Known for its gender equality, Sweden has begun to turn ugly. Some point to a "Breivik effect" spreading through Scandinavia since the 2011 massacre in Norway by a right-wing extremist.
STOCKHOLM – The latest trend emerging in Sweden is not high-tech or discount furniture. It's open insults and violent attacks aimed at women. How did this country – a champion of gender equality – become the object of such public hate?
The most recent spate of anti-woman backlash came to light on Dec. 20 2012, with the publication in Aftonbladet, of a piece written by the tabloid’s cultural editor, Asa Linderborg. She wrote that after a series of investigative reports into far-right websites in Sweden, she started receiving so many hateful messages and threats that the police had to place her under protection.
Many of the insults and threats had violent sexual connotations, something men are never subject to. Though neither new nor confined to Sweden, Asa Linderborg was nonetheless surprised by the general tone of the messages she received, which were more violent than they had ever been before.
“Since Breivik, actually,” she says.
The mass shooting perpetrated by Anders Breivik in 2011 against the Norwegian Labor Party’s Youth league, which he called “traitors” and “culture Marxists,” deeply affected the region. The same tone and choice of words used by Breivik are frequently found in the messages and insults targeting women, especially against the feminists who “castrated” Sweden, one of Breivik’s obsessions.
The debate exploded when public broadcaster SVT1 showed a one-hour program on Sweden’s hatred of women. On camera, a number of women came to read the threats that they have received verbatim, many of which talked about sexual torture. The women who bore witness were female public figures – journalists, bloggers and actresses – who say that when sexism and racism is discussed, the reactions are often brutal.
Hashtags of hate
Then, there was the case of Julia, 17. The Swedish teenager had complained on the Facebook page of fashion retailer H&M about a T-shirt they were selling, with an image of Tupac Shakur – the dead American rapper who was convicted for sexual abuse.
Her complaint attracted more than 3,000 comments, a tsunami of hate. How could an anonymous teenager warrant such a reaction? She has received just as many messages of support.
On Twitter, #kvinnohat (hatred of women) has now become a popular hashtag in Sweden.
According to Linderborg, the phenomenon took such proportions because it “deeply hurts the image we have of ourselves as a people. Our pride was hurt, because we are the world’s most equalitarian country and Swedes are usually friendly and tolerant people.”
The previous wave of anti-feminist backlash started in May 2005, after the broadcast of a documentary showing the chairman of the national women’s refuge organization (ROKS) describing men as “animals.” The same year Gudrun Schyman, the charismatic former leader of the Swedish Left Party, co-founded the Feminist Initiative, a pressure group that later became a feminist political party.
At the time, Sweden’s left – the unions, the Left Party, feminism and alternative movements – was starting to lose ground. “It was all linked,” says Linderborg. “All of a sudden, Sweden became a far right country. The right has been in power since 2006, but before that, the social democrats were also following right wing policies. No other country privatized their state-owned enterprises as fast as we did.”
Did this political shift to the right somewhat pave the way for extreme right wing speech? Not according to the right wing journalists who say they too get a lot of hateful messages. “In certain left wing environments, you will find there is a high tolerance for hate speech targeted at the right wing,” says Paulina Neuding, the editor-in-chief of Neo, a neo-con magazine. “As if directing hate at the left was worse,” she adds.
This hate of women sometimes hides a deeper phenomenon – it illustrates the extremes that part of the population will go to. “We live in a brutal period,” says Linderborg. “People are unemployed, social security does not work anymore, they believe they are not being represented, they feel powerless, frustrated. We need to understand that too. We need to take these desperate and frustrated people seriously.”
This wave of hatred might be the first real sign that cracks are starting to appear in the social cohesion lauded by the Swedish government during the past 20 years.
Neuding says the success of the extreme right wing, which is at its highest level historically – 10% – is being underestimated. “This party is considered as illegitimate by the whole of Sweden’s politicians. When you look at the Avixplat website, the informal mouthpiece of the extreme right, you are shocked by the amount of rage and aggressiveness, and this feeling that people have of being abandoned by the establishment,” says Neuding. “There is a huge risk that we will lose all these people.”