A Feminist Utopia? Lessons For Indian Politics From Sanna Marin’s Political Ascendancy In Finland

Finland made history last year, on December 8, 2019, when transportation minister, Sanna Marin was selected by her Social Democratic Party to become the country’s youngest-ever prime minister at age 34, as reported by a Reuters report. It pointed out that In doing so, she is also the youngest head of government in the world at present. Marin has thus, now joined the recently elected prime ministers of New Zealand, Salvador and Ukraine in the under 40 years-old group. (Forbes).

Two very interesting things stand out from this election. First, that a young, female, liberal politician like Sanna Marin’s rise to the prime ministers’ office wasn’t just a lucky fluke, as some would think. Rather, she was the preferred choice after the departure of Prime Minister Antti Rinne, who resigned over criticism regarding his handling of a postal workers’ strike (New York Times). Second, that Finland achieved this feat despite an overall rise in right-wing, masculinist nationalist sentiments in global politics. Boris Johnson’s election in the United Kingdom (UK), Jair Bolsonaro earlier this year are but a few testaments of this fact. In Canada too, a country believed by many to be a bastion of liberal values, the 2019 federal election saw the liberal party win the general election, with just enough votes to form a minority government. Needless to say, the election was a very close call for liberals (cbc). India is also witnessing a surge of right-wing, anti-minority sentiments, and unfortunately, these sentiments have been intensifying for a couple of years now. Dissent against the ruling government in India is seen as treasonous, and human rights in India are constantly under attack. What lessons can India learn from Finland? And is Finland truly now a feminist utopia? Is it the Finnish model one to emulate? These questions need to be discussed.

Sanna Marin, New Prime Minister of Finland (Source: Foreigner.Fi)

What Finland does right

In a 2017 interview, now Prime Minister Sanna Marin accounted how twenty years ago, Finnish society was less tolerant of diversity and different types of family structures. “I remember we had a family that was just right, but for some reason nobody wanted to admit it or talk about it”, says Marin (Foreigner.Fi). This statement, of course, was an allusion to her own parents. Marin was raised by two women: her mother and her mother’s female partner, making Marin the only world leader to have been raised by a same-sex couple. As of March 1, 2017, Finland joined the ranks of twelve other countries in the European Union (EU) to legalise same-sex marriage. Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, in a statement on February 21 rightly said that “granting rights and benefits to same-sex couples does not take anything away from different-sex couples who already have access to them” (Human Rights Watch). Beyond just marriage equality, LGBTQ+ rights in Finland are among the most advanced in the world. According to the ILGA-Europe, which is an LGBTQ+ advocacy group, Finland was ranked as having the fourth-best laws and policies in the world that protect the rights of the LGBT+ community (Yle).

A same-sex couple shares a kiss as Finland legalizes marriage equality on March 1, 2017
Source: Yle

This recent Forbes report outlines the ways in which Finland has historically focused on leveraging gender rights and diversity as key drivers of social progress. Finland has continued to rank high on the World Economic Forum’s Annual Gender Gap Report Index. In 2018, Finland occupied place 4 of 149 ranked countries. The International Gender Equality Prize calls Finland a pioneer in gender equality, as it was the first country to grant full political rights to women in 1906. In 1906 Finland’s national assembly, Eduskunta in Finnish, became the first parliament in the world to adopt full gender equality. It earned that distinction by granting equally to all men and women the right not only to vote but also to stand for election (finland.fi) As early as 1926, Finland had its first female prime minister- Miina Sillanpää and as early as 1971, Finland decriminalized homosexuality (India decriminalized homosexuality just last year, in 2018). In 1990, Finland appointed the world’s first woman minister of defence- Elisabeth Rehn and by 2015, Finland adopted a gender-neutral marriage law (140 years of gender equality in Finland- Slideshare).

In terms of religion, most Finns belong formally to the Evangelical-Lutheran Church (about 83%), while 1.1% belong to the Finnish Orthodox Church; but people, in general, are secular in their views. The Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Finland accepts the ordination of women, and there are women priests in numerous parishes. The first female Finnish bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland is Irja Askola and she has been the reigning Bishop of Helsinki since 2010 (finland.fi). Finland is also one of the few countries in the world where women can serve in military front line combat roles. Interestingly, many Western, developed countries with high rates of gender equality have women on their front-line forces. But outside of the West, it’s rare (Washington Post).

If we fast-forward to 2019, we see that Finland has made history yet again. Not only is Sanna Marin the youngest serving premier in the world, a mother to a toddler, daughter to a same-sex couple, and the head of a coalition of four other parties that are all led by women, but three of those women, like Marin, are under 40. Generous parental leave policies, subsidised childcare and a commitment to work-life balance mean young working mothers are the norm here rather than the exception (The Guardian).

Lessons for India: Gender, Diversity, LGBTQ+ rights and more

Indian polity, economy and social life is rife with gender inequality and gendered discrimination. In the agricultural sector, for instance, 74% of the labour force consists of women. Yet, the wage gap between men and women continues to persist in the Indian economy despite the active involvement of reformists and feminists who have been fighting for equal pay. Women are also discriminated in terms of credit lending and property ownership. Indian women also lack behind the corporate and government sectors, due to which various government programs and schemes have been launched to provide equal opportunities for men and women. These schemes, however, are rife with controversy (Jindal School of International Affairs). Although Indian polity has seen female representation in the form of a president (Pratibha Devisingh Patil), a prime minister (Indira Gandhi) and multiple women in various legislative positions (at multiple levels of seniority), India is still an extremely patriarchal society, dominated with strongly held heteronormative, conservative and masculinist ideals of nationalism, family values and morality. An indicator of the glaring gap between female political participation and women’s safety is evidenced by the high rates of violence against women, girls and children which include, but are not restricted to marital rape, non-marital rape, wife battering and eve-teasing. India still has a long way to go with respect to gender equality not just with respect to women’s rights but also, rights of the LGBTQ+ community. With the passage of the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2019 and the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019 we are witnessing, in real-time rollback of LGBTQ+ and gender rights in India. Minority rights in India are also under attack, with Muslims in general and Kashmiris in particular, as being among the most vulnerable to hate crimes in the country right now, particularly due to the passage of the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 and the adoption of the Constitution (Application to Jammu and Kashmir) Order, 2019.

With human rights violations against marginalized communities reported daily in India, the country is a far cry away from achieving gender equality and even other forms of equality: social, economic and political. This is particularly true because of the unique intersection of caste, class, sexuality, gender and religion in India, compounded by corruption and a lack of accountability in Indian polity.

Conclusion: Feminist Utopia?

“None of us will see gender parity in our lifetimes, nor likely will many of our children. That’s the sobering finding of the Global Gender Gap Report 2020, which reveals that gender parity will not be obtained for 99.5 years.”- World Economic Forum

The World Economic Forum released the 2020 Global Gender Gap Rankings recently and came to the above harrowing conclusion about the state of global gender parity. Finland, though, ranks third on the top ten list.

Source: World Economic Forum

So, is Finland a feminist utopia? One could say it is because the numbers speak for themselves and so do emerging social attitudes in the region after Marin’s election. As highlighted before, she was the preferred candidate in this election and continues to be. Maryan Abdulkarim though makes the counter-argument, calling Finland “no feminist utopia” in his recent opinion piece on Politico. The main findings from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights Report points out that many EU countries, including Finland, still exhibit multiple recorded instances of gendered violence. The rest of this argument though, is weak, for he doesn’t provide any other substantial claims to bolster his thesis.

The fact remains that Finland is indeed ahead of the world. It would do academics, public policy leaders and the like to read and learn about the growth of Finland’s feminist movement and take some cues about how this country challenged (and continues to challenge) structural patriarchy, sexism, homophobia and misogyny. The world is now watching Sana Marin, and we only hope that she achieves all that she has set out for Finland, and more.

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Kanav is currently pursuing his Master's in Development from Azim Premji University, Bangalore. He identifies as queer for personal and political reasons and is extremely interested in addressing various forms of contemporary social issues and inequalities through his writing. An unapologetic nerd and gym rat, you will most likely either find him lifting 12 kilo dumbbells in the gym, or reading Foucault in the library.

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