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ABORTION

‘Ireland could learn a hell of a lot from Sweden’

After a woman in Ireland died from a miscarriage after authorities refusal to allow an abortion, Irish native David Duff reflects on the how Sweden differs from his homeland in gender equality.

'Ireland could learn a hell of a lot from Sweden'

When I put my shoes on, step outside, and take a breakfast walk through Malmö, I’m still surprised by what I don’t see.

There’s not a single statue of the Virgin Mary; there are no nuns pottering about the streets doing whatever it is that nuns actually do, and the flocks of elderly women regularly migrating to early morning mass are nowhere to be found.

It’s great!

Sweden might not have the same veneration that Ireland has for that one woman (Mary), but what it does have is something far better: veneration for all women.

When I first came here, I had no idea how progressive gender equality was in Sweden.

I find it amazing how often Swedish women and men shun traditionally assigned gender roles. It’s something the people here unknowingly take for granted, and it’s something that my Irish eyes can only look at on with envy.

The first time a Swedish friend of mine told me that he was a kindergarten teacher, I started to laugh because I thought he was joking. He got a little annoyed at me because he thought I was laughing at his English, but after I explained things to him, he started to laugh at me and my “silly Irish way of thinking”.

It’s a way of thinking that was given to me by my parents, who in turn got it from their parents, and it’s a way of thinking from which most of Ireland still suffers.

In Ireland, certain jobs are for men and certain jobs are for women. That’s just the way it is, and there’s been no real change for decades.

I can’t help but wonder if the financial mess in Ireland would have been as big as it was or even happened at all, if a few more of the politicians and bank-managers had been women.

Just a little over 15 percent of Ireland’s parliamentarians are women, compared to 45 percent in Sweden.

From an Irish person’s perspective, the level of gender fairness in Swedish society is nothing short of amazing, and the rights that Swedish women enjoy are nothing short of incredible.

There’s one right in particular that Swedish women have that Irish people are crying out for: the right to choose.

News broke recently about a young woman in Ireland who died after she was found to be suffering from a miscarriage but was refused permission to have her pregnancy brought to an end, with doctors telling her: “This is a Catholic country”.

I was shocked and appalled by this needless tragedy, and I found myself thinking, that this would never have happened in Sweden.

I can’t imagine a doctor here refusing treatment to someone and saying they did it because Sweden is a Lutheran country.

The Swedish people wouldn’t accept that as an excuse, and in a 21st century EU country, the Irish people shouldn’t accept it either.

Ireland, despite many recent developments, is still a place that’s deeply steeped in religion, tradition, and fear. It’s why I feel so lucky and find it so wonderful to now be living in a secular country like Sweden.

I love calling over to my Swedish friends’ homes, taking off my shoes and walking into their hallways without being greeted by crucifixes on the walls or Sacred Heart pictures hanging in the living rooms.

I love being in a place where children don’t have to start their days with prayers or be baptized just so they can be accepted into certain schools.

I love the fact that same-sex couples enjoy the exact same rights as couples of the opposite sex and that women here have had the right to choose since 1938.

I love being in a country where it’s just as common for men and women to work as kindergarten teachers, and where equality is a precept that people live by and not just a buzzword bandied about by politicians.

Sweden for me has been full of surprises and not all of them have been good (surströmming and salmiak come to mind).

But having been here for a while, I can clearly see that the pros of living in this country far outweigh the cons, and when it comes to choosing a secular, progressive, and fair place to raise a family, Sweden is almost unparalleled, and Ireland could learn a hell of lot if it took a few pages out of the Swedish book of life.

David Duff is an Irishman studying at university in southern Sweden. His free time is split between doing stand-up comedy and adapting to the Swedish way of life.

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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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