“We are so close, yet so far away”

The waves between Denmark and Sweden mark a border. To the east, the new government has proudly declared itself feminist, but to the west, feminism is largely absent from the political debate. As Sweden's feminist party starts to make itself heard, why does it feel so unlikely that a sister party will arise in Denmark? Is there even a need?

It is a grey and rainy day when I board the train at Copenhagen’s central station. My destination is the Swedish city of Malmö, and as the train rolls into the tunnel after leaving the airport, the final stop in Denmark, the tone of the computerised conductor changes. Moments before, I was being kindly asked by a soft-spoken woman not to leave my luggage unattended.

Now I’m being ordered by a stern man not to place it anywhere but under my seat. It seems only too fitting that I would notice the gender stereotyping of the speaker system – I’m going to meet the Feministiskt Initiativ (FI), the country’s feminist party.

“I think a lot of people voted strategically for the Feminist Initiative to get them over the four percent threshold in order to create a counterbalance to the [right-wing] Sverigedemokraterna,” Frederik tells me in the pouring rain.

“I am a feminist, but I didn’t vote for them because there are a lot of things, such as their views on the economy, that I don’t agree with.”

Frederik is referring to the electoral threshold that each party has to cross in order to be represented in the Swedish parliament, Rigsdagen. The party was consistently polling at around the 4% threshold before the September election, and exit polls suggested that the party would cross it. But the polls were wrong, and FI finished with a disappointing 3.1 percent of the national vote.

Leading up to the election, FI presented a dilemma for left-wing voters. On the one hand, they realised that some of the party’s more radical ideas would make it difficult to form a left-wing government, but on the other, they felt that it was important to get the party over the threshold to provide more votes and support for the left wing parties in Rigsdagen. If they could, it would tip the balance away from the far-right Sweden Democrats, whose rising popularity has split the country.

Arriving in Sweden after crossing the Øresund from Copenhagen (Photo: Peter Stanners)

Arriving in Sweden after crossing the Øresund from Copenhagen (Photo: Peter Stanners)

Trouble with voters
“Sweden is becoming increasingly polarised, and politics are getting more about being oppositional, rather than doing what is best,” says Mette, a freelance journalist working in the city. She, like Frederik, is very sympathetic to FI’s cause, but admits she did not vote for the party.

“I think there is a need for them, because they raise awareness of how important equality is, not just for women, but for everyone. However, I felt that other things were more important, and that is why I didn’t vote for them.”

Since its founding in 2005, the party has had problems convincing people like Mette and Frederik that they are what the country needs, with voters especially balking at their economic policy. FI’s economic ideas are quite radical, including proposals for a six-hour workday, free public transportation, and the creation of a large ‘equality fund’ to facilitate equal pay for men and women.

However, even though there appears to be a schism between voters and FI, the 3.1 percent result was its strongest yet in a national election. Earlier in the year, during the European Parliament elections, the party received 5.4 percent of the Swedish vote, with their candidate Soraya Post becoming the first representative of a feminist party to take a seat in Brussels.

Behind the numbers
I meet Katerin Mendez in the unrelenting Malmö rain on the Möllevångstorget market square, underneath a statue depicting the naked, muscular working classes quite literally carrying the wheels of industry. Although FI failed to enter the national parliament, the party has fared much better on the local level.

Mendez is one of the 26 councillors that won seats in 13 different municipal governments across the country. She only joined the party last November, and eleven months on, she is a part of a group of local councillors that will seek to maintain the party’s profile until the next election, and help push it onto the national scene in 2018.

“For a long time I had observed how things in Sweden were not running as they should, but I was reluctant to get involved both because of the political atmosphere and because I couldn’t find a party that I wanted to represent. All the parties seemed to have too much baggage, too many suspicious things – they just didn’t seem right,” she tells me in a crowded cafe off the square. “But then I was introduced to the Feministiskt initiativ, and you could say it was love at first sight.”

Mendez is animated as she talks about politics and her party’s platform, which has a thought-provoking approach to feminism. Throughout our talk, more traditional feminist topics such as the gender pay gap and sexual assault are hardly mentioned, because, as Mendez explains, FI sees feminism as a platform to counter the structural problems of power and oppression across society.

“I see Feminism as a means to eliminate the idea that our society is built on a structure designed by a powerful class who rule over the conquered,” she explains while stuffing a sachet of tobacco into her upper lip. “We use feminism as the foundation that everything else should be built upon. We do address the classic issues as well, but we see them as symptoms of structural inequality, not the causes.”

Mendez’s view on society and power seem quite radical, almost revolutionary, and her thoughts on democracy go beyond the structural inadequacies of western society and into the domain of language itself.

“We have to change the way we look at power. We forget that in a democracy it is absurd to talk about ‘those in power.’ In our constitution, all power comes from the people, so how come we still talk in a way that reinforces the opposite? We call politicians and people in power ‘magthaver’ (rulers), and what does that do for our discourse? Well, it teaches us that power is located elsewhere, and not with the people.”

Dissecting the concept of power is hardly a novel idea, especially on the left. But in an age of consensus politics, it is both curious and fascinating to meet a politician more eager to engage in fundamental philosophical questions about our society than practical, realpolitik issues.

Katerin Mendez from FI, photographed in Malmö (Photo: Peter Stanners)

Katerin Mendez from FI, photographed in Malmö (Photo: Peter Stanners)

Why here, why now?
Last month, when Social Democratic Party leader Stefan Lofven formed a minority government with the Green Party, he announced that it would be the world’s first “feminist government”. In fact, it seems that most parties in the country claim feminism as part of their agenda. That, coupled with the fact that Sweden is ranked fourth in the world on the UN’s Gender Inequality Index, makes me curious to know why Mendez feels there is a need for a party dedicated to feminism today, and what it is that makes them different from the other parties.

“We are more equal than most other countries, but that says more about other countries than about Sweden,” she tells me as she puts the tobacco away. “It is also interesting that feminism is the only area where being better than others is given as an excuse for not doing better. There are many different levels where we need to improve gender equality. But we also need to address racism and discrimination, and raise awareness of these issues too.”

Mendez explains how the party utilises grassroots tactics to engage with voters. They offer to meet with small groups in people’s homes so residents can pick the brains of politicians who are usually far removed from the public. She also claims that the surge of feminism as a political buzzword is due, at least in part, to how successful FI has been at raising the issue and popularising the term.

“This year in Sweden, only one party has not claimed to be feminist, and that is the Sweden Democrats.  Everyone else seems to have become feminists. Mona Sahlin [former leader of the Social Democrats] has said that she is so happy that feminism has finally gotten on the agenda, because her party and others were afraid that just using the word would scare voters away from them. But that is just political cowardice, and you need bravery. We had nothing to lose, and that is the most beautiful part about our party.  In fact, if we don’t approach society through a gender discrimination lens, then we are letting our voters down, so we can’t get comfortable. This also means that we can never be caught in typical politics – our voters won’t allow it.”

Neighbourly criticism
Feminism’s values are universal, and our conversation wanders inevitably across the bridge. Although both Sweden and Denmark share a relatively high standard of gender equality, it seems unlikely that a feminist party would arise in Denmark today. Despite being led by Helle Thorning-Schmidt – Denmark’s first-ever female prime minister – the government’s 80-page political platform does not mention feminism once.

“I have been to Copenhagen many times, talking to people in their homes and to journalists, and they all tell me that ‘we are so close, yet so far away,’ and that we in Sweden don’t realise how good we have it, especially since there is so much racism in Denmark. I see that there are a lot of things happening to address this in Copenhagen, but people there need to find their own expression, and a platform that suits Denmark. For instance, I know that the tabloid Ekstra Bladet has topless girls on page nine – that is something that would never happen in Sweden.”

As our talk ends, and Mendez leaves me behind in the crowded cafe, I am left feeling a bit like Frederik and Mette – it seems there is a real need for a party like FI, but I’m not sure I would vote for it. It is still raining when I arrive back in Copenhagen. I alight from the train and am exiting the Central Station when a bus drives past, its billboard advertising plastic surgery with a picture naked of breasts. And I wonder. M


By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

Facebook comments