A New Sweden

A satirical cartoon drawn by German artist Harm Bengen shows Pippi Longstocking staring up at the Swedish flag – a flag that has turned into a Nazi swastika.

The picture is a comment on the fact that Sweden’s new coalition government rests on the support of a party founded by new nazis.

It is no coincidence that the picture shows Pippi Longstocking reacting. The beloved children’s character stands for everything that the new government isn’t – kindness, curiosity and courage. She stands up for the weak and the oppressed. The picture clearly illustrates this contrast, as well as the shift in Swedish society, and even the polarization that exists.

Sweden’s new conservative government only has 39% of the vote and are therefore reliant on support from a right-wing extreme party in order to govern. In the recent election, this party grew and have over 20%, making them Sweden’s second largest party. The new government is at their mercy – and cannot get anything done without their approval. And this is clear in many of the government’s policies.

This is the new Sweden. Pippi’s Sweden was post war – Europe had just defeated the nazis. And here we are, almost 80 years later. The majority of the Swedish people have handed power to a party that was built on nazi doctrine and is contaminated with nationalistic beliefs. I have never been more disappointed with Sweden than I am now.

But I do love democracy. And I guess this is what it is all about. Sometimes you like the result, and sometimes you really don’t.

Swedish politics week – a summer tradition

Once a year, with exception of the last two pandemic years, there is a summer politics week in Sweden. The week is happening now, the first since 2019. It takes place in a park called Almedalen on the Baltic island of Gotland, and attracts heavy media coverage.

During the week, the leaders of the eight parliamentary parties deliver speeches – their view of Sweden’s future. This year is especially interesting as there is a General Election in September. The Economy, Crime and Punishment and Education seem to be the top issues so far.

The Almedalen politics week started when legendary Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme spoke publicly, from the back of a truck, during a summer visit to Gotland. It was at the end of the 60s and there was an audience of a few hundred people. It very quickly became a tradition.

Now Almedalen politics week attracts thousands of participants and is intended to involve the man on the street in politics and to protect the strong Swedish value of democracy and free speech. The idea is that at Almedalen politics week, we meet each other in debate. And in debate and discussion, we influence each other and our environment.

However, Almedalen Politics Week has also been heavily criticized for being elitist. The event has become a popular opportunity for businesses to meet and network with each other.

In a parallel existence, some people go to Almedalen only for this purpose and not to participate in any political activities. Social media has, in previous years, been awash with images of participants mingling, drinking rose wine, partying, dancing and taking drunken groupies.

Post Covid, we all have an opportunity to make changes. We don’t have to go back to the way things were before. The pandemic was a kind of system crash. It will be interesting to see how Almedalen politics week renews itself this year.

World Book Day – and my book on Sweden

Today is UNESCO World Book Day, to celebrate books and promote reading. The 23 April is a significant day as it commemorates the death of many famous writers such as William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega.

Every year a World Book Capital is nominated. The first one, in 2001, was Madrid, Spain. This year it is Guadalajara in Mexico.

So today is a good day to buy a book, or to gift one. If you know anybody who is interested in learning about Sweden, or planning on visiting Sweden, then my guide book is a good match! I published it in 2021.

You can buy it on Amazon, Bokus, Akademibokhandeln and Adlibris amongst other online stores. Sweden, by Neil Shipley, published by Kuperard 2021. You can also buy it straight from the publisher at http://www.culturesmartbooks.co.uk

I still have a few copies left, so if you’d like to buy a signed copy, just let me know!

Riots on the streets of Sweden

Over the Easter weekend, there were several riots in different parts of Sweden in which participants violently attacked the police and other emergency services. Screaming, trashing, burning, destroying, threatening and killing.

The riots were in response to anti-Islam events organised by radical, far-right Danish party Stram Kurs (Hard Line). The leader Rasmus Paladan, who is half Swedish, had been given permission to hold public rallies and burn the Qur’an.

While it is not illegal in Sweden to burn a religious scripture of any denomination, it is a clear and fully-intended provocation, leading to public outcry and reaction.

Let me be clear – I in no way condone the criminal actions of the rioters. They need to be identified, and prosecuted. I also do not condone the burning of the Qur’an. It is a senseless and racist affront intended only to aggravate.

The whole situation has put Swedish politicians in a pickle. Like most democratic countries, the concept of freedom of speech is central. Everybody has the right to say what they think, even if it is heinous. As a democracy, we have to accept it. We meet our combatants in debate and not in violent action.

So, the question becomes is burning the Islamic scripture an expression of this democratic right? Or is it incitement of hate, which is illegal in Sweden?

The politicians have skilfully dodged the question and passed it on to the police, to whom Rasmus Paladan has applied for permission to continue his tour of Sweden, despite ongoing public unrest.

It will be interesting to see what happens next in this historical moment in Swedish history.

International Romani Day-Roma in Sweden

Today, 8 April, is International Romani Day. It marks the first World Romani Congress that was held in London in 1971. The day exists to shine a light on the ongoing persecution and abuse that the Roma population of the world has been forced to endure throughout history.

The Romani originate from northern India. They are dispersed, and their most concentrated populations are located in Europe, and Western Asia, since around 1007. Nobody really knows why the Roma left India in the first place, as no records were kept. However theories abound: from early persecution based on caste, to banishment from angering the king, and religious war.

The estimated 12 million Roma are consequently a nomadic people with no land to call their own. Their mobility and the fact that they lived in temporary camps contributed through the centuries to associations with poverty and accusations of high rates of crime. The discomfort that others felt about their presence led to perceptions of the Roma as antisocial, unsophisticated or even dangerous. Partly for this reason, discrimination against the Romani people has continued to the present day.

Romani have existed in Sweden since at least the 1500’s and today they are classed as one of Sweden’s five national minority groups (together with Jews, Sami, Swedish Finns and Tornedalers). Romani chib has the status of official minority language.

Over the centuries, the people of Sweden discriminated against, marginalised and excluded its Roma population. For 40 years, up to 1976, Sweden had a legal policy of enforced sterilization of people to avoid ‘unacceptable offspring’. Much suggests that Roma women were particularly subjected to this abuse.

The Pew Research Poll of 2016 found that 42% of Swedes held strong anti-Roma views (compared to 82% in Italy, and 37% in Holland).

A Romani political activist in Sweden was Singoalla Millon, who died in 2020, and spent her entire life fighting for education, housing and acceptance. Another was Katarina Taikon who dedicated herself to improving conditions for Romani people in Sweden. She tried to convince the Swedish government to see the Romani as political refugees. She died in 1995. Today, the politician Soraya Post has worked as an EU politician defending the rights of the Romani and other minorities.

In 2012, the Swedish government introduced an 20-year equal opportunities strategy for Roma people. The strategy includes objectives and measures within several areas such as schooling, employment; housing, health, social care, culture and language. Of course, discrimination and marginalization are still very real in Sweden, but this is at least a step in the right direction.

Terror on the streets of Stockholm 

5 years ago today, Sweden experienced a hateful terrorist attack. Today, flowers have been placed along the city street where it occurred. My thoughts go to those who were murdered, and their families and friends.

If you would like to read my post from that attack 5 years ago – here it is again….

At 2.30pm yesterday, a masked man stole a delivery truck from outside of a restaurant. The delivery man tried to stop the thief by standing in front of his truck.  However, the thief pushed over the driver, picked up speed and proceeded to drive zig zag down Stockholm’s main pedestrian shopping street, ploughing into people as he went. The truck’s final destination was one of Sweden’s largest department stores, into which it smashed in a billowing cloud of smoke. 

Like everybody else I was really shaken up by this act of violence.  I, and my nearest and dearest, were all in safety and my phone rang and beeped frenetically as we contacted and reassured each other. 

Stories reached me about friends being locked into their offices or hiding out in shops and restaurants. The streets were awash with armed police, and the whole city was shut down within 20 minutes – trains, buses and the underground were all stopped and roads were cordoned off as residents and tourists were rapidly ushered out of the city center. 

In the midst of the chaos, Stockholmers reached out to each other in support. People opened their homes to provide sanctuary to each other, cafes provided food and beverages, social media was flooded with people offering to help and offering protection. In this emergency, love prevailed – which was moving and heart-warming. I myself was in a gym, and the doors were locked. The staff went straight to action providing us with support and offering food and drink and unscheduled training classes for those who wanted a distraction. 

The latest news at time of writing this blog is that 4 people and 1 dog were killed, and 15 seriously injured. The driver has been arrested.  Another person is in custody believed to have some connection to the driver. Border control has been tightened up and there are still disturbances in local traffic. 

Stockholm now joins the long line of cities such as London, Berlin, St Petersburg, Paris and Nice, who have suffered under terrorist attack. 

No matter who is responsible for this act of violence, be it an organisation or an individual, we must never give into them.  The nature of terrorism is to spread fear by using intentionally indiscriminate acts of violence. It’s its indiscriminate approach that makes it difficult to predict and we are often powerless to influence it. Therefore we should do what we do best – not bow down to it but stand up and keep going. It is by living our lives in our open, democratic societies that we win.

I sincerely hope that Stockholm does not become a fearful, suspicious, closed city. This place that I love is a target because of its freedom and that is a freedom we should protect by continuing to live our lives. 

Terror will never win. It is designed to exploit our human fear. It is the ultimate act of intimidation. We must not let it win. My heart goes out to the victims and their families. Yesterday, we showed love to each other. Let’s continue to do that. We do not need more hate. 

We must prevail. 

Transgender Sweden

Today is the International Day of Transgender Visibility. The day is dedicated to honouring the victories and contributions of the transgender and non binary communities while also bringing awareness to the work that is still needed to protect trans lives. During 2021, 375 trans and gender nonconforming individuals were murdered. Around 70% of these occurred in Central and South America.

Transgender in Sweden: It has been a long and rocky road for the transgender population to receive legal protection in Sweden. This road has been lined with demands on enforced divorce and enforced sterilization. In fact, it wasn’t until 2013 that the requirements to be sterilized and undergo sex reassignment surgery in order to change gender became unconstitutional. Sterilization had been in effect since 1972, and enforced on 500 to 800 transgender people.

Today, the transgender community is protected under the Anti-Discrimination Law of 2009. Additionally, in 2018, “transgender identity and expression” was added to the hate crime legislation.

It would however be naive to believe that this has eradicated this type of discrimination and crime in Sweden. In fact, many transgender people report a constant feeling of insecurity and vulnerability in society. Around 12% of the reported hate crime in Sweden has a homophobic or transphobic motive. Who knows how much happens that isn’t reported?

Days like International Day of Transgender Visibility are hugely important for breaking the negative cycle of hate. If you would like some input on how to support the trans and non binary people in your life, go to http://www.thetrevorproject.org and look under Resources.

Swedes, time change and barbecues

DST_Countries_Map

Last night in Sweden, the clocks went forward one hour to Summer Time. Despite the occasional complainer who moans about losing an hour’s sleep, this is usually received very positively in the country. Suddenly,  the light at 6pm becomes the light at 7pm. People are happier, daylight is longer, people venture outside to enjoy the burgeoning spring.

So why do we do this? The practice was first initiated during World War I to give more light for agriculture and other important societal functions. However it was abandoned shortly afterwards, only to come back during World War II.

It was never very popular and by the 1950’s it had again been cancelled. However come the 1960’s, it was reintroduced in many countries due to the energy crisis – the lighter evenings required less electricity.  In 1981, the EU legislated Summer Time in Europe requiring member states to decide particular start and end dates for Summer Time which varies in the different countries. In Sweden, summer time occurs on the last Sunday in March and ends on the last Sunday in October.

In Europe, there are 4 countries that do not switch to and from summer time. They are Belarus, Russia, Iceland and, since 2016, Turkey.

In 2019, the EU Parliament decided to remove the annual time changes with March 2021 suggested as the last occasion. However, each country could decide if they want permanent summer time or permanent winter time. As yet, the decision has not been made by the individual member countries – so it remains.

Around the world, there are various countries observing the switch. In the picture above, blue and orange represent the countries that switch to and from summer time (nothern hemisphere summer and southern hemisphere summer). Dark grey have never used daylight saving time and light grey have formally used daylight saving time.

Remembering when to turn the clocks back and forward is sometimes a challenge to remember. In English, the saying ‘Spring forward, Fall back’ was developed to help jog people’s memories. Even the expression ‘March forward’ is used as a reminder.

So what do they say in Swedish? Well, they refer to the popular summer activity of barbecuing. Many Swedes who live in houses, or have a summer house, own a barbecue. In the summer they use it, and in the winter it is safely kept in storage.

So the Summer Time saying?

‘In spring we put forward (English: out) the barbecue, in the autumn we put back the barbecue’.