Anti-gender campaigns in a gender-equal country – The case of Sweden

April 2023. The parties of the Swedish coalition government as well as the ethnonationalist Sweden Democrats, on whose parliamentary support the government relies, declare that the right to abortion is so fundamental that it should be inscribed in the Swedish constitution. 

August 2023. Stockholm Pride. Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson decides to hang a rainbow flag on the balcony of the Prime Minister’s Palace. He also organizes a “Pride Mingle” at his palace, inviting famous LGBTQ people and others, declaring that from now on it will be an annual tradition to mark the event of Stockholm Pride in this way. 

Given that the Swedish government is the most right-leaning government, both in Western Europe as well as in the modern history of Sweden, but at the same time portrays itself as a guardian of the right to abortion and the rights of LGBTQ people one cannot help but ask: What does anti-gender mean in an allegedly “gender-equal” country?

In the recent decade in many countries in Europe and around the globe, scholars and activists have observed a new wave of opposition to gender equality, sexual and reproductive rights, and LGBTQ rights, as well as the intensification of attacks on minority groups, especially racialized communities. This trend was termed as “anti-gender campaigns”, in which conservative actors not only oppose equality and minority rights but do so by re-signifying and vilifying the very term “gender”. They claim that progressive actors are in fact proponents of “gender ideology”, which threatens the very existence of the “traditional family”, and the well-being of children and the nation. In some countries, such as Poland, the anti-gender movement combines religious fundamentalism with nationalism, and claim that abortion is murder, sex education “sexualizes” school children and LGBTQ people are pedophiles. Similar strategies of fear-mongering can be seen in other Catholic countries, including Italy or Spain, but also in the post-communist context, e.g. in Hungary where homophobia and misogyny are being spread by the right-wing government in the absence of powerful religious institutions. 

Compared to these countries, Sweden appears a contrasting case – a country where notions of gender equality and human rights remain unchallenged – as exemplified in the introduction of this text. These examples, together with the fact that Sweden is continuously ranked as the most gender-equal country in the European Union, provoke a question of whether we can talk about anti-gender campaigns in the country at all. Maybe there are countries that are free from conservative influences and where a wide consensus exists around questions concerning equality and human rights. A closer look at the Swedish political debates shows that such optimism is unwarranted.

Religious institutions do not play an important role in Sweden’s politics or public life, but there are civil society actors, intellectuals and politicians, especially from the ethno-nationalist party, Sweden Democrats (SD), who express views that can be seen as anti-gender. Representatives of SD, which gained 20% of the votes and became the second-largest party in parliament in the 2022 elections, readily agree that equality between women and men is a “Swedish value”. Simultaneously, however, they claim that contemporary feminism went “too far” and became a threat to masculinity and a way to deny the natural differences between the sexes. Right-wing politicians publicly criticize gender studies and critical race studies, which they view as not scientific but purely ideological. These areas of study are seen as an example of “wokism”, thus a danger to academic freedom and freedom of speech. While SD is not in power, similar attitudes are expressed also by MPs from parties such as the Christian Democrats or Moderaterna, which form the ruling coalition. The dangers of the “gender doctrine” (genusdoctrinen) are also discussed by journalists and public intellectuals, such as Ivar Arpi, who has published a series of articles in the daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. In his articles and 2020 book  Genusdoktrinen, written with the scholar Anna-Karin Wyndhamn, Arpi accuses gender studies and gender theory of being non-scientific and cult-like. Clearly, what is at stake is not just politicians’ views on specific areas of study, but the very definition of what is science, what is truth and how research should inform politics.  

At a closer look, we can also see that the idea of Sweden as a “gender-equal” country in reality is more complex. For example, Sweden is characterized by a highly gendered labour market, where men and women tend to have different occupations, and where typically “female occupations” tend to have lower salaries than typically “male occupations”. Furthermore, scholars dedicated to research on gender-based inequalities have also shown the existence of the so-called “Nordic paradox”: despite official high numbers of gender equality, reported levels of intimate partner violence are higher in Sweden and other Nordic countries than in other comparable countries.

Thus, to approach the issue of “anti-gender” in a Swedish context, one must adopt an intersectional lens to see how the very notion of “gender equality” has gradually transformed into a “Swedish value”, setting the boundaries of what and who is considered to “belong” to the nation. This is what some scholars have called “femonationalism” and “homonationalism”, respectively, meaning that issues of gender equality and the rights of LGBTQ people have been discursively located as parts of “Swedishness”. This in turn means that in the public debate in Sweden, threats against these “values” are perceived as mainly coming from “abroad”, embodied by migrants and especially the “Muslim Other”. This trend is clearly visible in the debates on “honorary killings”, which position violence against women as a problem occurring mostly or only in communities with a migrant background. Moreover, this means that forms of patriarchal violence, homophobia and transphobia that are not related to migration or Islam are rendered invisible, and not really understood as a problem. For example, transphobia has lately become more salient in the public debate, and the Swedish government, as part of its extremely hostile migration policy, deports queer refugees to the countries from which they have fled.

The case of Sweden shows us that the shape that anti-gender initiatives take varies from country to country. Thus, we need to understand the complexity of opposition to the concept of gender and minority rights, and its relation to other forms of structural oppression, such as racism. It also suggests that the definition of anti-gender campaigns should not focus only on the opposition to gender equality or LGBTQ rights, but rather on how the right-wing actors vilify specific groups by suggesting that feminism, critical theories and anti-racist work in general are dangerous and too political.  

By Elżbieta Korolczuk and Hansalbin Sältenberg

Cover image from Pixabay: