Swedish feminism current trends

Kristina Hultman

Октябрь 07, 2017

special for New Review.

A useful law of life for a person living in today’s chaotic world of minds and messages is to never trust in the media. In Sweden for example the gender war that takes place in our social media gives you the impression that women and men don’t like each other, that there is a gender war going on. In real life, if you ever happen to visit it, people manage their every-day business quite well in this strange Scandinavian country, known for its stubborn adherence to the ideal of equality between the sexes. Adults for example form perfectly normal couples in this place, heterosexual ones and otherwise, they struggle with their children, they manage divorce if it comes to that, as they take care of ageing parents. That is to say, Sweden is just like any other place.
Or maybe not quite... The other day a young male journalist reported an even younger feminist activist to the police for calling him a “white racist” and a “sexist” in social media. The word got out because a few days later another feminist activist, unknown to me, also young as well as angry, put out a mobile phone video on Facebook, asking the guy to report her to the authorities as well. The video was posted on a friend’s page, which is where I found it. The young woman that I looked at a bit perplexed went on forever as she walked the streets of Stockholm, mobile in hand, shouting into the camera that yes this particular young male journalist known for nothing was a white racist and a sexist. How she loaded him.
Why this was so, never became quite clear to me. As we all know by now, social media is a perfect tool for conveying emotion, the stronger the better, but a catastrophe for anything that aims at reason.
Even so, I want to use this trivial piece of media debris as an example of the visible front of the gender war going on in Sweden and its relationship to feminism as a political movement. The questions I ask will be the following:
How is one to understand a conflict ridden media situation like this? How can Swedish feminism and its relationship to society as a whole be described?
This is not an easy thing to explain, as Swedish feminism is exotic by any standards. But let me try to straighten out a few things for you.
First if all. As I have already pointed out one must remember that there is everyday life going on in Sweden just as in any other place. Wars are being fought there as well; it is not just the media. Domestic violence and sexual abuse is still a BIG problem. But for the most part men and women cooperate; they people live peacefully together, and usually quite well, as they have the necessary tools to do it.
By necessary tools I mean things like day care centers paid by taxes, sexual education from the age of almost nothing and social insurance for parental leave during not just a few weeks before the babysitter takes over but a really long one. I also mean such basic stuff as male presence at the birth of their children. Just to compare, a swede finds it shocking that fathers in Russia are not allowed to be present and assist their partners at the birth of babies, as I found out the other day when a young Russian slash French couple visited me in Stockholm with a very animated child of one and a half. As swedes we think that this exclusion of fathers from the most important moment in anyone’s life is totally crazy and we can’t imagine why on earth the Russian association of midwives (if there is one, as I am sure there is) and the medical profession choose to stand behind such a stupid and old-fashioned notion.
As if the womb and the woman’s advantage of being able to feed the little thing wasn’t enough. Why give the father another handicap, an artificial one, right from the beginning, making it even more difficult to form a strong and healthy emotional attachment to his newborn child?
In Sweden the presence of the father in the maternity ward is taken for granted. And why? Because feminist of all colors once upon a time demanded it and succeeded in doing so.
Another thing one has to understand about Swedish feminism is its close attachment to the popular movements that once took part in building what turned out to be a very solid democratic system. We have the women’s movement of course, nut also the movement for the right to vote, the environmental movement, the socialist workers movement, the sports movement and the movement to stop people from drinking alcohol. The last two have caught on really well in Russia, but not in the Swedish popular form, working itself up from the ground, but under the umbrella of the president.
If Russia had its soviets, Sweden still has associations for everything. So when people get together to act as feminists, they do it in the form of a small new association, registered with the state, but not blocked from acting independently, or with a critical perspective of the state. Feminism is not considerer unpatriotic either in Sweden. In fact most Swedes cannot even relate to the word patriotism. Patriarchy on the other hand is a word that even an ordinary Swedish teenager can understand. It used to be a “no, no” word in normal communication when I was young, reserved only for the militants, but that has changed, as feminist ideas and values have become an integrated part of mainstream conversation.
When Swedes discuss Donald Trump, for example, or Vladimir Putin, or Kim Jong-Un for that matter, they do it with a mentality that sees these world leaders as the foremost exponents of patriarchy going bananas, threatening to kill us all. The question everyone asks is this one:
Are we witnessing the last battle? Is this the 2017 version of the dinosaurs going extinct? And if it is. And when the meteorite finally comes flying in. Will we survive the blast or go down with them?
Unfortunately this is a question that not just Swedish feminists should ask themselves, but everyone, as feminism versus patriarchy is turning into a battle of life and death. More and more people are acknowledging this as a sad fact, which is why feminism in Sweden is gaining in credibility. Wise people want to be on the side of the living.
At the same time, and this is the depressing side of the matter, feminism is highly contested and constantly undermined also in Sweden.
When young angry women in the social media shout that Mr. so and so is a white racist and a pig, it does not really help. As a middle-aged woman one feels split. On the one hand it is liberating to see young women speaking their minds without fear. “Go girl” is the immediate reaction. On the other hand, one wonders if we shall use the same methods as men have done for centuries. Is that wise? Spewing contempt around us, raising the level of aggressiveness in society. Should we not be soft and peaceful?
To hell with soft and peaceful, the young angry feminists say. I belong a less courageous and somewhat older generation and we are not used to this rough new attitude from our younger sisters. We get scared. Which brings me to one more thing you have to know about Swedish feminism. It is compartmentalized into little boxes.
We are all part of the same movement, that is true, all clinging on to the same two basic claims:
1: Girls and women are oppressed by boys and men, or at least subordinated.
2. This oppression and subordination has got to go.
As soon as that is said, we start to disperse and form fractions of all sorts, just as people do in any guerilla movement. Sometimes we even wage war against each other. And you rarely see Swedish feminists forming a united front. An attempt was done to form a feminist party in Sweden some twelve years ago, and that party still has not gotten into the Swedish parliament even though it is closing in (0,88 percent to go). And it took 5,5 % of the votes in the European parliament election of 2014 and is now represented by a cool Swedish feminist of Romani origin.
And who knows. Maybe a united political front is not what is needed when it comes to the future. Maybe the most efficient tool is infiltration into ordinary family life, discussions at the dinner table, in the day care centers and in schools.
Mass media poses a problem for Swedish feminism when it comes to this everyday equality business, as it tends to highlight the odd and the spectacular and tune down important strategic reforms and setbacks that make people yawn at the news desks. Media distortion in Sweden means that surrogate motherhood is a much more discussed topic on the feminist arena than pensions. And as same sex parenting is not a controversial issue anymore, when the LGBT issues are discussed, the focus will often be on the T in LGBT, that is political trans issues like the right to get a sex change operation as a minor, or the right to not have to have a registration of your person with the state in a way that gives away your sex (a strange Swedish invention, called “personnummer”).
Thank God we still have strong trade unions in Sweden, as they make sure that issues like equal pay, social insurance, and pensions are not completely forgotten in the feminist debate.
Another important feature: Lately the Swedish feminist movement has gone global. If class and gender were biggies in the 1970s, with the famous socialist feminist movement ”Group of 8” (Grupp 8) taking the lead, then race and ethnicity as well as sex has transformed the movement since the millennium.
Race and sex came in at the same time but from different sides, as strange new comets, colliding in feminist space with class and gender and mutating into that intertwined thing our academics love to call intersectionality. And there we are. Having to juggle a feminist movement that is as complex as society as a whole.
The feminist debate in Sweden of today is so diverse and multi layered that on a bad day it can sound like the purest mumbo jumbo, or just confuse you, leaving you with a hundred more questions than when you started listening in. Old school feminists tend not to like diversity. They want pure feminism, gleaming with gender and some of them are even willing to strip if of one of its backbones, the class perspective. The Swedish word ”könsmaktsordningen” (gender order) is the closest to god you can come in those circles, where it explains everything, like Eureka!, covering the world in the brightest of feminist lights.
In another box racialized feminists accuse the puritans of racism, using pretty much the same rhetoric as the young woman in my introductory example. There is not one white Swedish feminist (of any note) who has not been accused of being racist. Not very fun. But actually a healthy experience as it makes you think about your own privileges as a bleached person in a country where blond has been the norm since the notion of the perfect swede in its modern sense was invented in the 1800s.
That a whole new discussion about race and ethnicity has entered the Swedish feminist field, and other fields for that matter, is an effect of the migration to Sweden from war ridden regions in the middle east, central Asia and parts of Africa. The Swedish example shows that we are just as capable of taking in refuges today as we were after the Second World War, but not without consequences of course. Social tension is mounting, as people mix and live more and more divers lives when it comes to values and social practices. One such dividing value is feminism, and the notion of equality between the sexes.
Immigrants usually adjust, most of them becoming more feminist that the “original” swede, more Swedish than the swede, but some don’t of course, giving populist political parties the opportunity to play out the hostility card and pinpointing immigrants as the enemy. Tension can grow high, but so far the system has kept together and the core is healthy.
One sign of the healthy state of Swedish feminism, that it is catching on, is the fact that more and more men are now identifying with feminist values, without making much of a fuss about it. You don’t have o be a girl or a woman anymore to be a feminist.
To have female political leaders is considered normal as well. When one of them had to go the other day, as happened to the moderately conservative party, there was still two female party leaders left on the right wing of Swedish politics.
To conclude:
Swedish feminism is alive and kicking and if you follow it closely you can get a glimpse of ideas that might be shaping our future, as well as traces of the popular movements that once made it grow. Might be a good idea to take a look, if not just to prepare our selves for the day when the dinosaurs finally fall. If they fall that is and if we survive them. Either way we all need feminism, Swedish or otherwise.

Kristina Hultman -- Swedish writer, feminist, editor.