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Animal Comment Triggers Equality Debate in Sweden

Friday, August 19, 2005

Sweden was recently ranked the most gender-equal country in the world. But feminists there say there's been a backlash. They're forming a new political party to put women's issues high on the agenda.

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Sweden was recently ranked the most gender-equal country in the world. But feminists there say there's been a backlash. They're forming a new political party to put women's issues high on the agenda.
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By Jerome Socolovsky<br>WeNews correspondent

STOCKHOLM, Sweden (WOMENSENEWS)--A new graffiti has appeared on the streets of this city.

"Men are animals," it says.

The slogan has become a symbol of a heated debate in this country over why full gender equality has not been achieved despite decades of legislation promoting it.

"There is an anger," says Hanne Kjoller, a columnist for the newspaper Dagens Nyheter. "The things we have achieved, we achieved them years ago."

The "'men are animals' controversy," as its known here, exploded onto the front pages of newspapers in May, after Ireen von Wachenfeldt, a government official who is one of Sweden's best-known feminists, was featured in the Swedish Television documentary, "The Gender War."

At the time, von Wachenfeldt was head of ROKS, the national network of shelters for abused women, which is a government institution. A reporter on the program noted that the organization had printed excerpts of the "SCUM Manifesto."

The "SCUM manifesto" was published in 1983 by Valerie Solanas, a radical U.S. feminist previously known for attempting to assassinate Andy Warhol in 1968. In the book's title, SCUM stands for the Society for Cutting Up Men. Within its covers, Solanas calls on women to "destroy the male sex," arguing that medical science made it possible to give birth only to females and without the aid of males.

The Swedish TV reporter, Evin Rubar, asked von Wachenfeldt about the statement from the manifesto: "To call a man an animal is to flatter him; he's a machine, a walking dildo."

"Is that your standpoint?" Rubar asked.

"Yes, it's my standpoint," the director said.

"That man is an animal?" the reporter said.

"Man is an animal," von Wachenfeldt said. "Don't you think so?"

The documentary sparked fierce reactions across the country. Some women's shelters have left the national network in protest, and von Wachenfeldt resigned in the midst of the controversy. But her remarks opened a national discussion on the topic of women's equality.


A Model of Equality

The assertion that "Man is an animal" might seem out of place in Sweden--a country that has been a model of sexual equality--where society sees it as an integral part of the egalitarian ethic of its welfare state.

After the women's liberation movement took off in the 1970s, the Swedish government passed laws mandating equality in every aspect of public life and even some aspects of private live. The government prohibited violence against women, required salary parity for men and women in similar jobs and gave men and women the right to equal parental leave. In the 1990s, Sweden's government became the first in the world where half the ministers were women.

Earlier this year, Sweden was ranked the most gender-equal country by the World Economic Forum.

But being first in the rankings is not enough, say feminists. Women still earn on average only 71 percent of what men earn, and some studies--though these are disputed in feminist circles--suggest that domestic violence is a larger problem than widely believed.

"There has been a strong women's movement here that has achieved a lot," said Lotten Sunna, Stockholm-based spokesperson for Feminist Initiative, a new empowerment movement that is focused on putting feminism even higher on the political agenda. "But that has also led to a false belief that we have reached equality, that we are there, and as a result of that things are starting to back up again."


Women Not Prioritized

Sunna argues that the current Swedish political establishment does not prioritize women's issues.

That's the case, she says, even though Prime Minister Goran Persson has labeled himself a feminist, 45 percent of Swedish parliament members are women and most national political parties have made feminism part of their political platforms.

"It's the politically correct thing to say, that I'm a feminist," Sunna said.

In its gender-gap ranking, the World Economic Forum praised Sweden's liberal society and welfare provisions. It said that because of them, Swedish women "have access to a wider spectrum of educational, political and work opportunities and enjoy a higher standard of living than women in other parts of the world."

Nevertheless, Feminist Initiative's platform describes Sweden as a country that is dominated by a "patriarchical power structure." It says women are discriminated against, subjected to violence, exploited in the labor market, under-prioritized in health care and receive a smaller proportion of welfare benefits.

"We grew up believing that we would actually be equal to men," said Sunna, who was a teen in the 1970s. "Swedish women get very angry when you discover that that is not the case."

In a recent survey directed by Eva Lundgren, a sociologist at Uppsala University in Sweden, 46 percent of women say they've been victims of some form of gender violence in their lifetimes. Lundgren's methodology has been criticized, however, for having too broad a definition of gender violence. Government data puts the number at around 12 percent.

Still, Sweden's leaders have long made efforts to achieve equality, at least on paper. Back in 1974, the government officially renamed "maternity leave" as "parental leave," and gave both parents the "right" to share in a government benefit that now guarantees 13 months of paid leave. Since 1975, abortion has been legal, and quotas striving for equal representation in local and national government and public institutions have been around since the 1980s.


Men Have Changed

What can hardly be disputed is that Swedish men have changed. Men now take on average 17 percent of the government-guaranteed parental leave, according to the national statistics bureau. In 1974, men took zero percent.

Nowadays, it's not at all unusual to see men pushing baby strollers along the sidewalks and playing with their children in the playground during working hours.

Stephan Mendel-Enk is author of a book on masculinity, "With an Obvious Sense of Style," that has been praised by feminists. He says Swedish men take parental leave because the government has made it economically feasible. Societal prejudices remain, he says.

Still, the question remains why full equality remains so hard to achieve in a country like Sweden, particularly in the workplace.

Rebecka Edgren, who writes for Stockholm-based Mama Magazine, says most Swedish feminists--like their counterparts in other countries--have long put the burden of empowerment on women themselves. But several years ago, things changed.

"When the feminists started to look at men instead of women . . . a lot of men got upset," she said.

Edgren says many MEN feel particularly threatened because the demands now being made by feminists, such as requiring parents to take equal amounts of parental leave, will force them to make even more drastic changes to their lifestyle and career.


Comments out of Context

After the "Gender War" documentary, von Wachenfeldt denied the assertion in the show that the government agencies dealing with women's issues are dominated by radical feminists, and accused Rubar of taking her comments out of context.

But other feminists questioned her and the domestic violence numbers put forward by Lundgren, who was also interviewed in the program.

Hanne Kjoller wrote in one of her columns that "the group of feminists that Lundgren belongs to have an ideological and economic interest in portraying abuse of women as normal male behavior."

Author Mendel-Enk says the result of the documentary was to reinforce notions that Swedish government agencies dealing with women's and equality issues are led by people with extremist ideas.

"Many men had this idea all the time, but now they got some supposed proof for it," he said.

One man who didn't feel that way is Michael Ericsson, who on a recent Sunday was biking along the Gota canal in rural Sweden with his teen-age son.

When asked about the "men are animals" controversy, he said it doesn't affect his happiness with the "50-50" arrangement he and his wife have regarding cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the kids.

"It's not my problem," he said, then mounted his bike and continued on the 30-mile trip that he and his son take every weekend.

Jerome Socolovsky is a journalist based in Madrid.

For more information:

Feministiskt initiativ
[in Swedish]:
http://www.feministisktinitiativ.se

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