The Other Swedish Model

Gender, sex and culture, by Laura Agustín
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Posts Tagged ‘conflict’

Violence Against Women: Too much of a bad thing

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

It might sound odd to talk about silences on the topic of gender equality in Sweden, since discussions of it seem to run non-stop. But that is how hegemony works: a constant bombardment of words, most of which reiterate the opinions of a single powerful group. Differences of opinion are usually quibbles over details to a central idea that’s accepted as being indisputable because it’s supposed to be normal.

Gender equality in Sweden is a perfect example. Voices that want to question its foundations are not heard, which is what Maria Abrahamsson, a veteran editorial writer for Svenska Dagbladet, meant when she said that ‘open discussion’ is missing about certain aspects of gender law and policy. 

Some of what you hear from state feminists refers to assuring that women are represented in government and paid as well and have the same opportunities to work as men, and that men have the same opportunities to be good parents that women do. These are the policies for which Sweden ranks highly compared with most other countries. When the word jämställdhet is heard here, chances are that the details of these issues are being discussed. I say details because the policies have been in place for some time, and no one questions the need to make citizens in general more ‘equal’ in a democratic-type society. 

The problem is that much of what state feminists say centres around the concept of Violence Against Women (våld mot kvinnor, often referred to as kvinnofrid, the legal protection of women). The mantra is ‘We have a big problem with violence against women’. Repeated over and over, it becomes a truth difficult to break into questionable pieces, rather providing a reason for endless conversations about how to stop men from committing aggressions against women. A point of view that says ‘Wait a minute, all those things you’re talking about shouldn’t be called violence!’ is rarely heard in public discussions. 

It’s not that people in Sweden, feminists and non-feminists alike, never discuss this exaggerated notion of violence in bars, cafes, emails, blogs and occasional seminars. The issue is that the basis of policy, the quite extreme definition of violence and the reductionist idea of what’s ‘good for women’ is so rarely questioned in any visible, public way, whether the mainstream media or parliament. And by questioning I don’t mean the occasional online article with its cloud of comments; I mean a sustained conversation. 

Violence Against Women (often known in English-speaking countries as VAW) is problematic when it relies on the idea that women are always, innately weaker than men. More than physical strength is at stake, although the words heard most are abuse,  assault, battering. VAW has come to signify different sorts of coercion, threats, and moral strangleholds men are conceived as naturally committing on women, just because men are born that way. Women’s bodies are conceived as inherently vulnerable to men’s invasion and use, which oddly doesn’t produce a demand that women be granted full autonomy over their own bodies. 

Partial autonomy is granted: women shall be allowed to have abortions and be listened to when they say No to sex. These are great as far as they go. But on other issues, women’s bodies are conceived as objects for government policymakers to decide about: a contradiction that drives many women, the world over, round the bend. Gender policy is also problematic when it assumes that women are innately better than men – kinder, more peaceful, more capable of love, less capable of violence, preferring certain forms of balanced, meaningful sex. 

Louise Persson’s blog frihetspropaganda is the best place I know to hear the other point of view in Sweden. Blogging since December 2003, Persson is the author of Klassisk Feminism. Discussing an H&M advert that showed a woman wearing underwear in her home, which one state feminist, Gudrun Schyman, not only denounced as soft porn but also equated with hard porn, prostitution, trafficking and slavery, Persson complains that Schyman presumes to speak for All Women. In the case of the underwear advert, we can ask: What about women who want to wear sexy lingerie at home, or be photographed wearing it, or make money being photographed wearing it or wear it as a prelude to selling sex? 

It was a rare occasion the other night when Aschberg brought Abrahamsson together with Schyman to discuss how gender-equal Sweden is. Abrahamsson said yes, Sweden is gender-equal, especially relative to the rest of the world, and would like to stop talking about jämställdhet and switch to jämlikhet – another word for equality that hasn’t got the baggage of gender and sex. Schyman said no, Sweden isn’t gender-equal and, interestingly, complained that she has no one to discuss the problem with. (Would she like to talk with the model in the H&M ad?) 

I’ve got questions about the idea of equality in the first place. Must it mean sameness, exact balance, symmetry? Especially in the area of sex and bodies, that will always be impossible. The core complaint against Sweden’s version of gender equality is that the diversity of women’s mental, spiritual and sexual desires is not recognised and that women who conceive of their bodies differently, who feel empowered in other ways than VAW hegemony recognises, are ignored.

This difference of vision is the subject of exhausting, resource-wasting battles all over the world – which I wrote about some years ago under the title Utopic Visions or Battle of the Sexes? The conflict, if possible, has only grown more venomous since then. How is it that Sweden, with its cultural value on avoiding conflict, can reconcile causing so much of it?

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The pleasures of dissent: Not?

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

At a drinks reception not long ago I referred nonchalantly to the fact that Sweden is supposedly the world’s most gender-equal state. A shiver was felt; eyes rolled. Had I said supposedly? Was I actually questioning Sweden’s version of Gender Equality – jämställdhet? That, it seems, is practically taboo in Sweden.womanwalk

A spate of articles on ‘the Swedish model’ appeared during the recent US debate about health care. The term usually refers to a generous welfare state funded by high taxes that is not ‘socialist’ but free-market: tricky. But another aspect of Swedish government and culture captures the imagination of many round the world: contemporary gender policy, ideas about sex and equality. According to several important statistical indicators, Sweden leads the way in promoting equal rights between women and men – important achievements. But in other ways that can’t be captured by statistics the picture is not so clear. There are doubts and disputes, and those happen right here inside Sweden – not to mention between Swedes wherever they live, as Anna Anka bizarrely showed.

The word consensus is often used to describe how issues like gender equality are understood in Sweden. This has bothered me because the word seems to imply that all Swedes have participated in marxian study groups to discuss social questions in depth and come to reasoned general positions. This is not the case: Gender policy is government policy, no more and no less, even if it was the cornerstone of Social Democratic government at its shiningest hour. There are Swedes who feel that this policy has become a rigid ideology that goes too far, but their opinions are rarely seen in the more highly respected mainstream media. This means that most people in Sweden don’t know there are disputes and may frown heavily when hearing them. This is too bad, because the issues are thorny, interesting and worthy of public debate.

By saying that, I clearly reveal my own bias towards interesting disagreement that can push us forward to new ideas. In the many countries and cultures I’ve lived in, differences of opinion are viewed as potentially productive. Even outright dictatorships believe that, which is why they forbid free speech. In Sweden, however, I am told again and again, conflict is considered negative; the goal is to coexist together agreeably. Vara sams: to be on good terms. Osams is bad: being at loggerheads, falling out. ”We just want to exchange the same ideas and tastes,’ said Åke Daun, author of Svensk Mentalitet. Swedes are said to suffer from konflikträdsla, fear of conflict, and therefore feel uncomfortable when dissenting views are aired.

I have no interest in setting up a cultural hierarchy in which Sweden loses status in favour of some other, supposedly better culture. I’ve never lived anywhere that didn’t have very good points and very bad ones simultaneously. No, I’m  interested in ideas about gender and sex and how Sweden got where it is – a sort of anthropological point of view.

For those who wish each nation to be left to itself by outsiders, it’s important to note that the Swedish government itself doesn’t do that on this topic. In contrast to 1969, when Susan Sontag wrote that ‘Swedes were not disposed by temperament to export aggressively what they practice,’ today’s government speaks of the Swedish ‘mission’ to enlighten the world’s policy, for example in the Swedish Institute’s project, Equal Opportunities – Sweden Paves the Way, an exhibition available for use in international conferences and seminars. Projects to export ideology always bear watching.

I’ve lived here for a year and meet Swedes all the time who don’t agree with some aspects of national gender policy. They would like to see much more diversity in mainstream media discussions, including arguments, with the possibility of changes to policy. They  feel marginalised by the mainstream exclusion and disapproval of their views. I live in Malmö ( the subversive south to some) but the disgruntled Swedes I know live all over the country. 

I’ll link when I can to Swedish writers’ work, in books and articles and blogs, and take a historical view when possible. Policies and values that made wonderful sense at one time can seem oddly outdated only a decade later, rather like hairstyles. Zeitgeists are funny things; cultural contexts shift; a word that once seemed self-evident now rings untrue. Originally, jämställdhet referred to equality in general (jämn numbers are even numbers), particularly the goal of abolishing social class. Now when the word is used it is understood to mean, overarchingly, gender equality.

My own first ideas on Swedish gender policy appeared in The Local earlier this year as Is rape rampant in gender-equal Sweden? I’ve been writing on the subject of irregular migration (unauthorised, undocumented) for many years. The other night I gave a talk as part of Malmö’s Latinamerika i Fokus Film och Kulturfestival . The topic was undocumented migration: how it works on the ground, how people travel and work outside formal structures. If the connexion with gender policy seems unclear, wait for further posts.

Laura Agustín

Border Thinking

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