Embraced by a soft breeze under the afternoon sun, I step off the train in a small town just outside of Copenhagen. I’m here to see Muneeza Rosendahl, the spokesperson for Feministisk Initiativ (Feminist Initiative)—also known as F!—to learn more about Denmark’s first-ever feminist political party.
Formed last summer in response to the racist politics gaining traction in Denmark, F! seeks to promote intersectional feminism by breaking down the structural barriers that suppress equal rights for all people—regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, class, nationality or religion.
Denmark has a multi-party system with nine parties represented in the Folketing (Danish Parliament), seven of which have seats in European Parliament. Since 1901, no party has won an outright majority, and governments have since operated as coalitions between multiple parties or one-party minority governments. Typically, the government consists of a small number of supporting parties.
Denmark is not the kind of place where you’d expect feminism to be a dirty word, and yet this otherwise progressive nation has failed to acknowledge the lack of equality between genders and minorities. Despite ranking 14th on the Global Gender Pay Gap Report, the nation falls far behind its Scandinavian neighbors, with Sweden ranking fifth and Norway second out of the nearly 150 countries analyzed.
“On paper, we have equal access to health care and a free education system, [but] we still have a lot of barriers. Only 30 percent of women are represented in the municipal courts, and in 98 municipalities, we’ve only got 14 female representatives,“ explains Rosendahl. “Danes don’t want to acknowledge that we have a problem with equality, especially gender equality.” And that’s what F! considers its biggest obstacle as a feminist movement: how can an issue be properly addressed if it’s not seen as a problem?
“We’ve got politicians saying that in the ‘ethnically Danish’ population, there are no gender equality issues; they only exist in the ethnic minority populations, which we don’t think is the case. For example, the way sexuality is viewed amongst genders. Girls are still meant to be virginal and are judged if they sleep around, while boys can sleep with as many people as they like and it’s okay – that’s very clear evidence that the genders are not equal. It may seem like a minor issue, but it prevents girls from becoming sexual beings because of the judgment they experience.”
Rosendahl blames the sex education system (or lack thereof), in part, for maintaining these gender roles, recalling her own experience at school. “I remember a person came from Sex and Society [a Danish NGO focusing on sexual health and wellbeing], and asked how many of us masturbate. None of the girls put their hands up. All the boys did. Girls are still ashamed of their sexuality.”
Fortunately, this is beginning to change. Kindergarten teachers-in-training are required to complete a module on gender, body, and diversity as part of their degree to educate children about the gender spectrum and challenge existing gender roles. This kind of structural change is what F! focuses on when creating legislation, aiming for the greatest impact that “can start to change conceptions in Danish society.”
Addressing all minorities and the barriers they impose helps F! build a holistic perspective around their legislative proposals, and maintain the intersectional platform on which the party was founded. “We use a political prism—gender, class, minority—when we develop legislation to make sure we are aware of all three parameters and assess whether a proposed law is biased toward any of the three.”
That’s why equal parental leave is one of the key initiatives F! would like to see materialize, believing their proposal has the power to change a divided workforce and improve the gender pay gap.
“This legislative proposal can change so much,” says Rosendahl. “The child will have a better relationship with both parents. Studies show that equally dividing work between parents leads to a more harmonious life and prevents divorce. What’s more, a report from earlier this year found that men and women in relationships without children are on the same payroll, yet as soon as the woman has children, her career stagnates and men keep climbing the ranks.”
The proposal also aims to prevent companies from judging employee value based on gender, at least in the context of parental leave. Dividing the responsibility will change how women are treated on the job market. “Women will no longer be held back for wanting children, nor will the assumption that they want children be an obstacle to their career progression if parents are expected to take equal leave,” says Rosendahl.
Though the social climate is changing, feminism remains a loaded term with many definitions, and is often lost in political discussions around class and financial equality on a national level.
“We’re the only party who talk about feminism. Alternativet [center-left green party] talk about gender equality, but the word feminism isn’t mentioned anywhere,” says Rosendahl, who attributes this to the misunderstandings surrounding the term. Many Danes see feminism as a means of washing away differences between genders, when, in fact, it’s the exact opposite. In F!’s definition, feminism is about letting everyone be who they are, no matter their gender identity, ethnicity, or religion.
As racist rhetoric grows in Denmark, it’s worth noting that F! is the only political party openly describing itself as anti-racist and using the term in its campaign. “The funny thing about Denmark is that you can talk racist and act racist, but for someone to call you a racist, that’s a no-go,” says Rosendahl. This may explain why immigration politics is a contentious topic, as racists can hide behind the country’s highly valued right to free speech.
Fortunately, F! has observed a longing for new politics that welcome refugees and immigrants, and has received a positive response to its campaign messaging which includes the tagline: Out with the racists, in with the feminists!
What’s more, just shy of three months since going public, F! secured 5,500 votes in the November 2017 municipal elections from the greater Copenhagen area, demonstrating a demand for more feminist politics. “There is a need for the Feminist Initiative. People want to vote for something different,” Rosendahl tells me. The Feminist Initiative’s plans are ambitious, aiming to secure the 20,109 voter declarations needed to run for parliament in 2019. Long-term, the goal is to take feminist politics global by way of a pan-European feminist movement.
The road ahead is paved with challenges such as financial limitations, lack of awareness, minimal political experience, and negative media, who Rosendahl explains has yet to take the Feminist Initiative seriously. During the rise of the #MeToo movement, the party was never invited to speak on discussion panels despite having received significant coverage when they went public just few weeks earlier. “It’s like they lost interest when they realized we weren’t a bunch of fanatics wanting to lock men in a basement,” Rosendahl says. She recalls that a comedian told her he was surprised to find F!’s politics reasonable, admitting he had expected to source material from their campaign.
How F! is received in the media reflects how gender equality has been passed over by the Danes in power since the equality law was passed in 2000. In response to #MeToo, “some female politicians have said, ‘relax, I actually like when someone tells me I’m good looking, it makes me feel good,’” Rosendahl explains. “There’s a misconception that this is about not being allowed to flirt, instead of it being about harassment.” Which is why another key F! initiative is to implement active consent as part of rape legislation, similar to the law recently passed in Sweden, by which “intercourse without a clear yes is considered rape.”
Still, the Swedish consent law is fielding considerable criticism in Denmark because people fear it will undermine the justice system. Many rape cases in Denmark aren’t reported, and among those that are, few lead to convictions. According to Rosendahl, current rape legislation doesn’t consider the victim, but rather “places the responsibility on the victim to prove the rape took place, rather than simply asking, ‘was there, or was there not consent?’ An active consent law is fair because yes means yes. Not resisting or saying ‘no’ doesn’t mean ‘yes.’ It removes the grey area.”
Despite these barriers, Rosendahl is hopeful, viewing her party’s lack of political experience as one of their strengths. “There’s a lot of talk about people being tired of politicians, the people who are in it for power and money, only making legislation for the next four years to get elected. We want long-term effects because we want prevention, and though changing structural barriers takes time, it will bring society into a better place in the future.”
What they lack in experience, the Feminist Initiative makes up for in passion, comprised entirely of volunteers eager to see change. All is a work in progress with room for mistakes, much like the accessible way F! campaigns for support: “feminism is something we’re learning together.”