Last spring was a victorious one for feminists in Sweden: an MP from their Feminist Initiative was elected to the European Parliament. Finland is considering the founding of a similar party. But first, Finnish feminists need to decide what feminism actually means.
One afternoon last March, the people at the feminist organization Naisasialiitto Unioni were probably all feeling a little anxious. They were about to vote on the question of whether to finally allow men to become members of their association.
Any change to their long-standing policy would surely have had both practical and image-related repercussions. Had this, Finland’s largest feminist outfit made such a permissive move, it would have become that much harder to blame Finnish feminism of hating men.
Those at Unioni who backed the inclusion of men thought: maybe if this went through, ”feminism” would cease to be the swearword many still consider it to be. Maybe more people would dare to profess their feminism and start to pay more attention to Finland’s equality problems.
Katju Aro, who chairs Naisasialiitto Unioni (which literally means ”Union of Women’s Affairs”), held a speech declaring her support for male members. She knew that there were dissident elements in the ranks who opposed male inclusion, and for whom the rule-change would come as a shock. For instance, many were afraid that anti-feminists could then join up and torpedo the union from within. Many also felt the need for spaces that could be designated women-only.
Aro understood this, but still rooted for the amendation to pass. The union could still organize activities specifically for women, after all.
Active participants of the feminist magazine Tulva also expressed their support, having published an article in their magazine the year before with the title ”Feminism for Everyone.”
Modern feminism no longer falls back on the particular nature of the female gender or the women’s rights movement. Feminism is a diverse phenomenon that problematizes gender differences and related issues of power and inequality. There are many feminist questions, and they do not all concern women alone.
The clash of visions has always been a staple at Unioni. Male members had been brought up repeatedly before, but this time there was a will. The active members who pushed for the reform wanted Finnish feminism to finally forget its old qualms and turn towards so-called intersectional feminism, which addresses other forms of discrimination as well. Feminism cannot be considered an ideology solely representing women’s rights, but as a much broader movement for equality with everyone’s interests at heart.
A reform of this kind would actually be a return to the organization’s roots: the chair of the Unioni founding meeting was Valfrid Vasenius, a male literature scholar. Officially, male members were only banned by the association’s rules starting from 1987, nearly a century later.
But: Finland’s largest feminist organization voted ”no” to men joining, by a margin of 59 to 24. The reformers were disappointed, but not surprised; after all, the issue was first tabled the previous autumn despite dissenting voices. The meeting ended with mixed emotions, and resulted in 30 members walking out.
However, it was abundantly clear that this would not be the end-all. A reform that gets bulldozed within a 122-year-old association may find a home elsewhere.
One alternative would be to found a Finnish feminist party €” an all-inclusive one, like they did in Sweden. And at the time, no Swede knew that two months after the Feminist Initiative was founded they would have a representative in the EU and would have a hand in bringing feminist talking points to many other party agendas, too.
So what is feminism? One definition says it’s a movement that sprung from Enlightenment era ideas that sought to improve the social standing of women and alter conceptions of gender in a big way.
Another interpretation was offered by a Finnish politico in top daily Helsingin Sanomat on October 12:
”These days feminism carries a strong negative tone. It is no longer about supporting equality. Its connotations in common discourse are of empowering women at the expense of the rights of men. Women in Finland are so equal that they even walk and talk like men.”
Sounds exactly like something that the American evangelist Pat Robertson might say; he has claimed that feminism makes women practice witchcraft, kill their children and become lesbians. But the words are in fact from the mouth of Riikka Slunga-Poutsalo, a Finnish woman and party secretary for the Finns.
The Swedish politician Gudrun Schyman expressed a very differing opinion of feminism in a letter she wrote in August, 2003. It began with the words Till alla feminister från Gudrun Schyman, or ”To all feminists from Gudrun Schyman.”
I am still a member of the Left Party, but I am not a part of any committee and I do not let the party line define my views. I consider myself a feminist above all, and my seat in the Riksdag [Parliament] should be available to the extraparliamentary feminist movement.
Together with all of you, I want to accelerate feminist change. I am an incumbent MP at your pleasure. This is a process that we are undergoing together. If you have a good idea for me, please contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please help me spread this message!
Schyman was the ex-chair of Sweden’s Left Party. Under her leadership, the party made historical inroads at the parliamentary elections of 1998 and in the EU elections of 1999. Not even Schyman’s publically self-professed alcoholism was not enough to topple her.
In the end, it was the law that tripped Schyman up. In early 2003 it became apparent that she had offset other people’s travel expenses against tax, for her own benefit. After that she no longer enjoyed the trust of her political peers, and she resigned as chairwoman.
But perhaps it was for the best. Schyman herself no longer trusted the party’s leftist politics; she had tried to turn their policies towards feminist concerns for a long time, to no avail. It was always the old-school male politicians who set up the most insurmountable hurdles, she felt.
So Schyman started to form her own feminist movement, the main motivation for her call-to-arms letter. She invited influential comp lit professor Ebba Witt-Brattström and Swedish-Finnish gender studies professor Tiina Rosenberg to join her cause.
Rosenberg was not present at the first feminists’ meeting in Dalarna, Sweden. She wasn’t yet sure if she could juggle a political career on top of her academic one. But finally, her curiosity got the better of her.
After the Dalarna gathering, the slowly self-constituting feminists began to meet in secret in the Swedish Parliament, which Schyman had access to. It became clear in the course of these meetings that the feminists all held wildly divergent views on their common ism. Women’s women like Witt-Brattström saw womanhood as an exceptional state; they saw it as a foundation that only other women could understand, which called for exclusively female solidarity.
Tiina Rosenberg, a noted queer activist, represented an opposing stance that understood gender in a much broader sense. She felt that the issue could not be split into just two genders, because that would rule out many other variations on what gender meant to people outside of cisgender norms.
Despite these differences, the meet-ups continued. Some of the ideas thrown around were outright utopian: Schyman’s vision was not just of a nationwide but a worldwide feminist renaissance. Her endgame was to gather all the democratically elected feminist MPs around the globe together under one flag: a global ”pink revolution” orchestrated from within.
These sessions went on for about one year. On December 7, 2004 Schyman left her own party after falling out with its management. She was accused of drawing her own political lines and of focusing too exclusively on issues of equality. But to Schyman, the issue of equality included all other issues as well: class, ethnicity, gender and their relation to social potential. The Left Party moved that Schyman leave the Riksdag altogether, but she refused and stayed on as an independent representative.
In April, 2005 a group calling itself the Feminist Initiative (FI) held a press conference. It said it was a movement with an agenda of anti-discrimination. It expressed no right or left-wing sympathies or intentions of running as a women’s movement, ”because the feminist movement needs the anti-racist movement and vice versa,” as the Initiative’s 26-year-old Monica Amante was quoted as saying in Sweden’s top daily, Svenska Dagbladet. The FI’s politics were intersectional from the get-go, because it took other forms of discrimination into account in addition to that of gender.
At the press conference, the Feminist Initiative announced that it was likely to run in the next year’s parliamentary elections, with their party congress being held in six months’ time to decide on three speakers and an election strategy. It looked like an accord had been reached and that everything was on track.
But soon the facade began to crumble. Just two weeks before the party congress, Ebba Witt-Brattström left with a train of like-minded members in her wake. Witt-Brattström didn’t consider what she called the FI’s intersectional bunk to be real feminism. On the second day of the congress, she wrote in the Dagens Nyheter debate column that the Initiative had stolen the concept of feminism. Her column was polemically titled ”The FI Monopoly is a Disaster for Equality,” and she was worried that no teenager in Sweden would take feminism seriously if they found out about it through the heresy of the Initiative. In was glaringly obvious that Witt-Brattström felt that intersectionality and feminism were hopelessly incompatible.
But there was nothing to be done. Witt-Brattström’s position had already lost.
The Skyddsrummet nightclub in Stockholm turned loudly monochrome one night in April, 2014. The balloons and decorations, and even people’s clothes and nails were all pink that day.
”In med feministerna, ut med rasisterna! In med feministerna, ut med rasisterna!”
”In with the feminists, out with the racists!” was the battle cry of the hundreds in attendance. When the first projections of the votes came in after 9 pm, the decibel levels shot through the roof.
And soon it was certain: the Feminist Initiative was getting a seat in the European Parliament with a vote share of over five percent. No other feminist group anywhere on earth has ever enjoyed such overwhelming democratic support. The Initiative MP in question was Soraya Post, a Roma woman whose family can be found in the Skåne County police register; the kind of register that tracks suspicious individuals.
It was an immense win for Post, but at least as big a victory for Gudrun Schyman, who gave the newly elected MEP a minutes-long hug when the news was announced.
What goes through someone’s mind at a time like that? Maybe ”is this really happening?” or ”can this be true?”
Or maybe, ”this is what we fought so hard for.” When Witt-Brattström and later Tiina Rosenberg walked out, the Initiative could have collapsed.
As she hugged Soraya Post, Schyman’s whole political career may have flashed before her eyes, and all that the Feminist Initiative had been through in past years. The 100,000 krona she burned in 2010 in a protest performance against the gender pay gap; the faces of people, both regular citizens and stars who had unavailingly supported them, like actor Jane Fonda, pop band The Knife or Abba’s Benny Andersson; or that this was all just the beginning of a worldwide transformation.
But before that could be possible, other countries would have to come around and establish feminist parties of their own. For that to ever happen in Finland, we need to ask someone who knows how it’s done for a little help.
It’s October, 2014 and Gudrun Schyman is nibbling a cinnamon bun in a Stockholm cafe. The ”Feminist Spring” has turned to autumn, and the elections have not lead to a seat in the Riksdag; but the FI did make its way into 13 different municipal councils. The elections were a letdown, but feminism definitely made the rounds in many of the parties’ campaigns. The liberal Folkpartiet actually concocted a slogan of its own, ”Feminism Without Socialism,” and Prime Minister Stefan Löfven’s government recently declared itself to be feminist.
There is now a clear demand for feminist politics in Sweden. The Feminist Initiative’s membership has grown from 2,000 to 22,000 people in 2014, which is more than the Finnish Green League and Left Alliance combined can hope to boast. The FI’s Facebook page is the most popular of all the Swedish parties at more than 140,000 likes.
These figures alone are enough to indicate that this is not a party just for women. Schyman estimates that 25€”30 percent of the FI’s members are male. Sweden has succeeded in what the UN’s ”He for She” campaign has yet to fully achieve: getting men interested in feminism.
Schyman is a hero. At this year’s political Almedalen Week she spoke with renowned economist Thomas Piketty €” four years after her money-burning stunt at the same event. Schyman’s turns of phrase were compelling compared with Piketty’s dry delivery, which caused one Dagens Nyheter reporter to compare her to a rockstar.
So what is feminism, whose definition is much contested in Finland, according to Gudrun Schyman? Her stare is incredulous.
”Feminism cannot mean different things,” she says. ”The goal of feminism is equality. Feminist analyses display facts, this is not about opinions. You can’t ask someone what feminism is ’to them’.”
Alright, so what is this single-minded feminism Schyman is talking about? She doesn’t offer further explanation, but suggests an internet search and goes to rinse her hands of cinnamon.
The Feminist Initiative’s EU election platform can be found online in Finnish, Swedish, English, French, Persian, Spanish and Swedish Sign Language €” and has this to say:
As long as the world is characterized by injustice – such as war, state oppression, persecution, poverty, violence, sexual abuse and the absence of rights – there will be people who choose to cross borders or flee to seek refuge and a more dignified life in another country. This is true within as well as outside the union. Feministiskt Initiativ believes that every human being should have the right and opportunity to live a safe and secure life.
The key phrase here is ”every human being.” The site also includes brief statements on economic policy, welfare and immigration. The top of the web page reads:
It is time to create an open European Union where human rights, gender equality and social justice are at the top of the agenda. When our rights are under attack we need to participate where decisions are made! More feminists are needed in the halls of power. Replace the racists with feminists!
”Many see feminism as a liberation front,” says Schyman.
Freedom is born of justice. Political, intersectional feminism can be compared to philosopher John Rawls’ idea of the veil of ignorance, which states that the most just decisions are born when those making the decision do not know what their status in society will turn out to be. This is impossible in politics, but we can always ask those who have been discriminated against about their experiences. In the autumn elections, about half of the FI’s candidates represented one minority or another.
What about Schyman’s own status? The FI has three female speakers and yet Schyman is the one who personifies the party. Power structures can be altered by bestowing power on those who lack it; minorities, immigrants, the disabled, the poor. This is the basis of intersectionality. Is a white heterosexual woman with a firm background in political intrigue necessarily the best face for feminism? The Feminist Initiative, it seems, is not entirely without hypocricy.
But it’s far better than nothing. Perfect equality can never be possible, because that ideal is based on the falsity that all people are alike. In a political movement, someone has to take the lead. In Sweden that someone in 2014 is still a white heterosexual woman; in the future it may be Sissela Nordling Blanco, a queer activist with an immigrant background and one of the FI’s speakers. It’s actually quite likely, because Nordling Blanco is a hugely popular politician in Sweden.
So this is how things can turn out in Finland’s western neighbor. But is this kind of intersectionally feminist coming-out even possible here?
Schyman says absolutely. But for starters, Finnish feminists need to get organized, which is easier said than done. There is a crisis in confidence among Finland’s feminists that is impossible to ignore.
Reading the posts in Facebook’s Feministiryhmä or ”Feminist group” is a chilling business. It’s all bogus and anti-feminist, one way or another.
Social media has its own jungle rules, but many feel the same way about the meetings of Naisasialiitto Unioni.
”There is a credibility gap in Unioni between those who are for and those who are against male members,” says Terhi Toppala, editor for the organization’s Tulva magazine.
Many actives from Unioni have said that the naysayers were ”women’s women” feminists who believe that womanhood is something that binds people a priori, as Ebba Witt-Brattström believes.
The vote was followed by distrust outside of Unioni as well.
”Not allowing male members caused lots of non-Unioni feminists to lose faith in our members,” Toppala says.
One solution would be to found a party where everyone is welcome. This autumn, Naisasialiitto Unioni started a panel series called F-klubi or ”F Club,” one of the themes of which is the possibility of a feminist party in Finland.
But that, too, is grounds for mistrust. On the same day as Riikka Slunga-Poutsalo spouted her absurdist views on feminism in Helsingin Sanomat, collective media project Takku.net posted an article, titled ”Do We Need a Feminist Party?”, which said:
We want our actions to put feminist principles into practice, not to choke on a hierarchical party system. Feminism is not a hollow word for us. Feminism is present in everything we do, even if we don’t always say it out loud. … No party has ever been feminist, this is something we agree on with supporters of a Finnish feminist party. But they are wrong if they think it is possible to found a truly feminist party.
The article is signed: ”Some anarchist queer feminists.”
It’s safe to say that all this endless dissention among feminists is enough to make your head swim.
”The conflict is stronger right now between different feminists than it is between feminists and society itself,” Toppala says.
Not a great starting point for spreading the feminist word. A political party could help; after all, the Green League brought environmental concerns into the agendas of almost every Finnish party and into everyday discussions. Toppala supports the idea of a Finnish feminist party.
Katju Aro of Naisasialiitto Unioni feels that at least a discussion on such a party is warranted. Aro even recently spoke on the issue on a Swedish radio program. A party is needed because issues of equality are simply not taken seriously.
”The male rights movement, for instance, says that women’s equality isn’t a big deal, or that no such problem even exists,” she says. ”The feminist movement strongly disagrees.”
The figures sing the same tune: a recent report estimates that at the current rate, it will take 81 years before women and men receive equal pay. Many people don’t have that kind of time, like Maryan Abdulkarim. Many see her as being Finland’s Gudrun Schyman.
Maryan Abdulkarim, vice president of Naisasialiitto Unioni, joined the organization through Tulva. She believes that the magazine’s initiator Atlas Saarikoski was the first to bring intersectional ideas into Unioni.
”Her Swedish skills meant she was able to follow the way the issue developed in Sweden,” Abdulkarim says. ”It was through her that I realized there were feminists who didn’t just care about the needs of middle class white women, but for whom feminism refers to the kinds of issues that affect my own life as a Somali-born Finn.”
Abdulkarim is the epitome of intersectional and anti-racist feminism. She is a dark-skinned 32-year-old Muslim immigrant feminist, with roots in Somalia €” in other words, someone with practically zero real social currency.
She might be expected to say that modern parliamentary power is patriarchal and rotten and needs to be shut down with a revolution, as anarcho-feminists believe. But that isn’t what she’s about.
”Realistically speaking, this is what the system is going to be like for the next 50-odd years,” she says. ”You should always think about your own position, and about who has the time to wait. I don’t.”
Something needs to be done. Abdulkarim is not content with the politics of so-called tolerant parties. She is annoyed that the Greens and Lefts push for minority policies without actually having almost anyone ethnically non-Finnish, or ”racialized.” A feminist party is needed. People like Tiina Rosenberg and Terhi Toppala believe that Abdulkarim could be the one to give it a face.
And yet Abdulkarim herself is hesitant. She doubts she would be taken seriously. Perhaps an older white heterosexual lady would be a better leader after all, some iron-fisted politician like Schyman.
”Realistically, there aren’t enough of us intersectional feminists in Finland,” she says. ”The whole dialogue here is characterized by the fact that we actually talk about closet feminists who haven’t come out.”
That wasn’t the vibe in Sweden. Last May, Maryan Abdulkarim gazed down from the balcony in Skyddsrummet and wondered at how many people had united under the same banner. Hundreds of feminists celebrating the Initiative’s victory and their new heroine, Soraya Post: a Roma woman who would be Sweden’s face for all of Europe.
Text: Sonja Saarikoski
Translation from Finnish: Kasper Salonen
Illustration: Jaakko Suomalainen
Interviewees for this article included University of the Arts principal Tiina Rosenberg, University of Helsinki Comparative Literature professor Ebba Witt-Brattström, Feminist Initiative municipal councilor Malin Ericson, political researcher Jemima Repo and several members of the feminist association Naisasialiitto Unioni.
The article was originally published in November.