspective? Many people have been discriminated against in their everyday life because of their sexuality or their race or some disability they might have, but often the law does not consider these situations discrimination. For your understanding, there are certain areas in Swedish society that are protected, that means that if you are being discriminated in a protected situation, you can seek legal help. Other situations, for example acts between private persons, are often not protected by the Civil Discrimination Act – in other words, not legally considered a discrimination. In those cases we can help our clients with information on where to report or turn for the help they need. In our work, when we meet clients, we first dissect the law and try to see how we can use the law to help the people in question. Ideally, we can figure something out that can help in a court session or to write a complaint to a company, for example.

And so the educational part of my job comes in again – I look at what can be done before the discrimination even happens – such as educating each other about the unequal social norms we might have.

ME: So who exactly do you educate about this problem?

It depends on where we get invited or asked to be! Today, the workshop and panel discussions I have been part of at the Pride House has been in collaboration with other NGOs and a Swedish study organization. But I have also often work with the municipality of Uppsala, a city north of Stockholm. One job that we have been doing for the municipality in collaboration with a LGBTQ NGO called RSFL, is to educate employees of the municipality on LGBTQ issues and normcritical perspectives (on social services, schools, pre-schools and nursing homes). And we also do a lot of lectures about the Discrimination Act and inform the public, students, employees, NGOs and others interested in these issues about the work we do.

ME: So are you particularly interested in educating others on discrimination against the LGBTQ community?

To me personally, it feels racist, and even colonial to call Sweden the best.

No, not per se. Well, I am transgender myself, so I do have a personal angle. But we work with all grounds of discrimination in my job. Perhaps because we have a lot of experience with the topic, we are often asked to do an educational workshop on discrimination against the LGBTQ-community. Also, I wouldn’t like to take a job if I didn’t know what I was talking about. For example, when we get questions like ‘Could you look over this questionnaire, is this sensitive enough from a transgender’s perspective?’, it’s really important to know what you’re talking about.

But apart from this topic, we have also collaborated with organisations to raise awareness for topics like racism on the internet. We don’t really choose one area of discrimination that we want to educate about, we just happen to have experience on discrimination against members of the LGBTQ-community, and so we’re often involved in these issues.

ME: So would you say that you had personal experience with discrimination against transgenders and therefore got into this job?

Previously, I worked as a mechanic for cars and busses. Because I am a woman by birth, people often asked me questions like ‘What’s it like to be a female mechanic?’. So, gender played in how I was treated and valued as a mechanic. That was one experience of being treated differently than my male colleagues.

ME: To come back to the Pride, how is the general situation for the LGBTQ community like in Sweden?

Sweden has a history of being an open environment for feminist movement. Many areas of Swedish society put an effort on issues related to gender equality and a lot of people in Sweden seem to generally feel like this country is the best in that area. But to me personally, it feels really racist to say that, or even colonial. Sweden is reaching out to teach other countries on how to ‘become more feminist’ but when it comes down to it, Sweden still has huge problems itself. I think there is this blown-up idea about the feminist Swedisch government. It takes away the focus from other grounds of discrimination.

It’s a huge problem that LGBTQ asylum seekers experience difficult processes and lack of protection in Sweden.

ME: So you’re talking about the fact that although Sweden seems to be so far ahead, there are still areas to work on. Could you describe that in more detail?

The work that is being done here in Sweden is of course giving us more rights, and the law is being changed in good ways. As an example, a few years ago members of the LGBTQ community could not get married but could only become registered partners. That is one thing that has changed by now. Also, transgender rights were improved in 2014 when the long struggle to end sterilization of transgender persons wanting to change legal sex was won by activists who managed to change the law.

But on the other hand, there is still so much work to do here. For example, even though Sweden looks so progressive, there are still only two registered genders in this country, either man or woman.

Or the fact that we have very outdated parenting laws: At my work we are working on one case right now of two mothers whose child was born in Spain. And both women are officially mothers to the child according to Spanish law. But when they moved to Sweden, one of them was forced to adopt the child she already was a mother to, so that Swedish authorities would consider her the mother. In this case, Sweden is much less progressive than Spain.

Also from a global migration perspective, it’s a huge problem that LGBTQ asylum seekers experience difficult processes and lack of protection in Sweden even though they have a legal right to protection and asylum because they are LGBTQ. The Swedish government deports LGBTQ asylum seekers although they know they have no rights in their countries of origin. So again, the Swedish government is claiming to be feminist and supportive of the LGBTQ community, but that support and perspective is not applied to migration politics. Sweden is acting totally colonial in wanting to change other countries but at the same time not giving asylum to people who need it. That is a huge problem, I think.

Another issue that arises now and then is transphobic opinions within the feminist movement. This includes discussions criticizing identity politics and often resulting in very hateful opinions from certain part of ‘feminist movement’ towards transgender individuals and movement.

A recent trans issue in Sweden is transphobia directed towards trans kids. There are constant backlashes in public opinion which effects young transgender rights to health care. Last winter for example, there was a media storm related to a public service program about transgender youth. Without facts and consent, media criticized the system of mental and medical support available to young transgender persons in Sweden. And these opinions affect the reality of young trans kids.

ME: What’s the reason behind these transphobic views in your opinion?

Well, this way of interpreting feminism is from a heteronormative perspective. The idea that people are born with, and identify with one of two very opposite genders causes a huge problem for everyone. When feminism is used in such a narrow way, very many are excluded, not only transgenders.

The reasons for transphobic opinion towards young trans kids in specific are many. One being the heteronormative perspective. Another is the recent global increase in the amount of trans folks coming out which confuses people who don’t understand this. A third reason I think is ageism. Adults and society have a hard time listening to young people’s experiences in general.

Homo, bi and trans people of colour experience a double-oppression in Sweden.

ME: I am a person of colour. You mentioned that it is difficult to identify as LGBTQ anyway, but it is even more difficult to identify as LGBTQ if you’re a person of colour. Could you tell me more about that?

Yes that’s true. I am not a person of colour myself but I see daily how racism is one of the biggest problems Swedish society faces. And I can definitely say that homo, bi and transphobia affect people of colour in a way that intersects with racism. So a form of double-oppression. Which is of course more difficult to deal with because it’s more complex and strikes from different angles.

ME: Last question. What’s the Pride for you?

The first pride was a riot, and it should continue to be since it is a place to continue fighting for our rights. I know it’s very contradictory to be in a capitalistic place like this (The Clarion Hotel) if you’re actually rioting. I mean, the Clarion Hotel is inviting the Pride but it’s actually about selling themselves. But nevertheless, the Pride is a moment to remind ourselves that we are still not done, so the riot for our rights has to go on.


This is what I thought before I coming to Sweden: Sweden is at the top when it comes to feminism. But I was wrong. Feminism does not only include gender equality between men and women, but gender equality between all genders. That means also homo, bi, trans people and all the genders that exist.

My conversation with Anna has been very eye-opening about the situation in Sweden. Like many people, I looked at Sweden in this glorious way of being the top of civilized society. But maybe it is colonial to think that we can ‘look up’ to Sweden for tips. Every country has their own reality and issues, also Sweden. Some countries still have to fight for voting rights for women, while other countries – like Sweden – treat men and women equally, but don’t give equal rights to other genders beyond these two.

A major problem that Sweden still has to deal with is the tradition of seeing heterosexuality as the norm. Even though many organizations are trying to raise awareness about this problem, most people still believe in it. Unless the majority of people becomes more open-minded to other sexual orientations, the LGBTQ community will continue to be seen as less. This is definitely an issue about Sweden that I did not think about earlier.

Racism is another big obstacle in Sweden’s fight for feminism. It is horrible to hear that asylum seeking LGBTQ people do not receive asylum by Sweden. This is a problem that goes even further than just discrimination – if LGBTQ refugees return to their home country, they could even face imprisonment because of their sexual orientation. This is an issue that clearly shows that Sweden has not achieved ideal gender equality yet.

Also, each country has their own set of obstacles that stand in the way of gender equality. For some it’s poverty, for some it’s religion, for some it’s politics. Therefore I don’t think it’s fair to look to other countries for tips because each country should have their own, custom way of tackling gender issues.

Still, in some situations it does make sense to copy Sweden. Countries with a similar social system like Germany, the Netherlands or France could actually learn from Sweden. But they have to remember that Sweden is not the ideal for gender equality.

Sweden still has a ladder to climb before it can reach true gender equality. And until then, no country – also not Sweden- holds the right to school other countries on how to improve their feminism.

Stockholm – the 2019 Gay Pride

After Denmark, I drove further to Sweden. Luck was on my side: by pure coinicidence, during my time in Stockholm, the Gay Pride took place. It was a truly special experience that I won’t forget so soon. It felt like the whole city and all its citizens were coloured in the colors of the rainbow. Signs with cheerful sayings decorated almost every cafè and even public transport busses held up flags in support of the Pride.


Before I was at the Pride (short for: Gay Pride), I honestly knew almost nothing about it. I didn’t know why the Gay Pride was held, and I also had close to no knowledge on what it means to be something else than straight. I had an idea what it means to be homosexual, sure, and bi- and transsexual were familiar terms to me as well, but that really was the limit of my knowledge.

So, I was eager to broaden my mind. I picked up my camera and my audio recorder, grabbed my sunnies and my backpack, and headed towards Stockholm city center. Since I didn’t know much myself, I guessed that my best option was to talk to people who were actually in Stockholm to celebrate the Pride. I visited the Pride House, the Pride Park and the Parade (you’ll find more information about each of them further below). In the end I sat down with four amazing experts on the topic: Anna, a LGBTQ activist at the front in Sweden, Emilia, a transgender woman, and Marie and Louise, members of RFSL, a Swedish LGBTQ NGO (I will be posting my conversations with them in the upcoming weeks!). For now, I want to share my first impressions of Stockholm during the Gay Pride 2019 with you.

I apologize in advance if I say anything that is not one hundred percent correct; I am trying to learn and grow as a person everyday and I am just at the start of my learning journey. I’m truly sorry if I offend anyone by anything I say, please let me know in the comments below if that is the case!

Stockholm

Let’s start with the city itself. What a surprise Stockholm was! Wherever I looked, beautiful old buildings decorated the streetside. Along with countless trees and parks, it was a delight to walk through the streets for hours.

The city center looked a lot like this photo right here. Narrow streets were surrounded by tall houses.

The Pride

Being in Stockholm during the summer, it was clear to see that the Pride had taken over the city. Apart from rainbow-colored decorations everywhere, the actual Pride took place in three main events: Pride House, Pride Park and the Parade.
For anyone who doesn’t know: every summer, the Gay Pride is held to celebrate equal rights for everyone to be who they want to be – whether that’s straight, homosexual, queer, transgender or something else – and to have the right to love whoever you want to love.

Pride House

The Pride House was a gathering point for intellectual conversations and personal story sharing of LGBTQ persons. For the course of three days, lectures, workshops and debates were presented here. Since my first goal was to learn more about the Pride, the Pride House was the perfect place for me to start.

The Pride House, held at Clarion Hotel in Stockholm

While a large part of the Pride was the celebration of love, life and human rights, Pride House cherished the importance of discussing issues and challenges for the LGBTQ community. Here, organizations, companies, political parties and individuals could come together and share their experiences and their opinions. Here, I met with two women and talked about their experiences with being a member of the LGBTQ community.
First I sat down with Anna Stendin, member of an anti-discrimination NGO in Sweden and trans herself.
After my talk with Anna, I took a small break to eat some fries at the bar. Then I went to meet up with Emilia Larsdotter, a transgender woman who shared her touching personal life story with me.

To read about these conversations in-depth, keep an eye out for my next posts! I will publish my interviews with Anna and Emilia in the next few weeks.

Pride Park

Pride Park was a huge festival area full of live-music, games and food. This was definitely part of the celebration, and I came here right after the Pride House. They also made it super easy to do that: the whole week, so-called ‘Pridebusses’ drove you from Pride House to Pride Park and the other way around. If you had bought a ticket to one of these events, then you could take a ride on the Pridebus for free – very convenient.

Pridebus picking us up from Pride House

I initially came to Pride Park to talk to more people about the Pride and its meaning. But when I arrived here, I got so swept up into the party mood around me, and I had to postpone the interviews for a bit. There was so much to see: concerts, stand-up comedy, poetry readings and more were on the program. Classic festival-food trucks and food stands with flavors from all around the world offered a nice break from all the noise. And among all these stands, there were plenty of information stands as well: Here I took a break to talk to Marie and Louise from RFSL. RFSL is the National Association for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer rights in Sweden and has projects in many different countries around the globe. It is also one of the biggest organizations that fights for the rights of the LGBTQ community in Scandinavia.

First thing I did after arriving at Pride Park – join the crowd to cheer on this beautiful queen.
It’s safe to say that we all had a pretty good time!

(Excuse the short video, the live performance was too good to hold my phone while dancing!)

Pride Parade

The Pride Parade on August 4 marked the end of the Pride week. With 45,000 participants and 500,000 onlookers, this was the biggest parade in Scandinavia. The sun was shining warm that day, and even without rain the whole city had turned into one big rainbow in the form of flags and signs.
Below some impressions of my experience at the Pride Parade!

All in all, visiting the Pride 2019 in Stockholm was a wonderful experience. I can recommend it to anyone who wants to inform themselves about the LGBTQ community, or is looking for support – or who simply wants to join the party!

Aarhus Women´s museum

Until now I have talked about gender equality in one specific way: Via personal interviews. With this article I want to try out a new writing perspective – I am writing a review.
Since Denmark is so verbal about gender equality, it’s no surprise that there are several women’s museums across the country. During my road trip through Scandinavia, I stopped by the harbour city of Aarhus and visited one of these musea.
The Women’s museum in Aarhus, Denmark

From the outside, the Kvindemuseet (Danish for: Women’s Museum) in Aarhus looks just like any old building. The only sign that hints at the exposition about women inside is a big banner hanging on a wall. When I enter the reception hall, there is no feministic content either, and I start to think that maybe this museum is one of those that want to get their message across in a more subtle way.

But I was wrong: Already the first exhibition is very frank in its message. Due to privacy rules, I do not have photos of this first hall but I’ll do my best to describe it. The topic of the first hall is sexuality during childhood and puberty. The exhibition shows objects related to sex education from the 90’ies all the way until today, like magazines with explicit photographs or high school books that taught us about sex. While doing so, it tries to recreate the uneasiness that many of us must have felt during sex education in school. That’s also what I feel like while I am walking through this part. In general, this museum is one of those that collects and displays personal, real-life objects from real-people and not from artists to get their message across. I found this quite interesting because displaying personal, everyday objects related to sexuality – that’s quite intimate!


On to the next hall. On the way to the first floor I am accompanied by videos of women of all ages in which they talk about their own body perceptions. ‘I feel beautiful‘ and ‘Just because I am older that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy my own body‘ are some of the voices I can hear. Upstairs, the first room is like a small movie theater. The first movie that I watch is about how society shapes our sexual identity as a child. Boys have to be strong, never cry and play with dinosaurs and cars. And girls should of course wear pink and play with dolls – this stereotypical difference is called a ‘radical gender split‘. If a child does not follow their stereotype, they quickly get labeled as ‘Sissy’ (for boys) or ‘Tomboy’ (for girls).

BraveGirlsWant not to be called a tomboy when they are simply being a girl. There are MANY ways of being a Girl.

Quote from one of the movies
Males that ‘behave like girls’ are called ‘Sissys’
Females that ‘behave like boys’ are called ‘Tomboys’

This exhibition raises a valid point. In almost every period of our life, our sexual identity is being shaped by the society around us – even when we’re little children. Since recently, there are increasingly more discussions about sexual identity during puberty and adulthood, but it is equally important to discuss sexual identity during childhood. Labelling a child as ‘Sissy’ or ‘Tomboy’ can do a lot of damage to how children looks at themselves – and can lead to low self-esteem and supressed emotions.


We continue to the next hall. This room focuses on the difference in clothing for boys and girls. Here I see a collection of clothes hanging on the wall and from the ceiling, and laying in boxes on the ground. There is not much further explanation to it, so I let the scenery act on me. Because this room comes right after the movie theatre room, I think it tries to show the gender split in clothing: some clothes are percieved as typically female, like skirts, while other clothes ‘should’ be worn by males, like blazers (or at least that’s how it used to be, the clothes do seem to be from another era).

‘Typically female’ clothing
‘Typically male’ clothing

The remaining part of this floor continues to explore childhood. In different glass vitrines, objects from all kinds of situations are shown: toys from Lego, baby dolls, a classroom table, music instruments, religious texts and much more. In my interpretation, these are all objects that shape the way we look at girls vs. boys: Lego is for boys, dolls are for girls, and also religious beliefs and school teachings have an impact on our perceived gender roles. At first glance, the objects shown here are not special at all, just everyday things that can be found anywhere. But to see them all gathered together like this made me think: There are so many things in our everyday life that have an impact on how we view our gender role, and we don’t even realize that. So in a way, even small things like Lego toys or a school teaching reinforce the gender inequality around us.


I go up to the second floor. Now we get to an exhibition called ‘Gender Blender’, which focuses on gender issues on a historical timeline. The exhibition is introduced as follows:

Does your shampoo have a sex? What does queer mean? Do we have gender equality? What does it mean to be born a boy, a girl – or something else?

gender blender

This is by far the most explicit part of the exhibition. The audience is confronted with photos of real-life people, and their stories and statements. Next to that are information boards that show different gender related movements throughout history, like the Law of Free Abortion and the Red Stockings movement in Denmark. Following are some excerpts of ‘Gender Blender’.

The law of free abortion

  • starting from the mid 60’s, demonstrations and flyers are organized that inform people how to get an abortion
  • also around that time: the new women’s movement, better access to birth control, shift in sexual and social norms
  • 1972: 12,000 women apply for an abortion, only 10,500 receive permission. Many abortions happen behind closed doors.
  • May 24, 1973: Parliament passes the Law ‘Termination of Pregnancy’
    • gives every Swedish woman the right to terminate her pregnancy before the end of the 12th pregnancy week

Red Stockings

  • a 1970’s women’s movement in Denmark against the mental and material inequalities between men & women
  • got popular through media and self-organized women-groups
  • initiated women’s festivals and supported female artists
  • supported the creation of women’s studies programmes

This exhibition constantly invites the audience to take part and express their own opinions. To the left, you can see a simulation of a riot. Every sign that you can see has been handwritten by a visitor of the museum. Visitors can pick up blank posters and a pen and write down what they would want to say at such a protest.

‘For me the perception of gender is linked to society’s norms and standards. Unfortunately […], we are taught that our gender is excusively linked to our genitals. I think the world would be a more interesting place to live in, if we could think outside the box.’

Anonymous, a floral decorator

Gender Blender offers many interactive stations for its visitors, like the protest stand you just saw. At another station, there is a small booth, the size of a photo booth, with a sign that welcomes you to enter. As I come closer, I read the invitation:

Change your sex in the locker room, if you dare. Is gender a role you can play? Are you pretty?

the locker room

I really liked how the exhibition was trying to engage the audience in many different ways: pick up a pen and write your own protest sign, play around with clothing pieces and change your sex in the locker room, or listen to audio recordings from real-life people on how they experience gender (in-)equality.

I personally think that for a topic like gender, it’s really fitting to explore the topic yourself instead of only reading boards or looking at objects. Gender is a very personal subject: you can feel 100% male or female, you can feel trapped in the wrong physical body, or you can feel a little bit of this sex and a lot of that sex in yourself. Everybody has their own gender, and everybody has their own unique experiences with it.
For this reason, I think this museum approaches gender in the right way. It invites visitors to share their own experiences, and offers them to listen to others’ experiences and opinions. In my view, this is one of the best ways to touch upon this topic.

In the end, going through this museum was quite an emotional rollercoaster for me. For most of my life, I have not been open about my gender role. Walking through this museum, I got reminded of how the environment I grew up in steered me in a certain direction: parenting and religion made me suppress any critical evaluation of my gender role as a child. In other words, more often than not, my surrounding influenced the way I viewed my gender role while growing up. Walking through the first part of the museum with all the stereotypical boy/girl things, I had to think back to my own childhood. When I was little, I only played with Barbie dolls and never even looked at Lego. It was also clear to me back then that I should wear dresses and skirts and that it was important to look pretty. Put differently, I was only following the stereotype of what a girl ‘should’ do and look like, and I never even questioned it.

But the museum made me ask myself: How did I look at my gender role back then, and how do I look at it now? For me personally, it changed a lot. Today, I question almost everything that tries to steer me into a certain direction, and I notice how I am getting interested in things that my Pakistani society would see as stereotypically ‘male’, like playing video games (I have really gotten into World of Warcraft, for example). Comparing my current self with my childhood self was very interesting, and I encourage everyone of you to do it, too. I think that we often try to avoid uncomfortable memories from the past, like how our parents awkwardly talked to us about sex for the first time or how there was an unspoken taboo over the topic. But it can still be interesting or us to revisit these memories years later, and compare how far we have come today.


All in all, I did not know what to expect before coming to Aarhus women’s museum. In retrospect, I can really appreciate how gender and it’s uniqueness to each person was celebrated in this place. And apart from learning more about gender related movements, I gained new insights about myself after my visit.

While I enjoyed the design of the museum a lot, I must admit that I first had to get used to it. I am more used to the classic museum style: art pieces behind glass vitrines with an informative text next to it. So it took me some time to understand why this museum showcased their content in a different way. In the end, I can totally see why they did it like this though. It would have probably been very boring to only read informative texts on boards. By letting the audience engage with the topic themselves, I kept being interested in the exhibitions.

Aarhus Women’s museum: I recommend!

Below you can find a gallery with photos that I took while strolling around. Hopefully it helps you to get a feel for what I have tried to describe to you in this post.

First-timer in Japan

In this article I want to share my experience with language, travelling and food in Japan. Before I went to the country of Sakura and green tea, I did not know much about it. I was met with a lot of unexpected things, from language problems to getting lost in supermarkets. Here are some of my struggles and lessons learned from my month in Japan.

The language

Self-centered views

Before I came to Japan, I thought my fluency in English would be enough to get me around. But I quickly learned that at least some preparation would have been of great help.

I flew from Brussels to Kansai International Airport, Osaka. Once I arrived at the airport, my struggle started. Every board I saw was written in Japanese script, with only one-word translations in English underneath. It dawned on me: Here I was in Japan, but I couldn’t speak or read one single word of Japanese. How the hell did I think I was going to manage? It’s great to believe in yourself of course, and being independent is a great thing, but I was actually getting scared.

After my initial shock, I realized that it was not all that bad: The free airport Wi-Fi and Google Maps showed me where I had to go to reach my hotel in Osaka. Once I arrived, I had some more language barriers with the receptionist, and it made me wish that I would speak at least basic level Japanese.

Living in the Western world, I felt really great about speaking English. I even thought of myself as an international person as in ‘If I can speak English, I can speak the language of the world, right?’. Well, although English is the most important world language in our world, very large parts of the world take pride in speaking their own language, like Japan or China. I could feel their language pride everywhere: even though I was walking through an international city like Osaka; Japanese was clearly the dominant language, even in the big shopping districts like Dotonbori, which is crowded by international tourists. English was more like a lucky find. 

Boards like this one could be found everywhere, even in places like Dotonbori where international tourists come in big crowds.

This doesn’t mean it was impossible to get around as a foreign tourist. Metro and train stations were also equipped with directions in English, and considering the fact that Japanese people are generally very friendly and polite, I was quick to get help if I was lost. For the rest of the time, Google Maps became my best friend, along with Google Translator. 

Some things were easy to guess, even without reading Japanese.
With other things I thought and thought… but couldn’t guess what it was!

In the end I accepted my inferiority: I had to learn some Japanese. If not to get around, then at least to respect the culture of the country. So after one week, I headed for a well-known Japanese-English book store in Osaka Umeda. I left the store with two books in my hand. A small English to Japanese dictionary, and a book to learn the most common phrases for everyday life. I haven’t read them yet, but I did learn some of the words that at least I use daily: Arigato guzaimasu (polite form of ‘Thank you’), Sumimasen (‘Excuse me’), Gomenasai (‘I am sorry’), and Hai (‘Yes’). As little as it seems, equipped with these few words and my hand movements, I actually managed to get through Osaka and Kyoto! (I still plan to learn the language properly, though.)

Lesson: What I learned from my month in Japan is that because of living in the West, I had a quite self-centered view on the world. We think English is enough to get around anywhere in the world, and we even call it a world language. But there are so many parts of the world where English is not that big, like in Japan. These countries are thriving by using their own language, so it’s important to keep the language barrier in mind when going around Japan.

Travel in Japan

Travel between cities

Being able to travel easily through a country has a lot to do with how well you can speak the language. At first, it was really hard for me to find my way around Japan. On all boards at the train stations, information was given in big Japanese script, with very short (or no) English translations underneath.

Display board at a train station in Nishinomiya, Japan.

This is what most train schedule boards in Japan look like. You can imagine that me, someone who can’t read Japanese script, had difficulty figuring out which train was next. Luckily, in big cities like Osaka and Kyoto, they switched between Japanese and English displays, so I could read the boards in the end.

You can also tell that this was a train station where many international tourists come: Everything on the board itself is translated into English as well. In smaller and less touristy places, the train stations don’t have this much translation.

I also had to learn some things about the way that Japanese people like to travel. When you arrive at your platform, you see marked places on the ground every few metres from each other. At first I had no idea what their meaning was (there was only Japanese script written on them), but then I noticed that they created a system of how everyone should wait for the train. I noticed that everybody formed lines behind these marks, and nowhere else. I assume that it says something like ‘start queue here‘ on these marks.
I also noticed that Japanese people paid a lot of attention to each other’s space. Even when standing in line, people did not touch each other or bump into each other when entering the train or Metro. And inside the train or Metro, everyone was careful to not touch the person next to their seat. Super polite!

The signs on the ground signal where people should wait for their train
Some trains had women-only compartments, so there were matching signs on the ground – to show where women should wait to enter those compartments
Trains that go directly to international airports have these signs on the ground – very helpful!
Travel within cities

To travel between cities, I mostly used trains and Metros. But apart from that, I loved to cycle! Cycling was the best way to explore nature in Japan, it made my trips to the Osaka Castle and to Nara Park unforgettable. Places like Nara have a lot of temples and shrines spread over a large area, so cycling around is cheap and gets you around easily. Most bikes that I saw could be turned into electrical bikes – very handy for long trips or for older people.
But how do you rent a bike for a day trip? It turned out to be pretty easy! Different companies rent out bikes for only a few euros per hour. You can find bike pick-up spots in every district of big cities like Osaka or Nara. Finding the next pick-up spot near you is easy too: most companies have a track function on their websites to show how far away you are from a spot. You may have some difficulty understanding their websites at first, but be patient and you’ll figure it out!

A pick-up spot for bikes by ‘Hello Cycling’. I found these bikes really comfortable to be used for a whole day!
My bike made my trip to Osaka Castle a lot easier, and let me enjoy the scenery around me.
Travelling during COVID-19

I happened to be in Japan during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. That made my travel experience a bit different than what it normally would be like. Wearing a face mask is quite normal in Japan anyways, but the pandemic definitely increased the use of hand sanitizer in public.
As cases began to surge in Japan as well, less and less people used public transport. As I was on my way to the airport to fly back home, I travelled with a Shinkansen (which is one of the fastest trains in the world!). I was shocked to see how empty it was – the person at the ticket counter told me that normally the Shinkansen is so full, that you have to buy a ticket with reserved seat. But because it was so empty in those days, I could buy a cheaper ticket that is normally seen as a ‘standing ticket’ and there was still enough space for me to sit down.

Travelling by mask was a must during the COVID-19 pandemic
The Shinkansen.

Lesson: Travelling through Japan without knowing the language was hard at first, but I quickly got the hang of it. As long as you are in touristic places like Osaka, Tokyo or Kyoto, you should be able to find your way. Almost all boards have (short) English translations included, and after some time you begin to understand the travel customs of Japanese people. Just be careful when you visit a less touristy place: it could be that you don’t find English translations! In that case, don’t be shy to ask someone for help, Japanese people are very friendly to help you out.
I personally really liked how Japanese people make sure to keep their distance and not touch each other’s personal space. Their polite behavior made it much easier for me, a often lost tourist, to ease up and adapt to their travel culture.

Japanese food

Expectation vs. reality

I’m a really big foodie: I have a long list of favorite restaurants and favorite foods. One of my favorite foods ever is Sushi – I go to a Sushi restaurant whenever I want to celebrate something! Sushi restaurants have all kinds of Japanese dishes (think of Edamame, fried rice with vegetables and baked banana, my favorite dessert!), so I thought that I already had a pretty good idea of Japanese food. And I think most people in Europe would first think of Sushi if they would have to guess a Japanese dish. 

So, I wasn’t worried about what food was waiting for me in Japan. I loved Sushi, plus Japanese food was perfect for me: As a Muslim, I only eat Halal food. (For those of you who don’t know what that is: Halal means ‘permitted’ in Arabic. Fish, like Sushi, is Halal, so Muslims can eat it). So even if I wouldn’t like Japanese food, I would at least have Sushi to hold on to. 

Cut to Japan: Everything was different than I thought. It turns out that Japanese people love pork, so much so that it can be found in almost every food. Also in foods where you would not expect it at all, like in Tamago (Japanese egg cake). Once I found that out, it became increasingly difficult for me to shop for food because I had no idea what was in it – pork is not halal so I couldn’t eat a lot of foods. In my despair, I decided to look for ‘foreign’ foods like Indian/Pakistani cuisine and Indonesian cuisine. I did eat fish sushi whenever I could find it, and I also came across this really tasty Ramen shop in Osaka that served Halal food.  

This breakfast was served to me at the Osaka hotel I was staying at. Everything here was prepared in a traditioal Japanese way, but unfortunately, I couldn’t eat the chicken and the beef. The fish, egg and the miso soup were delicious enough though!
Cooking and grocery shopping

Cooking was another challenge. For the second half of my stay, I lived in a student apartment with a shared kitchen. I decided to cook some food at home so I could make sure it would be all Halal. I went to the grocery store to buy stuff for some rice with vegetables, but buying groceries that are labeled in a script you can’t read is pretty hard. I ended up staying at the grocery store two hours instead of the twenty minutes I had planned, and I came home with rice that turned out to be for rice cake. Needless to say, my dinner tasted differently than expected. But apart from being disappointed in my dinner, I felt something else: Humbled down. I went to the grocery store thinking the foods that I know are so important that they just had to have them at the store. But just like Dutch grocery stores are filled with cheese and German stores are filled with bread, the Japanese carry their own food culture with pride. I found all kinds of rice at the store, rice for Sushi, for rice cake and more. I also saw a whole section of algae and vinegars to make different types of Sushi. If you think about it, this makes much more sense than finding Swiss cheese or pesto. This is an aspect I wish I would have thought about more.

A large selection of Japanese salty snacks. You wouldn’t find such an abundance of Japanese brands outside of Japan. Makes sense, but I still had to learn to appreciate Japanese culture and adapt to it.
I also had to get used to the difference in sweet snacks. Chocolate was rare, but these cute rice cakes crossed my way often!
Convenience stores

Before Japan, I had never been to a convenience store. But Japan is so crowded with them, that it’s hard to avoid one. Convenience stores are incredibly good at this one thing: being convenient. You go in, grab a pre-made breakfast, lunch or dinner, and you can go about your day without the hassle of cooking yourself.

This showed me just how convenient convenience stores are:
A pre-boiled egg, ready to be eaten on the go. I had never seen something like this in a store before!

I had difficulties finding Halal food, so I made it a habit to almost always go to a convenience store for breakfast. I quickly found a new favorite: Fluffy pancakes filled with maple syrup! On the days that I planned a day trip to visit some attractions, I always packed a couple of those pancakes into my bag. Not the most healthy option, but super tasty and cheap.

A must-try at Japanese convenience stores:
Pancakes filled with maple syrup

Lesson: Although in the beginning it was difficult for me to adapt to the Japanese food culture, I eventually appreciated it. Living in a new country is not all about nice things, but also about challenges that you learn to stand up to. The lesson that I learned was that it’s great to be comfortable in the foods that you love, but you should also be able to appreciate new styles of food. After coming back, I even miss some of the new foods that I got to know in Japan!

Recommendations for food:

The Halal Ramen shop that I went to in Osaka is called Naritaya Osaka Minami, I really recommend giving it a try! I was really happy that I could finally eat some ramen with beef here.
If you’re into Indian food and you’re in Nara, then I highly recommend visiting Ponte Rosso, one of the most authentic and delicious Indian restaurants I found on my trip. It’s hidden away in a quiet street but is still within 5 minutes of the Nara Train Station. The staff is very friendly and the portions fill you up really well!

My chicken curry at Naritaya Osaka Minami, a Halal restaurant in the Dotonbori district
My meal at Ponte Rosso in Nara. One of my best Indian meals ever!

If anyone of you eats Halal like me and is planning to visit Japan after the pandemic, I can really recommend the Happy Cow App. This app shows you a map of all the vegan and vegetarian restaurants in your area. Another thing that helped me was the website ‘Halal in Japan’ which not only gives tips for Halal eating in Japan, but also for all kinds of other Islamic aspects like finding prayer rooms in your area. Besides that you can always still go for typically Halal foods like Turkish and Pakistani cuisine. But if you’re in a new country anyway, it’s really worth it to find a Halal Japanese restaurant to truly enjoy the local cuisine!

Hope you enjoyed my little Japan guide, stay safe everyone!

Couscous – in conversation with a Moroccan cook

We have reached december. Four months have passed since my beautiful time in Morocco, and a lot has happened in the meantime. With a lot I mean studies, exams, and again studies. Right after coming back to the Netherlands, uni-life hit me hard in the face and brought me back to reality of sitting behind my study desk for most of my days. Well, it’s not all too bad, since I got to see my friends and family again, but I also do miss the carelessness that comes with being abroad.
Because of my hectic schedule at home, it was pretty difficult to work on my Morocco-blogpost series regularly. But, there are still three stories that I want to share with you all. It doesn’t matter so much to me that I am not in Morocco anymore, I still think these are beautiful stories that I should share. Forgive the use of present tense in this story, of course I am not physically in Morocco anymore, but using only my memories of the place.
For now, good-bye from my back-in-Europe-me, and hello from my Morocco-me!

 


 

It is one of my last days in Morocco. Me and my friends have decided to stay in the city of Essaouira for our last time, although at first, we were sure this would only be a quick stop-by. But after arriving here, we quickly realized that’s not possible: Essaouira is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen. It’s just wonderful. And I can’t even tell you why. It does not have the most breathtaking natural landscape. Or the most beautiful buildings. Or the best markets to buy things at. But the people here – have claimed my heart. The city lays by the sea, and I see the things people tell each other about beach cities come true here. Everybody seems to have forgotten what worries are, there is a light-heartedness in the air like I have never smelled before. On top of that, what makes this city distinctively different for me is the friendships I have made here.
Friendships. One of the most beautiful relationships that there are. During my stay in this country, I have mostly been focused on writing my blog for you guys. I have made many friends here, but it was never as easy as in this hostel. Everybody who works here is a person from the heart. And that is especially the case for one person – Couscous. Couscous is the name of a distinctly Moroccan dish, steamed rice with vegetables or meat. But, Couscous is also the name that people have lovingly given our hostel cook here.

Couscous preparing a sweet dish

Even before approaching him, I had to note how he made everyone arriving at the hostel feel at ease at once. Every evening at around 7pm, our hostel offers a joint dinner with everyone who is staying here. To prepare this dinner, Couscous spends his evenings in the hostel kitchen, typically with the radio turned fully up, so that he can dance to old Bollywood songs while cooking. For those of you who know some Bollywood classics: I’m talking about ‘Meri Mehbooba’ and the like! (did me and my friends join the dancing? – hell yeah we did. Never missing a chance to dance to good ol’ Bollywood music. Gotta shake them hips whenever you can! 🙂 ). During one of his cooking sessions, I approached Couscous to get to know him better. And it turns out that he had a lot to tell! So without further ado, we decided to sit down together for a cup of Moroccan tea on the rooftop, and talk about life.

ME: Thanks so much for sitting down together! Let’s see. Could you tell me a bit about yourself, your background?

COUSCOUS: I’m happy to tell you something and share it with the world! Well, what can I tell about me. So, I was born in the mountain area in the north of Morocco. Since I was small, I lived with my grandmother. What I did was, I used to look after our sheep, take them out to grass everyday, and come back in the evening. That was my life. And I never thought anything about it would ever change, I thought I was going to live there forever. But one day, my grandmother said to me: ‘Son, why don’t you go out into the world and do something with your life?’. My grandmother loved me so much. And she said this because she wanted me to be happy. And she knew I could do something big.
So, I left my hometown. At 15 years old, I went to Spain and started working in a bakery there. I stayed at that place for 5 years, and learned so much about cooking and baking there!

A look into the kitchen: food is about to be served!

But deep inside, I was missing my motherland. So after 5 years, I decided to go back to Morocco, and back home I worked in many different hotels and restaurants. I travelled around the country a lot in that phase of my life. But at some point I started to long for something more: to have something of my own, a place where I could be the chef of my own kitchen. But I had not gone to school or university, so I didn’t have any paper that allowed me to be a Chef. So, I decided to work in a place that was at least known to be very good. At 25 years old, I left Morocco again and went to Mali, Timbuktu, and started to work in the best hotel of whole Africa there! That place was like a treasure to me. I learned to make so many different foods there, and I met so many good people. I stayed there for many years. At the end, when I decided to leave this hotel, the Chefs gave me an enourmous gift – the biggest gift of my life – namely a paper that finally allowed me to work as a Chef of my own!

ME: And what kind of paper was that?

COUSCOUS: Well, you can compare it to a degree in cooking. This paper allows me to work as a Chef anywhere I want! 

ME: So that’s why it was possible for you to start as a Chef in this hostel?

COUSCOUS: Exactly! I started working here in 2012. Ever since, the people that  I work with here have become my family. This place makes me truly happy. 

ME: It’s really nice to hear that after travelling around so much,

On the rooftop of our hostel

you seem to have found your place! So do you plan to stay here forever?

COUSCOUS: Actually, no! Actually, my true dream is to own a restaurant of my own. Don’t get me wrong: I do love this place! And what I love about a hostel in particular to see so many different people from all around the world coming together. But I think it would still be something different if I would have a big place of my own, where people only come to eat, morning, afternoon, evening. And I could still continue to work here once a week! I have already been talking to some people to make this dream come true – to become a restaurant Chef.  

ME: Wow, that’s so ambitious! But really, after trying your food I’d say – you should totally go for it!

Couscous laughs.

ME: You mentioned that you grew up with your grandmother. And I also know that you are a brother to several sisters. It seems to me then that you have always had a close bond to women?

COUSCOUS: Oh yes, that is true. I have so much respect for women. Without them, we would not even be in this world. And it is true, there are many women in my close family; that is also why I have learned to appreciate and value them so much. 

ME: Really nice to hear you talk like this about women! Especially because many men that I see do not treat women very well.

What I mean by this is that most of the time that I have walked through the streets of Morocco, I have felt male eyes on me. Staring male eyes. And at times – not even rarely – men have cat-called me and my friends. It is not really a nice experience and definitely does not make me feel well treated.

COUSCOUS: I know exactly what you mean. Most Moroccan men don’t know the value of a woman. They very often treat them as something small, vulnerable. But I must say, here in Essaouira things are a bit better! Women can walk on the streets without being called after every 5 seconds, and it feels safer. I think this is probably because there are so many tourists here; people in Essaouira got used to the sight of a woman with bare legs and arms by now.

ME: But what do you think this problem thoughout Morocco comes from? That men think women are smaller than them?

COUSCOUS: I think, a misinterpretation of the religion. There are some verses in the Qur’an that address the topic of men and women, and a lot of people interpret something into these verses that is according to me, not right. They think that a woman is only supposed to be doing the household and nothing more, because that is what Islam says. But they don’t realize that Islam and islamic rules were established centuries ago, and that they should be re-interpreted to apply them to today’s world. I think that is how God wants it to be. And, to be honest, I don’t really like the fact that politics and religion are mixed up in Morocco. I think it would be better if they would be seperated. 

ME: Sadly, a lot of people don’t agree with you.

COUSCOUS: Yes, it makes me sad as well. But I don’t want to talk about the bad things only! There are also Moroccan traditions that pay the woman high respect. I don’t know if you are familiar with the traditions in Moroccan weddings? 

He chuckles a bit.

I remember my sister’s wedding. We all had so much fun. But back to the story: In Moroccan weddings it is tradition to bring the bride into the ceremony in a special way – by sitting on a throne! We call it the Amariya, and it looks like a big chair that is carried by four men and paraded through the whole room so that everybody can see and greet the bride. A huge gesture of respect if you ask me!

Bride sitting on her Amariya

And also, the way a mother is respected and loved by her children is something that I have rarely heard in stories about Europe. So as you see, there are not only bad stories to tell! There is also deep respect and love for women rooted in our culture. It has just gotten a bit rare and forgotten, but it is there. And I am happy that at least here in Essaouira, that love and respect can be seen again. And maybe at some point in the future, people throughout Morocco will remember it again, who knows? For now, I will try to do my part on spreading love through what I can do best: making food. 

I have to laugh and close my notebook. Time and again, I am fascinated by how people look at the world in different ways. This one, Couscous, has somehow managed to be light-hearted in these sometimes difficult circumstances, to see hope where there seems to be reason to despair. In our conversation, he has showed me that there is still room to hope for a respectful treatment of women. If not today, then tomorrow.  Encouraged by the light feeling of hope, I go downstairs to eat a plate of Couscous.

 

And this is me sitting at the dinner table along with newly acquired and old friends, wrapped in my pakistani shawl, for the culture (just jk, this was actually the first time that I was freezing in Morocco). If you can’t spot me – I am the one sitting at the table top only looking at her food (#classic). This table was one of my favourite spots in the hostel: everyone came together here, people and cultures from all-over the world. And of course, this was the place to eat couscous!