TIME South Africa

South Africa Shuts Down First Pro-Gay Mosque

The religious cite is apparently in violation of a city law about parking spaces

Local officials in Cape Town, South Africa, have shuttered the country’s first mosque that welcomes gay people and allows women to lead prayers, citing a municipal code violation.

Cape Town city councilor Ganief Hendricks tells the BBC that the Open Mosque, which only opened on Friday, was in violation of a city law that requires one parking space per 10 worshippers at a place of worship. Hendricks said the mosque also failed to secure a permit to convert use of the building from a warehouse to a place of worship, which can take up to six months.

Members of the mosque, which drew harsh criticism from some segments of the local Muslim community, contend the city’s crackdown is an effort to close the mosque for good.

“We have freedom of religion and expression in this country,” said mosque founder Taj Hargey. “No one has the right to tell anyone what to believe in. This is a gender-equal mosque, autonomous and independent and will remain so.”

Hendricks maintains that the issue is not one of religious persecution but of a city zoning law.

“This is an emotive issue – some councillors who are Muslim would want to defend the issue more vigorously than those that aren’t but the bottom line is we have to make sure that the rules are followed,” he said.

[BBC]

TIME feminism

How to Raise Boys Not to Be Total Jerks

83606706
Rubberball/Nicole Hill—Brand X/Getty Images

Ever since the Ketchup Joke incident, I have been challenging my boys (and their sister) with honest conversations about gender and stereotypes

xojane

This story originally appeared on xoJane.com.

At some level, I’ve known since before my oldest son was born that this moment would come. But when it did, it took me utterly and completely off guard. I was driving a car chock-full of boys home from a soccer tournament when my nine-year-old son piped up from the back.

“Hey Mom! I’ve got a funny joke. I’ll ask you a question and you say, ‘Ketchup and rubber buns’.”

“I’ve heard this one,” chuckled my 12-year-old son.

Snickers all around from the soccer players.

Apparently, I was the only one who didn’t know what was coming next.

My son: “What did you have for breakfast?”

Me: “Oatmeal and ketchup and rubber buns.”

My son: “No! Mom! Just say ketchup and rubber buns. Try again. What did you have for breakfast?”

Me: “Ketchup and rubber buns.”

“What did you have for lunch?” “What did you have for dinner?” Etc. etc. And then we got to the punchline:

My son: “What do you do when you see a hot chick? You CATCH UP and RUB HER BUNS!”

Peals of laughter from the boys.

To my very great credit, I did not run the car off the road. I kept driving—silent, hands gripping the wheel, looking straight ahead. It was a perfect autumn day. The sky was a brilliant blue, the late afternoon sun catching the full color of the orange and yellow leaves on the trees along the highway. It was a beautiful, perfect day outside, but inside I was angry. I was mortified. I was disappointed. And I was desperately struggling to think of what I should say to these boys.

Finally, as calmly as I could, I said, “I don’t think that joke is funny. You know, if you actually ran after a woman and touched her in an offensive way like that, it would be called ‘assault and battery’. It is a crime. You could be arrested.”

“You could be arrested for THAT?” said one of my son’s teammates.

“Yes. Plus, the woman could also sue you.”

Silence descends.

“Also, I’ve actually had that happen to me. How do you think it feels to have a stranger grab your butt?”

“WHAT? That actually happened to YOU?” they yelled in unison.

“Sure. More than once. Usually at parties.”

“This is kind of making me feel sick,” said my 12-year-old son.

More silence.

Finally, my nine-year-old said, “I remember you saying once that you didn’t like running past construction sites because the construction workers whistled and yelled things at you.”

I didn’t remember telling them that, but it’s true. When I was a teenager, I used to go way off my normal running route just to avoid running past a construction site. When you are a 14-year-old girl and grown men are yelling things about your body and what sexual things they want to do to it, it doesn’t feel like they are just some idiots being rude. It feels downright threatening.

Good, I thought. Sometimes they actually listen to me.

“So what are you going to say the next time you hear someone tell a joke like that?” I asked.

“Stop, Mom! We get it, OK?”

Teachable moment: ended. I decided just to leave it there for the time being. I knew that these kids didn’t really mean any harm. They were just repeating what was—to them—only a silly play on words. But I couldn’t blow it off as “just a joke.” If you have ever experienced sexual assault, a “joke” like this is just not funny. The reality is that almost every woman I know has experienced inappropriate touching, sexual harassment, or sexual abuse. Female friends of all ages, ethnicities and occupations have shared their stories, from a student told by her professor that she could get a higher grade in exchange for a “favor” to women in the medical profession who had patients touch them inappropriately in the examination room. Even my own young daughter has already experienced it.

Not long after this Ketchup Joke incident, my sons’ little sister was touched inappropriately several times by a boy in her second grade class. The sad truth is that these are experiences that are all too common for girls and women throughout the world.

The Ketchup Joke was a call to action for me. My sons are intelligent boys, good kids who love and respect their mom and their sister, their grandmothers, their female friends and teachers. But they, like other young Americans, are deeply impacted by the culture that they live in. Every day, children are exposed to an estimated 16,000 images through media that often portrays unhealthy and unrealistic stereotypes of both young men and women. Females are almost four times as likely as males to be shown in sexy attire. Kids are also powerfully influenced by their peers. While they’ve never heard their dad tell a joke like that at home, there’s no way to control what they hear from other kids. How can all this not impact the way that my sons view girls and women?

I know I can’t change the society that we live in. I cannot raise my sons—or my daughter—in a world where sexism and misogyny do not exist. Eliminating bias completely is not even really possible; whether we are conscious of it or not, we are all biased. It is part of our human nature. But I realized that day in the car that kids don’t learn through osmosis how to evaluate and analyze gender stereotypes. It’s great to have parents who model respect for women, but it’s not enough.

I realized that, in order to raise these boys to recognize the problem of sexism in our society, my husband and I would have to try our best to make them aware of the bias and sexism in the world around them. If we could help them start seeing it, then we could help them find other ways to address it.

Ever since the Ketchup Joke incident, I have been challenging my boys (and their sister) with honest conversations about gender and stereotypes. Every example I see in a TV show, commercial, music video, or advertisement becomes a teachable moment. We talk about gender-based violence in the news, whether it is the girls kidnapped in Nigeria or domestic violence by NFL players. I have tried to share with them my own firsthand experiences with being female in a sexist society, something which hasn’t always been comfortable for me.

My sons aren’t always excited to have these conversations, so I don’t push it. But I don’t give up, either. Raising boys not to be total jerks is a long-term process. But they seem to be independently commenting on stereotypes that they see in the media more. They’ve even called me out for saying something sexist on occasion—and they were correct. So I am hopeful.

Hopeful that their generation will move us closer to a world where men and women are treated with more respect and equality. And hopeful that each of my boys will one day be men who, instead of chuckling when they hear a sexist joke, will speak up and say, “I don’t think that joke is funny.”

Jennifer Prestholdt is a human rights lawyer, wife and mother of three.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Reproductive Health

See the Bizarre History of Contraception in This Fascinating PSA

A new PSA shows the lengths that women have gone to in order to prevent unwanted pregnancy

Get ready to cringe.

A new PSA from EngenderHealth’s WTFP?! (Where’s The Family Planning) Campaign takes viewers on a tour through history and the myriad ways women have tried to prevent unwanted pregnancy.

Many of the methods, outlined in the video above, are unsavory at best and dangerous at worst. In ancient Egypt, women used “crocodile dung mixed with honey” for spermicide. In ancient Greece, women drank lead-riddled “blacksmith water,” which is toxic. And in the U.S. during the 1960s, women would put fizzing cola in their vagina after sex as a bizarre — and misguided — way to prevent pregnancy. (The birth control pill was introduced in the U.S. in 1960, but as TIME noted in its 50th anniversary story about the pill, “women usually had to be married to get it.”)

But the point of the video isn’t just to give us a look back on the weird ways women have tried to control their bodies. According to EngenderHealth, a New York City-based non-profit that focuses on women’s reproductive health, today more than 220 million women around the world want to use contraceptives, but can’t access them. Factors such as income, cultural and religious restrictions, lack of information and poor healthcare can all prevent women from safely and effectively preventing pregnancy.

Even in the U.S., access to birth control is not universal and measures to make it free have often been met with severe backlash. Remember Sandra Fluke?

This matters. A 2013 report by the Guttmacher Institute found that women who can control when they have children, not to mention how many they have, are more likely to fulfill their education and career goals, and earn higher wages. What’s more, access to contraception has also been linked to lower rates of maternal and infant deaths.

So if EngenderHealth’s unsettling video and campaign helps increase awareness and access to contraceptives, it’s worth cringing through.

TIME feminism

Emma Watson Asked Men to Support Women And Here’s How They Responded

HeForShe Campaign Launch
Emma Watson attends the launch of the HeForShe Campaign at the United Nations on September 20, 2014 in New York City. Steve Sands—WireImage/Getty Images

By threatening to circulate nude pictures and spreading rumors of her death, of course

Updated: September 23, 5:00 p.m. ET

On Saturday, Emma Watson delivered a rousing speech at the UN Women’s HeforShe launch event, calling on men to join the global fight for women’s equality.

“The more I have talked about feminism, the more I’ve realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating,” she said. “If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that this has to stop.”

But while more than 68,000 men worldwide have so far signed on to the HeforShe campaign, some users on the notorious 4chan message board have allegedly threatened to expose nude pictures of Watson. Is it a coincidence that this comes right after her speech? Probably not.

A countdown website entitled “Emma You are Next” surfaced after Watson’s speech, labeled with a 4chan logo and featuring an ominous ticking timer. Some suspect that the countdown signals the upcoming release of nude photos of Watson, since 4chan has been blamed for the leaks of other nude photos of celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence and Rihanna. But some 4chan users have allegedly denied that any user has the nudes in the first place. It’s also possible that the countdown clock is a hoax, Business Insider points out, since 4chan users are known for cruel pranks.

While it’s not clear that the website is a direct retaliation for Watson’s comments at the UN, outlets like Cosmopolitan and Slate are reporting that 4chan commenters acknowledged setting up the website because of her “stupid feminist speeches,” and called her a “feminist bitch.” (The original 4chan comments could not immediately be located.)

Other internet pranksters are starting a rumor that Emma Watson is dead, by circulating the hashtag #RIPEmmaWatson:

In her speech, Watson said, “no country in the world can yet say they have achieved gender equality.” The shadowy anonymous internet users may have just proved her right.

More: Here’s What 18 Famous Women Think About Feminism

 

TIME Books

Review: In Her First Novel, Caitlin Moran Explains How To Build a Girl

The best-selling author of How To Be a Woman returns with a novel about growing up in '90s Britain

Most of America first encountered Caitlin Moran in 2011 when she explained How To Be a Woman with her best-selling memoir/polemic. The deeply personal book served as a call to arms for modern feminism, skipping academic jargon in favor of discussing pubic hair and sex work, with plenty of jokes in between; Woman became an international best-seller and put Moran on the map as one of the new feminist icons.

In her first novel How To Build a Girl, Moran takes her trademark humor and applies it to a new subject: adolescence. Moran’s protagonist is Johanna Morrigan, a 14-year-old girl circa 1990, living in a provincial English town called Wolverhampton, which “looks like something bad happened to it.” A bright, overweight optimist, obsessed with sex and yearning “to be beautiful,” Johanna dreams of becoming a writer while living with her large, eccentric family in public housing. Terrified that her father’s disability benefits will soon end, Johanna decides to save her family from poverty by becoming a music journalist in London.

Anyone already familiar with Moran will immediately recognize the broad outlines of the story: she also lived in public housing with her large family in Wolverhampton in the ‘90s, before becoming a teenage music journalist for the British publication Melody Maker and then going on to work for the Times. Moran insists, however, that it’s a work of fiction, autobiographically inspired as it may be.

The smartest thing about the universe of Moran’s Girl is that growing up isn’t a passive activity, a thing that happens to you. Instead, it’s something you deliberately set out to achieve for yourself, building up piece by piece and constructing who you are with books, pop music and wild experiences. For Johanna, it also involves sex, drugs and lots of rock ‘n’ roll. She tries on different identities, such as “Dolly Wilde” — her rock critic nom de plume — and suffers various humiliations and disappointments along the way.

There’s a lot going on and, unsurprisingly — given that it was written by Moran — How To Build a Girl is very funny. It’s also quite rude. A considerable portion of the book focuses on the various household items that Johanna can use to masturbate with. (Book banning types in the U.S. are bound to have a field day with this one.)

But there are also some observations that aren’t believable coming from a 14-year-old — or even, as Johanna ages throughout the book, a 16 or 17-year-old. Her insights are either too mature or much too naïve. Though Johanna can be reflective on class, music and sexual frustration, most of her feelings regarding her family, her colleagues or even some of her experiences are left largely unexplored. While charming and funny, she is often disappointingly glib, breezing over events in her own mind in a way that feels unrealistic.

Johanna often approaches new experiences as a complete innocent, before her future self interrupts in order to editorialize what she’s experiencing. In one notable scene, after Johanna has a rash of unsatisfying sexual encounters and finds herself in bed with a man whose pleasure is the only thing she focuses on, she notes: “In later years I find this is called ‘physical disconnect,’ and is all part and parcel of women having their sexuality mediated through men’s gaze.” Sure, it’s an accurate description of what’s going on, but it’s not one that teenage Johanna would ever articulate. It’s passages like that which make Girl feel less like a novel and more like a collection of deleted scenes from Moran’s first book.

With How To Be a Woman – a hugely lovable book, even when it was problematically narrow – Moran had swaths of women snapping it up, laughing and saying, “Yes, this is what it is like to be a woman.” While How To Build a Girl will almost certainly make readers laugh, it’s hard to imagine anyone recognizing the adolescence it depicts. That said, many readers will recognize plenty of Moran in it. For her fans, that’s probably all that’s needed.

TIME politics

The Female Presidential Candidate You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Victoria Claflin Woodhull
Victoria Claflin Woodhull (1838 - 1927), the first woman to run for US president from a nationally recognized ticket Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Sept. 23, 1838: Victoria Claflin Woodhull, a future presidential candidate, is born

These days, Hillary Clinton is making headlines as the potential female President of the United States — and she hasn’t even declared that she’s running. But, though a Clinton run would still be history-making, it was more than a century ago that the U.S. saw its first major-party female presidential candidate: Victoria Claflin Woodhull.

Woodhull — who was born this day, Sept. 23, in 1838 in Homer, Ohio — challenged Ulysses S. Grant in the 1872 presidential election as the Equal Rights Party candidate. Her bid was unsuccessful, and she’s mostly faded from history except as a frequent sidebar to articles about other women running for the highest office. (For example: TIME wrote about her in 1964 when Senator Margaret Chase Smith ran, and again in 1984 when Geraldine Ferraro ran for VP.)

Still, she campaigned with flair, publicly proclaiming her beliefs in, as TIME put it in 1964, “spiritualism, vegetarianism, short skirts, legalized prostitution, and free love.”

A suffragist whom other suffragists tended to keep at arm’s length, Woodhull was often described in terms her women’s movement peers might have eschewed: “beautiful,” “bosomy” and “not entirely scrupulous.”

She and her younger sister Tennessee got their start as healthcare practitioners of dubious merit, peddling elixirs, psychic healing and metaphysical remedies. One big sale was enough to launch the pair, however. TIME recounted how in 1984:

Inspired, she said, by a vision of Demosthenes, Woodhull and her sister went to New York and arranged to introduce themselves to the newly widowed Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, 84. With her ‘magnetic treatment’ Tennessee soothed the railroad tycoon so successfully that he backed the young sisters in opening a lucrative stock brokerage.

Woodhull used her earnings to start a newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, which supported her political ambitions as well as her pet causes. It’s unclear whether her activism ultimately helped or hurt the women’s movement, but it certainly garnered attention. She was nothing if not dramatic:

As an orator, Woodhull bowed to no man. ‘We mean treason; we mean secession…’ she declared. ‘We are plotting revolution; we will [overthrow] this bogus Republic and plant a government of righteousness in its stead.’ When someone dared to ask whether she practiced her preachings of free love, she defiantly answered, ‘Yes! I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may.’

When her fellow suffragists questioned Woodhull’s place in the movement, however, Stanton defended her. “If Victoria Woodhull must be crucified,” she said, “let men drive the spikes.”

As a presidential candidate, Woodhull was not quite crucified, but met an ignominious end on election night, which she spent in jail on an obscenity charge.

“She got very few votes,” TIME commented drily.

Read the full profiles of Woodhull here, in TIME’s archives: Madam Candidate (1964) and Braving Scorn and Threats (1984)

TIME feminism

Here’s What 20 Famous Women Think About Feminism

From Emma Watson to Beyonce to Chrissy Teigen, here's where 20 celebrities stand on the feminist spectrum

Emma Watson gave a speech at the U.N. Women’s HeForShe event recentlyabout how important it is for men to be involved in gender equality. “The more I have talked about feminism the more I have realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating,” she said. “If there is one thing I know for certain, it’s that this has to stop.”

Check out the gallery to see what 19 other celebrities think about the state of modern feminism.

TIME feminism

Watch Emma Watson Explain Why She’s a Feminist

"I want men to take up this mantle," said the Harry Potter star

British actress Emma Watson called on men and boys around the globe to join the movement for gender equality during a moving speech given in her role as U.N. Women global goodwill ambassador.

“I want men to take up this mantle. So their daughters, sisters and mothers can be free from prejudice, but also so that their sons have permission to be vulnerable and human too — reclaim those parts of themselves they abandoned and in doing so be a more true and complete version of themselves,” she said at the U.N. headquarters in New York City on Saturday.

The 24-year-old actress, who gained worldwide fame for her role as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter movie franchise, was speaking as part of the HeForShe global solidarity movement to promote women’s rights and equality between the sexes.

See full video of her speech below.

TIME Sexual Assault

The CDC’s Rape Numbers Are Misleading

Obama Ebola
The entrance to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on Oct. 8, 2013. David Goldman—AP

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.

Men reported being “made to penetrate” at virtually the same rates as women reported rape

CDC: Nearly 1 in 5 Women Raped.” “One in Five U.S. Women Has Been Raped: CDC Survey.” These alarming headlines were typical of the coverage of last week’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on sexual and intimate violence in the United States. The CDC study—the second in two years—seems to support a radical feminist narrative that has been gaining mainstream attention recently: that modern America is a “rape culture” saturated with misogynistic violence. But a closer look at the data, obtained from telephone surveys done in 2011, yields a far more complex picture and raises some surprising question about gender, victimization, and bias.

Both critics and supporters of the CDC’s methodology note the striking disparity between CDC figures and the Justice Department’s crime statistics based on the National Crime Victimization Survey (which includes crimes unreported to the police). While the CDC estimates that nearly 2 million adult American women were raped in 2011 and nearly 6.7 million suffered some other form of sexual violence, the NCVS estimate for that year was 238,000 rapes and sexual assaults.

New Republic reporter Claire Groden points out that while the NCVS focuses on criminal acts, the CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey asks about instances of forced sex which respondents may or may not regard as crimes. Yet it is worth noting that in the early 1990s, the NCVS was redesigned to elicit more reports of sexual and domestic violence that may not fit the conventional mold of criminal attacks. In addition to being asked directly about rape, attempted rape or sexual assault, respondents now get a follow-up question about “forced or unwanted sexual acts” committed by a stranger, a casual acquaintance, or someone they know well.

The CDC study goes much further in asking about specific unwanted acts. But there are other important differences. For one, CDC survey respondents are not asked whether anyone has used physical force or threats to make them engage in a sexual activity, but “how many” people have done this (in their lifetime and in the past year). This wording removes the extra hurdle of admitting that such a violation has happened, and thus encourages more reporting. But could it also create “false positives” by nudging people toward the assumption that the default answer is affirmative—especially when preceded by a battery of other questions and statements about sexually coercive behavior?

A much bigger problem is the wording of the question measuring “incapacitated rape” (which accounted for nearly two-thirds of the CDC’s estimate of rapes that occurred in the past year). Respondents were asked about sexual acts that happened when they were “drunk, high, drugged, or passed out and unable to consent.” This seems to imply that “unable to consent” is only one of the variables and to include situations in which a person is intoxicated—perhaps enough to have impaired judgment—but not incapacitated as the legal definition of rape requires.

A CDC spokesperson told The New Republic that “being unable to consent is key to the CDC’s definition of rape.” Presumably, this is conveyed by the introduction to the question about alcohol- and drug-enabled rape: “Sometimes sex happens when a person is unable to consent to it or stop it from happening because they were drunk, high, drugged, or passed out from alcohol, drugs, or medications.” However, in a telephone survey, some people may focus only on the question itself and let the introduction slide by.

Moreover, the introductory message ends with an advisory that may create more confusion: “Please remember that even if someone uses alcohol or drugs, what happens to them is not their fault.” Obviously, the intended point is that even if you got drunk, you’re not to blame for being raped. But this vaguely phrased reminder could also be taken to mean that it’s not your fault if you do something stupid while drunk or on drugs. At no point are respondents given any instructions that could result in fewer reports of alleged victimization: for instance, that they should not include instances in which they had voluntary sex while drunk but not incapacitated.

For many feminists, questioning claims of rampant sexual violence in our society amounts to misogynist “rape denial.” However, if the CDC figures are to be taken at face value, then we must also conclude that, far from being a product of patriarchal violence against women, “rape culture” is a two-way street, with plenty of female perpetrators and male victims.

How could that be? After all, very few men in the CDC study were classified as victims of rape: 1.7 percent in their lifetime, and too few for a reliable estimate in the past year. But these numbers refer only to men who have been forced into anal sex or made to perform oral sex on another male. Nearly 7 percent of men, however, reported that at some point in their lives, they were “made to penetrate” another person—usually in reference to vaginal intercourse, receiving oral sex, or performing oral sex on a woman. This was not classified as rape, but as “other sexual violence.”

And now the real surprise: when asked about experiences in the last 12 months, men reported being “made to penetrate”—either by physical force or due to intoxication—at virtually the same rates as women reported rape (both 1.1 percent in 2010, and 1.7 and 1.6 respectively in 2011).

In other words, if being made to penetrate someone was counted as rape—and why shouldn’t it be?—then the headlines could have focused on a truly sensational CDC finding: that women rape men as often as men rape women.

The CDC also reports that men account for over a third of those experiencing another form of sexual violence—“sexual coercion.” That was defined as being pressured into sexual activity by psychological means: lies or false promises, threats to end a relationship or spread negative gossip, or “making repeated requests” for sex and expressing unhappiness at being turned down.

Should we, then, regard sexual violence as a reciprocal problem? Getting away from the simplistic and adversarial “war against women” model is undoubtedly a positive step, as is admitting that women are human beings with the capacity for aggression and wrongdoing—including sexual assault. On the other hand, most of us would agree that to equate a victim of violent rape and a man who engages in a drunken sexual act he wouldn’t have chosen when sober is to trivialize a terrible crime. It is safe to assume that the vast majority of the CDC’s male respondents who were “made to penetrate” someone would not call themselves rape victims—and with good reason.

But if that’s the case, it is just as misleading to equate a woman’s experience of alcohol-addled sex with the experience of a rape victim who is either physically overpowered or attacked when genuinely incapacitated. For purely biological reasons, there is little doubt that adult victims of such crimes are mostly female—though male children and adolescents are at fairly high risk: as criminologists Richard Felson and Patrick Cundiff report in a fascinating recent analysis, a 15-year-old male is considerably more likely to be sexually assaulted than a woman over 40. The CDC reports that 12.3 percent of female victims were 10 or younger at the time of their first completed rape victimization; for male victims, that number is 27.8 percent.

We must either start treating sexual assault as a gender-neutral issue or stop using the CDC’s inflated statistics. Few would deny that sex crimes in America are a real, serious, and tragic problem. But studies of sexual violence should use accurate and clear definitions of rape and sexual assault, rather than lump these criminal acts together with a wide range of unsavory but non-criminal scenarios of men—and women—behaving badly.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME European Union

Feminism Comes to the Forefront of Swedish Politics

A look inside one of the world's first feminist parties to be elected to power

Sweden is already known for its progressive policies, but on Sept. 14, this Scandinavian country could be among the first in the world to elect a feminist party to its Parliament.

Feministiskt Initiativ a left-leaning and antiracist political party that was founded in 2005 — has gained popularity in recent months: polls show the party close to or passing the 4% bar needed to obtain seats in Stockholm’s Parliament. If the left-leaning parties with the Swedish Social Democratic Party in the lead secure enough votes and the feminists get 4%, they will likely help form the next government.

With its slogan “Out with the racists, in with the feminists,” the party has broadened traditional feminist values to also fight discrimination on the basis of race, sexual identity and physical disabilities. The party has grown from about 1,500 members in January to more than 17,000 members in July, said Gudrun Schyman, party leader and one of the founders of Feministiskt Initiativ.

“We haven’t reached the goals when it comes to gender equality,” Schyman said. “There has been a myth that we are so advanced, that we have come so far in Sweden that we don’t have to talk about it, we don’t have to do anything.”

While Sweden ranks No. 4 in the 2013 Global Gender Gap Index, which measures equality in the areas of economics, politics, education and health, 95% of Swedish top leaders in listed companies are men. Recent studies also show that Swedish women have 85% of men’s wages and 66% of their pensions.

Sweden is also known for its groundbreaking laws on maternity and paternity leave. But the feminist say that more reforms are needed to make parental leave equal and they propose it should be individualized to fit all kinds of families, including transgender and same-sex ones. While parents are entitled to 480 days of paid leave and the days can be split between parents, a 2012 study shows that dads took only 24% of the total leave.

Schyman, 66, says that the feminist party’s success is due to a carefully crafted door-to-door campaign: during the pas 12 months, Schyman visited every Swedish home where the host pledged to gather a crowd of at least 25 people. During the two-hour-long meetings, Schyman would talk about the growing racism in Swedish society, the need for better pensions and equal pay. The party also plans to set up an Equality Ministry as a permanent government organ. These talking points resonated strongly with a group of Swedish society — where 16% of the population is foreign-born, a higher percentage than in the U.S. — that feels alienated by more established parties.

Feminist Initiativ also gained attention by riding a wave of antiracist feelings that have emerged after increasingly anti-immigration parties, like Sverigedemokraterna, began to gain seats in the national parliament in the 2010 election.

Feministiskt Initiativ has also had success in European politics. In May, the feminists got 5.3% of the Swedes’ votes and a Roma woman, Soraya Post, was welcomed as the first member of a feminist party to sit in the European Parliament.

Schyman believes her party can spur a movement throughout Scandinavia and Europe: she hopes that by 2019, the year of the next European Parliament elections, there will be enough feminist voters in other European countries to form a European feminist-party group. Poland, Germany, France and Italy are among countries that already have organized feminist parties in their individual states.

Yasmine Ergas, director of the gender and public-policy specialization at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University in New York City, says it makes sense that a feminist party has so much support in Sweden.

“The most important thing is to have the ability to mobilize consent,” Ergas said. “There must be a degree of consent in the society about the idea that women rights needs further approach and I think Sweden has that.”

But Feministiskt Initiativ has been criticized for being a populist party or for attracting voters with easy slogans that aren’t backed by financially sounded policy plans. Ebba Busch Thor and Mikael Oscarsson, members of the conservative party Kristdemokraterna, wrote in an opinion piece in the Swedish newspaper Upsala Nya Tidning that the feminist party has “totalitarian features” and that the party “proposes expenses of hundreds of millions Swedish krona without any kind of financial strategy.”

Among the propositions in the feminist party’s economic plan is a reduction of the workday from eight to six hours. Such reform would cost the Swedish government up to $1.6 billion during a 10-year-long transition period, according to data published by the feminist party. In addition, the feminists propose free public transport, extensive efforts to stop domestic violence and an equality fund of $2 billion to speed up the equal-pay process. These reforms will largely be funded by increased taxes but also by measures such as reduction of funding to the Swedish military.

“When the welfare system is not working, it affects women very much,” Schyman said, ”and we think it’s quite normal that you take responsibility for this all of you no matter if you are rich or not and if you have a lot of money you can pay some more tax.”

Recent polls seem to side with Feminist Initiativ, pointing to a likely change in government from the current right-wing coalition Alliansen toward a government led by the Social Democrats and the Green Party. To get a majority in the parliament, the next administration is likely to cooperate with the feminists, and last week Schyman went public with her intent to back the Social Democrat leader Stefan Lofven as Prime Minister if they pass the 4% bar in the elections on Sunday.

This summer, during the political rally in Almedalen park in the city of Visby, the feminists rallied the crowds at St. Karin’s ruin, a desolated church from the 14th century. Their “antiracist celebration” was held the same day as Jimmie Akesson, party leader of anti-immigrant party Sverigedemokraterna spoke in front of the crowds a couple of hundreds of meters away.

Hundreds of supporters — donning pink balloons and clothing, the color of the party — came to rally in favor of Feministiskt Initiativ. The renowned Swedish rapper Behrang Miri also performed to a crowd of hundreds.

“We have the possibility to show that it is possible to get these ideas going in the Parliament and in people’s minds,” said Bengt Ortegren, 68, member and volunteer at Feministiskt Initiativ. “I think that is the most important really that there will be new processes going in people’s minds. “

For him, violence against women was one of the main reasons to join the party. “In all the world there is a lot of violence and oppression against women and that is a big issue,” he said. “Perhaps the biggest.”

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