Portrait: Paulina de los Reyes

2006-05-09 13:56

Paulina de los Reyes published three books last year, and she is an expert for the government's investigation on discrimination. 'lntersectionality' is a key word for this economic historian, in whose view categories such as gender and ethnicity interact when power is created.

It is nice to have an attentive and suspicious dog along to work. Paulina de los Reyes has received threats from people who do not like her critique of Swedish integration politics.

– I have been told that I ought to be grateful to be here. I should not criticize Swedish society, racists and sexists have let me know.

Swedish security police have warned her against giving lectures. “It’s hard to believe that this is Sweden,” she says, taking some dog candy from her pocket. Her Belgian sheepdog, Alva, puts her snout into her mistress’ hand. If anyone comes too close, Alva growls. One does not feel comfortable getting too close to this dog.

– She was not meant to become such a guard dog. I bought her for my youngest son.

Paulina de los Reyes’ colleague in the government investigation on discrimination is Masoud Kamali. Recently, they published their first report, entitled Beyond Us and Them: Theoretical Reflections on Power, Integration, and Structural Discrimination. They are critical of the way integration politics has been conducted so far since it, in their view, emphasizes and hierarchizes differences between Swedish people and “the others”.

Swedishness becomes a norm that immigrants have to live up to. The authors argue that the real obstacle to integration is not cultural difference per se, but built-in forms of discrimination of immigrants in institutions and social structures.

I don’t believe in a universal sisterhood. Historically feminism has disregarded global inequities. They have not taken responsibility for racism and discrimination. But perhaps there will be a dialogue between different kinds of feminists.

Power relations between women

In all of Paulina de los Reyes’ publications, intersectionality is a central concept dealing with the creation of power and the separation of people into different social categories. The concept of intersectionality comes from Black feminists in the United States who have been critical of western feminism’s exclusion of women who are not white and middle class.

Intersectionality departs from the idea that gender, ethnicity, class, sexuality, and the lack of handicap always affect the creation of identities and positions in society. These categories cannot be separated. This means that women are not always subordinate to men. Furthermore, there are power relations between women.

Paulina de los Reyes came to Sweden in the middle of the 1970s with her then husband and their three-month-old baby. She and her husband were students and leftist refugees from Chile during the military coup.

– People have told me that I lost my youth. But I am not bitter, rather, I am grateful … very grateful, because I and my husband survived physically and psychologically.

In Sweden, there were expectations on Chilean refugees, both from the Swedish left, who saw them as heroes, and from the authorities. It was assumed that the refugees would want to return to Chile and continue the political struggle. Until that time, they might as well work in the industry. Women were expected to work in childcare.

– I am glad that people were engaged, but I think we were objectified by the leftist movement. We became symbols of solidarity. How we looked upon ourselves was regarded as less interesting.

Three researchers with strong arguments

Paulina de los Reyes went against the expectations, but not without resistance from the authorities. She continued the studies in social anthropology she had begun in Chile, and ended up staying in Sweden.

Her studies led to economic history, and in 1992 she defended her dissertation on the conditions of poor people after the military coup: The Rural Poor. Agrarian Changes and Survival Strategies in Chile 1973-1985. Her dissertation questions the image of Chile’s successful export industry.

Today, Paulina de los Reyes is Associate Professor of Economic History at the National Institute for Working Life and at Uppsala University. Among other things, she is involved in an interdisciplinary project about relations in the work market. She is collaborating with Irene Molina, a human geographer, and Diana Mulinari, a sociologist. With Diana Mulinari, she has recently published a book on Intersectionality. “These are three researchers with strong arguments”, one consultant, tired of the beautiful speeches about how multiculturalism will save organizations, has said.

Paulina de los Reyes and an ethnologist, Lena Martinsson, are the editors of a new anthology, The Paradigm of Difference: Intersectional Perspectives on the Creation of (In)Equality. In this book, researchers from different disciplines question contemporary ideas of multiculturalism that have become part of a new pet concept on the work market.

It sounds nice to say that people are different and thus able to enrich each other’s lives and society, but this is also treacherous, according to these researchers. Difference is not only found on individual levels but is created through social power relations between different groups, something that is suppressed in the multiculturalist rhetoric.

– In all processes, many factors work together. You cannot “do” gender without doing also whiteness or migranthood.

Patriarchal traditions

If you depart from gender and ethnicity in your analyses you will see how insidiously it is suggested that some individuals are naturally barred from social institutions, says Paulina de los Reyes. Looking at the work market, she has examined the high rates of unemployment during the 1990s from the perspectives of gender and ethnicity. There were research reports that explained the unemployment of immigrant women differently from the unemployment of Swedish women, who were thought to be out of work because of a lack of jobs. Instead, it was thought that the family situation of immigrant women was the main cause of their not having paid work. It was assumed that patriarchal traditions made them stay at home.

One generally held notion is that women from foreign backgrounds do not understand Swedish ideals and that this makes them unable to participate in society.

Swedish feminists have not been particularly interested in the fact that many young women from immigrant backgrounds have poor prospects of earning a living, according to Paulina de los Reyes. But feminists ought to take an interest in this since women’s economic independence has been an important goal in the women’s movement.

But is it the fault of feminism that women from foreign backgrounds are discriminated against?

– Feminism has an emancipatory vision. I would like to see a realization of the goal of improving the lives of women who suffer from oppression due to ethnicity or class.

Still, she is not hopeful.

– I don’t believe in a universal sisterhood. Historically, feminism has disregarded global inequities. They have not taken responsibility for racism and discrimination. But perhaps there will be a dialogue between different kinds of feminists. She says this nicely. Despite everything, she is happy that intersectionality is gaining ground in gender studies.

Giving those discriminated against a voice

Paulina de los Reyes has participated in the debates on whether the so-called honor-related violence has structural or cultural causes. She believes that several factors interact. In a study entitled Patriarchal Enclaves or No Man’s Land? done for the Swedish Integration Board, girls who have been used to control, threats, and violence in their homes say that they have asked for help time and again.

– They have gone to the school counselor and nurse, but they have received no help. We also know that many cases of wife abuse in Sweden are closed. This indicates that society is not particularly good at preventing violence against women and children. The patriarchal pattern is not limited to families of immigrant backgrounds. To the contrary, there is an official patriarchy in Swedish society that tries to look innocent by pointing its finger and charging that the violence in immigrant home is cultural and patriarchal.

But if you don’t see violence as cultural, can you find ways of stopping it so that these girls can be helped?

– What do we want to do with concepts such as honor-related violence? Is it a helpful term? It is part of a cultural stigmatization that makes life more difficult for the girls who are its victims.

Paulina de los Reyes wants to see beyond the divisions between immigrants and Swedes. Behind “the paradigm of difference” there is a hierarchy making those who are subordinated into objects for people with power. She wants to change this by giving those discriminated against a voice.

Author Mimmi Palm
Source The portrait was originally published in Gender Research in Sweden, 2006
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