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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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‘Chemical crayfish’: Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

It's time for this year's "kräftskivor", Swedish crayfish-eating parties! A cause for celebration? Not if the Swedish media has its way.

'Chemical crayfish': Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

Sweden’s main newswire this week ran a story warning that an analysis of the eight brands of Swedish crayfish available in the country’s supermarkets contained elevated levels of PFAS, a persistent pollutant which can damage your liver and kidneys, disrupt your hormones, and even cause cancer. 

But don’t worry. If you weigh 70kg or more, you can still safely eat as many as six of the outsized prawn-like crustaceans a week without being in the risk zone. 

While I’m sure the news story, which was covered by pretty much every paper, is accurate, it is also part of a grand Swedish media tradition: running miserable, killjoy news stories whenever there’s a sign that people might be planning to have a bit of festive fun. 

The two public service broadcasters, Swedish Radio (SR) and Swedish Television (SVT) are by far the worst offenders, their reporters unusually skilled at finding a downbeat, depressing angle for every public celebration. 

To give readers a sense of the genre, we’ve spent half an hour or so searching through the archives. 

‘This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is’ (and other yuletide cheer)

Source: Screenshot/SR

Christmas is a time for good food, drinking a little too much, and cheery decorations to ward away the winter darkness. But have you considered the risks?

SR has.

In “This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is”, a local reporter in Kronoberg looked into the possibility that your tree might have been sprayed with pesticide, or if not, might be covered in pests you will then bring into your house. 

By far the most common recurring Christmas story reflects Sweden’s guilt-loaded relationship with alcohol. 

You might enjoy a few drinks at Christmas, but what about the trauma you are inflicting on your children?

In this typically festive report from SVT in Uppsala, a doctor asks, ‘why wait for the New Year to give up alcohol? Why not start before Christmas?’, while the reporter notes that according to the children’s rights charity BRIS, one in five children in Sweden has a parent with an alcohol problem, with many finding drunk adults both “alarming and unpleasant”. 

God Jul! 

The Swedish media finds ways to make you feel guilty about the food you eat at Christmas too. You might enjoy a slap-up Christmas dinner, but what about those who suffer from an eating disorder? SVT asked in this important, but less than cheery, story published in the run-up to the big day. “This is the worst time of the year,” Johanna Ahlsten, who suffered from an eating disorder for ten years, told the reporter. 

Don’t you just love a cosy Christmas fire? Well, perhaps you shouldn’t. A seasonal favourite in Sweden’s media is to run warnings from the local fire services on the risk of Christmas house fires. Here’s some advice from SVT in Blekinge on how to avoid burning your house down. 
Those Christmas lights. So mysigt. But have you ever added up how much those decorations might be adding to your electricity bill? SVT has. Read about it all here
Finally, isn’t it wonderful that people in Sweden get the chance to go and visit their relatives and loved ones over Christmas.
Well, it’s wonderful if you’re a burglar! Here’s SVT Jämtland on the risk of house break-ins over the Christmas period. 
Eat cheese to protect your teeth! and other Easter advice 
“Eat cheese after soda”. Good advice from Swedish Radio. Photo: Screenshot/Richard Orange
For the Swedish media, Easter is a fantastic opportunity to roll out all the same stories about the risks of open fires and alcohol abuse, and that they do. But the Easter celebration has an additional thing to be worried about: excess consumption of chocolate and sweets. 
Here’s Swedish Radio, with a helpful piece of advice to protect your teeth from all that sugary ‘påskmust’, Sweden’s Easter soft drink. “Eat cheese!”. 
Yes, you and your children might enjoy eating all those pick-and-mix sweets packed into a decorated cardboard egg, but have you thought who else has had their grubby hands on them? SVT has. In this less than joyous Easter article  a reporter gives viewers the lowdown on “how hygienic are pick-and-mix sweets?” (According to the doctor they interview, sugar acts as an antibacterial agent, so they are in fact less dangerous than the newsroom probably hoped). 
Perhaps though, it’s better to avoid those unhealthy sweets altogether, and instead cram your mouth with healthy raw food alternatives, as SVT advises in this Easter report
Aren’t daffodils lovely? Well they’re not if you’re a dog. They’re deadly, according to this Easter report from Swedish Radio on all the “dangers lurking for pets over Easter“.
Glad Påsk!
Midsommar drowning  
Midsommar, again, has all the same possibilities for worried articles about excess drinking etc, but in the summer there’s the added risk of drowning. 
From Midsummer until the start of August, the temp reporters who take over Sweden’s newsrooms as everyone else goes on their summer holidays churn out a steady stream of drowning stories, all of them with a slightly censorious tone. After all, most of these accidents are really about excess drinking.
Here’s SVT Västmanland tallying up the Midsummer weekend’s death toll in a typical story of Midsommar misery. 
So, what is the reason for the Swedish media’s taste for removing as much mirth from festivities as possible?
It’s partly because Sweden’s media, unlike that of many other countries, sees its public information role as at least as important as entertaining or interesting readers, so an editor is likely to choose a potentially useful story over a heart-warming one. 
This is the aspect of the Swedish media beautifully captured by the singer Lou Reed when talking about how he’s more scared in Sweden than in New York in the film Blue in the Face
“You turn on the TV, there’s an ear operation. These things scare me. New York, no.” 
But it is also reflects the puritanical streak that runs straight through Swedish society, leading to a powerful temperance movement, which meant that by 1908, a staggering 85 percent of Socialist parliamentarians in Sweden were teetotallers.
Sweden is now a liberal country where you can get good food and drink, and enjoy a decent nightlife, but sometimes that old puritanism bubbles up.