It is well-known that the work-care balance for women and men varies between societies. Daly and Rake (2003) have described Sweden as a country with a ‘big state’ and a ‘small family’, which means that the state takes on an extensive role in providing care, while both women and men are expected to enter the labour market. This ideal of the dual-earner family has been at the centre of Swedish gender equality and family policies since the 1970s. Indeed, Sweden is ranked top in the European Gender Equality Index (European Institute for Gender Equality 2020), a performance reflecting this long-term settlement. In view of this, it is unsurprising that female labour market participation is at the core of Swedish integration politics, including refugee reception policies.

The work-care balance is not only central to welfare state modelling, but also to who we are, our (gendered) roles in society and in the family. This has a number of implications, and in this blog we critically reflect on some unintended and negative consequences in the refugee reception.

The development of the Swedish welfare state has been endorsed by feminist scholars as ‘women friendly’. However, as Sager and Mulinari have highlighted, neoliberal restructurings from the 1990s and onwards, contextualise Swedish state-feminism rather differently. In spite of often being described as universal, in reality the Swedish welfare state privileges women and men in paid work. Persons with no or low taxed income, have limited access to public social insurances, and when in need of support, these persons will typically depend on small and/or means-tested benefits. In this dynamic, Swedish state-feminism has become part of the neoliberal (workfare) agenda, not least in relation to groups of women with a relatively weak standing in the labour market. Instead of a tool for social justice, it has sometimes functioned as a means to disadvantage persons in dependent positions. Adding on to this: while Sweden has been recognised for its integration policy based on multicultural values, today this is in decline and these values are both becoming weaker and less popular. While this development is not new, in Sweden as in many other countries, it has been compounded by the 2015 Cologne incident in Germany. In the aftermath of this, the framing of immigrant men, principally Muslim men, as a threat to women and gender equality took on new qualities; ‘feminism’ was picked up and used to reinforce anti-immigration and racist sentiments (see Sager and Mulinari for an analysis). While what happened in Cologne was criminal and should be condemned, it had consequence beyond the criminal acts and was used to make feminism a tool to outgroup certain men.

This rather complex development has been described in terms of ‘femonationalism’ – a term that was introduced by Sara Farris to describe how feminist values have been appropriated by nationalist and racist agendas (see e.g. Mouritsen and his colleagues for a broader discussion on such appropriation processes), and how the neoliberal economic system constitutes a fertile ground for this. While femonationalism as a concept makes a lot of sense in academic research, it is more questionable how relevant it is for practice. How and in whose interest should decision makers and caseworkers act to support feminist and gender equality agendas related to refugee reception?

The question has no easy answer. Migrants, including refugees, may live their life in connection with family and significant others in places with varying ideals and expectations. For instance, in a study of family migration within the European Union, Ackers (1998; 2004) has shown that many European women did not perceive or experience the expected mother-role in Sweden as particularly ‘women friendly’, sometimes the opposite. Similarly, in a study of Swedish women after return migration to Sweden, Lundström has shown how many of these Swedish women had problems in re-adapting to Swedish norms and getting re-established on the labour market. Hence, the costs of adjusting to the Swedish government’s feminist aspirations is confirmed by both foreign and native migrant families in Sweden. In fact, and as Waldermarsson has shown in a historical analysis, the established majority population was far from entirely positive as the model was formulated towards the end of the 1960s. Rather, no matter how righteous state feminism is, it is also controversial.

Parental leave was always an important political instrument to impact on families’ work-care balance. When, in 2011, the Swedish Government appointed a governmental enquiry (the so-called AKKA enquiry) to propose tools to increase labour market participation among newly arrived women, it was in a way ‘natural’ that it had a strong focus on the take out of parental leave among newly arrived women and tools to impact on this. The question at the bottom line was, as is well indicated in the title of one report published: Benefit or trap – newly arrived’s use of parental leave. Obviously, the title hints that what is a benefit for some, might be a trap for some others – and here, it is assumed, a little bit of ‘help’ can be useful to adjust the work-care balance. How this ‘help’ is formulated and implemented is critical. This is the precise point where two opposite political ideologies can, if we are not careful, meet in an unholy alliance; and where refugee reception and integration policy can slip into femonationalism.

While labour market participation among both women and men is central to the Swedish welfare model, labour market participation among women from non-OECD countries is comparatively low. In Sweden this is problematised in political debates, including refugee reception. The civic turn in immigration and immigrant integration policies – that is, the increasing demands on competence in language, history and political values of the host country –  is gaining terrain, including in Sweden. One aspect here is competence in human rights and gender equality as is prescribed in civic courses for newly arrived. A central question at stake is how Swedish state feminism can become a springboard for social justice and anti-oppression for all women, and circumvent becoming a means to discipline and outgroup some.

Building on insights from the GLIMER research project, (see Righard et al. 2020), we want to highlight the following three points:

  • Address gender equality from a global perspective. From the migrant perspective, including refugees, gender dynamics are discernible and experienced in both the pre- and postmigration context. This can involve varying experiences of both women’s oppression and feminist resistance. Many migrants maintain strong relations and responsibilities with family in pre- and transit migration contexts, hence women’s oppression and resistance towards this, is not an issue limited to ‘here’, but involves both ‘here’ and ‘there’, in all its complexities. An education on gender equality will only have relevance if it responds to the reality of its participants. Hence, it is advisable that the civic course responds to gender in-/equality in this global perspective, otherwise there is a risk that the course content turns abstract and irrelevant and will have no impact.
  • Find ways to benefit from existing know-hows. Even though gender equality is high up on the agenda in Sweden, in our interviews caseworkers usually found it challenging to describe how they work with it. While awareness of gender equality as a political goal was present, and all collected statistics could be split on women and men, there were seldom clear strategies for how to work against gender inequality in casework and other activities. Nevertheless, while most caseworkers would not use the vocabulary of femonationslism, some are definitely sensitive to the multifaceted power relations at play, and have strategies for how to avoid feminism becoming a repressive tool in their activities. While this know-how seems to be tied to certain caseworkers, we want to encourage discussions on how organisations could benefit and strengthen this know-how; how skills of certain collaborators can be lifted and contribute to organisational learning.
  • Educational material is needed for both course leaders and participants. This third bullet point draws on the two previous ones, and sets its focus on implementation. From our interviews, we know that for many caseworkers, the political goal of gender equality can become very abstract in their daily activities. This means that relevant educational material about gender in-/equality from a global perspective and how to work with gendered power relations in the refugee reception is needed for both course leaders and participants.

Reference literature:

Ackers, Louise (1998) Shifting Spaces. Women, Citizenship and Migration within the European Union. Bristol: Policy Press.

Ackers, Louise (2004) Citizenship, migration and the valuation of care in the European Union. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 30(2), 373–396.

Daly, Mary & Katherine Rake (2003) Gender and the Welfare State. Care, Work and Welfare in Europe and the USA. Cambridge: Policy Press.

Duvander, Ann-Zofie & Eleonora Mussino (2016) Föräldraledig nu eller senare? Invandrade kvinnors användning av föräldrapenningen [Parental leave now or later? Immigrated women’s use of the parental leave insurance]. Socialvetenskaplig tidskrift, 23(3–4), 259–282.

Farris, Sara R. (2017) In the Name of Women’s Rights. The Rise of Femonationlism. Durham: Duke University Press.

European Institute for Gender Equality (2020) Gender Equality Index 2020. Digitalisation and the future of work. Brussels: EIGE.

Lundström, Catrin (2018) Hemmafru hemma. Återvändande migrantkvinnors möte med svenska jämställdhetsnormer i politik och praktik [Houswife at home. Returning migrant women’s encounter with Swedish gender equality norms in policy and practice]. Sociologisk forskning, 55(2–3), 389–414.

Mouritsen, Per, Daniel Faas, Nasar Meer & Nynke de Witte (2019) Leitkultur debates as civic integration in North-Western Europe. The nationalism of ‘values’ and ‘good citizenship’. Ethnicities, 19 (4), 632–653.

Righard, Erica, Tina Gudrun Jensen & Henrik Emilsson (2020) Gender Dynamics across Reception and Integration in Sweden. Available on GLIMER website.

Sager, Maja & Diana Mulinari (2018) Safety for whom? Exploring femonationalism and care-racism in Sweden. Women’s Studies International Forum, 68, 149–156.

SOU 2012:9 Förmån och fälla – nyanländas uttag av föräldrapenningen [Benefit or trap – newly arrived’s use of parental leave]. Delbetänkande av Utredningen om ökat arbetskraftsdeltagande bland nyanlända utrikes födda kvinnor och anhöriginvandrare (AKKA-utredningen) [Partial report from the Governmental inquiry about increased labour market pariticipation among newly arrived foreign born women and family immigrants].

SOU 2012:69 Med rätt att delta. Nyanlända kvinnor och anhöriginvandrare på arbetsmarknaden [Right to participate. Newly arrived women and family immigrants on the labour market]. Slutbetänkande av Utredningen om ökat arbetskraftsdeltagande bland nyanlända utrikes födda kvinnor och anhöriginvandrare (AKKA-utredningen) [Final report from the Governmental inquiry about increased labour market pariticipation among newly arrived foreign born women and family immigrants].

Waldermarson, Ylva (2000) Kvinnor och klass – en paradoxal skapelseberättlese. LOs Kvinnoråd och makten att benämna 1898–1967 [Women and Class – A Paradoxical Creation History. The Swedish Confederation of Trade Unions Women’s Council and the Power to Designate 1898–1967]. Academic dissertation. Stockholm: Stockholm University.