Before Election, Dutch Right-Wing Wants Politician Sylvana Simons to Shut Up
After facing racist abuse and harassment, the immigrant and former television presenter started her own political party to run for a seat in the Netherlands’ parliament. The entire country is watching to see how she'll do in this week's elections.
Photo by Robin van Lonkhuijsen via Getty Images
Sylvana Simons calls herself a product of Dutch society. She was born in Suriname when it was still a Dutch colony, immigrated to the Netherlands with her parents when she was one year old, came of age as a VJ on the Dutch version of MTV, and went on to work as a host for other Dutch programs. She has spent her entire life either observing or contributing to Dutch culture, and as a result she also has the Dutch habit of speaking her mind with blunt force. It's proof, she says of this tendency, that multiculturalism and integration work.
Yet many people in the Netherlands want Simons to stop talking. For the last two years, the 46-year-old has embarked on a new phase of public life, becoming a prominent critic of racism, colonialism, and inequality—and a target of vicious harassment online and in the media as a result. Her political career began last May, when she joined the left-wing pro-immigrant party DENK (THINK); soon after she declared her candidacy for parliament in this year's March 15 elections. In December she announced her departure from DENK and the formation of her own political party, Artikel 1.
Artikel 1 takes its name from the first article in the Dutch constitution, which guarantees that all citizens are treated equally. Simons believes it's under siege, and she isn't wrong: Dutch politics has reached a fever pitch of xenophobia that has been building over the last 15 years. Geert Wilders, the founder and leader of the nationalist Partij Voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom), came onto the scene after another far-right politician, Pim Fortuyn, was assassinated in 2002. He has been pushing Dutch politics to the right ever since. The current Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, who is supposed to be further to the left than Wilders, published an open letter in Dutch newspapers in January warning immigrants that the "silent majority" would no longer tolerate those who "abuse [their] freedom." With days before the election, Wilders—who promises to "de-Islamize" the Netherlands, which he plans to do by banning the Quran, closing all mosques, and sealing the borders to Muslim immigrants, among other extreme measures, some of which break international law and go against the country's constitution—has lost his advantage, but the three leading parties are all right-wing.
Simons did not want to sit back and watch nationalism and xenophobia take over her country. When she was a child, she says her father would joke that she should find a job that would allow her to talk, because that was her main talent. And while it may seem that she made a sudden leap from television presenter to outspoken politician, she says she is simply becoming more of the person she has always been.
Simons began her television career in 1995 working as a VJ on the Dutch teen channel The Music Factory, where she interviewed everyone from Will Smith to Destiny's Child. She went on to host a number of entertainment shows, including the Dutch version of Dancing with the Stars and TV Makelaar, which is similar to House Hunters. She gave birth to her first child at 21 and has two adult children who she says she raised mainly by herself. The experience of giving birth, she says, inspired her to develop her own coaching method to remind women of their inner power. She also became a regular on a Dutch current affairs show called De Wereld Draait Door ("The World Keeps Turning"), which is where she began to show the side of herself that was always "very much engaged with what was going on in Dutch society."
I belong here. I get to claim what's mine.
Simons says viewers were kind of surprised when she started expressing herself in a new way, but it wasn't until she confronted a guest for using a racial slur that she experienced the first "tsunami of racism, sexism, hate, violence, and death threats." The death threats continued when she publicly criticized Black Pete, the controversial Dutch tradition in which white people don blackface to dress up as "Santa's helper."
Things "got really, really, really bad," according to Simons, after she announced she would run for parliament as a member of DENK. A song appeared online telling a woman named Sylvana to go home (the songwriters say it has nothing to do with Simons). A video circulated in which her face was superimposed on the body of an American man who had been lynched, and a well-known radio host would play gorilla grunts on air and tell Simons to be quiet.
In June, Simons registered an official complaint at a police station in the Hague, reporting the 40,000 worst threats and racist remarks she'd endured since announcing her candidacy. Twenty people are now being prosecuted for making threats and discriminatory remarks against her.
Simons looks at the insults and hatred from an impressively healthy distance. "These people don't know me, so it could never be about me," she says. "It was about their perception of my role in this society."
If you're a woman or black in Dutch society, let alone both, you're not supposed to speak about certain issues, says Simons. It's OK if you're an entertainer and you want to talk about music or fashion, "but do not have the audacity to think that you can comment on the society that you live in," she says.
Simons blames the country's newly forceful racism and xenophobia on the fact that the Netherlands has projected an image of being a tolerant, liberal, and progressive for so long that "we forgot to actually be tolerant, liberal, and progressive." She believes the country still hasn't dealt with its history of slavery and colonialism, or even its involvement in World War II, which means citizens have a limited view of who they really are.
The question of Dutch identity is at the heart of this election. While populist politicians like Wilders are pushing the message that there is only one right way to be Dutch, Artikel 1 is trying to show that the Dutch "are not scared of change. [They are] not scared of making room for new generations, new people, new ideas."
Regardless of how many seats Artikel 1 wins this week, Simons says her party will be a permanent voice to be reckoned with. Unlike their parents, who were forced to keep a low profile in order to fit in and survive, the new generation of immigrants in the Netherlands is saying, "I belong here," says Simons. "I get to judge, I get to comment, I get to demand, I get to ask. I get to claim what's mine."