Othering refers to the process of defining for example non-white and female bodies as ‘the other’. Or more precisely, the concept consists of two parts, where the defining of certain persons as ‘the other’ at the same time creates a ‘we’. So, the primary function of this process is not necessary to create ‘the other’ but equally much defines a ‘we’. Postcolonial theories show how othering, for example in the form of establishing and maintaining the idea of inferior others (the colonised) and a superior ‘we’ (the colonists), was an important component of the process to legitimise the colonisation in the 1700s-1900s (see also postcolonialism).
The construction of ‘the other’ often takes place in normal everyday situations and is expressed through preconceived opinions, ideas and norms concerning other people. For example, pictures, language and stereotypes are used in order to make minority groups something fundamentally different from the majority group in a society, the differences between the groups are amplified and the groups are assigned certain positions in a hierarchical system.
The understanding of othering can help us analyse for example the discussion on gender-segregated physical education in schools. This is an issue that can be understood and argued for or against from several perspectives. In the autumn of 2016, Swedish media reported that the Swedish Schools Inspectorate had allowed a Muslim private school to arrange gender segregated physical education. This yielded a great deal of interest and the issue was debated in both social media and the news media, politicians commented on it and various people and actors called for action. Comments such as ‘that is not what we do in an open and tolerant country like Sweden’ and ‘Sweden is one of the most gender-equal countries in the world, and it should stay that way’ were frequently heard. At the same time, however, we know that girls and boys continue to be separated in a wide range of areas in ‘our open and tolerant Sweden’. Examples include colour coding of male and female infants at the maternity ward, separate changing rooms and public toilets, separate sections in clothing and toy stores as well as separation of male and females in sports. But in the context of the Muslim school, leading politicians made it sound like the requested separation of girls and boys was something completely unique, something entire different from anything else that goes on and should go on in ‘the Swedish school’. Whether you are for or against gender-segregated physical education, the case provides clear insight into how the othering of Muslims leads to the construction of non-Muslims and Sweden as a joint ‘we’; a ‘we’ that does not accept gender-segregated physical education in school.