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Monday 17 June 2019


Nordic noir

  • At work, women in the Nordic countries have shattered the glass ceiling
  • At home, they face a rising epidemic of violence from men
  • Is gender equality responsible for a brutal backlash?

By Melissa Heikkilä

For Olavi, there are ten tiers of anger. At level one, he is completely calm. At level two, maybe a headache is annoying him. Three, bluntness, irritation. Anything past that and he is entering dangerous waters. Aggressiveness and emotional abuse start at level four. Level ten means fits of violent rage and physical abuse. Every week Olavi notices he is close to snapping.

“It is like rehabilitating yourself from heroin,” he says. “You need constant vigilance.”

Olavi is a client of Lyömätön linja (or “the unbeatable line” in English), a Finnish rehabilitation programme for men who have been emotionally or physically violent. He also represents a dark trend in wealthy Nordic countries.

Thousands gather in central Oslo to mark 2019 International Women’s Day

Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland are widely considered the most gender equal countries in the world. They are the best places to be a working woman and a mother. Iceland recently made it illegal to pay men and women different wages. Finland’s newly-elected parliament has its highest share of women yet – 47 per cent. Nordic women are also more financially independent and highly educated than in other European countries.

Yet Nordic countries are some of the most dangerous places in Europe for women. As glass ceilings have shattered for Nordic women at work, they have been met with a backlash behind closed doors.

Every third woman in Denmark, Sweden and Finland reports having experienced violence from a partner. Last year 22 women in Sweden – a country with a population of 10 million – were killed by a partner or an ex-partner. Despite overall deadly crime declining in Sweden, this figure was the highest in decades, double that of rates in 2017. Since the beginning of the decade, Finland has seen a 24 per cent increase in intimate partner violence. ​Denmark has one of the highest rates of sexual violence in Europe, while Amnesty International recently criticised Denmark’s “pervasive rape culture”.

The prosecutor leaves court in Copenhagen after a Danish inventor, Peter Madsen, was convicted of the murder and sexual assault of journalist Kim Wall

Across the European Union, countries that rank lower in gender equality, such as Portugal or Greece, have much lower levels of reported violence. Why? One theory is that the much celebrated gender equality politics might itself be the root cause of the increase in gender violence.

“If you have more women in politics, and in the workspace, men might start feeling like they are losing power, and take it out on their partners in the private sphere,” says Anna-Maria Mosekilde, a consultant at Danner, a women’s shelter in central Copenhagen.

Some argue that rates of violence are rising simply because women in the Nordics feel more empowered to report abuse. But the data suggests otherwise. In an EU-wide survey on domestic violence, only 10 per cent of Danish and Finnish women and 17 per cent of Swedish women said they had reported abuse, compared with 20 per cent of women on average. Experts agree that what does get reported barely scratches the surface.

The narrative that Nordic countries spin around gender equality is a dangerous myth, says Lucas Gottzén, a professor at Stockholm University, who studies the relationship between masculinity and physical and sexual violence.

Sweden’s Princess Madeleine speaks to an aide during a UN meeting in New York to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment

“Men, who think they live in a gender-equal society don’t recognise themselves in the typical portrayal of a woman batterer,” says Gottzén. The “woman batterer” is seen as a dark, foreign figure who beats his partner every night, or a predator ready to pounce from the bushes –not your average Jens or Mikael next door. This image makes it harder to accept that in the vast majority of cases the attacker is known to the victim.

“Abuse could happen to anyone – especially strong women who stand up for themselves, because breaking a woman like that is even more satisfying and gives men more power,” says Mia Rosengren. Rosengren is a domestic violence survivor, who tours her native Sweden giving talks about her experiences. Her ex-boyfriend got 50 hours of community service for assaulting her.

“Talking about domestic violence is still very much a taboo,” says Anna-Maria Mosekilde. Especially when you live in a country that is characterised by high gender equality. And if you’re a woman who is exposed to violence, then it must be your problem as an individual, because we are all supposed to be equal.”

The conversation on gender-based violence in the Nordics is further muddied by immigration. Danish politicians are increasingly adopting more draconian attitudes towards “non-Western” migrants. The popular discourse is to suggest that Danish men and women have achieved full equality, so the increase in gender violence is down to migrants from “non-Western” countries with more patriarchal cultures – an euphemism for black, brown and Muslim.

Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, centre, speaks with therapists who work with children affected by domestic violence

The reality is that intimate partner violence permeates every social class and ethnic group. But sex crimes committed by migrants receive significantly more attention than those committed by white men. During the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015, when Sweden took in the third most asylum-seekers in the EU, right-wing pundits made a concentrated effort to push a narrative of a tsunami of young men forcefully entering the country and harassing women.

Nigel Farage called the Swedish city of Malmö Europe’s “rape capital”. There was indeed a spike in sex offences in 2016. But the reason behind the rise was far more anodyne than Farage’s gang would like to think. Sweden had recently updated its definition of what counts as a sexual offence, meaning more offences became prosecutable. A recent report by the Swedish National Council on Crime Prevention also failed to find a clear connection between asylum-seekers and the increase in sex crimes. This did not stop populist right-wing parties such as the Sweden Democrats, the Danish People’s Party and True Finns from weaponising this narrative. All three parties have risen from small protest parties to the mainstream in their countries.

As it is, the “feminist Nordic man” is a relatively new​ concept. Marital rape was not criminalised in Sweden until 1962, 1994 in Finland and 2013 in Denmark. Finnish men were legally allowed to beat their wives until 1970. However, Sweden became the first country in the world to offer fathers parental leave in 1974, and their neighbours soon followed.

Yet two generations after the parental leave changes were introduced, stay-at-home “latte pappas” are still rare. Only a quarter of Swedish men use their share of the country’s generous parental leave. Women still shoulder most of burden of unpaid labour in the home, whether they have full-time jobs or not. Today  just one in six Danes say they are feminist, according to a recent poll by YouGov.

“Latte pappa” Richard Hall took paternity leave to look after his 16-month-old daughter, Marta

There are still outdated perceptions of what sexual violence even looks like. The definition of rape varies by country; most Nordic countries define rape as an act that includes violence, the threat of violence or the inability of the victim to resist. Sweden recently became the first Nordic country to classify sex without explicit consent as rape. Iceland followed soon after. Yet the Norwegian parliament rejected a proposal to change the definition. Europe-wide, only a total of eight countries (Ireland, the UK, Belgium, Cyprus, Germany, Luxembourg Iceland and Sweden) have laws that define sex without consent as rape. Most countries still require the presence of violence.

Violence is even normalised in Nordic languages. In Finnish, for example, when something fits like a glove, it fits like a fist in the eye. A horse kicks out of love. A woman’s place is between a fist and the stove. In Swedish, love always starts with a quarrel.

Naturally the massive leaps the Nordic countries have taken towards equality – getting more women into the labour market and giving women equal rights – have traditionally focused on women, and have in turn neglected men. But many still struggle with traditional ideas of masculinity.

Demonstrators in Copenhagen mark International Women’s Day

“My male role model growing up was Arnold Schwarzenegger. Reaching those standards was unsurprisingly impossible,” Olavi says. “I’m on the smaller side for a man, and learned early on to use words to compensate for what I lacked in size.”


At Lyömätön linja, group therapy sessions are the first time many men address their demons.

“I hated women. I belittled women. I was aggressive. And my partner was at the receiving end of it,” says Jorma, a long-term client.

“I was supposed to be hardworking, high-achieving and entrepreneurial. Self-reflection was never part of that. I never had to talk about my feelings,” says Vesa, another client.

Olavi is part of a motorcycle club and talking about his experiences with male friends has not been easy. “It’s seen as a weakness. At first the guys mocked me. But then they realised I’m exactly the same as before – I just know how to react to anger and aggression better.”

Valur Hlidberg with his sons in Reykjavik. Iceland has generous paternity leave

For real change to happen, progressive policies are not enough. Nordic societies need a shift in culture. There is a rising awareness that intimate partner violence can also be psychological. A decade ago the vast majority of men who sought counselling at Lyömätön linja needed help with physical aggression. Now the programme is seeing younger men who get in touch pre-emptively, or because they recognise that they have been psychologically abusive. Denmark and Finland are also considering changing the definition of rape to be consent-based.

But to crack the Nordic paradox, more men need to be involved in debunking macho myths and being healthy role models to a new generation. Men need to learn to be open and candid about relationships and sex, says Lucas Gottzén. “It’s not just about talking about having consensual sex, it’s having good sex,” he says. In order to do that, “we also need to talk about our failures”.

Photography by Getty Images

Further reading

A fascinating study on how the New Nordic Cuisine philosophy, represented by celebrated chefs René Redzepi and Claus Meyer from Copenhagen’s Noma and Almanak, reveals the recipe to the modern Nordic man.

In The Nordic Theory of Everything, Finnish journalist Anu Partanen shares the secret to a good life. Partanen debunks myths about “nanny states”, and shows how the Nordic model actually grants its citizens freedom, independence and happiness.

Scandinavian MAN is a fashion magazine and online platform that marries Nordic aesthetics and values, without being too superimposed. Fashion and equality are a good look.

‘Swedish Dads’ is a beautiful and intimate photo essay of stay-at-home fathers. The series, which has toured around the world, aims to show how Sweden’s parental leave system works and inspire more dads to take advantage of it.

Machofabriken (or “The Macho Factory”) is a new tool for Swedish teachers and youth workers to discuss masculinity, gender norms and violence. The teaching material consists of films and exercises that help students analyse and reflect on gender-related expectations and attitudes.