Hana Al-Khamri with another report from the Odense neighbohood of Vollsmose. See also: Odense: "We are only Danish on paper"
I know that the woman before me was born and raised in Denmark. And I can't avoid wondering if she's really the woman I've set up to meet. She speaks Arabic with a perfect Iraqi accent.
But, the woman is Saliha Marie Fettah, a Danish Muslim woman, who teaches Arabic at the University of Southern Denmark and who speaks my language fluently and without errors.
Saliha Marie Fettah considers herself a modern Muslim.
She's 43 years old and converted to Islam almost 30 years ago. And she wears a headscarf.
However, her closest friends are not other converts.
"I don't have any close relationships with other Danish converts," says Saliha Marie.
"Most just sit at home, where they're busy making food, taking care of the children or watching TV. It's not the type of life I want to lead."
The eyeopener of my life
Saliha Marie Fettah cycles every day to the university, where she'd been working the past six years. She traveled widely and had been to almost every Arab country. And she's the author of Arab textbooks on several levels.
"Some of the Danish converts I've had as students, see me as a poor representative of Islam. They say that I don't follow the right path of Islam, and therefore I'm not a good Muslim. But in my opinion, a Danish woman who decides to stay at home is an escapist, who flees modern society. It's a cheep shortcut to avoid having to assume a role in society," she says.
Saliha Marie Fettah thinks that there are many misunderstandings about Islam, both among new Muslims and in the immigrant communities in Vollsmose. When she married the first time, it was to a man from Iraq. He asked her to stay home and together with him she moved to Iraq.
"It was the eyeopener of my life," she says.
"I spent eight years in Iraq learning Arabic. In Iraq I saw Iraqi women who worked as engineers and doctors. There were really strong women under Saddam's regime and I learned a lot from them. I remember that I was surprised that Arab women in Iraq could live such an active life, while Muslim women in Denmark just stayed home," she says.
Saliha's marriage to the Iraqi held for two years, then they divorced. And Saliha then decided to resume her education in Middle Easter studies at the university in Denmark.
When female Danish converts prefer life as a housewife, it's often due to the influence of their husbands, who fear that their wife will leave or go back to their old lifestyle," says Saliha Marie Fettah.
She also points to the lack of education as an explanation and finally, she believes that the religious leaders in Vollsmose interfere too much in how Muslims families live their lives. [See also: Denmark: Internal justice in Muslim communities]
"Religious leaders are the most powerful people in the social hierarchy in Vollsmose. Their power is based on the fact that they're the area's older and most respected leaders," she says.
Saliha is very critical of the way the preachers in the mosque interfere in the personal affairs of the members of their community. She says that the imams try to mediate in everything from gang conflicts to divorces and family disputes. they also recommend marriage at an early age.
"My students don't listen to me. They prefer listening to the Muslim spiritual leaders," Saliha says, and continues:
"Many of these imams [priests] don't have higher education, and many of them don't speak good Danish, but my students rely on them more than on me and prefer asking them for advice."
The scourge of Arab families
Education is the best way to constrain the influence of the religious authorities, says Saliha.
"We should adjust to the fact that not everybody can become an imam in a mosque. We should demand that their educational qualifications be in order - in the same way we do for priests in the Danish Christian church. Therefore I think that a study course in Islamic theology should be established, which would take care of education the Muslim spiritual leaders who work in the mosques," she says.
Saliha says that the biggest problem in the Muslim community in Vollsmose is the fear of the unknown.
"People have always been afraid of things they don't understand," she says.
"Many are actually afraid of Danish culture and of Danish society. Therefore the family puts a lot of pressure on their children. The consequences are that the children find themselves in an impossible balancing act between two cultures, which ultimately means that their integration in society fails," she adds.
"The municipality certainly made mistakes, but we shouldn't accept always being put in the victim role. But that's what the Arab community is doing - they always see themselves as victims instead of doing something to change their situation," she says.
"Most prisoners in Danish prisons have an Arab background. What's the reason for that? Why don't we hear of parallel problems from other ethnic minorities, why is it always Arabs," she asks and adds:
"Families hold a great deal of the responsibility for their children's misconceptions."
Saliha emphasizes several times during the interview how important it is to integrate.
"Have you seen some books in the Arab homes you've visited in Vollsmose," she asks me.
"There are no books other than the religious ones and the Koran and they don't read them. They just lie on the shelves. To show such a lack of curiosity is not a smart way to integrate into a society."
Source: Information (Danish)