Swedish Fish and Swedish Kids

Written by: Jo Yeoul (19-A2)

Designed by: Kothandam Anusha (20-I1)

By this time, everyone should have heard of the term ‘gender equality’. Regardless of how you think of it, or what your opinions are regarding this term which seems to pop up frequently from the most random places nowadays, there is actually no fixed definition to properly describe what exactly this two-worded phrase stands for. Many people have tried to unpack it, but with its broad scope and vague ideas and its far reaching impacts in every sector of society, it is difficult to settle on one set definition for ‘gender equality’. Nevertheless, most of us deem this idea of ‘gender equality’ to be a positive one, something which everyone should be aware of, something which we should definitely work towards and provide for the future generation, something that is so important, something… something… 

  But what exactly do we mean by ‘something’? And how are we going to achieve this ‘gender equality’ if we are not fully comprehending what exactly it stands for? 

  In my exploration of the questions above, I decided to look at Sweden and how they have tackled such issues. My interest in Sweden was peaked by the disparity in their high ranking of 4th highest on the Global Gender Gap Index Ranking in 2020, and the existence of some criticism from the public. some even chide others as being “obsessed with gender”. How could an emphasis on gender parity be seen as a bad thing? 

The Swedish Government 

  The Swedish government boasts a large number of female government officials actively participating in the office and playing huge roles in ruling the country. Being referred to as “A Feminist Government”, the policies present in the country frequently goes back to the idea of Feminism and gender equality. Increasing number of women are empowered by their government, and they focus on solving various issues, such as women being underrepresented in different sectors of the society and the comparative vulnerability and disadvantages of the female population. Not only do they focus on women gaining more power and attaining equality, they also place emphasis on the active participation of their male population to help achieve this goal of theirs. One example of such efforts would be ensuring gender-equal working life for both the mother and father in the family by making sure that parental responsibility is shared equally in a household and both sides are contributing to their career and family. 

  Moving on, the country’s government differs from other countries in their general acceptance in agreeing that their female population faces discrimination due to their gender and that there is the presence of deeply-rooted male privilege in their society. Such a notion is usually rejected in other countries where they claim that the women in their countries are given as much rights and authority as their male counterparts, which often happen to be an overstatement. To quote Morgan Johansson, the Minister for Justice  and Migration who just so happens to be a man, “We also need more early measures to prevent violence, and we need to continue supporting women’s shelters and victim supporting groups. If men’s sexual harassment and sexual offences against women are to cease, it is men who must change.” 

  My initial reaction when I read that statement was that of shock. It was a very different argument that my own society(ies), (yes, I technically have two different societies as a foreign student) would normally claim when addressing the issue of women being prime victims of sexual assault and harassment.

  In today’s world where people are so used to blaming the victim for “making” herself an easy subject of interest to these perpetrators, many choose to put the fault on the victim instead of questioning the lack of control these attackers have. And the “many” that I am referring to usually happen to be a small group of people with conservative beliefs and often ironically, men. Hence, to hear such words coming from a male politician in a foreign country, this not only stirred a certain emotion at the pit of my stomach, but also flooded my head with numerous questions that I should have asked myself much, much earlier on in my life. Why are majority of the victims of sexual assault young girls and women? Why are the victims the ones who are interrogated and questioned? 

  And why am I, a young teenage girl living in an Asian society where people still possess conservative ideologies and is controlled strictly by a male-dominated government body, growing up learning and thinking that these obvious discrimination that both women and men may face due to their gender as being “normal”? 

Sweden’s Efforts to raise Gender-Neutral Children

  So maybe it is the education system after all – maybe all the years of education where I learnt that it was deemed socially acceptable for boys to be more aggressive and reckless than girls, and attending schools where they always had a dance group for girls but never for boys had seriously affected the way I think. No matter how hard I try to refrain from having certain expectations about genders, my conservative mind always interferes and I find myself subconsciously having preconceived notions that cause me to disapprove of that someone if they go against any of such ideas. Thus, education might indeed be the key to raising more open-minded children to form a new generation of adults who are inclusive and firm believers of equality for both genders.   

  With reference to the New York Times’ article, “In Sweden’s Preschools, Boys Learn to Dance and Girls Learn to Yell”, it talks about gender-neutral preschools in Sweden where teachers pay close attention to their students in making sure the children are exposed to various activities that are conventionally seen as being meant for girls or boys only regardless of their genders. To put it simply, I quote, “The schools rolled out what was called a compensatory gender strategy. Boys and girls at the preschools were separated for part of the day and coached in traits associated with the other gender.”. Young boys are put in front of miniature toy stoves and told to play kitchen. Young girls are told to walk barefoot in the snow and learn how to scream by throwing the windows open and yelling as loudly as they can. Such initiatives may sound ineffective, but exposing boys to domestic chores such as cooking and cleaning increases the probability of these boys growing up to help with such activities that are commonly seen as “a woman’s work”. By teaching girls to yell out, they will grow up to be bolder and be less fearful of speaking up to make sure that their voices are heard.

  In fact, those who have attended these preschools have claimed that they have a different view of gender. New York Times, upon interviewing an individual who attended such a preschool, described her views on gender as “something you could put on or take off, like a raincoat”. This is rather different from how we view genders in our society, as we consider our genders to be a deeply-rooted part of our individual identities, a definition of ourselves, a role given to us as a part of the larger society, something that cannot simply be converted according to our liking. By taking a more casual approach to our genders just like the interviewee, it might be an effective solution to reducing the societal expectations which people have of men and women, hence bridging the metaphorical yet prevalent gap that exists across all the nations. 

  However, upon closer examination, I began to find a few peculiar observations in the article. To state an example, I quote, “Ms Gerdin’s friends have begun to have babies, and they post pictures of them on Facebook, swathed in blue or pink, in society’s first act of sorting.”. In response to this, Ms. Gerdin was seen to be “upset”, and even “feels sorry for the children”. She was even seen to be criticising such behaviour and felt like it was her responsibility to tell her friends that “they are making a mistake”. The particular observation which I am referring to should be rather obvious by now – Ms Gerdin not only had a casual approach to the idea of genders, but also was against defining them at all. 

  In her eyes, calling a boy a boy and referring to a girl as a girl already meant that we were imposing some kind of roles and expectations to a person, hence viewed to be “bad”. 

“Avoiding the B-Word and G-Word”

  When does something become ‘too much’? Of course, this is coming from a perspective of an outsider from Sweden’s point of view. I did not grow under their education system, thus I may be viewed as the insensitive one in their eyes. However, how sensitive must we be to make sure that our children will grow up believing in equality and never once doubting the capability of an individual according to their gender? If being gender-neutral means to get rid of any distinctions between the male and female genders, what are the possible impacts of raising these children to be fully gender-neutral? With so many questions in mind, I turned to a controversial documentary from Vice News on YouTube, labelled “Raised Without Gender”. 

  Letting a child who was born a boy and raised as a son to grow his hair out, twisting it into long braids and letting him don a frilly dress to attend his lessons might sound daunting and a little far-fetched in our society. However, this may be a common sight to see in some Sweden households as parents are growing increasingly aware of the importance of educating their children early. The documentary was an eye-opening one, showing scenes of young boys having their hair tied into pigtails, wearing clothes which conventionally would considered to be girls’ clothes and having basket fulls of toys, ranging from miniature toy cars with flame designs decorating the shiny exterior of these vehicles to plush dolls with ginger pigtails and huge grins stitched onto their cloth faces. The children would refer to their parents as “Mapa”, a combination of “Mama” and “Papa” so as not to refer to a specific parent in relation to their gender. Even when using pronouns, they made sure they only used “Hen”, a gender-neutral pronoun that can be used to refer to both girls and boys. 

  When asked by the interviewer if they would ever correct anyone if they referred to their sons as daughters, Mapa was quick in responding that (he) would never correct anyone and leave it to their own perception. When the child was asked about his experience in school, (he) replied that when asked by (his) classmates about (his) gender, (he) simply stated,

   “I answered that I was neither, then I said I was both.” 

The Public’s Response

  Now, it should be mentioned that the documentary above certainly is not an accurate portrayal of an average Swedish household. In fact, when I had approached my Swedish friend for some assistance, he first responded with a slight bit of confusion before informing me that it was only recently that people started using “Hen” as a gender-neutral pronoun (well, at least in his community). Thus, this idea of gender-neutrality is still rather new to a large number of Swedish people there as well. The household depicted above is one of the extreme cases where the parents are heavily invested, almost obsessed with the idea of completely erasing the idea of gender so that their children are not bound by it. The comments and like-to-dislike ratio on the video gave me a good idea of how the general public felt towards such parenting methods – majority were largely against it, pointing out how some of these efforts just being plain ridiculous and not leading to any benefits for these children in the long run (some criticised them for being vegan and eating “veggie bacon”, but that is besides the main point). 

  While educating our children from young is seen to be good, there is a general consensus that such initiatives can be done in a much more toned-down manner where we do not focus on erasing all concepts of gender at all and artificially blurring the disparity between men and women (and later claiming that the gap has now ‘disappeared’ somehow). Whether it be encouraging children to play with the other gender more frequently during playtime in kindergartens, or perhaps making cartoons which are frequently exposed to these children to be more inclusive so that it can be loved by everyone, or even having teachers help young children feel more comfortable and normal with the idea of playing with the other gender, these small changes can pave the way for other initiatives and efforts to come into play instead of resorting to such drastic measures which the family in the documentary was taking. Children should not be growing up labelling things, such as calling the colour pink a ‘girl colour’ and blue the opposite, and should definitely not be criticised if they ever choose to embrace their feminine and masculine side. Parents, who play the biggest role in educating their offspring should refrain from using words such as ‘girly’ or ‘boyish’ as it would implant a certain image of how girls and boys should be like, hence impacting the way their children might view things. 

  These measures are already taking place in some sectors of our lives. Take a look at the recent Disney princess movies – from Princess Tiana, to Merida and Elsa, these female characters all depict strong, independent and courageous women who are not afraid to make a change for themselves with their own two hands (although Mulan is the real OG!). And on some of the most prominent fashion runways, men are strutting down in style clad in skirts and dresses and other forms of clothing which were once labelled as ‘women’s clothing’, challenging the norms of gender and fashion which we are all so familiar with. Things are definitely, although the progress is slow and tedious, changing.   

Personal Response (from Yours Truly)

  When I initially read about these initiatives taking place in Sweden, it was such a refreshing experience as I delved deep into a country that was so active in promoting gender equality all throughout the country. The documentary which I had mentioned above I had watched more than three times, and soon I began to come up with my own set of questions and insights into the topic. 

  While the measures mentioned above are also effective, maybe the focus should not be about breaking the boundaries and challenging the fixed images of a perfect girl and boy in our society. In my personal opinion, an effective way of encouraging gender equality would be letting people embrace their gender along with all of their masculine and feminine traits. By making people feel more comfortable with showing off these sides of them, it would normalize their actions and people will learn how to react to them appropriately and not mention anything that might come off as insensitive and offensive. People will be more willing to try things as they are no longer under the pressure of being judged and criticised for acting differently from others. 

  To give an example: forcing a girl who enjoys putting on cosmetics to wipe her makeup off and throw out her dresses is definitely not empowering her in any way – instead, accepting her for her own identity and not making any assumptions based on her looks would be more effective in making her more comfortable in her skin and boosting her confidence. 

  Gender is just a part of who we are, and definitely is not a mold meant to confine us. And this should be an accepted idea instead of it being swept under the carpet with people forcefully trying to ignore it entirely. 

  As a teenage girl living in two different societies (well, both conservative but you understand), I am definitely not defined solely based on my gender. Not only am I some ‘girl’, but I am, in fact, also a daughter, a sister, a friend, a student, a soon-to-be adult who definitely have the potential to cause a change in the world. 

  My gender does not define me, or hold me down, but is simply a part of myself that I have learnt to appreciate and love. 

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