Women's Rights

Why is the #MeToo movement sending shockwaves through Sweden?


In Sweden, a country viewed as a beacon of gender equality and progressive politics, the 'Weinstein effect' has started a revolution.

It began with October's #MeToo campaign, a spontaneous global outpouring of women calling out their own experiences of sexual harassment and abuse after the predations of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein finally became known.

But in Sweden, it has snowballed into a social phenomenon that a prominent journalist from the newspaper Dagens Nyheter has described as the biggest Swedish women's movement since women secured the right to vote almost a hundred years ago.

The country has been rocked by a flood of stories of assault and harassment from women across the arts, law, media, sports and politics. Some have even named their perpetrators in social media posts - unusual in a country where it is considered journalistically unethical to publish the names of accused in criminal cases unless they are convicted.

Details of assault allegations have dominated the popular press for weeks. Several media personalities have been stood down from their jobs as evidence has emerged of their past assaults, including politicians, a high profile newspaper columnist and TV presenters.

The country's Queen Silvia and Crown Princess Victoria lent their support over the weekend, calling the movement inspired by #MeToo "an extremely important campaign”.

Scandal reaches Swedish Academy

Now, the scandal has extended to the country’s most prestigious institution, the Swedish Academy, which hands out the Nobel Prize for Literature.

An unnamed close associate and funding recipient of the Swedish Academy is being investigated after eighteen women publicly accused him of rape and abuse on Thursday. Some of the alleged incidents occurred in the presence of witnesses, which the women say is further evidence of the culture of silence that has surrounded the problem.

The man has denied all the accusations, but the Nobel Foundation CEO has warned the Nobel Prize itself could be tarnished by association, and the Academy has cut his funding and all ties to him. The Academy also said it was investigating whether the man had wielded any influence over the Academy's awarding of prizes and scholarships in the past. 

The stories

On the same day as the explosive revelation about the Swedish Academy associate emerged, hundreds of high school students came out with their stories of harassment under the hashtag #tystiklassen (silence in class).

The high school students' testimonies include allegations of rape at school, girls being urinated on at swimming lessons, and assaults by teachers.

The students' petition follows a litany of abuse claims and petitions in several industries signed by thousands of women.

Last week, close to 3,000 women in Sweden's music industry signed a statement condemning sexual assault and harassment against women, which was published in Dagens Nyheter.

The article detailed harrowing experiences of some of the women involved.

"I was 17 and was doing an internship at a record company. It started the first week, when the owner, a grown man, commented on my looks in front of everyone in the office, saying I was beautiful and sexy, and saying that he wanted to ask me out on a date. Then it continued time after time.... He pushed me down in a sofa, and made me get on all fours, then he pulled my trousers down and had anal intercourse with me (for how long I don't know, as I fainted). I woke up when his doorbell rang."

The petition said this and other stories it published were "an extract of hundreds of testimonies, all of them from what we call the music industry. They describe things that happen every day".

"This is a historic momentum, and our daughters will live in a different, much more equal and fair world." - Alexandra Pascalidou

More than 450 women from the film and theatre industry, including 2016 Oscar winner Alicia Vikander and Sofia Helin, star of Scandi-noir crime drama The Bridge, backed an open letter and campaign called #tystnadtagning, meaning "lights, camera, action", detailing claims of rampant sexual abuse in their industry and the culture of silence that permitted it to continue.

More than 600 women in the opera industry followed with their own campaign #ViSjungerUt, meaning "sing out", then at least 2,000 women in sport showed their support using the hashtag #timeout.

It didn't stop there. More than 6,000 women working in Sweden's justice system signed a petition in the Svenska Dagbladet daily called #MedVilkenRätt, meaning 'with what right?'.

At least 1,300 Swedish politicians and civic employees put their name to a parallel campaign, #IMaktensKorridorer (in the corridors of power), including Foreign Minister Margot Wallström who described her shock when she was “pawed” at an EU leaders' banquet by a man next to her.

This week, thousands of female journalists got behind #Deadline, lending support to journalists who revealed having been abused by male colleagues.

One wrote: "When a TV anchor colleague told me I was so hot that if he wasn't already sexually satisfied, he had gone straight to the bathroom to jerk off. When another TV anchor colleague sneaked up behind me and put his whole arm between my legs, grabbing my vagina. When a third TV anchor colleague established that I looked great with my hair up, and slutty with it down.

"When the media profile, known and loved by the whole nation, drove after me one night, yelling that I, 'the slut' and 'the whore', should get into his car - 'God damned it!' That he wasn’t going to take it, wasting time by talking to me at the bar without getting anything in return.”  

All the petitions detail assault and harassment claims, and demand and end to the culture of abuse and impunity.

Why Sweden?

Sweden's Gender Equality Minister Åsa Regnér told SBS News the country had seen other strong movements for gender equality. During the 1970s, Sweden implemented a suite of reforms that included the Parental Leave Act and childcare policies that help citizens combine parenthood with work and study.

But she describes the surge of #MeToo this year as "huge" and the "most impactful for this generation".

"The response is, I would say, very serious; employers, politicians, other people in charge, really take this seriously," she said.

Åsa Regnér
Åsa Regnér
Sweden Government

Ms Regnér said that is because Swedish society expects gender equality.

"We are very aware that gender equality is extremely important, women are aware of their rights and they’re fed up with the situation," she said.

In the latest annual Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum, Sweden remained in the top five best-performing countries.

But Ms Regnér said Sweden still grappled with issues including men taking less parental leave and violence against women.

"We have come to a certain level, we have a big awareness around gender equality, but the petitions and women coming forward show that there is still injustice. And women claim justice – that is what's happening now," she said.

'Our daughters will live in a more equal and fair world'

Swedish-Greek journalist and public figure Alexandra Pascalidou says her days are "contaminated" by anonymous men who threaten to rape her and call her sexist and racist names.

"Like, 'you Jewish, gypsy whore, migrant, slut'," she told SBS News.

But Pascalidou believes the #MeToo movement has spurred the rumbles of a reformation in Sweden and the harassment she and so many other women experience will become something of the past.

"#MeToo in Sweden is a revolution, a catharsis in all these institutions," Pascalidou said.

"This is a historic momentum and our daughters will live in a different, much more equal and fair world."

Alexandra Pascalidou (Photo: Pavlos Efthimiou)
Alexandra Pascalidou (Photo: Pavlos Efthimiou)

Pascalidou noted, however, the movement so far focused on women of privilege.

"What I miss, with [my] working-class background from the poorest suburb in Sweden, and a mother that was a cleaning lady, what I miss are the voices of the voiceless," she said.

"But they will hopefully come."

Where to now? 

The government has introduced a bill in parliament that focuses on preventing violence against women, Ms Regnér said. It will change legislation on sexual violence to focus on consent and it is setting up a national agency on gender equality to ensure the country is on track to meet its goals.

Despite these efforts, Ms Regnér said the public were still a powerful force.

"Men are still the majority among the managers, and that is just unjust and very traditional, and that has to be changed... that is more of a societal change that we all have to agree on," she said.

Nivette Dawod, a foreign correspondent at Sweden's largest daily Aftonbladet, told SBS News she had high hopes both women and men were working to make that happen.

"We're a society of active citizens," Ms Dawod said.

"People are tending to speak about this subject in their workplaces, at home around the kitchen table and I really like it. I really like that this is something that is concerning everybody and everyone is discussing it."

She said people were inspired not just by the uprising in Hollywood but also Sweden's history of women's movements, including the suffrage movement which saw women gain the right to vote in 1919 - 17 years after their counterparts in Australia.

Ms Dawod said the #Deadline journalists were also inspired by the work of women who collected the stories of sexism and abuse of female journalists at Aftonbladet in the 1970s.

"They collected several stories and they managed to make a great change for their female coworkers... I can see those changes that they started 40 years ago but I also [...] see how this [#Deadline] initiative is growing because we had that inspiration," she said.

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch