At the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, we seek to highlight those around the world who are working to promote gender equality and challenge the status quo. The people we interview occupy many different roles within NGOs, foreign policy, and charities, among many. Aside from their impressive careers, our interviewees are feminist actors with a wealth of advice (and book recommendations!).
Jennifer Brough (JB): Hi Soraya! Tell me about your current role.
Soraya Post (SP): I am the first Member of the European Parliament from an ideologically anti-racist and feminist party – the Feminist Initiative from Sweden, elected in 2014.
I am member of the committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) and subcommittee on Human Rights (DROI) and Delegation for relations with the countries of Central America (DCAM). I am substitute in the committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET). I am also one of the co-chairs of the European Parliament Anti-Racism and Diversity Intergroup (ARDI) and a member of the Disability and LGBTI Rights Intergroups.
JB: What drew to you to working in policy?
SP: My political party, the Feminist Initiative (F!). I had been approached by political parties before but I never felt that I could represent any of them until the Feminist Initiative approached me. F! puts gender equality and human rights on top of the political agenda and our political ideology is based on intersectional and anti-racist feminism. Intersectional feminism is the understanding of how women's overlapping identities — including race, class, ethnicity, migration background, religion and sexual orientation and gender identity — impact the way they experience oppression and discrimination. As a Roma woman myself, I know how important it is that politicians have an intersectional approach when they create policies.
Before being elected as MEP in 2014, I was working as a Human Rights Strategist at the Region Västra Götaland in Sweden. I have been a human rights activist all my life and focus on the empowerment of Roma women and the self-determination of the Romani society. I founded the International Roma Women’s Network, and I am a co-founder of the European Roma and Travellers Forum.
JB: What are some challenges you've faced during your career and what keeps you motivated?
SP: Anti-Gypsyism, the specific form of racism against Roma people, remains high in Europe with one out of three Roma being victims of harassment, and almost all of us being deprived of fundamental rights in all areas of life. As a Roma woman, I know that I was born condemned because there are so many prejudices against me because of my ethnicity. Roma people have been neglected, discriminated against, stigmatized, excluded and dehumanized for 800 years. We have never been good enough for European society to accept us as equal citizens with the same access to fundamental human rights.
I have been fighting against Anti-Gypsyism all my life both at a private and professional level and I would say that my motivation comes from the fact that I believe that all humans beings are equal. I demand nothing more, but also nothing less, for the Roma people than I demand for the majority society. I want all Roma people to be able to enjoy their fundamental rights and fulfil their full potential, just like anybody else. I want the Roma community to be free from anti-Gypsyism, discrimination and the human rights abuses we have faced, and are still facing, across Europe. I want future Roma generations to have a better life than their parents.
JB: Sweden is viewed as a world leader in terms of promoting gender and equality. How would you describe Sweden’s feminist foreign policy in a nutshell? And what advice would you give other countries trying to implement a similar framework?
SP: The current Swedish feminist foreign policy is from the current Swedish socialist government and we in Feminist Initiative are not part of that government. It launched this in October 2014 as the first country in the world to launch a feminist foreign policy through applying a systematic gender equality perspective throughout the whole foreign policy agenda.
The right to freedom from violence and oppression is one of F!’s most important and central political issues. It binds together our social, crime, defence and foreign policies. These issues are intertwined, sharing many of the same patriarchal causes and gains from the same feminist solutions.
JB: You successfully won a seat in the European Parliament as the representative of F!. How do you maintain and employ the party’s values in this space? Do you find other MEPs receptive to F!’s stance?
SP: I am the only MEP from an ideologically anti-racist and feminist party and that means, most of the time, I have to explain and add the intersectional feminist approach/analysis to both the policies we are making and the working ways of our own institution the European Parliament.
F! does not see gender equality as a “women’s issue” - we see it as a human rights issue and that’s why we think that the human rights approach should be applied to all policies. For example, I did not want to sit in the FEMM (Women’s rights and Gender equality) committee because women’s rights is not an issue of its own, it needs to be applied to all policy areas.
I have also worked on building alliances with like-minded MEPs, I joined the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament because this is the group where we, as a party, have the best opportunities to spread our anti-racist and feminist politics with focus on human rights.
JB: When gender is mainstreamed, there can be a risk of promoting a certain paradigm of ‘woman’ and writing policies that do not account for different intersections of identity, such as race, class or ability. How do you mitigate this when creating policy?
SP: This is a very important discussion and I think that the issue of intersectionality must be discussed more widely. The Feminist Initiative in Sweden is based on intersectional and anti-racist feminism. We understand and build policies based on the fact that discrimination is multifaceted. For example being a poor woman of colour with two children and a chronic back pain gives a complete different life experience than a white, poor single mother.
JB: There are some intersections of identity that can be negated by the law, for example, women who are employed in the sex industry. When speaking of sex work there can be a conflation between violence, trafficking and prostitution. How can we ensure legislation targets the victims of trafficking rather than those working in the sex industry?
SP: We in Feminist Initiative believe prostitution and trafficking are a form of violence and a crime against human rights. We want to see a Europe free from trafficking and prostitution and the work against all forms of violence therefore needs to be intensified.
We believe that we should export the Swedish law on prohibition of the purchase of sexual services to the rest of Europe. We also need to increase access to protection and support for people that have been victims of trafficking and prostitution, we need to bring perpetrators to justice and increase legal security through awareness raising and preventive actions.
JB: There has been a rise in anti-migrant rhetoric across Europe over the last three years. Ahead of Sweden’s September elections some parties capitalised on this in their campaigns. How does this impact you in your role?
SP: The results of the general elections were a disappointment for me, especially the fact that the anti-immigrant, populist Sweden Democrats became the third biggest party with about 18% of the votes. Our party did not reach the 4% threshold to get into the national parliament but we got seats in 13 municipalities, the same amount as in the last mandate.
As a party, we were struck by how a movement working towards a more traditional, authoritarian and pro-military way of thinking dominated the election campaign, strengthened by media reporting and the positions of other parties. This movement frightened people back into comfortable and safe corners, where our biggest opponent was the word “but…”. Primarily, there was a fear of wasting one’s vote in relation to the 4% parliamentary barrier. This message gained strength from both other parties and the media’s disinterest.
Our campaign focused on positioning ourselves as a necessary feminist and anti-racist political force in an increasingly and unsustainably racist, sexist and capitalist society through positive political messages including, “of course we can” and “secure democracy”. However, it was difficult for our messages to gain traction in the debates that dominated the election campaign. Now we are doing a post-election analysis to learn and will start planning our strategy for the upcoming European elections in May 2019.
JB: Sweden’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Margot Wallstrom, has spoken of the way feminist foreign policy can be used as a tool for peace and gender equality. She later endorsed a United Nations ban on nuclear weapons. Can you speak about the relationship between feminist foreign policy and denuclearisation?
SP: The F! calls itself Sweden’s only “peace party”, meaning that we focus on human security and the replacement of the military territorial defence to a more effective preparedness for all types of crises and societal threats. We believe that the biggest security threats today are not national - they are global, for example climate change, violence and attacks on human rights. We do not need to put more resources into protecting our borders and investing in weapons and military security.
There are links between private, national and international security and how it relates to masculinity standards. Nuclear weapons are the ultimate example of allowing a few countries to exercise power and dominance through more or less direct threats. Nuclear weapons do not create security.
I totally agree with Ray Acheson from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) when she said: “Working to abolish nuclear weapons, for me, is also about challenging patriarchy, racism, and militarism all at once.”
JB: Tell me more about your current projects and what you are working towards
SP: I am working towards changing the EU security agenda. As I mentioned before, we need a new mindset, a new concept of what security is. The ultimate goal of all security policies is the protection of the personal integrity, safety and the freedom of every individual. The current military discourse is distracting us from the issues of personal safety and violence against women that has been a reality in our societies for centuries.
The traditional security agendas and the European Agenda on Security only focus on external threats that demand efforts around national borders and terrorism. I am working to change the priorities from protecting national borders, to protecting individuals. Women, children, persons with disabilities, LGBTI and all groups that are subject to interpersonal violence – this should be the first priority of the EU, to make every individual secure, and to put our resources there.
I am working on a new report on EU’s role in conflict resolution & mediation in the Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET). I initiated this report about the role of the EU in building capacity on conflict resolution and mediation in the world. With the increasing militaristic rhetoric, we need to turn our eyes to the measures that are truly peacekeeping: the preventive and mediating. We need a feminist security policy that puts human safety first.
JB: Finally, what is your favorite book, fiction/non-fiction, by a woman author?
SP: My favourite female author is Katarina Taikon (1932-1995), a great Swedish Roma rights activist who grew up in a society characterized by centuries of suspicion, loathing and discrimination toward the Roma minority. It was in an era of racial politics and Sweden was known for founding the world’s first Institute for Race Biology in 1922 and where forced sterilizations were approved by law as a means of promoting so-called racial hygiene.
Her first book, Gypsy Woman, was published in 1963 and this was the start of her lifelong struggle for human rights for Roma people in Sweden, aiming to provide access to education and the closure of the tent and caravan camps where Swedish citizens of Roma background were forced to live.
Interview by Jennifer Brough, Interview Coordinator. Twitter: @Jennifer_Brough