Sociologist of culture Samira van Bohemen specialises in differences between the genders. Ever since she embarked on her PhD research, she has sought to answer the question as to what it means to be a man, woman or anything in between. She was awarded a doctorate for a thesis on the Red Hat Society, a movement of women aged 50 and beyond who celebrate life, dressed in purple and wearing red hats. Her decision to specialise in gender identities was an accidental one, rather than a course of action she always intended to follow. “It just happened that way.”



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Headed for science

When she was 18 years old, Van Bohemen chose to get a degree in sociology. A boy who was two years ahead of her at primary school was already studying sociology. Her mother spoke to him in the village and later suggested that his degree programme might suit Van Bohemen, as well. “In secondary school I enjoyed philosophy, economics, history and civics. When I attended an open day, it was suggested to me that, being a wide-ranging degree programme, sociology might be a good fit for me, as my range of interests was rather broad, too.  So I decided to study sociology. I never thought of what I might want to be later. After all, I was only eighteen.”

She was the first person in her family to attend a university. Her mother was a nurse and her father is a process operator with an oil company. “I didn’t know any researchers.” Nevertheless, Van Bohemen knew she wanted to become a scientist as soon as she was allowed to conduct a study of her own during her degree programme. “As an undergraduate, I soon learned that I was fascinated by how people give all sorts of things meaning and what far-reaching implications this may have for social equality and inequality.”

Reading behaviour:

Number of books read annually: 0

Main reason why she doesn’t read: “I work a lot and spend a lot of time with my husband”

Writers aren’t readers

In her capacity as a scientist, along with Daphne van de Bongardt and a few other colleagues, she established the Love Lab, which is celebrating its first anniversary on 14 February. Her research focuses on what sex means to young adults, and, if she has her way, she will also dig deeper into the meaning of pornography. “It’s wonderful to immerse yourself in complex phenomena and then write about them.”

Writers are not necessarily readers. Van Bohemen’s bookshelves are full of books of which she has only read a few chapters. “I don’t have enough patience to read books from cover to cover. I don’t watch films, either. It’s hard for me to get a good feel for how long it will take to watch an entire film. I do a little better with TV shows. When I watch an episode of a TV show, I know: this will take three quarters of an hour.”

She does read professional literature, but she prefers writing. Once upon a time she started working on a work of fiction, but these last few years she hasn’t had the time to focus on that. “There are a lot of things I like. I find it hard to choose and say no.”


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Dystopian, but based on reality

One of the books on her bucket list is The Handmaid’s Tale. She watched the TV show based on the novel with her husband. In the story, women are property of the state. Many women are unable to have children, and the few fertile women around must bear children and then leave their babies with others.

“The women in the story are regarded as fragile. They are not allowed to read or attend school. The elite of the Christian sect who have assumed control over America claim they wish to protect women so as to allow them to be women. They suppress women while claiming to protect them. It’s a dystopian story, but inspired by totalitarian societies that have actually existed… and still continue to exist today,” Van Bohemen adds. “In Afghanistan, women who worked at universities were required to relinquish their duties and pass them on to male relatives when the Taliban assumed power. But the Netherlands and America, too, have major anti-abortion movements. We can’t take gender equality for granted, as The Handmaid’s Tale clearly demonstrates.”

Samira van Bohemen is a sociologist of culture and assistant professor affiliated with the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences. Her research mainly focuses on everyday identity politics. She is involved in the Love Lab, a research lab where researchers representing various academic disciplines pool their expertise on relationships, love and sexuality. Furthermore, she is an editor of the peer-reviewed journal Sociologie.