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What does the #MeToo campaign reveal about Swedish feminism?

Catherine Edwards
Catherine Edwards - [email protected]
What does the #MeToo campaign reveal about Swedish feminism?
Equality Minister Åsa Regnér, speaking at a rally organized in support of #MeToo. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

Why did the #MeToo campaign catch on the way it did in the world's most gender equal country? The Local investigates why Sweden has reached a point of no return.


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"It will be totally impossible to turn back the clock," said the General Secretary of Sweden's Women's Lobby, when asked what impact the #MeToo campaign had had in Sweden.

Other women's rights experts and campaigners we spoke to called it a "revolution", a "wake-up call", and a "turning point" for the country. The campaign started in America and spread across the globe, but in Sweden, often labelled the world's most gender equal country, the impact has been particularly strong.

New allegations of harassment by men in positions of power have emerged on an almost daily basis over the past month. Several men have already faced repercussions in their careers. The movement has spread far beyond elite figures in politics and media, with women from all industries, ages, and levels of seniority raising their voice. What's more, they've been heard.

Åsa Regnér, Minister for Gender Equality, tells The Local she thinks there are two reasons the movement has sent such shockwaves through Sweden.

"Firstly, simply because violence happens here," she says. "Despite our efforts on a political level, the rate of violence against women has unfortunately remained the same over the past ten years."

"But I would also say that women know their rights here, and they know they will be listened to. The response [to the initial #MeToo campaign on social media] was serious, so that encourages people to call out problems in their industries. These things are difficult to talk about, there's always a price, but women in Sweden see that it's worth it."

She also thinks the timing of the #MeToo campaign, coming shortly after Sweden was ranked top in the European Union for gender equality, helped it have such a big impact, as it showed how far Sweden still had to go.

The #MeToo campaign keeps growing in Sweden. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

'No one will just give away power'

According to Regnér, some of her colleagues within the EU have said the #MeToo campaign was greeted with "laughter, negligence or questioning women's experiences" in some countries.

"Sometimes I hear colleagues from other countries say that gender equality happens automatically or will come with the next generation, but it doesn't! You need political leadership because it's about changing power structures and no one will give away his power just for the fun of it. You have to make visible the bizarre injustices," she argues.

Gender equality has been a central issue in Swedish politics for decades; the country has the world's first feminist government, it is in the process of launching a dedicated gender equality authority, and Swedes hold the strongest views on gender equality in the EU, according to a study published this month.

Laws providing subsidized child daycare and generous parental leave reduce the pressure to choose between motherhood and their career, and The Local's readers regularly tell us they feel that women are treated with more respect in Sweden than in their home countries.

Feminist author Maria Sveland says the positive reception of #MeToo in Sweden is down to "all the small, small steps taken over many years, steps that were sometimes hopelessly small and meaningless, but which slowly but surely built a strong foundation to stand on and build on."

Maria Sveland, best known for her 2007 book Bitterfittan (The Bitter Bitch). Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

"A few years ago, we had a similar call for #prataomdet, where women spoke about grey areas and lack of consent in sexual situations," she notes. "We have long had an active and loud women's movement struggling to put the issue of sexual violence on the public agenda, so now women feel they are ready to dare to tell. #Metoo was the spark, but the fuel was already there and just waited for fire."

'Feminist hellhole'

Sweden's strong record on women's rights, and the openness with which feminism is discussed, may well have encouraged women to speak up about harassment without fearing repercussions.

However, it's also true that paradoxically, Sweden's reputation as a liberal, feminist country can make it harder for women to speak out about the injustices they do face, and so it's all the more shocking when they do.

Christian Christensen, a professor of journalism at Stockholm University and an American who has lived in Sweden for over ten years, says that the huge reaction to #MeToo in Sweden might be surprising to foreigners who view the country as an example of a gender equal society. But he argues: "What it shows is that many of the issues facing women are hidden under the surface, so there is still a long way to go."

"Sweden has a very good representation of women in parliament which is great, for example, but it doesn't necessarily mean their working environment is completely OK. We shouldn't let one kind of statistic which shows progress and equality convince us that the problem is solved on every level," he says.

Members of the Swedish cabinet. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

Lena Martinsson, Professor in Gender Studies at Gothenburg University, agrees: "It's quite problematic to connect gender equality issues to a nation; sexual harassment actually happens everywhere."

Both Christensen and Martinsson note that discussion on women's rights in Sweden is often hi-jacked by the far-right. Type the phrase 'Swedish feminist' into Google and the search engine will suggest the following 'related searches': Sweden feminism gone too far, Sweden feminist nightmare, Sweden feminist hellhole.

Certain sections of the media paint a picture of Swedish feminism as exaggerated to the point of the ridiculous – or at the other extreme, they'll label it the 'rape capital of the world' (it's not), and blame immigrants for any rise in reported rapes, even when that increase is more likely down to a change in how statistics are reported. But now women have taken back control of the narrative, which has revealed just how pervasive harassment is in all corners of society, forcing men to confront this reality.

"We have had lots of problems with right-wing people who say it's only immigrants who commit sexual assaults, claiming that unaccompanied refugee minors are the threat to Swedish girls," says Martinsson.

After some prominent Swedes were named in the first #MeToo posts, she says that this showed "if these typical, white Swedish men can turn out to be one of the 'bad guys', they must be everywhere, it could be someone you know, and it's not OK."

For Lotta Kuylenstierna, one of the organizers of the Women's March Stockholm last January, the campaign is part of a "shared rage" which has been building up for over a year. "Ironically enough," she says, "I think it started with the American election."

The Women's March in Stockholm. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

"In Sweden, we've had a strong feminist voice for a very long time, but I think there's some complacency regarding feminism. This year, after the American election, the treatment of Hillary Clinton and so on made us aware that we can no longer accept complacency," says Kuylenstierna.

"We need to point out what's wrong and do something about it. I see things forming everywhere, which are all part of the same rage, and I hope that continues."

'Me Too'

American actress Alyssa Milano first encouraged women to tweet #MeToo if they had experienced sexual assault in response to rape allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

Hundreds of Swedes shared their experiences under the hashtag, with well-known figures including TV presenter Karin Adelsköld, sports presenter Jessica Almenäs, author Katarina Wennstam, and entrepreneurs Elin Elkehag and Bonnie Roupé all speaking out, alongside hundreds more ordinary women from all walks of life.

A few days after the hashtag started to spread, Foreign Minister Margot Wallström hailed the campaign and called for political action to be taken against harassment. "This type of call is not enough, it also has to lead to action. "How do we influence public opinion and what can we do, through our channels, to fix this?" she asked.

Rallies to support women's rights were held in response in Stockholm, Malmö and Gothenburg one week after the hashtag was first spread. Two ministers (Gender Equality Minister Regnér and Labour Minister Ylva Johansson) spoke at the event in the capital.

Åsa Regnér and journalist Frida Boisen speak at the rally in Sergels Torg. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

The first men to face consequences for alleged misconduct in the wake of #MeToo in Sweden were high-profile media figures. Aftonbladet journalist Fredrik Virtanen, television presenter Lasse Kronér at public broadcaster SVT, a man with close links to Nobel Literature Prize-awarding body the Swedish Academy, and a well-known female SR radio host, were among those accused of various offences by former co-workers.

TV4 removed Martin Timell, one of Sweden's best-known presenters and the face of home improvement show 'Äntligen Hemma', from his role, and announced that it would not be running any of the programmes he had been set to appear in this autumn. The presenter addressed some of the allegations in a long interview with the Expressen tabloid, in which he said he was "shocked that [he had] done so much wrong" and would arrange to see a therapist, comments echoing those of Harvey Weinstein.

'A common roar'

Now the movement has gone well beyond a hashtag.

In early November, Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet published an article initially signed by 456 women (the figure later grew) working in Swedish film and theatre, including some of the industries' biggest names, sharing some of the abuse they had experienced and calling for an end to sexual harassment in their field.
Days later, Stockholm City Theatre broke off its agreement with one major theatre actor over allegations of harassment. At Stockholm's Södra Teatern, 210 female actors read out some of the anonymous testimonies to an audience including several ministers, in an event Sweden's Crown Princess Victoria called "tremendously important".

Actresses read out some of the testimonies. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer / TT

Towards the middle of the month, a similar petition called out abuse within the music industry, signed by stars including Zara Larsson, Robyn, and First Aid Kit. These gained global media coverage, with reports in MTV and the Hollywood Reporter.

Where Sweden has differed from most other countries in its response to #MeToo is that it hasn't only been the elite industries – politics, media, and high-profile actors – where allegations have surfaced.

More and more industry-specific 'petitions' followed, each one of them signed by hundreds of women calling to an end to sexual harassment in their field. "In my work, I stood up for the rights of others, but I had no rights at all," wrote one woman, describing her time at a corporate law firm. More than 6,000 women working in law have now signed the '#medvilkenrätt' (with what right) petition, which writers described as a "common roar".

Further calls came from the worlds of politics, tech, unions, journalism, dance, and sport. Students have also spoken out, with two petitions this week denouncing assault at Swedish schools and universities, by both students and teachers. Some of the testimonies recalled harassment suffered by girls as young as six.

In most cases, there is no official spokesperson for these petitions, nor have perpetrators been named. Many of the petitions began as closed Facebook groups where women within a certain field were invited to share their own experiences. A selection of these were then published, anonymously, along with the call for change.

"Our first reaction was that this would blow over; those of us who work against male violence are so used to the questions never being taken seriously," admits Clara Berglund, General Secretary of the Swedish Women's Lobby. "But it will be totally impossible to turn back the clock after the enormous amount of testimonies from women."

Clara Berglund. Photo: Lena Hammar/Sveriges Kvinnolobby

As for why the movement took this turn in Sweden, one obvious factor is that in a country of only ten million, industries may be more close-knit and so it's easier for people to assemble.

Berglund also notes: "Swedes are good at getting organized, and there's a good infrastructure with women's rights organizations, trade unions, and more." Sweden's tradition of trade unions, which negotiate conditions including hours and vacation allowance on behalf of employees, means that Swedes are well used to collective action rather than negotiating as individuals, and this could be a factor as to why the protests took this form.

'Suddenly, it was OK to share'

The campaign has quickly been recognized as a turning point in the gender rights movement in Sweden.

At the Nordic Museum in Sweden, the country's largest museum of cultural history, archivists have already begun gathering #MeToo stories for a collection in their digital archives, which will look at how the hashtag had such a far-reaching impact.

"One of our main tasks is to gain knowledge about everyday life in Sweden, and this is a part of everyday life – though not a very bright side – so it should be documented along with information about what we eat and how we dress," Kajsa Hartig, who is responsible for digital initiatives at the museum, tells The Local. "This is a material of significance that we want to keep for future generations; we can say that, although we can't say right now what the impact will be in the longer term."

She adds that although the museum only asked people why and how they participated in the campaign, many people were keen to tell their personal stories. "I even had people calling me up; older people, who didn't want to use the website but wanted to talk about it. There's a need to share, and suddenly there was a moment when it was OK to do that."  

The Nordic Museum in Stockholm. Photo: Jan Collsiöö/Scanpix Sweden/TT

Her colleague Jonas Engman, an ethnologist and head of the museum's archives, explains that documenting the movement is a key part of the museum's work to collect information about Swedish society and value systems.

"#MeToo seems to challenge the general (Swedish) notion that we are the most democratic and equal society in the world. This image is a bit like the king without clothes – and now, the truth is revealed," he says.

Engman adds that in Sweden, one factor in why women haven't always spoken out publicly might be the "extremely strong idea of the sanctity of the private" which he says exists in Sweden. "It may seem a bit paradoxical, because we have a huge trust towards society and its welfare system: daycare, schooling and so on, but society does not intervene in the privacy of the family or the individual unless necessary."

Now it's clear that it is very necessary.

'We are just getting started'

The #MeToo campaign has sparked several discussions on gender equality and harassment in parliament, and Gender Equality Minister Åsa Regnér has met with the Ministers of Justice and Labour to discuss concrete actions. 

Ministers have also held meetings with police and prosecutors to discuss the treatment of sexual offences, and with Sweden's major unions, discrimination ombudsman, and local authorities to discuss policies for harassment at work. 

Further initiatives have been started at a grassroots level. Journalist Cissi Wallin has helped launch a new website, Min Upprättelse, which will offer support to victims of sexual harassment and assault. She believes that this information is not made readily available in schools and workplaces and can be hard to find. She launched it with PR agent Elcim Yilmaz and is working with experts including lawyers, criminologists and children's rights campaigners.

"When I decided to report to the police what I had been through in 2011, I found it hard to find the correct information – and I was working in the media," Wallin told The Local. "When you're in that situation, you're already fragile, so you need all the information in the right place. We wanted to create something to hold your hand, a kind of sisterhood to help you through this."

Cissi Wallin, pictured during a march calling for better maternity care in Sweden. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer / TT

Swedish police officers have warned that their resources make it difficult to investigate sexual assault cases in a timely manner, and there have been cases this year where victims have reported rape within a few days of the crime taking place, but it has taken months for the accused to be questioned. Recent statistics suggest that fewer rape cases are being solved in Sweden, something which could lead to mistrust of the authorities.

"Everyone has the right to tell their story. You can speak out loudly like I did, and tell it publicly, or go to the police and get a sense of calmness in speaking up for yourself and for others," said Wallin.

"This is a long-term project; we are just getting started. We want this to become a question that's part of everyday life. Right now it's exploding in the media and everyone's talking about it, but soon something else will happen and take away our attention.We need larger projects to lead to bigger change."

Most of the campaigners and experts we spoke to were cautiously optimistic that the movement would have long-lasting consequences. However, one thing most of them agreed on was that #MeToo cannot start and end with women. 

"I regret that women once again have to take the responsibility to change society. It should be the men. I'm proud of the men who have taken the side of women, but there is always more space for male solidarity," says Regnér.


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