Excerpts from “Women Making Herstory: 100 Years of Immigrant Women’s Lives and Work in Malmö”

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In 2013, a movement was started in Malmö, Sweden, to rewrite the country to include the history of immigrant women who contributed to the country’s cultural heritage. Immigrant women make up a sixth of Malmö’s population of 300,000 people. Nevertheless, they have no official record in Sweden’s economic history. Women Making Herstory asked: Why not? Interviews with immigrant women about the issues at the forefront of their lives informed the project, collaborating with institutions like the Living Archives at Malmö University and the Malmö City Archive to begin and give immigrant women’s stories their rightful place in the fabric of Sweden’s histories.

Iranian women’s rights activist and journalist Parvin Ardalan played a crucial role in the project group, conducting interviews for the publication accompanying the project. We have republished the interviews and articles she contributed to Women Making Herstory below. Parvin Ardalan was the ICORN writer-in-residence of the Malmö City of Refuge from 2010 to 2012.


  1. Parvin Ardalan is an Iranian writer, journalist, and women’s rights activist. She is editor of the feminist websites Iranian Feminists Tribune, Zanestan, and Change for Equality. Ardalan is the co-founder of the Women’s Cultural Center and One Million Signatures Campaign, a grassroots movement to abolish discriminatory laws against women. Ardalan won the Olof Palme Prize in 2007 and the Hellman/Hammett Award in 2010. She is an honorary writer at Swedish PEN and was the ICORN guest writer in Malmö City of Refuge from 2010 to 2012.

Interview with Farideh Arman

“When I arrived in Sweden I had only the clothes I wore. Here, I got the chance to study Swedish with some funding for a short while. Since then I’ve always worked and paid tax. My first impression of Sweden was that everything was so clean here. Especially as I came from Kurdistan where people lived in squalor. Women in Sweden were free and could live as they liked. Another thing I recall from those days was that I always hid when I saw a black Mercedes. Those were the kinds of cars that were used by the Iranian security forces.”

Farideh came to Sweden in 1984 at the age of 28. After living in Uppsala and for a while in Gothenburg, she moved to Malmö. Farideh had been politically active since the pre-revolutionary era in Iran, and had to go underground when her husband was arrested and executed. She then fled to Kurdistan. In Sweden, she re-married, this time to a well-known opponent of the Iranian regime. In August 1989, they travelled to Cyprus to meet relatives, and there Farideh’s husband was murdered by Iranian agents, in front of her eyes.

After working in a hospital in Sweden, Farideh embarked on a two-year technical training program, where she learned how to assemble industrial machinery.

“I was 40 at the time, my Swedish wasn’t that good and my occupation was a male-dominated one. I looked for a job as a fitter for six months. No one was keen to recruit a little 40-year-old immigrant woman who wanted to work with heavy machinery.”

She finally found a job as a fitter at Fosie Mekaniska in Malmö, in 1994. After a trainee period, Farideh was taken on and earned a good wage as the only woman among 40 men, assembling Tetra Pak machinery. In 2001, some of the assembly operation was moved to Russia and Farideh and some others lost their jobs. Since then, she has worked as a fitter by day, assembling shunting machinery, and as a volunteer in the evenings with the Women’s Rights Organization in Malmö, which helps battered women and their children. She has worked full time there since 2009, helping many women to leave violent situations and fight for their rights.

“Our organization is open to all women, whatever their belief, religion or ethnicity,” she says.

According to Farideh, many immigrant women learn Swedish faster and are quicker to integrate than immigrant men, despite the fact that they are often confronted by more obstacles and problems here. Some women who come to Sweden on grounds of family ties are totally isolated by their menfolk and don’t have the chance to work or to get to know other people.

“Some women are beaten by their husbands and some men don’t even want their wives to learn the language. When the women want to change their lives by moving to sheltered accommodation and reporting their husbands to the police, they face a struggle in this new society, often completely on their own. It’s not easy, especially when you have children. Unfortunately, some move back to their husbands although it’s much worse there.

“It’s not easy to integrate when you live in segregated areas. And for women subjected to violence and threats in the home, it can be very difficult to find information about their rights and obligations in everyday life, their right to their children and so on. As an immigrant woman with a political past and now active in Sweden, I’ve concentrated on networking, establishing contacts and tackling women’s rights issues. So at our organization we teach women about their rights and obligations. In January 2014, we published a book called Sommarens skiraste ljus (The Purest Light of Summer) about the hidden violence against women and children. I ran a project on this theme for three years that won a couple of awards. Since 2014, I’ve been involved in a new three-year development project called ‘I Am a Child,’ to help children exposed to violence. In 2017, we’ll be issuing a method book in connection with this project.”

“We must ask new questions of history”: An Interview with Historian Irene Andersson of Institute for Studies at Malmö University

“You keep hearing about multiculture. Well, where are those people in the historical account, then? There are no street names or any other symbols of the immigration we’ve seen. Point, show, hold this under people’s noses! Pose new questions and include other areas in new ways!”

Irene Andersson is a historian working at the Institute for Studies in Malmö’s History at Malmö University. In a book entitled For Women Don’t Seem to Have Lived in Malmö, she describes gaps in our city’s history. We wondered how she felt women were perceived in Malmö over time?

Perceptions of women were largely based on their frequent appearances in advertising and their anonymity. But it’s not just a gender issue, it’s a class issue, too. Many men who accord women a prominent place in their narratives often lack a gender aspect. And immigrant women are even less visible, despite the fact that the Women Making History exhibition showed that they worked more than women born locally, especially in the 1960s and 1970s.

Have class and ethnicity played an important role in the way women are perceived?

They’re either in the foreground or somewhere in the background. The historians haven’t looked at women much. Locally, if there are no committed researchers looking at women, I don’t really know who does. The male historians here at Malmö University, for instance, have delved a lot into social history and workers’ history, and there are of course some women there as well, so that’s where the class perspective comes in. Some class issues have been highlighted, but class has definitely not been a focus of attention. Ethnicity is a factor, but in different ways in different periods, depending on whether jobs were available or not. Although we do have a great number of women who have made themselves heard here in Malmö. We’ve had young women living in collectives in the 1980s and 1990s, perhaps, who’ve gone on to confront feminist issues in the 2000s. But ethnicity has been a big factor, in relation to the question “How do I make my voice heard here?”

We have many young women in our teacher training courses with different ethnic and religious affiliations, but we don’t have many young men interested in becoming teachers. You need to analyze the various social sectors and circumstances under which women live. It’s an exciting area that ought to be differentiated much more in research, instead of just saying “They’re women who come from somewhere else.”

These gaps in the historical account that you identified very early on, what meaning do they hold for us today? And for the future? Could you describe these gaps and how far research has progressed?

We researchers must problematize the main narrative in history for each gap we identify. The gaps are very important because they enable us to see something else and to see things in another perspective. Then it’s a question of source material – what are the sources for these gaps? It’s by no means certain you’ll find them in the archives, they may be in newspapers, but this material is tricky to deal with. You can learn about events and study Women’s Day in Malmö, for instance, and ask ‘Who is the focus of attention here and what do they have in mind there?’ and so forth.

Oral history can be used a great deal, as it was in the exhibition. But it ought to have been documented as well. Gaps like this often develop into new areas of research, but you have to monitor them carefully in order to write about them and to collect material about them.

I think the research has had an impact on the museums here in Malmö, that it’s affected their exhibitions. Those who want to use the book I’ve written can do something about this. It was intended to be used. I’ve described the gaps on the basis of material that I think can be found in the archives. But there are large areas about which the archives lack material. And these are things that happen every day, all the time. I don’t think there’s much research into working life any more, however. It’s integration that’s on the agenda now. There, women feature in many different ways, with the family, the children – and the men of course. Many other things and narratives need to be described. What happens when cultures meet? We need stories that aren’t stereotypical, that offer hope and the prospect of change, that show it’s wrong to think that people are static, based on their ethnicity, experiences, identity or religion. Everyone needs to develop and we need these stories – about people undergoing change.

Women making history operates mainly at grassroots level, using discussion as a method and making women feel secure about talking to us. But which sources and which methods have you used?

As a historian I’ve mostly used text-based material. But there are many different kinds of texts. To find the women in these texts you have to engage with both letters and diaries. But then the letters need to be in the archives. Or personal letters. I’ve also read autobiographies. And I’ve looked at networks, how they’ve been connected in various ways. I’ve also examined very small, local archives to find a source and then go and ask someone else about it. I haven’t looked into oral history much, but I know it’s a large and fertile eld and it can get you far. Press archives are useful, too, if you have the time and energy to go through them. I went through a whole year of Sydsvenskan issues, asking the question “Where were the women?” and found that women entrepreneurs were on the family pages while the men were on the business pages. So what’s the difference? You have to be creative when it comes to sources and describe what you get out of those particular sources.

When we talk about women’s history, it’s easy to talk only about Swedish women. How do you get people to see and include this entire population group?

I think we have to ask new questions of history, just as people did when inquiring about women’s history. Up to the Second World War, a lot of history is about immigrant women as well, but usually only Jewish women, such as the Bonnier family. Not much is heard about the women factory workers, since the class perspective is not present. Furthermore, there must be a gender perspective and an ethnicity perspective. The history being written today must be constantly monitored to ensure that these perspectives are included. Which means it’s about intersectionality, in other words all these perspectives together. But how many actually do intersectionality? Perhaps only those who have this oral history material. The old women’s movement involved bourgeois women to a great extent, such as those who fought for the vote and middle-class women. But we can’t be sure that immigrant women were in that category, except perhaps as wives or housekeepers.

Take tracking, for instance. Which women come here as a result of tracking? And what do families look like in general, and how do they impact on the Malmö cityscape? You keep hearing about multiculture. Well, where are those people in the historical account, then? Where are they? There are no street names or any others symbols of the immigration we’ve seen. There’s talk now of a migration museum or a democracy museum here in Malmö, and it then becomes really important to ask these questions. We must keep a constant eye on whatever projects are under way and put questions to them. Point, show, hold this under people’s noses! Pose new questions and
include other areas in new ways!

On Gender Equality in the Arts: An Interview with Elizabeth Lundgren, Director of the Malmö Culture Department

“We’re trying to make public spaces more gender-balanced, accessible and secure.”

Institutional structures can sometimes be an obstacle to “thinking outside the box.” This is why we need the voices and actions of the “free arts,” to help keep us alert and alive and bring about change, says Elizabeth Lundgren, Director of the Malmö Culture Department.

“It’s often claimed that we’ve achieved gender equality in society, but that’s not completely true. We have to constantly strive to give women a place in public life, to let gender equality inform all cultural expression in the city. As a culture director and a woman in an executive position, I must never forget that aspect but always press for balance,” says Elisabeth Lundgren.

She is convinced that sound leadership and cooperation are the key to structural change. The way the cultural scene is built up, the gender equality aspect and the cultural institutions’ programs must reelect Malmö’s broad diversity, and not just in the arts.

“Changing history is no easy matter since it’s always been viewed or presented in terms of men with power. In my role as a culture director, I also head the city’s reference group for public art and cooperate closely with for instance the directors of the street and parks department, the city planning once and Malmö’s art institutions. Over the past five years we’ve brought about quite a lot of changes by focusing increasingly on a gender perspective. Can you alter perspectives with the aid of art and sculpture? The public space, both indoors and outdoors, is very important, and what we – the city and the arts institutions – do is meaningful and can make a difference. We’re trying to make public spaces more gender-balanced, accessible and secure, in line with the city’s gender equality policy. In recent years, the proportion of women artists has increased considerably in our purchases of both public art and works for the Malmö Art Museum.

“In a multifaceted and complex city such as Malmö, different methods and approaches are needed to ensure active participation. Elisabeth Lundgren emphasises important basic principles in policy decisions, but feels that their practical implementation is the decisive factor.

“Gender and equality are cornerstones in all our policymaking. One of our goals is to reflect the 170 nationalities we have in Malmö not only among our staff but also in other respects. We must be aware of how the city’s population and workforce are structured – in terms of sex, age, class, nationality, skills etc – so that we can involve more people. But we mustn’t forget that achieving lasting change in a system is a slow process.

“The question of how the city adapts more to the needs of women is a priority, and the arts can perhaps help establish more places where people can meet. Libraries and museums have been and still are important meeting-places for the city’s residents, as are the activities organized there. Two good examples are Garaget and Moriskan. We need to develop more meeting places open to all Malmö residents, and this requires new, more far-reaching perspectives!

Grassroots movements, networks, civil society, associations and free groups all play an important role in the city’s cultural development. Elisabeth Lundgren explains how she views and works with Malmö’s cultural institutions and the free arts sector.

“One of the city’s goals is to support the independent actors who are helping to build up cultural life here. We’ve held many dialogue meetings to discuss the extent
of the city’s involvement, the groups’ independence and freedom, and what we can achieve together. The institutions’ structure can sometimes be an obstacle to ‘thinking outside the box.’ That’s why we need the voices and actions of the free arts to help keep us more alert and alive and bring about change. The Malmö City Archive is responsible for one success story – it’s now an institution that interacts very extensively with our citizens.”

Six years ago, Elisabeth Lundgren moved from Gothenburg to Malmö. Since then, cultural activities in the city have prospered.

“The city itself felt interesting, with all its multicultural aspects and challenges. When I started, I wanted to create scope for change by opening up the cultural institutions. During my six years here, much has been altered and many ideas have been realized thanks to a larger budget and good staff input. My goal is to make the city attractive to its inhabitants and make them proud to live in Malmö.

“Being a leader means being able to act quickly when confronted with the unexpected. You need keep up with what’s happening around you and to be flexible. When the great influx of refugees came last autumn we opened the libraries and museums further to give migrants access to the net and to cultural activities. This made it possible to integrate the arts into the migrants’ new lives at an early stage. Culture needs to be at the forefront in the development of a sustainable society.”

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