At a drinks reception not long ago I referred nonchalantly to the fact that Sweden is supposedly the world’s most gender-equal state. A shiver was felt; eyes rolled. Had I said supposedly? Was I actually questioning Sweden’s version of Gender Equality – jämställdhet? That, it seems, is practically taboo in Sweden.
A spate of articles on ‘the Swedish model’ appeared during the recent US debate about health care. The term usually refers to a generous welfare state funded by high taxes that is not ’socialist’ but free-market: tricky. But another aspect of Swedish government and culture captures the imagination of many round the world: contemporary gender policy, ideas about sex and equality. According to several important statistical indicators, Sweden leads the way in promoting equal rights between women and men – important achievements. But in other ways that can’t be captured by statistics the picture is not so clear. There are doubts and disputes, and those happen right here inside Sweden – not to mention between Swedes wherever they live, as Anna Anka bizarrely showed.
The word consensus is often used to describe how issues like gender equality are understood in Sweden. This has bothered me because the word seems to imply that all Swedes have participated in marxian study groups to discuss social questions in depth and come to reasoned general positions. This is not the case: Gender policy is government policy, no more and no less, even if it was the cornerstone of Social Democratic government at its shiningest hour. There are Swedes who feel that this policy has become a rigid ideology that goes too far, but their opinions are rarely seen in the more highly respected mainstream media. This means that most people in Sweden don’t know there are disputes and may frown heavily when hearing them. This is too bad, because the issues are thorny, interesting and worthy of public debate.
By saying that, I clearly reveal my own bias towards interesting disagreement that can push us forward to new ideas. In the many countries and cultures I’ve lived in, differences of opinion are viewed as potentially productive. Even outright dictatorships believe that, which is why they forbid free speech. In Sweden, however, I am told again and again, conflict is considered negative; the goal is to coexist together agreeably. Vara sams: to be on good terms. Osams is bad: being at loggerheads, falling out. ”We just want to exchange the same ideas and tastes,’ said Åke Daun, author of Svensk Mentalitet. Swedes are said to suffer from konflikträdsla, fear of conflict, and therefore feel uncomfortable when dissenting views are aired.
I have no interest in setting up a cultural hierarchy in which Sweden loses status in favour of some other, supposedly better culture. I’ve never lived anywhere that didn’t have very good points and very bad ones simultaneously. No, I’m interested in ideas about gender and sex and how Sweden got where it is – a sort of anthropological point of view.
For those who wish each nation to be left to itself by outsiders, it’s important to note that the Swedish government itself doesn’t do that on this topic. In contrast to 1969, when Susan Sontag wrote that ‘Swedes were not disposed by temperament to export aggressively what they practice,’ today’s government speaks of the Swedish ‘mission’ to enlighten the world’s policy, for example in the Swedish Institute’s project, Equal Opportunities – Sweden Paves the Way, an exhibition available for use in international conferences and seminars. Projects to export ideology always bear watching.
I’ve lived here for a year and meet Swedes all the time who don’t agree with some aspects of national gender policy. They would like to see much more diversity in mainstream media discussions, including arguments, with the possibility of changes to policy. They feel marginalised by the mainstream exclusion and disapproval of their views. I live in Malmö ( the subversive south to some) but the disgruntled Swedes I know live all over the country.
I’ll link when I can to Swedish writers’ work, in books and articles and blogs, and take a historical view when possible. Policies and values that made wonderful sense at one time can seem oddly outdated only a decade later, rather like hairstyles. Zeitgeists are funny things; cultural contexts shift; a word that once seemed self-evident now rings untrue. Originally, jämställdhet referred to equality in general (jämn numbers are even numbers), particularly the goal of abolishing social class. Now when the word is used it is understood to mean, overarchingly, gender equality.
My own first ideas on Swedish gender policy appeared in The Local earlier this year as Is rape rampant in gender-equal Sweden? I’ve been writing on the subject of irregular migration (unauthorised, undocumented) for many years. The other night I gave a talk as part of Malmö’s Latinamerika i Fokus Film och Kulturfestival . The topic was undocumented migration: how it works on the ground, how people travel and work outside formal structures. If the connexion with gender policy seems unclear, wait for further posts.