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Believing women's narratives in Sweden and Norway

Too often women's oppression is sidelined as a lesser cause, and women's experiences dismissed, as two cases in Sweden and Norway show.

Amina Kakabaveh. Credit: Anders Henrikson from Flickr.

On the 22nd of June this year, politician Amineh Kakabaveh wrote an article in one of Sweden's major daily newspapers, Expressen, on the worsening situation for women in Sweden’s poor suburbs. As a representative for the socialist leftist party Vänsterpartiet in the Swedish parliament, and a resident of one of Stockholm’s ethnically diverse, working class suburbs, she is well informed about the situation. Kakabaveh described in her own words how Muslim men increasingly tell women and girls how to appear and behave, directly or indirectly, which prevents women and girls from moving freely. She was only one of many women telling the story of increased oppression and social control of women in the suburb and of the need for direct feminist action on the matter, asking for involvement from the government.

The most debated response to Kakabveh’s outcry came a week later, in the form of an article from three high-ranking politicians within Vänsterpartiet. The authors refer to Kakabaveh’s stories of oppression as “rumour spreading”. They claim that it is through the class divide and unequal distribution of wealth that these reactionary fundamentalist tendencies flourish, and that by singling out a single religious group as oppressive, we encourage those tendencies. The argument goes: we need to bring about economic equality in society as a whole, and prioritise the working poor of the suburbs, and then gender equality will be accomplished automatically, without direct action. The story is well known to women within the left – after the revolution, we will all be equals. So stop nagging about feminism in the meantime. For the authors, like many on the left, feminism and gender parity is a secondary concern to class struggle.

A similar debate occurred in Norway in 2010. Sweden and Norway share many cultural, historical and political similarities, making comparisons suitable. In Norway women and men told of harassment from what will later be named “the moral police”, in the inner city immigrant community of Grønland, in Oslo. Women described how Muslim men would openly tell them to cover up. The debate was mainly about what political measures to take, rather than a silencing of the women's concerns or a right-wing excuse to attack immigration. The Norwegian socialist party, Sosialistisk Venstreparti, responded with outrage at the stories told, and showed solidarity with the women and men who told of social control in their neighbourhood. They chose to support women and men in the fight for bodily autonomy, freedom of movement, and freedom of religion, and by doing so effectively signalled that the fight against gender oppression is a priority for the party, rather than an afterthought.

When the debate over the “moral police” in Norway took off, Sosialistisk Venstreparti did talk of economic equality as a means to achieve gender equality. But there was never any doubt as to what the reaction towards the women telling their stories would be: solidarity, belief, and confidence in their narrative.

The political situation in contemporary Sweden is precarious. The racist and neo-fascist party Sverigedemokraterna, (Swedish Democrats), rose to 14.5% in the most recent polls, and created political chaos in the wake of the autumn 2014 general elections. As the party has made racist claims about the suburbs a hobby and theme, and claims to support Muslim women through a thinly veiled Islamophobia, social control of women and men in the suburbs has become harder to discuss. Feminist arguments for women’s liberation are held to ransom in the name of racism, and feminists are effectively disarmed and silenced. It is partly the fear of being accused of Islamophobia and racism that complicates the debate started by Kakabaveh this summer in Sweden: the debate becomes muddled and simplified, sidelining women in the process.

During the debate of 2010 in Norway, Fremskrittspartiet, an ultra-conservative party, similar to Sverigedemokraterna in several ways, showed support to the women who spoke out, as it aligned with their narrative of ”the oppressed Muslim women, who needed saving”. Neither Sverigedemokraterna, nor Fremskrittspartiet are interested in achieving gender equality, they are purely cherry-picking political points wherever they can be found to bolster Islamophobic arguments. In Norway, Fremskrittspartiet were not allowed to control the debate, as there was recognition of the problem by all parties on the political spectrum.

As feminists, we need to be able to recognise gendered oppression wherever it appears, and show solidarity with women and men who are victims, whatever their background and economic status. We need to be able to criticise patriarchal structures and cultures wherever they appear, even when that is within Muslim communities. We need to have the freedom to criticise Islamophobia and neo-fascism, and all gendered oppression, simultaneously.

Vänsterpartiet claims to be a socialist and feminist party – but this claim falls flat, when they demonstrate they are unable to show solidarity with all women who tell of gendered oppression. The balancing act of pragmatic socialist feminist thought and action is – to say the least – very hard in a complex political and social climate. Social control and oppression of women exists everywhere, and must be defeated - but the criticism of the same cannot be diminished because of a misplaced fear of being called racist.

The international left movement needs to abandon the obsolete idea that gendered oppression will disappear alongside the class system - after the revolution. It needs to believe women’s narratives and support feminism - before the revolution. Now.

About the author

Katarina Tullia von Sydow is a Norwegian-Swedish writer, based in Sweden. She is completing a postgraduate degree in Gender Studies, and writes on politics, gender and culture.


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