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Nordic Forum Welcomes Debate

The criticism has been widespread after the conference that was supposed to bring the Nordic women’s movement together. The work to create a multifaceted movement is far from over,’ says queer researcher Ulrika Dahl.


‘Criticising one’s context, I want to point out, is not the same as betraying it. It’s a way to express engagement,’ said Ulrika Dahl in her speech during the closing ceremony of the Nordic Forum.
In her speech she questioned the conference on several points, and today, with some distance, she has a hard time seeing the point in turning feminism into a trade show.
‘Walking around and looking at brochures and roll-up signs, eating sweets and filling a fabric bag with stuff doesn’t lead to a revolution, it leads to administration,’ she says.

A large number of people and organisations have expressed anger and disappointment with the Nordic Forum. And almost two weeks after the conference, a lot remains to be said.
‘The work to create a feminist movement that is multifaceted and not white-dominated is far from over,’ says Dahl.

Thousands of people gathered

Caroline Matsson, head of the Nordic Forum conference, welcomes the debate. Although the event could have been an even broader platform, it did in fact gather thousands of visitors and hundreds of organisations with different perspectives and activities, she says.
‘As conference hosts, we are of course listening to the criticism. We do think, though, that the project as such has indeed been broad based,’ she says.

Zakia Khan, project leader in the feminist anti-racist think tank Interfem and board member of the Swedish political party Feminist Initiative, hopes that the criticism against the Nordic Forum will lead to critical self-reflection in the large women’s organisations.
‘They haven’t fully integrated the intersectional perspective. They understand it in theory but haven’t implemented it in practice,’ she says.

It felt surreal

When the Norwegian gender equality minister, Solveig Horne from the Norwegian Progress Party, entered the stage during the closing ceremony of the Nordic Forum, many people thought it was the last straw, Khan believes.
‘It was surreal. I thought of the international women’s movement and that many organisations don’t want to arrange any conferences because the anti-feminist forces in politics are so strong. International activists are afraid that conferences can lead to setbacks, and it felt like that’s exactly what happened in Malmö,’ she says.

Critique proven right

Ulrika Westerlund, head of the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights (RFSL), also reacted to Horne’s participation. However, both Westerlund and Khan had already become critical of the conference long before her entrance. RFSL contacted the steering group of the Nordic Forum already last summer to discuss what they perceived to be a lack of inclusion and programme heterogeneity.
‘Once at the conference, I felt that everything that we had warned about was confirmed,’ says Westerlund.
Zakia Khan describes the Forum as characterised by ‘compact whiteness’.
‘It didn’t have to be that way. It all depends on who makes the programme, who receives information about it and who feels invited,’ she says.

Wanted to engage the entire society

Westerlund hopes that the criticism against the Nordic Forum will bring attention to the great breadth of the feminist movement.
‘There is a lack of connection between the advanced discussions in academia and among activists and the policy work at the government level. I hope this discussion can reduce that gap,’ she says.
She feels that the Forum hosts consciously chose not to include certain perspectives in areas where there are well-known conflict lines within the feminist movement.
‘There are issues where feminists often have very different opinions. Sex trade legislation and surrogate motherhood are two examples. The Forum would have been a good opportunity to let more views be heard. Instead it ended up a bit one-sided,’ she says.

The conference general, Caroline Matsson, emphasises that the Nordic Forum was based on the Beijing Platform and that the thematic focus has been grounded in the objectives identified at the UN women’s conference in 1995. She adds that the purpose of the conference was to engage the entire Nordic region and the entire society, and not primarily the women’s movement in Sweden.
‘As a conference host we definitely have a responsibility to ensure that a variety of perspectives are presented. We feel we did this but could of course have done more,’ she says.

The format not an obstacle

Gro Lindstad represented the Norwegian organisation Fokus in the conference steering group. She too would have liked to see more issues and perspectives presented at the conference, but stresses that this was not the responsibility of the hosts alone.
‘Everybody was invited to give ideas for the conference and present different perspectives. It’s true that it cost money to participate, but several organisations could have teamed up and shared the cost,’ she says.
She thinks that the attendance of 22 000 over the event weekend gives a clear signal.
‘It shows that the format of the conference was not an obstacle. We’ll never be able to host a Nordic Forum where everybody is happy,’ she says.
Caroline Matsson believes that the discussion that has followed the conference can lead to many good things.
‘We need to keep talking about inclusion and about how we are organising ourselves in civil society,’ she says.

Updated 30 August 2020