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OPINION: No, women in Sweden don’t yet have it all

Women in Sweden may have (almost) equal salaries and shared parental leave, but what's it all worth if we can't feel safe, asks Swedish columnist Lisa Bjurwald after five women were killed in three weeks.

OPINION: No, women in Sweden don't yet have it all
Swedish writer Lisa Bjurwald shares her thoughts on being a woman in Sweden in 2021. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

For some, Swedish women seem to have it all. The impression around the world is often that of near-total equality, from the home (a much-envied paternal leave, sharing of household duties) to the workplace. Compared to countries like Saudi Arabia, where women can rebel by getting in the driver’s seat of a car, Sweden is way ahead – but in truth, much remains to be done. One issue, in particular, has stirred up anger this spring: sexual and other forms of violence towards women.

Mirroring the development in the United Kingdom, where protests have taken place over the murder of Sarah Everard (a Met police officer has been charged, facing a provisional trial in October), this Swedish post-MeToo uproar was triggered by a chain of news events. First, our former Chancellor of Justice Göran Lambertz held an impromptu press conference in his own garden after rape charges against him were dropped. On live television, a pleased-looking Lambertz held court in front of the assembled press and called his young female accuser a liar.

The broadcast was a major ethical error of judgment by Sweden’s public broadcaster SVT, who later apologised. But only weeks later, SVT again let an accused rapist – stand-up comedian Soran Ismail, who has never been charged – give his lengthy version of events in a documentary.

The sentiment among many women here is: “Enough of this patriarchal bullshit.” Things seemed to be going so well around #MeToo in 2017 and 2018, and we all looked forward to a new dawn for gender equality, so what’s this apparent backlash about?

It’s not just a feeling, its fact: the development towards gender equality in Sweden has been ground to a halt for the last couple of years. Now, a backlash is accelerating, on several fronts. Women who have named their rapists in closed Facebook groups during the #MeToo movement are facing charges of defamation, with several already convicted. At the same time, the percentage of convicted rapists is startlingly low. Of the 8,820 reported rapes in 2018, only 333 – not even 4 percent – led to a conviction.

This goes for those in charge of upholding the law, too. For the past year, I’ve worked on a newly published reportage book on the topic, Gärningsmannen är polis (“The perpetrator is an officer”), as well as an investigative programme which recently aired on TV4. I was shocked by what we uncovered.

Namely, that Swedish police officers enjoy a state of near impunity when committing sex crimes. Out of 484 cases of reported sexual crimes by police, 469 preliminary investigations were closed or not initiated at all. That’s even worse than the meagre statistics for Swedish rape convictions in general. All the while, abused female employees are told to keep quiet or are punished by their superiors, with various means.

But what’s really set off this spring’s outrage among Swedish women (and some men) are the killings of five women in just three weeks. In one of these heartbreaking cases, the woman had lived under protection for several years, fearing her former partner and the father of her children would kill her. And he is suspected of having done just that. She was killed in broad daylight in front of witnesses at Linköping’s central station on April 15th. That very same day, a young mother was allegedly stabbed to death by her partner in their apartment in Älta, south of Stockholm. Their baby was present at the time.

All five suspected perpetrators are men, and all five of them had some sort of relationship with the victims. According to the latest figures from the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (Brottsförebyggande rådet, Brå for short), 23,200 cases of physical abuse of women over the age of 18 were reported in 2020. In 8 out of 10 cases, the perpetrator was known to the victim. And in almost 9 out of 10 cases of fatal violence in close relationships, the victim is a woman.

So while Swedish women may enjoy almost equal salaries in some (but far from all) professions, are represented in both government and parliament by outspoken female politicians from left and right, and so on, the question for many women here is: what is it all worth, if we can’t feel safe on our streets, in our workplace, alone with a male colleague, even in our own homes?

More from Lisa Bjurwald:

Lisa Bjurwald is a Swedish journalist and author covering current affairs, culture and politics since the mid-1990s. Her latest work BB-krisen, on the Swedish maternity care crisis, was dubbed Best reportage book of 2019 by Aftonbladet daily newspaper. She is also an external columnist for The Local – read her columns here.

Member comments

  1. What I can’t understand about Sweden is that these convicted rapists and murderers have their identity hidden in the press. After serving time, they can just go out and do it again with another unsuspecting partner. The extent to which criminals are protected here is insane.

  2. I agree with the title of this article. Swedish women has taken almost all of it leaving too little for men. If they want to leave nothing for men, they only need to decided, and take all the opportunities. As I have known about several real cases in Sweden, if a woman in Sweden want to make problems for a man, she can easily just complain him to the sexist HR while keeping her own identity, that is the identity of the complaining female, hidden. Then the HR system will unilaterally torture the man and hurts him without even telling him what has happened or who has complained. The unknown woman’s words have been enough for them. Indeed, this is a crime, and if the woman has lied, both the lying woman and her supporters are criminals.

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Swedish clichés: Is the alcohol monopoly really a sign of an all-controlling state?

In this new series, The Local's reader Alexander de Nerée seeks to challenge some of the clichés about Sweden.

Swedish clichés: Is the alcohol monopoly really a sign of an all-controlling state?

There are some undeniable truths about Sweden (lots of Volvos, lots of trees) but when asked, most people don’t get far past the usual clichés. And nor did I. 

A well-organized country full of high tax paying, IKEA flatpack-loving, slightly distant Fika fanatics, all happily queuing to buy some much-needed state-controlled booze to get through the never-ending cold and dark winters.

In this series, I give my take on some of the more commonly heard assumptions about life in Sweden and how I experience them.

When you are visiting family back home after your move to Sweden, you will note that nothing seems to get a tipsy uncle quite as riled up as your story about the state-controlled alcohol market. It’s also something that comes up surprisingly often when you tell people you live in Sweden. The mere mention of having to go to a special shop to purchase alcohol seems to set people off in a certain way.

That the shops are called Systembolaget, like some Soviet-era holdover obviously does little to calm your uncle down.

To start with the concept itself. Having grown up in The Netherlands, I was not bowled over with indignation at the idea of having to go to a separate shop to purchase my poison. Although supermarkets in the Netherlands do sell alcohol, it is pretty common to buy your wine, as well as any stronger stuff, at what Australians call a ‘bottle shop’  (which rather misses the point of what’s actually for sale).

READ ALSO: Like having sex in a church: Sweden’s uptight attitude to alcohol

Apart from having a larger assortment than supermarkets, these shops also have specialized staff that can recommend wines with your food. 

But with plenty of well-stocked and reasonably priced Systembolagets around and one right outside my local supermarket, I don’t think the airtime this topic gets when people talk about life in Sweden is actually justified.

For the now properly drunk uncle at your family dinner, the Systembolaget is of course a sign of a bigger problem with Sweden: the all-controlling state. The outrageous combination of high taxes, free healthcare and schooling and state-controlled alcohol must mean that the government has a finger in every aspect of life.

It turns out your uncle is engaging in a long-standing tradition that has been dubbed ‘Sweden bashing’. It started with Eisenhower, but in more recent years lesser statesmen dabbled in it as well. Although there is no clear definition, it seems to involve cherry-picking facts about Sweden – or alternatively just making them up – in order to ridicule the Swedish model. It’s a model that, according to the ideology of the bashers, should fail miserably but somehow stubbornly refuses to do so.

Despite the long-standing tradition of Sweden bashing, I think anyone who lives here will agree that in everyday life there is nothing particularly invasive about enjoying free education and healthcare in exchange for higher taxes. Come to think of it, that is pretty much the model applied in the Netherlands and they never got stuck with a reputation for an overbearing government. On the other hand, Holland does get bashed for easy access to drugs and euthanasia, so I guess you have to be careful what you wish for.

Considering it now really only functions as a lightning rod for politicians, it may not be a bad idea to let go of the state monopoly on alcohol sales.

As for the bashing itself, I think the current Swedish response to it works just fine: a light shrug of the shoulders and let the system speak for itself.

Alexander de Nerée moved to Stockholm with his husband in October 2020. He is Dutch, but moved from Zürich, Switzerland, after having lived in Hong Kong for 10 years. Not having been to Sweden before the move, Alexander had some broad assumptions about what life in Sweden would be like. In this series, he revisits these assumptions and gives his take.  Alexander wrote for series for The Local before about his “firsts” in Sweden.