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‘Newcomers’ assess equality in Norway

As Norwegians celebrated International Women’s Day on Tuesday,  six immigrant women from Montana in the US to Italy and India have shared their thoughts about Norway’s ongoing equality debate. The women who’ve resettled in Norway mostly hailed the country’s progressiveness, with a few reservations.

International Women's Day once again attracted thousands of people who marched in parades and attended seminars advocating gender equality. Here from a demonstration in Oslo in 2013. PHOTO: Kvinnedagen
International Women’s Day once again attracted thousands of people who marched in parades and attended seminars advocating gender equality. Here from a demonstration in Oslo in 2013. PHOTO: Kvinnedagen

An estimated 3,000 people turned out once again in Oslo on March 8, called Kvinnedagen in Norway, to carry banners, march in a parade and rally for women’s rights. Similar events were held all over the country, as what started as the “women’s liberation” movement continues amidst ongoing debate over what’s been achieved and what remains to be won in the fight for equality.

“Stiff and rhetorical, and very politically correct in regards to feminist criteria” is how Elisabetta Cassina Wolff, a historian from Italy who works at the University of Oslo, described the equality debate in Norway. She was among a half-dozen immigrant women interviewed by newspaper Aftenposten in connection with the March 8 events.

Wolff, married with three children, stated that she’s proud of her “mamma role” and has felt offended at times over Norwegian policies aimed at encouraging both mothers and fathers to have full-time jobs. She and several of the other women interviewed urged more tolerance in Norway for those don’t want to send their children to day care centers from the age of one, for example, so that both parents can pursue careers.

“I just read that yet another fresh research report is coming with new proposals for how we should get even more mothers into the job market,” Wolff told Aftenposten. She thinks there’s almost an obsession in Norway about “total equality” between men and women. “And I see that equality policies based on an equality that in reality doesn’t exist have their limitations,” said Wolff, who was born in Torino and has lived in Norway since 1993.

Feel equal, and respected
All the immigrant women interviewed agreed that Norway is an egalitarian society, at least much moreso than most other countries in the world. They were all aware that men in Norway still earn more on average than women, and that men still hold most of the top executive jobs in Norway’s private sector, but all said they felt equal in Norway, and that women generally are accorded far more respect in Norway than in their home countries.

In addition come all the social welfare benefits like lengthy maternity and paternity leave, heavily subsidized day care, cash payments from the government when children are born and monthly benefits paid until age 16, and the right to up to 20 days of paid time off to care for sick children. All of it is meant to make it easier for parents to combine family life with their jobs, and in addition come programs aimed at getting even more women into the workforce and at higher management and board levels. All four of the country’s most powerful positions are currently held by women with Erna Solberg as prime minister, Siv Jensen as finance minister, Gerd Kristiansen as head of Norway’s largest trade union confederation and Kristin Skogen Lund as head of national employers’ organization NHO.

“I experienced an enormous sense of liberation when I entered the Norwegian workplace,” Lorelou Desjardins, a lawyer from France who works for Regnskogfondet (the rain forest fund), told Aftenposten. “My (male) Norwegian colleagues fetch their children at the day care center, take days off when their children are sick and don’t make sexist jokes or commentaries.” She’s originally from Marseilles, and claimed that young woman with high educations are “unfortunately” seen in France “as more of a potential sex object than a competent employee or professional.” She’s lived in Norway since 2010 and also writes about her experiences on her blog, (external link).

Women in Norway have come a long way from the early days of equality rallies. PHOTO: Wikipedia
Women in Norway have come a long way from the early days of equality rallies. Many feel there’s still a long way to go. PHOTO: Wikipedia

Svetlana Fjæren, who arrived in Norway from Russia in 1995 and works as an interpreter, claimed, however, that women in Norway “still need to tone themselves down.” When she described herself as “ambitious” on her resumé, she was advised to write that she was “cooperative” instead. Being “ambitious” can be attached in a negative sense to men in Norway, too, but Fjæren maintains that men are still the ones inclined to go after and get the best jobs with the highest pay. “I think the equality debate in Norway is still characterized by women who want (good jobs) and talk about it, but don’t always dare,” she said.

Meghen Jean Gustavsen from Great Falls, Montana in the US seemed delighted, meanwhile, to be able to stay home from her work with a local school to be able to care for her six-month-old child, thanks to Norway’s roughly full year of paid parental leave that’s divided between the mother and father. American women, Gustavsen said, still mostly need to choose between career or family, “they hardly get any leave” and few employers are willing to accommodate family life. “I’m enormously grateful that I can be with Luca (her child) during this time,” she told Aftenposten, adding that she could hardly talk about it without getting emotional. And she thinks Norwegian men “take responsibility for their children in an entirely different manner than where I come from.” She said her husband has equally shared responsibility for Luca.

“To see so many fathers at baby swimming classes and out strolling with the baby carriage is indescribably beautiful,” Gustavsen said.

Urging acceptance of other choices
Gustavsen, however, wishes there was more acceptance in Norway of other child-care cultures, though. “I’ve often heard what’s right for my child, seen through Norwegian eyes,” she told Aftenposten. “All the children here are supposed to wear wool, sleep outside and start early in day care.” She said she’d like to wait with putting her child into day care, perhaps until age two. If parents make such different choices, “it doesn’t automatically mean they’re a bad parent.” Her comments were similar to those made by Wolff, who added that she’d like to be part of a discussion over children’s rights and needs in an egalitarian society.

Malhotra Parminderjit, who came to Norway as a teenager from Northern India 28 years ago, said that like most of the others, she didn’t march in any Kvinnedagen parades on Tuesday. She’s grateful for the opportunities she and other women have in Norway, but like Wolff, Desjardins and Gustavsen, she wasn’t out actively celebrating. Debate continued on the radio and social media all day on Tuesday over whether “Women’s Day” was even necessary. Most believed it still is, amidst new slogans urging more assistance for refugee women, equal pay, more funding for day care and even six-hour workdays for parents of small children.

That was supported by Raifeh Albahleh, a 45-year-old woman from Syria who works as a volunteer coordinator for Norsk Folkehjelp (Norwegian People’s Aid). She’s lived in Norway for 23 years and came from Syria long before the civil war and at a time when “it wasn’t usual” for women to take higher education. “Many were forced to marry and many were repressed,” she told Aftenposten. Now she’s keen to help refugee women and especially Syrian women. “I’m most concerned that immigrant women are enlightened about their rights and that they are part of fighting for them,” she told Aftenposten, adding that she has enjoyed marching in March 8th parades and still is.

No signs of reversal
Organizers of Tuesday’s events were pleased by the turnout, with many marching under the banner “Feminism knows no borders.” Aftenposten reported, meanwhile, that women’s average income in Norway is just 67 percent of men’s, even though women have higher education on average than men. While only 14 percent of men work in part-time positions, 35 percent of women do. Men continue to dominate in top management, but fully 68 percent of all men in Norway now take out their full parental leave quotas or more.

Statistics show that equality policies have continued to move forward during the past two years with Norway’s conservative coalition government in power, despite warnings from left-center politicians that they’d go into reverse. “They were wrong,” Solveig Horne, government minister in charge of children and equality issues, told Aftenposten this week. “In most areas, the development has been stable or move forward.” It was also during a Conservative government just over 10 years ago that Norway pushed through a law requiring all boards of directors to be comprised of at least 40 percent women. Today the actual numbers are often higher. Berglund



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