Portrait: From feminist marriage resistance to representation

2017-08-24 12:52

In her PhD thesis, Anna Adeniji explored the feminist resistance to marriage and discovered how the marriage norm does not strike all groups in society the same. At present, her focus is on the issue of representation in one of Sweden’s largest organisations: the Swedish Union of Tenants. Anna Adeniji is interested in the ‘dissonance’, or in understanding how the power operates when the injustices become complicated.

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It is a sunny Friday afternoon and tourists and locals are crowding the main shopping streets of downtown Stockholm. The headquarters of the Swedish Union of Tenants, located on Norrlandsgatan, offers a tranquil escape from the hustle and bustle. Senior Lecturer Anna Adeniji holds a so-called Flexit position at the Union and has her desk on the sixth floor. Flexit jobs are in-house research positions arranged by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond (The Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences) within its Flexit programme. Her job is to explore the issues of representation, norms and power in the Union’s operations.

– For this type of position, the host organisation gets to formulate a problem. In my case, the Union has expressed that its management at the various levels is not very representative of its members. The number of elected officials has decreased drastically and the members of the regional boards make up a strikingly homogeneous group of people; somewhat simplified, they are white, Swedish senior citizens. So, one of the key questions is ‘how can the representation be improved?’, says Anna Adeniji while sitting down in one of the office’s meeting rooms.

Anna Adeniji’s Flexit appointment is three years in duration. The first two are spent at the Swedish Union of Tenants and the last at the Södertörn University. Anna Adeniji spends 75 percent of her time on research and 25 percent on diversity work within the organisation. The Swedish Union of Tenants is a major organisation with a staff of about 900, half a million members and 10 000 elected officials around the country. However, although young people and people with non-Swedish backgrounds are overrepresented among Swedish tenants, they are practically absent in the organisation’s decision-making domains.

– My work at the Union has focused on identifying the norms at work within the organisation by talking to members of the regional boards, about their thoughts regarding diversity and representation, says Anna Adeniji.

Class and white privileges relevant

A problematic aspect of this and other types of collaborative research is the realisation that the academic knowledge is not always what is most relevant to the studied practice. Personally, Anna Adeniji is very interested in the intersectional perspective when it comes to power.

– These are super-hot topics, where I, in my role as an academic, can ponder over various critical perspectives. But when I’m in the organisation and talk to the people it concerns, then completely different situations arise, she says.

These are super-hot topics, where I, in my role as an academic, can ponder over various critical perspectives. But when I’m in the organisation and talk to the people it concerns, then completely different situations arise.

Class and white privileges have become increasingly relevant factors in her work at the Union, but the latter have been difficult to address properly. The reason for this, she says, is that many of those who benefit from white privileges are at the same time underprivileged in other contexts.

– Many are older women from the working class who have been engaged in the Swedish Union of Tenants for a long time. They have acquired a strong position and know a lot about national housing policy, negotiations and other issues that the Union is involved in. The push to have more young people and people with non-Swedish backgrounds join the boards may make the older Swedish women feel like they are being shoved away. This sometimes leads to conflicts that are difficult to solve.

Wanted to understand dissonance in norms

Anna Adeniji grew up in the city of Uppsala, which is home to one of Sweden’s major universities. Her path to gender research was largely fuelled by a feeling of not fitting in, or what she today would call a critical way of thinking. Both of her parents had studied at the university. One of them was a black immigrant man who chose to leave Sweden. Her mother, who worked as a librarian, became a single parent of three children.

– I benefit from academic privileges, but I also grew up as a black child in Sweden in a family without money. I believe it has shaped me more than I have thought.

I benefit from academic privileges, but I also grew up as a black child in Sweden in a family without money. I believe it has shaped me more than I have thought.

As a child, Anna Adeniji dreamt about becoming Sweden’s first black female professor: Hang out at some library, read tons of interesting stuff and then have people listen to me as an expert.

– I was a nerd kid who spent a lot of time around the books at my mum’s job. But I also wanted to become a dolphin keeper!

When it was time to study at the university, she had an urge to understand more about her origin, and about dissonance in norms. Through anthropology, Anna Adeniji came in contact with gender perspectives and queer theory. She went on to study gender at the Stockholm University, wrote a bachelor’s thesis on bisexuality and coined the term mononormativity, which deals with the norms regarding how people are expected to direct their love; that is, to feel desire for only one gender and live in couple relationships. The same theme was of central importance in her PhD thesis, which dealt with feminist resistance to marriage.

– I thought it was interesting that the right to marry was such a central arena for gay rights, at the same time as the freedom not to marry had been such an incredibly important feminist issue.

I thought it was interesting that the right to marry was such a central arena for gay rights, at the same time as the freedom not to marry had been such an incredibly important feminist issue.

Explored marriage resistance

Her PhD thesis consists of depth and group interviews with women who do not want to get married. Anna Adeniji worked with groups that were as diverse as possible in terms of migration experiences, age and sexual orientation in order to gain knowledge from an intersectional perspective.

– It was a pure delight to be involved in the conversations. One discovery was that the closer to the epicentre of the heteronorm the women lived their lives, the higher their expressed resistance to the marriage norm.

What she means is that the group of heterosexual women, in their 30s, who were cohabiting with a partner, felt the most pressure from the environment to marry. Those who were farther away from the norm, such as older women, felt more free.

– Those who deviate from the norm may fall victim to for example discrimination, but socially and culturally there might be a space – a freedom for people to reason about what they really want in their relationships. I find it very exciting to think about these things.

In her PhD thesis, Anna Adeniji also addresses contemporary culture and discusses, among other things, the TV series Sex and the City and how tabloids and magazines write about the celebrity couple Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.

– In the midst of the PhD project, I suffered a burnout and was put on sick leave. I was unable to read and instead watched television a lot. Around the same time, I discovered gossip journalism and how it perpetuates the marriage norm with its abundance of marriage expectations. My sick leave made me aware of entirely new things!

My sick leave made me aware of entirely new things!

Collaborative research can be complicated

This autumn, Anna Adeniji will continue her collaborative research from the Södertörn University, where she has landed a permanent position as a senior lecturer and hopes to gain some distance from her object of research, the Swedish Union of Tenants.

– You’re constantly pulled into stuff when you’re at the office, and I think it’s more fun to talk to people than to write. I hope I’ll be able to focus more on the writing at Södertörn.

Standing with one leg in the academia and the other in practice involves some special challenges. Anna Adeniji is a researcher with a critical eye, at the same time as she is part of the organisation. It is exciting work but causes some ethical dilemmas:

– Right now, I’m in the process of returning to academia. Then it becomes clear that there is a need for a breakdown of things: what in my work benefits the organisation’s diversity work and what is academically relevant in relation to issues of power, representation and norms? It’s not necessarily the same thing.

Author Ida Måwe, translated by Debbie Axlid
Photo Ida Måwe
Anna Adeniji chooses:

Three favourite theorists: Sara Ahmed, Patricia J. Williams, Stuart Hall.

Three favourite authors: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Mats Strandberg, Doris Lessing.

Three favourite directors: Joss Whedon, Shonda Rhimes, Amanda Kernell.

What’s best about working in academia: The creative space to read and think, and to see students have ‘aha’ moments about something we have worked on together.

What’s worst about working in academia: The performance anxiety and to never feel there’s enough time to be a good enough teacher or researcher. The working hours are usually not determined according to how long tasks really take to complete.

Person(s) I would not manage without: My sister Liza and my closest friends.

The number one place to think: On a Greek island.

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