Gender equality education for newcomers must be based on research

2016-05-02 07:00

Gender equality education for newly arrived immigrants is not a new phenomenon in Sweden. But the information material that has been used gives an incorrect view of what Sweden is really like, says Jennie K Larsson, PhD in ethnicity and migration at Linköping University. Researchers point to the need for both norm-critical and antiracist perspectives in order for the government’s initiative to turn out as intended.

In the wake of an intense media debate on unaccompanied refugee children, the Swedish government recently commissioned the Swedish Agency for Youth and Civil Society to develop an information package about gender equality for newly arrived young immigrants. However, the idea of educating immigrants about gender equality is not new. According to Jennie K Larsson, the notion of immigrants having a poor grasp of gender equality is long established in Swedish integration policy.

Jennie K Larsson

‘The policy is based on the view of Sweden as the world’s most gender-equal nation. Swedes are considered modern-minded while immigrants are old-fashioned,’ she says.

In her PhD thesis titled The Market of Integration and Labour: How Gender Equality, Labour and Other ‘Swedish’ Phenomena Are Constructed by Employment Service Officials and Private Actors, Jennie K Larsson explores the developments in Swedish integration policy since the Swedish Establishment Reform (Law 2010:197) came into effect in 2010 and the responsibility for refugee reception was transferred from the municipalities to the Swedish Public Employment Service.

The work offers a thorough analysis of how the newcomers are trained in the art of gender equality. Interviews with employment service administrators and immigrant orientation officers reveal a practice of ranking clients: well-educated immigrants are considered to share the Swedish view of gender and gender equality, whereas those with more limited education are viewed as traditionally minded with an outdated understanding of gender. The latter group is considered to be particularly important to enlighten and ‘set straight’.

‘Those who question the structure are people who have migrated themselves. They feel that the ability of immigrants to navigate in Swedish society can be affected by more than just a lack of gender equality. Educational background and occupational traditions are two examples. Perhaps it is easier for the educated middle-class to decode the Swedish system, while others feel more safe at home,’ says Jennie K Larsson.

Information material does not represent reality

Today, all newcomers to Sweden get an introduction to Swedish society when registering with the unemployment office. Gender equality is given a lot of attention in this information, which is provided in the immigrants’ native tongues. But Jennie K Larsson points out that the information material, which is often based on recommendations by the County Administrative Board, tends to be problematic in several ways. For example, a film shows a white man in his 30s pushing a child in a swing, saying ‘I’m on paternal leave because my wife works full time.’

‘The film communicates that it is perfectly normal for a dad to take parental leave. The problem is that it’s not true. In real life, fathers take only 13% of the total parental leave granted during the child’s first two years,’ says Jennie K Larsson.

Her explanation to this is that the film was made with the ‘gender-unequal immigrants’ in mind, and therefore is not based on facts. Immigrant men become opposites of Swedish fathers, who are portrayed as staying home with their children and not oppressing their partners.

The information material also addresses homosexuality. In a book titled About Sweden, a section on marriage features a picture of two women in matching outfits in front of a summer meadow. And later in the book, there is a picture of a rainbow flag, accompanied with the statement ‘In Sweden, everyone has the right to live with whichever partner they choose, regardless of gender.’

‘Same-sex relationships are portrayed as something totally legitimate, as something all Swedes accept. This is another example of a discrepancy between reality and the information given to newcomers.’

Jennie K Larsson does appreciate the Swedish government’s initiative to inform young immigrants about gender equality but dislikes that the information targets a specific group: new arrivals.

‘It’s a panic response to media reports from for example Cologne in Germany, in which unaccompanied minors for no reason were portrayed as perpetrators.’

Now that the information package is about to be revised, the new material must be based on the latest research and developed based on a norm-critical perspective, says Jennie K Larsson.

It is important that the gender equality information does not become a manual for how newcomers ought to live their lives. Instead it should be based on antiracist and intersectional analysis.

Mehrdad Darvishpour has a PhD in sociology from Stockholm University and is a senior lecturer in social work with a focus on gender and ethnicity at Mälardalen University. His standpoint is that all girls and boys need gender courses in school, and he believes that such instruction may be needed for newcomers from ‘stricter patriarchal cultures’ as well.

Mehrdad Darvishpour

‘Some immigrants are from countries with poor prospects for gender equality and are therefore accustomed to traditional views of gender roles.’

However, Mehrdad Darvishpour stresses that the education in gender equality must not become an act of preaching to the newcomers about how they should live their lives. Instead it must be based on antiracist and intersectional analysis. He says that the current stereotypes about for example Middle Eastern men are part of the problem. When this group is portrayed as perpetrators in the media, it reinforces their patriarchal self-image.

‘In reality, people can be both victims and perpetrators. As I see it, we need to embrace an inclusive perspective. Any training in gender equality must be based on how we can include these individuals.’

Ethnic discrimination ignored

Mehrdad Darvishpour’s most recent studies concern gender, ethnicity and ‘other men’. He says that many men who move to Sweden are forced to take a step down on the class ladder. They do not know the language, have problems finding a job and lose power in the eyes of their children. This increases the risk of their women leaving them and of becoming marginalised. They lose power in several areas.

‘These men are in a danger zone, partly due to their patriarchal baggage. When they get marginalised, they are often drawn back to a nostalgic masculinity. This is a complex phenomenon that needs to be approached with a multidimensional power perspective.’

In addition to education in gender equality, he says, there is a need for an active antidiscrimination policy that includes young people and discourages extremism. According to Mehrdad Darvishpour, ethnic discrimination is a widespread yet largely ignored problem.

‘It happens at the bar, in the housing market and in the workplace and has almost become standard practice. Society needs to deal with this and introduce stricter penalties. It’s important in order to include those who are marginalised.’

Author Ida Måwe, translated by Debbie Axlid
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