They come armed with pink balloons and threaten to break the gender-power order.
They rail against patriarchy and racism, while pushing a platform that includes open immigration, a six-hour work day, and scrapping national defence.
Their rivals dismiss them as radical left-wingers with unrealistic goals and no economic platform. Yet their frontwoman, Gudrun Schyman, is a candid, charismatic political veteran whom one columnist calls “totally unbeatable”.
Meet the Feminist Initiative, the party that has managed to push gender equality to the top of the political agenda, ahead of Sweden’s general elections.
Using the stylised acronym “F!”, the Feminist Initiative rode the slogan “Racists out, Feminists in” to a hard-won seat in the European Parliament in May. The party now hopes to crash the Riksdag, Sweden’s parliament, and be a feminist thorn in the side of any governing coalition formed after the polls.
Election season for the September 14 general elections has just begun. But, if the run-up is anything to go by, F!’s campaign promises to be as fierce and as exclamatory as its acronym.
Over three recent days, Schyman, the famous face of the the F! brand, conducted a frenetic tour of Sweden’s three big cities – Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmo – to mobilise support and spread the party’s message.
“For other parties, equality is a supplement. For us, it’s the foundation. The Green party brought in sustainability as a new dimension in Swedish politics. Now, it’s time for the dimensions of equality and non-discrimination,” Schyman told Al Jazeera.
Schyman, 66, is one of Sweden’s most iconic politicians. She led the Left Party for ten years and fanned outrage by comparing Sweden’s social structures to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in a 2002 speech. Prior to becoming an MP, she worked as a social worker and often draws examples from her own life into political debates.
Sweden is an egalitarian country on paper, but not in reality. We have a society built by men, for men.
During her first round as spokeswoman for F!, she pulled off Sweden’s possibly greatest-ever political PR stunt, burning nearly 100,000 kronor ($15,000) on a barbecue to highlight the income gap between men and women.
Much of the credit for F!’s recent success goes to Schyman,” said Heidi Avellan, a political columnist.
“She’s totally unbeatable as a politician. She can say the same things over and again but make them sound fresh every time.”
This time it appears Schyman is all in on F! and she is clear about its goal. Stating that feminists have traditionally organised themselves in lobby groups to affect those in power, she said: “We don’t want that. We want to enter the rooms of power and take power ourselves.”
But F! and its estimated 18,000 members are still a long way from “taking” anything.
In a July survey by Aftonbladet/United Minds, four percent of respondents said they would vote for F! in Sweden’s general elections – exactly the threshold needed to win seats. However, an August poll by SvD/SIFO gave the party only 2.6 percent.
First world issues?
Running on an anti-discrimination, ultra-feminist platform in Scandinavia may seem to outsiders like bringing sand to the beach. But Swedish feminists are quick to point to areas where inequalities persist.
2005 – The party is founded. Instead of a party leader, three women, including Schyman, are elected as spokespersons
2006 – Actress Jane Fonda and playwright Eve Ensler back the party’s campaign. F! wins 0.68% in parliamentary polls
2009 – F! gets 2.2% in the European Parliament vote
2010 – The party wins 0.4% in parliamentary polls
2011 – The first spokesman is elected alongside two women
2013 – Schyman returns as party spokeswoman after quitting in 2011
2014 – F! wins 5.5% in European Parliament polls, winning a seat for the first time
Many are also worried about the rise of the far-right after the Sweden Democrats entered parliament in 2010 and won 9.7 percent of votes in the European Parliament polls. Profiling themselves as a counterweight to the far right has helped F! shore up support.
Nils Holmstrom, a 53-year-old administrator who marched in F!’s May Day demonstration, is among the 17 percent of F! members who are male. In fact, 15 percent of the party’s candidates for parliament are men.
Holmstrom supports the party because of inequality he feels between genders, and a detriment of rights for LGBT people and immigrants.
“Sweden is an egalitarian country on paper, but not in reality,” he said. “We have a society built by men, for men.”
To its credit, Sweden has a strong track record of gender equality. Thirteen of 24 government ministers and 45 percent of MPs are women. National law prohibits gender-based discrimination, and equality is part of the curriculum from nursery school. Sweden also has one of the highest employment rates in the world for women, hovering at 77 percent.
Still, women earn an average of 15 percent less than men, and in publicly traded companies, just over 20 percent of board members are female. Recent data from the government agency Statistics Sweden show that at the country’s current economic pace, equal salaries will not be achieved until 2138.
The matter of who stays at home to take care of children is another issue at the core of the equality debate. In 1974, Sweden became the first country to replace maternity leave with parental leave, and it now boasts one of the most generous parental allowances in the world.
Still, on average, women use 76 percent of the 480 paid leave days granted per newborn child. Several measures, including a financial “equality bonus”, have been implemented to break the pattern, which analysts say often harm women’s careers. F! is pushing for an even share of the leave to be stipulated by law.
“If I have children, I’m expected to use most of the parental leave, and be satisfied with a lower salary because it’s ‘worth it’ to stay at home with the kids. This must change,” said Freija Eriksson, a 21-year-old F! activist who is set to study to become a priest.
For her and many other young feminists, hard statistics are not the only indicators of equality. Concrete gender roles, unrealistic beauty ideals, and social norms are also pressing issues – as well as what they perceive as lax rape legislation.
While acknowledging that Sweden has not reached full equality, not everyone thinks F!’s approach to feminism is the answer.
Helene Bergman is a 68-year-old Swedish journalist who has been advocating for women’s rights since the 1970s, when the fight was for a woman’s right to work and access to public child care.
“I’ve lived in Turkey, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh; I’ve seen how far Sweden has come. You can always fight for more, but this should not be done through gender racism,” said Bergman.
She feels the rhetoric of F! and other radical feminists has become raw and aggressive, citing a song from an F! party congress about “tearing men to pieces”.
“They have ridiculed feminism… Instead of unifying women, there are now different factions. The women’s liberation movement in the 70s and 80s was unified, not party-political, and this is why we accomplished so much.”
|Gudrun Schyman has been a guest to at least 250 “home parties” to reach voters [Cajsa Wikstrom/Al Jazeera]|
F!’s greatest achievement, so far, has been to redirect Sweden’s political dialogue ahead of next month’s vote. It is no exaggeration that hardly any political speech since spring has been made without the mention of gender equality.
Parties already in parliament have jumped on the feminist bandwagon, making competing pledges to improve Sweden’s record.
Liberal Party leader Jan Bjorklund poses on posters that pronounce “Feminism without socialism”. His party is promising to increase financial incentives for a more equal share of parental leave.
The Social Democrats have proposed a ban on sexualised advertising, while the Greens are pushing for free contraceptives for women under 26. The Moderate party presented a five-point economic programme for greater equality.
As Avellan, the columnist, pointed out, F! may be harnessing the right social current at the right time.
“Feminism seems to come and go in the political debate in ten-year cycles, but there’s always a catalyst needed and this year it’s been F!. More and more people are getting frustrated that equality advances slowly,” she said.
Despite altering the conversation and Schyman’s talk of storming into power, F! still has a crucial month ahead to convince undecided voters and stave off criticism coming all the way from the top. Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, in an interview in May, said the party lacks an economic policy. “They’re suggesting enormous increases in expenditure without any idea of financing.”
Still, if F! has one fundamental characteristic to fall back on, it might be its resilience. It survived bitter infighting in its early years and has been ridiculed for controversial proposals such as cohabitation legislation that would allow polygamy.
Also, because the party won less than 1 percent in 2010 elections, authorities will not distribute its ballot papers. To counter the ballot issue, F! is mobilising volunteers to hand out ballots at Sweden’s 6,000 polling stations and canvassing to write in the party’s name.
To recruit members, the party has held “home parties” in which volunteers gather potential supporters to listen to Schyman. The tireless politician has guested 250 such meetings since last summer to bolster support and arm the grassroots with arguments.
The established parties have talked about women's representation in boardrooms for years, but not much has happened.
The momentum is there: Soraya Post, a Roma, was sent to the European Parliament after F! won 5.5 percent of votes in the May election. Schyman says the recent surge is due to an increased awareness of F!’s hallmark issue.
“We don’t have a situation where women and men have the same power to shape society and their own lives. This is the definition of equality, as stated by the Swedish parliament,” she said.
Others, such as Avellan, are sceptical.
“The European Parliament election is very special and F! did well for two reasons: low voter turnout and protest voting against the establishment. Many use the vote to push for a specific issue,” she told Al Jazeera.
“We’ve seen this with other parties before, a kind of ‘mayfly effect’, with parties that may triumph in one election,” she said, referring to the one-day life cycle of mayflies.
Avellan believes it will be difficult for F! to match these results in the general elections, which are marked by high voter turnout, stronger party loyalty, and a much weaker trend of protest voting.
Jonas Hinnfors, a political science professor at Gothenburg University, said the urgency of the F! approach appeals to potential supporters who feel that social progress has stagnated.
“For example, the established parties have talked about women’s representation in boardrooms for years, but not much has happened.”
Now, Hinnfors said, impatient voters want to see results.
“Everyone agrees that we should have equality, but vision without concrete action is problematic. Then voters can be attracted by someone who takes a hard stance.
“Where other parties say ‘This is very important,’ F! demands action now.”