INTERVIEW: Would the world be better if women ran the show?

Roger Choate meets a feminist champion leading a Swedish-based foundation working with women in war-torn regions.

INTERVIEW: Would the world be better if women ran the show?
The turbulent Middle East is a top priority for Lena Ag, left, who leads the powerful feminist organization Kvinna till Kvinna in Sweden.

Would the world be better if women took over?

Feminist champion Lena Ag thinks so. For years she’s led a Swedish-based foundation working with women in war-torn regions like Palestine and Serbia.

What they discovered was no surprise. “Women in crisis countries are in fact very pragmatic when solving conflicts,” declares Ag, “focusing on what really need to be done rather than nursing grievances”.

Ag tells The Local she saw this first-hand back in 1993 when the breakup of Yugoslavia led to a ghastly civil war. Systematic rape was practised as a tactic of ethnic cleansing. Probably more than 50,000 women were victimized – nobody really knows.

Ag and other Swedish women flew in to join international volunteers. Healthcare for abused women proved nearly non-existent. The Swedish team immediately fundraised in Sweden to finance mobile health clinics and other urgent needs.

Also emerging from the carnage was formation of a unique women’s rights foundation, based in Stockholm and with Ag as secretary-general since 2007. The Kvinna till Kvinna (Woman-to-Woman) Foundation has evolved into the most formidable feminist setup of its kind – combatting gender-based violence while promoting women’s rights and equality.

A staggering agenda, to say the least. Operating in 17 countries on a big budget
of 144 million kronor ($15 million), Kvinna till Kvinna is one of several instruments comprising Sweden’s feminist foreign policy. Foreign Minister Margot Wallström says that “reducing violence against women is a critical priority, while along the way increasing female political participation”.

A case in point is Palestine.

Violence and honour killings

Tucked away in a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem is the local Kvinna till Kvinna office managed by Magnea Marinósdottir, whose work is steeply uphill. “For starters, the Israeli occupation restricts women’s access to basic services like education and politics,” she says.

Just finding safe places for women to physically meet is an everyday challenge as violence escalates.

Marinósdottir also points to gender-based discrimination, noting that violence towards women has not been criminalized in law. Like much else in Palestine, the subject is sensitive. There are still “mitigating circumstances” for honour killings.

Not surprisingly, the Kvinna till Kvinna campaign in Palestine heavily focuses on female participation in local politics and ensuring human rights for women, including inheritance. The team works closely with local organizations on the daunting task of changing attitudes. One objective is providing restitution for women subjected to rape and other forms of violence.

Forced marriage

Syrian refugees rank high on the Kvinna till Kvinna crisis agenda. Displaced women are often subject to abuse and forced marriage after arriving in neighboring countries. During her escape from Syria to Tripoli, refugee Darin Zein el-Abidin was crucially assisted by Kvinna till Kvinna’s partner organization in Lebanon. She was lucky. Many more suffer horrifying trauma along the way.

Back in Stockholm, Lena Ag explains that the Foundation and its 99 employees are active on several levels – from international advocacy to supporting local grassroots initiatives in 17 countries. She points to their work in DR Congo where incessant warfare impacts massively on women. Two-thirds of Congolese women will experience physical violence during their lifetimes.

Increasing women’s influence in politics is one obvious solution. A workshop arranged by Kvinna till Kvinna and another NGO led to an advocacy campaign that finally resulted in new legislation for gender equality.

“This was likely a direct result of our successful petition campaign which was submitted to the National Assembly in Kinshasa,” says Susanna Rudehill, Congo office manager. Meanwhile in Liberia, pending legislation will criminalize marital rape – a monumental step spearheaded by Kvinna till Kvinna’s local partners.

Income disparities in Palestine are discussed in this workshop led by Magnea Marinósdottir with the Swedish feminist organization Kvinna till Kvinna.

What is a woman?

During a pause in The Local interview Lena Ag reflects on the nature of womanhood. She cites early feminist leader and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

And “a woman’s work is never done”, to cite an old cliché. Kvinna till Kvinna’s activities in the Balkans, for instance, continue unabated long after the war came to a negotiated close in 1995. Reduction of gender-based violence is still a main goal, says Maja Stajcic, manager of the Belgrade office.

“We’ve assisted Serbian NGOs in setting up hotlines allowing women to seek help discreetly.”

But statistics reveal a grim reality for Serbian women. Many women who are raped and go to the police are later killed by their own family members.

Stajcic does believe sexual violence will be significantly reduced in Serbia while gender equality will eventually prevail. The role of media is vital, she says: “They do talk about this issue, but there still isn’t enough coverage.”

Alarm bells in America

Over the years Kvinna till Kvinna has faced difficulties and occasional setbacks. Corruption is a global problem and is not tolerated within partner organizations. In Iraq, where conflicts have escalated, female human rights defenders have been threatened by extremist groups.

And then there’s the United States. Clearly, the US is not DR Congo or Palestine. But the election of Donald Trump has triggered an alarm for feminist leaders everywhere.

Lena Ag is deeply worried. “Men who practise politics based on aggressive nationalism and populism are now in power in the two biggest nuclear nations in the world. It’s scary.”

Racism and misogyny are dangerous routes. Ag hopes for rapid emergence of a new kind of feminist movement and progressive alliances in the United States. She suggests that women worldwide must fully support the Women’s March on Washington on January 21st.

Sweden itself is a new focus for the foundation, which hitherto has only worked in crisis countries. Starting next year a new initiative called Project Sisterhood seeks to empower young refugee women who have found a new home in the country.

Roger Choate is a veteran commentator on Swedish affairs, having written for media ranging from Reuters to The Times (London). He currently runs a media firm in Stockholm.


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.


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