The world was divided in its opinion of Finland’s sitting Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s party photographs which took the internet by a storm a few weeks ago. A video of her got viral where she was seen drinking and dancing at a private party held in her official residence. She was widely criticized by one section of the society for indulging in behavior considered inappropriate for a public figure, particularly a Prime minister, while another section vehemently supported her right to have a private life and to enjoy with her friends in a manner than does not influence her work.
The fact that a discussion such as this is taking place with regard to behavior considered appropriate for a woman, raises questions on Finland’s otherwise immaculate image as a feminist haven. Finland has always been seen as a country that sets the trend for women rights. As early as 1906, it was the first country to extend voting rights to its female population, going as far as allowing them to contest elections, as long as they are not economically dependent on anyone else, a rule that was gender-neutral and applied to everyone. During the winter war, Finland’s military conflict with Russia (1939-1940), women entered the work force in large numbers to help pay of its massive war debts to Russia and they have not looked back since.
Year-on-year, Finland is amongst the top scorers in various internationally published gender reports and indices. It ranks 5th in the EU on the Gender Equality Index. This year, Finland ranked second in the World Economic Forum published Global Gender Gap Report 2022. According to the report, it was the first in the world in educational attainment, second in political empowerment.
Quite ironically, Prime Minister Sanna Marin in a speech to the UN in 2020 famously said, “Finland was the first country in the world to grant women full political rights, both the right to vote and the right to run for office”, giving her own example as the youngest woman head of government ever. Little did she know that she was soon to be the victim of Finland’s hidden but persistent misogyny that might be masked but is not eradicated as the country would have the world believe!
These textbook examples that recommend Finland as a feminist country might not seem so convincing once one begins to scratch below the surface and analyze how lives remain largely gendered in both public and private spheres. In the work sphere, there still exists a segregation of fields considered to be either masculine or feminine. Even within fields that are considered to gender-balanced, there is witnessed considerable pay gap between men and women. According to the government’s own statistics, in all main levels of education, be it upper-level comprehensive to doctorate level, ‘the median pay of men exceeds the median pay of women by around 10 to 30 per cent’. The primary reason for this lower pay is linked to the fact that men and women complete their education in different fields, as discussed above. Other factors influencing this pay pattern are the lengths of careers, or the extra compensation given for overtime related to working hours.
‘Violence against women: an EU-wide survey’ conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (2015) reported that Finland is the second-most violent country in Europe. The range of partner violence against women in Finland stood as high as 30-32% in 2015. It also falls in the category of countries with high rate of sexual and cyber harassment. During the #MeToo trend, there were a string of accusations that came from the country, confirming the normalization of violence and harassment against women in the Finnish society.
According to a conference conducted by the government of Finland in 2019, it accepted the presence of ‘rigid gender-related conceptions, stereotypes, in all spheres of society, including working life, politics and the media’. These stereotypes are inherent within the Finnish society, coming out of deeply rooted attitudes, values, norms and prejudices. It quoted the Finnish Gender Equality Barometer 2017 that asserted that only half of the Finns were of the opinion that gender was irrelevant to the field of politics that is being addressed. These stereotypes invariably affect all aspects of life, be it job recruitment, education, or media. Gender issues within Finland also share a complimentary relation with other intersectionality including sexual orientation and ethnicity, creating a social environment that is non-inclusive.
Finland is without doubt one of the better placed countries in terms of gender equality and providing a good life for women. The question is whether we want to be satisfied with ‘better’, and do we demand a world that is truly equal.
At a time when the actions of a woman Prime Minister are so easily judged for misogynist reasons, what hope can one have for the common women citizens of Finland?