‘We immigrants mustn’t silence problems of gender inequality’

Foreign-born men in Sweden need to do more to tackle gender inequality, and that means talking about masculinity and hierarchies rather than keeping quiet or trying to recreate the society we come from, argues Vladimir F Ahmed, who has set up a charity that aims to do just that.

'We immigrants mustn't silence problems of gender inequality'
Vladimir F Ahmed founded the group 'Vi är Sverige' for foreign men in Sweden to tackle gender inequality. Photo: Private

More newly-arrived and foreign men need to be included in our Sweden. And that work starts with getting more men who come from patriarcal societies engaged in the work of gender equality. That’s how integration starts.

We need to discuss masculinity, norms, hierarchies, gender roles, and equality. Because equality goes hand in hand with integration.

Where in the world we come from makes a difference. We have different backgrounds, have grown up with different norms and in different societal structures. Attitudes which make us into different kinds of men — and which mean we need to work in different ways to reach equality. We need to believe that problems can be solved — instead of silencing them.

The earlier we can grab attention for equality among new arrivals and foreign men, the greater the chance of influencing and challenging ingrained attitudes, behaviours, and ideas. We need to talk about these things in SFI classes, at primary schools, and in our free time. If we start to talk about this and turn it into a natural part of school education, a natural part of changing room chat before sport, a natural part of free time and at SFI, then we will have come a long way.

To make this possible, we started the organization and initiative Vi är Sverige (We are Sweden). We want to create another kind of masculinity — and another kind of Swedishness which more people can be part of. One where you can be a man and a Swede in many different ways, and that’s OK. You don’t have to choose to be either an immigrant or Swedish and nor do you have to choose to be either a macho man or a ‘sissy’ guy.

The starting point for what should unite us all is democracy, equality, and freedom. Not ethnicity, skin colour, religion, or sex.

Macho culture and unreasonable expectations that men have to be “manly”, “protectors”, and “providers” are an obstacle to integration.

Two things which are especially important for foreign men who come from authoritarian countries with a strong patriarchal culture: Men want to protect. Men want to provide.

In Sweden, where democracy, equality, and freedom prevail between man and woman, it can feel like these things are being taken away from you as a man.

Democracy: Popular rule, all power comes from the people — power is delegated upwards. These men are often used to the exact opposite.

Equality: Gender doesn’t matter. We should have the same rights, duties, and opportunities. These men might have views on that, formed by a different societal structure.

Freedom: You should be able to love who you want, dress and think how you want. These men come from societies where it’s often taboo to be gay, for example.

So what happens then with your ‘masculinity’`? What happens with your ‘respect’ and the position you had in your home country?

Well, when you don’t identify with yourself in your new land, of course groups and societies with the society are created, where people look for like-minded people. It means you want to protect your culture (which isn’t strange at all, we are pack animals and that’s what we do) and to protect your position of power as a man.

Does this mean that the Swedish way of life is supreme and all other cultures are wrong? No, of course not. And there are also patriarchal structures for blond, blue-eyed Swedes — and in all parts of the ‘modern’ world. But it becomes a problem when as a man you want to live in the same patriarchal society you have left, in the equal and democratic country you’re now in.

In the worst case, this culminates with phenomena like ‘moral police’ in Swedish suburbs, where men control how women can dress or behave. This creates segregation and alienation. That leads to a feeling of us-against-them, created by us immigrants.

We have to talk about this. Not silence it. The approach towards women has to be rethought .

It’s not about one or the other being bad, but rather about societal structures and values — the views that you bring with you to Sweden. If integration is going to succeed, we need to create a ‘we’, not several parallel societies. Not one Sweden in Rinkeby and another Sweden in Djursholm.

It’s important to emphasize that native Swedes must do all they can to facilitate integration, minimize exclusion, discourage Swedes from moving away from areas with lots of foreigners, and set requirements for authorities, companies, and politicians to allow cultural expression and protect the multicultural society.

My own mother illustrates the problem we’re facing. She wasn’t able to go to school or work in her home country because of norms, societal structures, and the patriarchal societies they lived in.

She came here as a 30-year-old with five children — three of her own, and two step-children since our father had several wives. My mum arrived in Sweden without being able to read or write, without any English language ability. She spoke only Kurdish and her husband (my dad) wanted to live in Sweden the same way he had done in his home country.

So how could my mum integrate?

Now, Sweden wants my mum to contribute to society, to work and pay her dues. But that doesn’t work. She isn’t able to. And this creates cultural clashes; a mother who doesn’t understand anything about her new country. She’s confused, it will take a long time before she understands how it works.

We children didn’t have role models; we didn’t see our parents wake up early, go to work and eventually buy a house, car, and dog. This creates segregation, this creates a feeling of alienation for my mum. It creates an us-against-them feeling. We ourselves have created it.

It makes no difference if you’re born here in Sweden or have lived here your whole life. If you’re brought up in a society where your parents, school and others don’t represent democracy, equality, and freedom like in the rest of Sweden, parallel societies are formed.

That’s why we want to open the door for a new kind of masculinity which more foreign men can be part of. We want to talk about these areas, which foreign men often haven’t talked about in their home countries before, or in Sweden for that matter.

We have to dare to talk about it, because integration is more than just coming to another country and getting a job and accommodation. Swedishness for us is in the actions, not skin colour. We want to create a Sweden where we all live with the same values — but in different ways. Because we are different. We don’t believe in assimilation, but in integration.

This opinion piece written by Vi är Sverige founder Vladimir F Ahmed was originally published in Swedish by Aftonbladet on June 12th, and translated for The Local by Catherine Edwards. Read the original version here.


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Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Sweden’s second city is the site of Scandinavia’s largest urban development project. But there is rising concern that the costs outweigh the benefits, says David Crouch

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Last week, residents in the area of Fågelsången (birdsong), a quiet street at the very heart of Sweden’s second city, woke up to read the following news: “Explosions at Fågelsången: On August 8, week 32, we start blasting around Fågelsången and are expected to be done by week 40. When blasting, for safety reasons, no one is allowed to go out, open their windows or be within the blasting area. We will work weekdays 7am to 5pm.” 

Blasting deep holes in the granite – along with sprawling roadworks – has been the reality for central Gothenburgers for the past four years, as a vast rail tunnel is being dug to link the current terminus with other parts of the city and enable smoother connections with other routes. The aim is to triple rail passenger numbers and eliminate traffic jams on the main road through the city, at a cost of 20 billion crowns (€1.9 billion).

This railway, known as Västlänken (the West Link), is not the only big construction project in the city centre. It is just the largest element in a gigantic scheme to revive the docks area along the river, which was destroyed by a global shipping crisis in the 1970s. The great rusting cranes opposite the opera house and the disused Eriksberg gantry are an important aspect of Gothenburg’s skyline and self-image. The areas on the north bank were also home to many recent immigrants and a byword for poverty. The city’s mayor famously, and shamefully, referred to it as “the Gaza strip”.

So in 2012 the city launched an ambitious plan. Christened Älvstaden, the RiverCity, municipal investment aimed to build an attractive, modern waterfront while creating tens of thousands of homes and jobs. It is by far the Nordic region’s biggest urban regeneration project. A YouTube video commissioned by the city authorities a few years later neatly sums up both the breathtaking scope of this vision and the exciting / brutal (choose your own adjective here) nature of the transformation it would bring: 

The RiverCity revolved around two flagship projects: a new bridge over the river, the Hisingsbron (Hisingen Bridge), combined with major new office developments right in the centre; and Karlatornet, Sweden’s tallest skyscraper, which would literally tower over Gothenburg like a beacon of modernity in a city that traditionally has had strict rules against high-rise buildings. 

Add to all this a proposed high-speed rail link with Stockholm, and you have a recipe for quite spectacular urban upheaval involving billions of tons of steel and concrete. Visit Gothenburg today and much of the city seems to have been turned into a building site. There is a forest of cranes, while smart new office blocks puncture the skyline – a genuine metamorphosis is under way.

But many Gothenburgers are either uneasy or downright unhappy. The RiverCity is a vanity project to gentrify the docklands, they say. Karlatornet’s 73 stories of luxury apartments will be a scar on the landscape and a symbol of Gothenburg’s new love affair with finance and real estate, a slap in the face for the city’s proud industrial values. Västlänken is a vit elefant, a costly project that will deliver questionable benefits, many believe.  

Opposition to Västlänken was such that a new political party, the Democrats, took 17 percent of the vote in 2018 with its headline demand to stop the project immediately. This caused a revolution in local politics, overturning decades of Social Democrat rule. 

And now the gloss on these big-ticket construction projects is starting to fade. Karlatornet was the first to run into trouble. For most of 2020 building work was at a standstill, raising the threat that this flagship of regeneration would be nothing more than an unfinished stump, after American financiers pulled out of the project. The new Hisingen Bridge is open to traffic, but its construction was fraught with setbacks and the final cost to the taxpayer is still unknown. “There has been an awareness from the start that this was a high-risk project,” one of the project’s bosses said ominously this spring.

RiverCity is more than two billion kronor over budget, and facing accusations of mismanagement that evoke Gothenburg’s old nickname of Muteborg, or Bribetown, after a proliferation of municipal companies in the 1970s led to conflicts of interest, with politicians sitting on company boards. Opponents of the scheme argue that in any case it is unlikely to solve any of the city’s fundamental problems, such as the ethnic segregation that has created immigrant ghettos in outlying suburbs.  

In May, Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published leaked minutes from Västlänken management meetings in which one of the main contractors on the project said it would be delivered billions over budget and four years later than its official 2026 deadline – in other words, four more years of earth-shattering explosions, roadblocks and associated upheaval. With local elections only months away, the Democrats have taken out advertisements on billboards and in local media demanding that top politicians tell the truth about what is going on. For opponents of the scheme, this is exactly what they have warned of all along

Next June, Gothenburg will officially celebrate its 400th anniversary, postponed from 2021 because of the pandemic. Visitors will experience a city on the move, with pristine new motorways and sparkling office blocks. So for Gothenburg’s urban planners, there is light at the end of the development tunnel. In the case of Västlänken, however, they will be hoping that the light is indeed that of an oncoming train. 

David Crouch has lived in Gothenburg for nine years. He is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It, a freelance journalist and lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.