Katrine May Hansen is a go-getting Danish woman, famous in Indonesia for her writings. She now travels around Malaysia and Indonesia on her Identity Tour 2016, where she will conduct workshops on women rights, so-called women’s’ circles, and display her debate-provoking exhibition, ‘a scarf is a scarf is a scarf’, for which she has received much praise, but also threats on her life.
She is a writer, artist, editor, public speaker, body therapist, entrepeneur and founder of the organizations Kontoret for Krop og Liv and Love Project. Katrine goes by many names, which makes it difficult for ScandAsia to tell her full story in one article.
“I know it is not easy, but I have to make a living somehow,” she laughs, when ScandAsia talked to her over Skype from Kuching on Borneo, Malaysia.
‘A scarf is a scarf is a scarf’, is a work of photography of Indonesian women wearing scarfs from the Danish island, Fanø, also called ‘Klude’, but also pictures of Katrine May Hansen in a hijab, that is a scarf usually worn by female muslims from Indonesia.
“On some Danish islands it has been a tradition for some women to wear scarfs. To some extent, this tradition still lives on Fanø,” Katrine says.
“Traditionally, the scarfs were given to the women on Fanø by their husbands, who were sailors working on ships, that sailed from Amsterdam bound for Malaysia and Indonesia, which, at that point, were Dutch colonies. So the patterns on the scarfs from Fanø originates from Indonesia,” she explains.
‘A scarf is a scarf is a scarf’, addresses the prejudice towards Muslim women and the scarf they use to cover their hair as a part of their religion.
“I got the idea for the exhibition from an article I read. It was about a research paper on the Danish people’s behavior. It found that if a Dane gets lost, 80% would rather ask a member of Hells’ Angels member for directions, than a young female wearing a scarf. That shocked me a bit,” Katrine says.
“I asked myself: what is so frightening about a scarf?,” she adds.
To Katrine, the scarf worn by Muslim women is sometimes a mean of oppression, but is sometimes a choice women make.
“The scarf is, sometimes, a mean to oppress women. But repression against women comes in various forms and takes place all over the world. In all cultures, in all religions. If a society wants to suppress women, it will do so. It can happen by way of a scarf as well as wage discrimination,” she says.
“There are millions of Muslims around the world, and people of other religions too, who do not find it a problem to cover their hair with a scarf. It is just part of their everyday life,” Katrine explains.
“For instance, my grandmother never went out without a hat. It was not about religion, but culture and modesty,” she adds.
An Indonesian Super Star
The photographies for ‘a scarf is a scarf is a scarf’, was shot on Java, which is an Indonesian island populated by many conservative Muslims.
One of Katine’s books, a collection of poems called Love Trust, which was released in 2013, broke through in Indonesia and was included in the curriculum of the country’s state universities. Therefore, Katrine is today famous on Java and has visited the island and Indonesia on several occasions.
“This is my fourth time in Indonesia. I usually go on tour for two to three weeks to visit a number of universities, where I give lectures on creative writing, but also do interviews, photo shoots and signs autographs,” Katrine says.
“It is like being a rock star on the moon. It is really strange,” she adds.
According to Katrine, the Muslims on Java are very conservative, but they are also tolerant and open for discussion. She has not experienced any problems during her numerous visits to the Indonesian Island, despite that the topics she likes to discuss can be considered controversial.
“People on Java are very open-minded and want to talk about their religion. If I am open about myself, it is okay that I ask questions that in Denmark would be considered controversial, because we do not want to step on any ones’ toes,” she says.
“At the universities on Java, I have discussed topics, such as crimes of honour, divorce, polygamy, child marriage and female circumcision. And I explain, that, to me, it is dead wrong to circumcise children and some maybe disagree, but at least we can discuss it,” she explains.
“If you want to change things and other people’s’ opinions especially, dialogue, information and education is the way to go. Empathy is key,” Katrine adds.
‘A scarf is a scarf is a scarf’, was unveiled for the first time in Denmark in 2013 and has been on display at a range of Danish venues. It has received good reviews in Danish newspapers and from official Danish institutions. However, the exhibition has also provoked some angry responses, especially from the Danish outer right-wing.
“In Denmark, I have received angry readers’ letters and even threats. Some people feel offended that I, as a Danish woman, wears a scarf as a part of the exhibition,” she says.
“But I have also received positive reactions from Danish institutions and media, but also from Muslims living in Denmark,” Katrine adds.
The Identity Tour 2016, is the first time the exhibition visits Indonesia and Malaysia. When ScandAsia talked to Katrine, the tour had already kicked off, at the Danish Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where the exhibition was received well. However, she looks forward to show the exhibition in Indonesia.
“I am really excited to see how people here in Indonesia will react,” Katrine says.
At the moment, Katrine is also working on a new book called the Book of Friends, which is a collection of novels written in collaboration with refugees from the Middle East and Africa, who have come to Denmark, and tell their respective story. The book has an anti-bullying theme and is intended for students in Danish schools.
The Identity Tour commenced on 9 August and ends in October.