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Kids’ books become ideological battleground in Sweden

Boys in pink sandals and girls breaking wind with their armpits - two new Swedish publishers of children's literature are causing a stir with books deliberately designed to propagate the country's social values, writes AFP's Nina Larson.

Two new publishing houses for children’s books have sparked debate in gender-equal Sweden over their professed aim of instilling the country’s open-minded social values in the next generation.

“Our goal is for all people, regardless of gender, sexuality, ethnicity or other such things, to have the freedom to create their own identity and be respected for their personal qualities,” said Karin Salmson, the co-founder of the new Vilda publishing house.

But several critics are outraged, saying they are simply pushing propaganda disguised as literature.

Vilda and another small publisher, Olika, both opened their doors last year with the express aim of making children’s books that promote liberal values and challenge traditional views on gender, race and sexual orientation.

“Many parents feel forced to change he to she or she to he and other details as they read stories for their children, because so many details in children’s books are so very traditional,” Salmson said.

Vilda has therefore introduced a so-called “hug label”, guaranteeing that its books have been “scrutinized from a democracy, equality and diversity perspective” and contain no details “based on prejudice or traditional gender roles that rein in individual freedom”.

The publisher for instance makes sure girls are not always dressed in pink and boys in blue, that dad is not necessarily the one rushing off to work while mom stays home whipping up dinner and that same-sex parents are portrayed as a natural part of life.

Olika’s co-founder Marie Tomicic also says her publishing house aims to “break down traditional gender roles and offer children broader role models, allowing them to be all they can be.”

Together the two small publishers have so far only released about a dozen titles, including a book about a boy who wears pink sandals, and a story about a girl who likes to make farting sounds using her armpits, who just happens to have two dads.

The publishers’ philosophies are largely in line with ruling attitudes in the country, which is widely considered a world leader in gender equality and minority rights.

But critics have challenged their methods.

‘We are trying to break a pattern’

“For both Vilda and Olika, their values are the top priority … and I think that is simply the wrong approach when you want to make good children’s books,” says Lotta Olsson, a literary critic at Sweden’s paper of reference Dagens Nyheter.

If the whole aim of a story is to promote an idea and alter children’s behaviour and attitudes, the artistic and literary side of the book tends to suffer, she insists.

“You cannot write a book simply because you want it to be gender equal. You can however write a good book that is gender equal, but as soon as you can see the thought behind the book, I think the artistic side has failed,” she tells AFP.

Both Tomicic and Salmson, however, dismiss the criticism as “cultural elitism,” pointing out that they have received an overwhelmingly positive response from parents.

“It is perfectly possible to make good literature that takes these issues into consideration,” Tomicic says, pointing out that “we have good authors and illustrators and we insist there is a good story. That is absolutely the most important thing.”

One of Olika’s illustrators, Per Gustavsson, has publicly criticized the publisher’s request to change the colour of a girl’s T-shirt from its original pink in one book, while questions have been raised about the interest of portraying homosexual parents in another book when the fact is not important to the story line.

“We are trying to break a pattern,” Tomicic responds, insisting that it is important to show children that there are many natural alternatives to traditional ways of describing gender roles, including the colours girls and boys wear, and family structures.

Salmson agrees. “Portraying a gay family in a story that is not simply about gay families shows that these families exist too and are just as normal as other types of families.”

“I really can’t see how that can affect the quality of the story itself,” she says, adding however that “I guess there are people who really feel very threatened when you try to open up perceptions on sexuality and gender identity.”

Olsson rejects that notion, maintaining that the problem with the new publishing houses is their “prerequisite that they only take in authors with the same perspective. That affects their access to books in a way that just isn’t good.”

“I don’t think it works either,” she insists. “Children do as we do, not as we tell them to do. If you look around and see women being treated worse than men, it makes no difference that you’ve read a children’s book in which the mother goes to work and the father stays home with the kids.”

AFP’s Nina Larson

RELIGION

Inside the Church of Sweden, where women outnumber men as priests

Women now outnumber men as priests in Sweden, but there's still gender inequality within the Swedish Church, those working in it admit.

Inside the Church of Sweden, where women outnumber men as priests
Visby's cathedral. File photo: Anders Wiklund/SCANPIX/TT

Her white clergy robes flowing behind her, Sandra Signarsdotter walks down the aisle of Stockholm's Gustaf Vasa church greeting parishioners, a ritual of hers and a familiar sight in Sweden.

In the Scandinavian country, often hailed as a champion of gender equality, the statistics are clear. As of July, 50.1 percent of priests are women and 49.9 percent are men. It's very likely the first Church in the world to have a majority of women priests, according to the World Council of Churches.

In the Protestant Lutheran Church of Sweden, which has 5.8 million members in a country of 10.3 million and where ministers hold the title of priest, “women are here to stay,” insists Signarsdotter, who was ordained six years ago.

Since 2014, even the head of the Church is a woman, Archbishop Antje Jackelen.

GENDER IN SWEDEN:


Archbishop Antje Jackelen. Photo: Pontus Lundahl / TT

At the Gustaf Vasa church, a smattering of worshippers wait for the service to begin.

“This Sunday, the service will be conducted by three women,” the 37-year-old priest says proudly.

Coincidentally, it was in this imposing white church in the heart of Sweden's capital that another woman, Anna Howard Shaw, an American Methodist pastor and suffragette, became the first clergywoman to preach in Sweden.

That was in 1911, at an international women's suffrage conference, and long before women could be ordained in the Church of Sweden, in 1958.

“The men didn't allow her to go up there,” explains Signarsdotter, pointing to the marble pulpit above her. “She was allowed only on the floor,” she says, standing at the altar as if to mark the spot.

This Sunday, the service will be held by Julia Svensson, a 23-year-old theology student whom Signarsdotter is mentoring — and she will give her sermon from the pulpit.
 

The feminisation of Sweden's priesthood is also seen at universities, where the 4.5-year theology studies required to become a priest are dominated by women.

Protestants generally believe that a priest is an expert, a theologist who tends to a congregation, and not a calling, in contrast to the Catholic Church which opposes women priests.

The rising number of women may be due to priests' changing roles over the years, suggests Signarsdotter.

“The priest's role today is not what it was before. There are other requirements, (such as) kindliness … (and) being able to handle many different situations.”

“Historically men have held it for themselves but now we see it happening all over the world. Things are changing and new paths are open to us as female priests and women in general.”

Outside the Gustav Vasa Kyrka in Stockholm. Photo: Ali Lorestani/TT

One who has benefitted from the rising number of female priests is stylist Maria Sjodin, who designs vestments for women and whose business is booming.

In her atelier in a southern Stockholm suburb, the designer recently welcomed a regular customer, a female priest looking for a new collared top. One could say divine intervention landed Sjodin here: in 2001 her daughter
made a new friend at kindergarten, whose mother was a priest.

“She asked me to make her a priest shirt, because she didn't like the male shirt that she had to wear,” she recalled.
The piece remains one of the most popular in her collection.

'Still a way to go'

But while women priests now outnumber men, inequality remains.

Women priests earn around 2,200 kronor (213 euros, $253) less a month than their male counterparts, according to the specialised newspaper Kyrkans Tidning.

And fewer women reach top positions within the Church. Of the country's 13 dioceses, only four are headed by women.
 

“We haven't reached equality yet,” says Signarsdotter. “There's still a way to go.”

Her protege Svensson chips in: “We must be a representation of all people.”

After a moment of silence, Signarsdotter admits that sexism still stalks the cloisters of the Church in Sweden.
“One day, a colleague told me 'What a nice ass you have'. I am still seen as a body and not a professional.”

She says things will not change as long as “patriarchal structures (remain) in the walls and the structures of society, and the Church as an organisation.”

But she is not giving up hope. “When I retire I will look at Julia as an archbishop and will be like 'damn, we did good'.”                             

By Nioucha Zakavati

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