Born in Burundi where her parents, from the former Zaire, lived in exile, Sabuni is Sweden’s new minister of integration and gender equality and, as always, a woman of conviction.
“I don’t think I do my job very differently than anyone else just because I am black, but maybe because of certain views I have … that’s more important,” she said in Swedish, the language she speaks with her family, interspersed with her native Swahili.
The 37-year-old sparked fierce debate prior to her appointment to the cabinet of Sweden’s centre-right government thanks to her proposals to combat the “honour culture” of certain immigrant groups.
Banning the wearing of the veil for girls under 15 years of age, conducting compulsory gynaecological check-ups in schools to deter and to detect cases of genital mutilation, ending state funding of religious schools and outlawing arranged marriages were among Sabuni’s proposals that drew criticism.
She is a Muslim, raised by a practicing mother, but is not a follower of the faith herself, she says.
Her detractors have branded her an “Islamophobe”.
Social critic and author Kurdo Baksi, a Swede of Kurdish origin, is among them.
“I’m very disappointed that a person whom I perceive as an Islamophobe has been appointed integration minister. It’s a very bad start to the centre-right government’s integration policy,” he told Swedish news agency TT recently.
He cited her “lack of empathy in integration issues and lack of experience from the field.”
“Appointing incompetent foreign-born people is symbolic politics, but not an active policy,” he said.
Sabuni is no longer in the opposition, and the petite, elegant woman with short cropped hair and an intense gaze now proudly heads a government ministry.
Seated in her smart office devoid of any obvious luxury, she stressed that her role has changed.
“I did my part, I started a debate. Now as a minister I will implement policies on which we (coalition partners) reach agreement,” she said, referring to the four-party alliance that ousted the Social Democrats in September’s general elections.
But “honestly, … I still believe in these proposals and the problems still exist,” Sabuni said.
She came to Sweden in 1981 at age 12 with her mother and three of her five brothers and sisters. Here they were reunited with her father, an opposition figure arrested several times in then Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, who had travelled to the Scandinavian country thanks to the rights group Amnesty International.
“My mum and dad got jobs straight away … which means for us there was nothing unusual. Our parents worked, we went to school and life went on,” Sabuni said, recalling a smooth integration devoid of trauma.
“I am extremely proud of my roots, I have never had an identity problem,” she added.
In Kungsängen, 20 kilometres from Stockholm, “we were the only visible immigrant family,” she said. Learning Swedish allowed her to rapidly put roots down in her new country.
According to Sabuni, the country’s labour market and society were better equipped to absorb immigrants in the 1980s when she arrived than now.
She insists that learning the Swedish language, holding down a job and fighting discrimination are the keys to a successful integration for newcomers, and she wants to see more efficient government policies in these areas.
However, she is critical of Sweden’s traditional “nanny-state” approach to residents of cradle-to-grave social care and hopes the new government will take steps to end this tendency.
“For me, as a liberal, it is very important that (people) know that here they have opportunities and advantages, as well as obligations and responsibilities,” explained the mother of two who is married to a Swede.
Vehemently opposed to cultural and religious practices that do not respect the constitution or human rights, Sabuni believes there are some 100,000 girls in Sweden subject to the “honour culture” – a value system that can include virginity checks, veils for young girls, excision, arranged marriage and physical violence.
“For me it is crucial that we have a dialogue, a debate and that together we decide what we can do,” she says.
But while she insists that immigrants have a responsibility to integrate into Swedish society in order to share a common platform, she also believes they should retain their cultural heritage.
“I don’t think that learning the language, learning the codes in society, learning how society works, stands in contrast to one’s own identity,” she insists.
She cites the example of Britain, which has taken “multiculturalism to the extreme and said ‘everything is okay, you do things your way and we’ll do things our way’. But you have to have common ground to base things on.”
She says she herself feels both Congolese and Swedish.
“I think I have all these identities. I identify very much with the environment I’m in. When I’m with my Congolese friends I’m Congolese … when I’m with Swedes I’m pretty much like a Swede.”