‘The gender-unequal others’

2017-01-10 10:10

The Muslim, as ‘the gender-unequal other’, gender equality as a core national value, and Scandinavian competition about who does gender equality work best. These were the central themes when genus.se talked to researchers from Denmark, Norway and Sweden about gender equality discourse and othering.

Rikke Andreassen is associate professor of communication studies at Roskilde University. As a researcher, she specialises in the way gender and ethnicity is portrayed in media. She says that media want to promote the view of Denmark as a gender-equal country.

– Twenty years ago, Denmark topped the international gender equality rankings. Today, they keep falling farther and farther behind. For example, Denmark has the lowest rates of paternal leave in the entire Nordic region. The unpleasant truth is that Denmark is not gender equal. Instead, the focus is moved to immigrants and to the view that ”the immigrants” are not gender equal, she says.

According to Rikke Andreassen, there is a consensus in Danish politics that gender equality is a good thing and an ideal to strive towards. However, there are differing views on whether Denmark really is gender equal or not.

– Many people believe that Denmark already is gender equal and that gender equality is a core Danish value. It is believed that refugees who come here need to become gender equal in order to fit into Danish society. Gender equality is often used in the political debate to criticise immigration and mutually, immigration is considered as a threat to gender equality. Yet, many organisations have heavily criticised the idea stating that the focus on ”the others” becomes an excuse for not doing anything about gender equality.

Danish-Swedish othering

Rikke Andreassen, foto: Thomas Cato

Rikke Andreassen, photo: Thomas Cato

Rikke Andreasson sees a difference in the gender equality discourse between Sweden and Denmark. However, the difference is found mostly at the rhetorical level.

– The media debate and the political discussion are more politically correct in Sweden, in contrast to Denmark where there is more of an attitude that “I can say whatever I want, so that’s what I’m going to do”. This makes Sweden and Denmark appear very different. In practice, similar sexism and racism patterns exist in both the countries. In fact, gender equality problems are very similar across the entire Nordic region and entail challenges such as gender-segregated labour markets, domestic violence and discrimination in the workplace.

Nevertheless, the perceived differences are used to create a view of ‘Danishness’ and ‘Swedishness’, or a form of Danish-Swedish othering, according to Rikke Andreassen.

– Danish established media wanted to interview me about why the Swedish parliament had recently decided that everybody in Sweden would be forced to use the gender-neutral Swedish pronoun hen instead of han (he) and hon (she). Similarly, I’ve been on Swedish panels where the question has been why Danish television only makes TV shows in which women are naked. This says a lot about what the two countries think of each other and how gender equality is created in relation to each other in a Danish-Swedish perspective. When it comes to gender equality, the other country has been pointed out as the extreme one, as the county that’s doing it wrong. ”We don’t want to be like Denmark” and “We don’t want to be like Sweden”  has turned into arguments in the debates and a way to create our respective national self-images.

When it comes to gender equality, the other country has been pointed out as the extreme one, as the county that’s doing it wrong.

‘A Muslim is the ultimate other’

Rikke Andreassen says that the Danish gender equality debate tends to focus on Muslims.

– A Muslim is “the ultimate other” in Denmark. The discrimination of for example Afro-Danes is most likely equally severe. Nevertheless, the political discourse presents Muslims as the main problem. As an example, our socialist party has recently demanded that Imams, but no other religious leaders, should be required to publically accept homosexuality.

However, some new voices have been heard in the Danish public debate over the last 5-10 years.

-The Muslim women are tired of being portrayed as victims. They are reacting against the stereotypes conveyed by policymakers and the media, says Rikke Andreassen.

Long tradition of othering via gender equality in Sweden

Paulina de los Reyes, foto: Anneli Tillberg

Paulina de los Reyes, photo: Anneli Tillberg

Paulina de los Reyes is professor of Economic History at Stockholm University. She has a long background as a researcher in the fields of gender equality policy, intersectionality and postcolonial feminism.

-Sweden has a long tradition of singling out “the other” through the idea of gender equality. The point that immigrant women specifically need to be trained on gender equality was made already when the concept gained popularity in the 1970s. Government inquiries on integration identified gender equality as a core Swedish value that they had to adjust to.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the idea of gender equality was strongly linked to paid work and the possibility for women to enter the labour market. Despite the fact that immigrant women had higher workforce participation than women born in Sweden, they were pointed out as those who needed to learn.

During the Swedish recession in the 1990s, the unemployment among immigrants was also discussed in terms of gender equality.

-There was an urge to blame the higher unemployment among immigrants on poor language and occupational skills, but also on immigrants being unfamiliar with a gender-equal work environment. This supposedly made them less employable.

New markers of gender equality, such as domestic violence, emerged in the 2000s. Paulina de los Reyes says that Islamophobia has become a central element in the gender equality discourse, similar to what is seen in Denmark.

-Today there’s no doubt that Muslims are defined as “the others” and as particularly problematic. According to the dominating discourse in society, Muslims are not gender equal, have patriarchal values and engage in honour-related violence.

A new, territorial dimension has surfaced in the gender equality debate since the turn of the millennium.

-Suburbs and city districts have become stigmatised, and women who don’t feel safe leaving their homes are receiving increasing attention. Yet, the population itself is rarely given a voice in the stories.

Today there’s no doubt that Muslims are defined as “the others” and as particularly problematic. According to the dominating discourse in society, Muslims are not gender equal, have patriarchal values and engage in honour-related violence.

Migration a threat to gender equality

Gender equality is also used as an argument against migration in the Swedish migration policy debate.

-The poor gender equality among the others is used as an underlying threat. Last year, a common argument against municipalities accepting too many unaccompanied refugee children, most of whom are boys, was that they are not accustomed to the Swedish gender equality. At the same time; however, the government implemented a policy that was partly based on limiting the opportunities for family reunification – an approach with a particularly strong impact on women. The gender equality consequences were simply irrelevant in the formulation of policy. Gender equality was only used as an argument to exclude; not to include.

Paulina de los Reyes says that the Swedish gender equality concept leads to other othering processes as well.

-It has to do with the fact that the national gender equality policy is both implemented and followed up based on a fixed understanding of gender – that there are only women and men. This makes people who don’t define themselves as a woman or a man invisible, she says.

Gender equality linked to nation-building in Norway

Eirinn Larsen

Eirinn Larsen

Eirinn Larsen is Associate Professor in History at the University of Oslo. In the book Norsk likestillingshistorie 1814–2013 (Norwegian gender equality history 1814–2013), which was published in connection with the 100-year anniversary of women’s suffrage in Norway, she writes about a long standing link between Norwegianness and gender equality.

-The argument that women’s right to vote would make Norway a leading nation and the most civilised and modern country in the world was initially heard when the topic was discussed in the late 1800s. The Norwegian identity- and nation-building has been of central importance as Norway became an autonomous nation-state as late as in 1905. And the idea of gender equality has been central in this process, she says.

She adds that the idea has spread further in the recent decades, for example in 1986 when former prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland created her ‘cabinet of women’ and in 2006 when a Norwegian law mandating that a certain proportion of corporate board members be women was adopted. Both of these events have affected the way Norwegians perceive themselves.

-Gender equality is used as an active creator of “the others” in Norway. This can be seen nationally, where the demands for the integration of minorities are linked to “Norwegian gender equality”, but also internationally, where for example the country’s bi- and multilateral development cooperation policy includes gender equality requirements. This can of course become problematic due to the unequal power relations implied by such collaborations.

Mainly Muslims are defined as ‘the others’ in relation to gender equality also in the Norwegian context.

-The Norwegian gender equality discourse is often focused around religious head coverings. A gender equality hierarchy is created, where “the others” are always inferior to “us”. Gender equality has become a litmus test for finding out whether somebody is Norwegian enough or has a potential to become Norwegian. There is obvious segregation at play, and you can’t become a Norwegian unless you become secularised, although there have been recent discussions about creating a Norwegian-Muslim identity and how the view of what’s Norwegian can be changed.

The view creates barriers to gender equality

Eirinn Larsen believes that the idea of gender equality as something Norwegian, can hinder the development of gender equality in the country.

-By positioning the gender inequality somewhere else, with “the others”, we communicate that “we” are already gender equal. After almost three years with a centre-right government, gender equality is receiving less priority than in the past. Norway has also become “best-in-class” at not letting asylum seekers and other migrants into the country.

By positioning the gender inequality somewhere else, with “the others”, we communicate that “we” are already gender equal.

The University of Oslo recently granted Eirinn Larsen and her research colleagues funding for a cross-disciplinary project titled Nordic Branding, which will explore ideas and views of ‘Nordicness’ by looking at national and regional marketing activities in the Nordic region. Gender equality will be a central element in this work.

-We haven’t started the project yet, so it’s too early to say what we may find. But my guess is that all Nordic countries are branding themselves through gender equality and that this occurs mainly nationally, as there is competition about who is the “most gender equal” among the Nordic countries.

Author Anneli Tillberg, translated by Debbie Axlid.
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