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Comment: Swedish Television cheapens the feminism debate

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18:54 CEST+02:00
Swedish Television's controversial two part TV programme on ‘extreme feminism' entitled The Gender War tapped into a debate about feminism that has recently been taking centre stage in Swedish politics. The documentary focuses on accusations of man-hating at Swedish battered women's shelters. But the documentary's one-sided commentary risks undermining the important role the shelters play in helping women in need.

The programme was compiled by Swedish journalist Evin Rubar. Rubar has accused Swedish battered women's shelters of "fundamentalism" and of having a "persecution mania" against men. According to Rubar, the network of 50 battered Swedish women's shelters run by volunteers - ROKS - Riksorganisation för Kvinnojourer i Sverige (National Organisation of Battered Women's Shelters) is an "extremist" feminist organization .

One of the most astonishing aspects of Rubar's report is the revelation of the statistic that one woman is murdered every month by a boyfriend or husband in Sweden, which the UN describes as the most gender neutral country in the world.

Using editorial techniques that owe more than a little to Michael Moore, Rubar visited ROKS to understand how Swedish women who are battered by men received assistance. The current and former chairperson of ROKS, Ireen von Wachenfeldt and Angela Beausang, are the documentary's primary targets of criticism.

The end result is more TV drama than documentary, complete with hidden cameras, superimposed illustrations of burning effigies of men, bizarre photographs with eerie music, and Barbie and Ken dolls.

The first part of the series deals with a single case of a young woman who made contact with a battered women's shelter and was taken out of the country.

The focus on the one incident serves to undermine the long term efforts of ROKS of over two decades in helping battered women. This focus becomes increasingly problematic during the hour long report. Whether or not an error in judgement was made in the way the case was handled becomes lost under the moralizing voice over of Evin Rubar. Generally, comments by ROKS officials about male violence against women are cut as quick MTV shots, juxtaposed with contrasting material in such a way that evokes the editorial style of political propaganda.

The series is timely in light of the formation of Feminist Initiative coalition, headed by former Left party leader Gudrun Schyman and an ongoing debate about feminism in Sweden. However, Rubar and the editorial team appear to have a more ambitious project in mind - a political attack on the Social Democratic party and Swedish ambassador to Brazil Margareta Winberg, the former minister of gender equality.

Winberg was relocated to Brazil a couple of years ago, apparently due to creative differences with Prime Minister Göran Persson, a reassignment that was never actually explained by Persson. Winberg believes that gender discrimination stems from an entrenched system of gender hierarchy in society, a position held by ROKS. Despite her new assignment Winberg's policy on gender equality remains intact in the government regarding the administration and guidelines for battered women's shelters.

Rubar's TV team also traveled to Norway in order to get the testimony of a right wing politician who claims that violent men who beat and rape women can be successfully rehabilitated. This is further supported, Rubar reports, by international research from Canada and the USA, studies she claims the Swedish government is ignoring.

The journalist further interviewed Swedish experts who claim that violence must be regarded as the act of mentally disturbed men (such as the assailant who murdered Swedish foreign minister Anna Lindh in a department store last year). Yet this appears to be in stark contrast with documented experience from women who have contacted ROKS as well as other studies of women that testify how difficult it is for women to leave physically abusive relationships. This is in fact confirmed by two women in the second part of Rubar's reports.

ROKS reportedly has the testimony of women for over two decades on incidents of male violence, some of which are not reported to the police because of fear of reprisal or shame, and which does not appear in criminologist profiles.

Beyond the issue of battered women is the subject of child abduction which Rubar relies on evidence from the police to document.

Charges of "feminist fundamentalism" have been used to split women's organizations in Sweden during the feminist backlash of the 90's -- a backlash that has been closely followed by the mass media. When national television takes a stance with manipulative reporting, where is the watchdog watching the watchdog?

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Local

Moira Sullivan

Moira Sullivan is a freelance journalist and member of the Swedish Film Critics' Association

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