Feminist Initiative: A Conversation with Linda Hiltmann

Sweden, which has stood apart from the rest of Europe with its “progressive” economic and political position (it has managed to withstand the recession despite keeping its welfare policy intact, is the only country in the region that has formally opened doors for immigrants, has better representation of women in politics compared to other European countries…) finds itself in a crisis as it prepares for a re-election just three months after the country went to national polls. The crisis was triggered as the opposition right wing Swedish Democrats voted against the budget that would retain the country’s liberal immigration policy, among other welfare measures. Last time Sweden saw such a situation was in 1950, and as none of the opposition party seem to be in the mood to negotiate, an election in March 2015 seems inevitable.

However, this crisis opens up an opportunity to the country’s smaller parties to try their luck in getting into the parliament. One of them would be the Feminist Initiative (F!), Sweden’s first feminist political party, which has slowly increased its vote share in the national elections since it was launched in 2005. Linda Hiltmann, from F!, who was elected to south Sweden’s Malmo City Council this year, talked to Divya Rajagopal and Najma Kousri Labidi about the party’s strategy for the coming election, its approach to immigration policy, and the need for a feminist politics. Below is an excerpt from the interview. Part of this interview with Linda was conducted over email (about the recent election development), and the other part was conducted when both the reporters were in Lund University, Sweden for an academic course in Social Innovation in a Digital Context.

Linda Hiltmann, of F!

Linda Hiltmann, of F!

The budget fell through because of immigration “reforms” – do you agree with the PM’s decision to go for re-election over this issue?

Well that is not correct, the budget fell through as the liberal and right wing parties were not willing to make agreements with the government. When the parties form in two “blocks”, the Swedish Democrats (SD) get the tipping vote role – this could have been avoided if the liberal parties had been more willing to cooperate with the government in separate issues. This would also create a much more democratic climate. Also, SD said that they would overthrow any budget that did not take their demands on immigration. So yes, I think Prime Minister Stefan Lofven and [his] government made the right choice: Let’s call for [a] new election and ask the citizens which politics (budget- the one which calls for liberal immigration policy or the one which calls for restriction on immigrants) they would like to vote for.

What is F!’s position on immigration?

F! is the only party that understands and promotes the importance of open national boundaries (or no boundaries). We talk about the free movement of people. (Sweden this year announced “permanent” residency to all refugees from Syria.) None of the other parties promotes this, as they are stuck in the economic frame and ask “what would the cost be? Is this really possible[?]“. We don’t think that policies about people’s right to protection should be calculated in economic terms. Every human being has an equal right (same rights as the Swedish nationals have, which is right to work, to health, right to education) and equal value, so we should/will frame our policy proposals on those principles. If we don’t stand up for and implement fair policies that meet at least the basic human rights, we are directly responsible for the people who are dying on the way to Europe.

Now coming to F!, what was the need to start a political party with a feminist perspective, considering that Sweden has a terrific record (at least in popular opinion) when it comes to gender equality?

To gain access to power. If you are lobbying you are always connected to something or someone else. So Gudrun Schyman, Founder and leader of F! was one of the strongest advocates for a feminist politics and for clear gender-based analysis of issues. She realised that she couldn’t leave the leading (feminist) position, and along with activists and academia, she started this party.

And it seems to have worked, your shot at power, I mean. Your numbers have certainly gone up. How did you do that?

So this election our strategy was to reach out to groups standing close to us and when we gain them we move forward. We do not try to convince our complete opponents, but those who [are] sort of interested in our politics, so when they get it, they become our ambassadors. So a lot of young people are interested in working with a feminist perspective, which is a good sign.

Could you tell us about the wage gap between men and women in Sweden?

For 2013 the total difference in pay between women and men was 13.4% (men earned 13.4% more than women). But the figure is not absolute and correct for all sectors, and when we take into account differences in working time, we lose sight of the fact that women work part-time much more than men. In 2013, 30% of women worked part-time (men 11%). Women also stay home with children to a higher degree (women 75% and men 25%), which of course affects the development of career possibilities and level of pay.

In the last election how did you reach out to voters, considering you had limited financial resources for campaigning?

We organised something called the “Home Parties”. So we have been in existence for 10 years and we haven’t had any resources. People were asking Gudrun if she could arrange a talk about feminism to just raise awareness. So Gudrun was like “all we have is ourselves”. (It was only last year we got an office in Malmo, we have been sitting at homes and working on this. This is one of the challenges for the party,which has been expressed in the way it is, and expressed in a clear way that they are so short of resources that they didn’t even have a space to work!) So she went to people’s homes where, like, about 20 people would gather to know [understand] about our perspective. At first Gudrun’s visits to people’s homes were for a couple of days in a week, then it became twice, thrice a day in a week, she was giving talks in the evening, two times in the evening, so it was all across [the campaign]. Those home parties gave her access to a lot of people.

How will F! go into this election? Will your strategy be different than the previous ones? Any learning from the past election that you would reflect on?

We will have the same strategy for campaigning, where we will reach out through social media, home parties, etc. We have not decided on any other general strategies – the re-election has taken us by surprise. What I do know is that many of the candidates [for] national parliament also went for the city councils, and a lot of us (myself included) will not campaign for the national election.

We did a great campaign last summer, and set much of the political agenda. The new government called itself “feminist”, on basic grounds of representation, and they chose a foreign minster who declared the importance of feminist policy. Of course there are several things that we learn from and change, but in general I would say that the strategies we had are still valid, to meet people in informal settings to discuss feminism and politics. What we always need to do, and which is the hardest, is to speak of feminism and power in a way so people understand the interconnectedness of power structures and how they affect everyday life.

To sum it up, do you think that feminist movements across the world should consider being part of electoral politics?

It is really important to move into the sphere of politics to change it. We should reflect on the experience that we have with these political institutions. So they look different everywhere, and you have to decide if you want to enter electoral politics, or stay outside and lobby for change. So as a party/movement ask yourself whether you believe that you can change from inside? Is this good for me? Could I cope with it? And can we build an organisation that can cope with it?

How has the political situation changed since you entered electoral politics? How influential have you been in policy change?

Well in political context, [the] last eight years has become hard for us. The liberal parties have gained power and they have created sort of Americanised block politics, though that situation has gone now, but that has also made people weary of letting go of their votes to newer parties. Also parties are seeing that feminist issues are gaining interest. In our case we have seen the young people are eager to work for [the] feminist perspective. And this makes the other parties weary, especially the left and Social Democrats. In their mind, they think we are competition and that’s why in local politics, like in Malmo, the left parties are super sensitive to our questions and they pick them up as soon as we raise [them]. So in that sense, yes, we are influencing [policy].

Most of your votes have come from the urban areas. Do you get accused of being elitist or too urban centric? And have you explored expanding your votes to the non urban parts of Sweden?

What we try to do is keep the activists’ part of the party alive. We are aware of the elitist views of the party and the discussion around it, and this is one of our challenges – how can we reach out with feminism and understand it. So our party is an umbrella organization with fluid ways of feminism. For example, we have debated how we look at [the] transgender perspective; we have to change our way of analysis to widen it. [We] also tried to address the structural racism that is within ‘Feminist Initiative’ as well, so we believe that we should at least be aware of it. So both be self-critical and norm-critical and not be afraid of being wrong and [changing] our mind. At the same time we have to be a gentle organisation, that we take care of each other and not judge each other. And this is one of the anti-elitist approaches we have, besides keeping close contact with the activist community. So one of the debates that we are having is how to keep our soul as an activist organisation and also be in politics.

How different is your politics from the left-leaning parties like Social Democrats?

We have some similarities with the left party, but our outlook is different. They are driven by the class analysis, the economic analysis, and gender discrimination is ad hoc to this. But we have moved the gender analysis and power analysis into sectional field, which deepens how power structures our everyday life. We are for open borders, but for left parties it doesn’t make sense, they are still protectionist.

*Divya Rajagopal is a Special Correspondent with Economic Times newspaper based in Mumbai, India. Najma Kousri Labidi is a reporter with Huffington Post, Tunisia.

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/newsoresund/14357204260

An excerpt of this interview was previously published at The Economic Times: http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2014-12-08/news/56839772_1_immigration-policy-opposition-parties-vote-share

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