Kjønn og makt - How Multicultural is the North?

"Usynlige grenser - kjønn og makt"


Oslo, 11.-12. november 1999

Gender and Minorities in a Historical Perspective

Fakhra Salimi

I would like to start with my own experience.

Each time I enter Norway even from within the Nordic countries where we have exemption from passports for Nordic citizens, and I do hold a Norwegian passport, I often have to show my passport in order to avoid inconvenience or sometimes confrontation with the immigration authorities. Just last week on my way back from Sweden I just kept my passport in my pocket and said like all the white folks in front of me were saying while passing through the immigration control; 'norsk'. The woman at the immigration control asked if she could see my passport. I asked her that the Norwegians don’t have to carry passport within the Nordic countries. She said how would she know I am Norwegian. I asked how did she know the people passing a head of me were Norwegians? She looked at me very aggressively. As the people behind me were becoming impatient to pass through I showed her my passport and told her if it is because they were white she did not need to see their passports? She did not respond.

These episodes are experienced by most black people not only at the immigration control but also in everyday interactions with people. In my opinion it is due to the myth that Norway is a homogeneous society with white blond population that when a black person wants to assert her claim over this country it awakes reactions and appears strange to many people. It is therefore not self-evident today that a black person would be taken as Norwegian even if you are born or brought up here, lived here for many generations or has a nationality of a Nordic country.

Has this myth originated from the fact that the North once was a culturally and racially homogeneous entity or it rather exposes the aggressive assimilation polices of Nordic countries against minorities and indigenous populations to create such homogeneity? It is true that regionally Nordic countries have been isolated from the rest of Europe, nevertheless, there has always been an interaction with other cultures and there has always been an indigenous population as well as other minorities in the region.

Historical overview

I have based my paper on the Norwegian situation as I have lived here more than half of my life. I came to Oslo twenty years ago from a cosmopolitan city of over four million people to a Northern city with only four or five hundred thousand inhabitants. A great transition, but already then I could see the diversity of people and cultures interacting with each other at least in Oslo. At that time I was often asked questions about my background (twenty years later I am still asked the same questions), not with the curiosity of a knowledge seeker but with the certain assumptions about the Muslim women being oppressed and deprived from any social participation in their own societies. The questions were, and unfortunately still are, how is it to be in a 'sexually free' country as a Muslim woman. Or it must have been a liberating experience for me to live in Norway etc. etc. It was annoying sometimes to experience that not only ordinary people without much interaction with the immigrants but also people at the university where you interact with foreign students, or at least study about the world outside were also ignorant about other cultures. When I would express my irritation on such enquiries my white friends would always feel defensive arguing that Norway has been so homogeneous society and people here are not used to other cultures.

The anti-racist movement initiated by the immigrant communities in the seventies focused on the fact that Norway has always been a multicultural society with an indigenous population of Sami people/Lapps, sigøynere/gypsies, Romani people, Jews, and the migrants from southern and western Europe who came here to build roads and as seasonal workers. The reality was that the Norwegian state always had an active policy of assimilation towards the indigenous population.

The national minorities such as Samis who also had the territorial claims were not allowed to practice their religions or cultures for a long time. Their language was forbidden in the schools and Norwegian language was imposed upon them as the only national language of Norway. Gramsci says that the political character of a language is made apparent in the attempt by the dominant class to create a common cultural 'climate' and to 'transform the popular mentality' through the imposition of a national language. It is because linguistic hegemony involves the articulation of signs and symbols which tend to codify and reinforce the dominant viewpoint. Therefore, Gramsci argue that "there exists a close relationship between linguistic stratification and social hierarchization, in that the various dialects and accents found within a given society are always rank-ordered as to their perceived legitimacy, appropriateness, and so on"(1). The policies of the Norwegian state towards its minorities, throughout history, have been to impose actively the norms and values of the dominant Norwegian culture. One of the important examples is the multilingual education that was never encouraged. The basic ideology of the Norwegian state has been the more people look a like the better for society.

The minority groups without the territorial claims suffered differently as their entry in the country was regulated by the immigration legislation. The Norwegian immigration laws of the thirties openly discriminated against the Jews, gypsies and Romanis. Their entry was made restricted and in 1927 Norwegian parliament added a new paragraph in the law banning Jews coming in to the country. There were also discussions in the parliament about how to preserve the racial purity. It was expressed by many politicians of that time that Norway must not allow the immigration of the inferior elements from the east. They have bad genes that can contaminate the superior Nordic race. It was also argued that even though immigrants are important for the economy, the economic loss can be recovered but if the inferior genes are mixed with Norwegian race we would never get rid of them(2).

Looking through the Nordic regional context we find that Norway has always been multicultural but the majority society has run a politics of assimilation, expulsion and invisibility. The power elites never wanted to recognise the diversity and give it a space to blossom. The situation has however changed after the Second World War. With the new kind of migration the society is forced to see diversity in the eyes and recognise it although with a certain reluctance.

New minorities

After the Second World War, like most of the western economies, Norwegian economy was to be built again. Norway was also blessed by nature with large oil reservoirs. Being a thinly populated country its own population alone could not bear the task of development therefore the labour force from the previous European colonies was encouraged to come and seek employment. As it has been said so many times earlier Norway needed cheap labour force but got instead human beings that after a while being exploited economically and socially started to demand their basic human rights.

The new immigrants were mostly from Asia and Africa. They were a part of the economic boom and helped to build the welfare system. These immigrants were also placed centrally in the cities particularly in Oslo, unlike other national minorities such as Samis who were in the north. A large population of Samis who lived in the cities was assimilated on the extent of invisibility. The new immigrants were also different culturally and racially and they were visible.

It is also important to keep in mind that parallel to the economic development, the socio-political development in the Norwegian society was also going through a great transition. The social democratic ideologies were strongly enforced and the politics of solidarity across the class boundaries was encouraged. The social movements such as the women's movement and peace movement were gaining support in the sixties and seventies and the society as a whole was going through a radical transformation.

Suffice it here to say that when the economic boom slowed down by the mid seventies leaving a large number of people unemployed among them many immigrants, the government, instead of dealing with the problems and introducing some preventive measures, passed the law banning immigration in 1975. This was a signal which implicitly indicated that the unemployment is caused by the number of immigrants and not by the economic recession. The immigrants were thus made the scapegoats of economic crises. By then the Norwegian government did not have an active policy for the real integration of migrant labour in society. They were supposed to be working without any claimed welfare rights and leave the country. It became however a wishful thinking. The new immigrants were here to stay and the government was forced to initiate a certain number of integration polices for their welfare.

The discrimination of the minorities in general has nevertheless continued all the way to our times. The wish to assimilate minorities within the prevailing social order is very strong within the majority society and the so-called integration polices leads often to assimilation. In his recent book "Gode nordmenn" Øyvind Johnsen writes that the driving force behind such attitudes can be traced in the recent history. A majority of Norwegian people, according to him, has a long tradition to be antagonistic towards minorities who do not conform. Johnsen says that the generation that actively promoted assimilation of Samis and exclusion of Jews and gypsies is still alive though old. And these people are still active promoting the ideas of cultural homogeneity in the society(3).


Culture is a complex concept and has been used differently within different contexts. Nevertheless it is often defined as a way of life which must be understood within the environment of its materiel production and in relation to forces like political change, economic evolution, and religious transformations (4). The discourse of multiculturalism is recent in the history of social sciences. It can be stated that multicultural discourse originated with the protest movements of the sixties against the prevailing assimilative ideologies of the west toward the diverse minorities. Terence Turner suggests that multiculturalism primarily is a movement for change. "It is an ideological stance toward participation by ethnic minorities in national cultures and societies. It is a term which expresses the demand for separate recognition in social and cultural institutions and tends to become a form of identity politics in which the concept of culture become merged with that of ethnic identity"(5). However, the debate around multiculturalism has been complicated, as it has been used to express quite different ideologies.

The conservative use of the concept for example has been to legitimise assimilative polices of the states as well as to uphold the colonial worldview. As we know from history, the white colonials looked at African, Asian and indigenous cultures as inferior and uncivilised. These ideas still prevail widely within the western society. The ethnic minorities whose origin is from those societies are therefore often characterised as coming from the culturally deprived backgrounds. Their integration is thus possible only if they assimilate in the dominant cultures of the west. It is often expressed in statements like: " she (Bitten Modal) is often appalled by the sight of Pakistani women pushing around in the snow and cold in the streets of Oslo wearing their thin baggy trousers hiding their legs and ankles…people who have come to our land in the seventies to start a new life must except our norms. Otherwise they will only create problems for themselves"(6). This kind of multicultural discourse does not treat western cultures or whiteness as the forms of ethnicity and in doing so these become the invisible norms by which other ethnicities are judged. The recognition of cultural diversity on these premises thus becomes an instrument to cover-up the ideology of assimilation.

On the other hand the concept of multiculturalism has been used also by some liberals to argue that we all are equals. This perspective is based on the intellectual 'sameness' among the races. The liberals often believe that existing cultural, social and economic constraints can be modified or 'reformed' in order to achieve equality. According to Peter McLaren this view often collapses into an ethnocentric and oppressively universalistic humanism in which the legitimating norms which govern the substance of citizenship are identified most strongly with western cultural communities(7).

The left liberals, on the other hand, do emphasise on the cultural differences and suggest that "The stress on the equality of races smothers those important cultural differences between races that are responsible for different behaviours, values, attitudes, cognitive styles, and social practices. They tend often to exoticise the 'otherness' in a naivistic retreat that locates difference in a primeval past of cultural authenticity. We can identify this position when the issue of representation arrives. There is a tendency to ignore difference as a social and historical construction that is constitutive of power to represent meanings"(8). McLaren says, "The mistaken belief of this position is that one's own politics of location somehow guaranties one's political correctness in advance. Of course, when a person speaks it is always from somewhere, but this process of meaning production needs to be interrogated in order to understand how one's identity is constantly being produced through a play of difference linked to and reflected by shifting and conflicting discursive and ideological relations, formations, and articulations"(9). The belief that there exists some authentic culture make some people disturbed when they do not find it in some minority representatives. Those representatives could be disqualified as not representing their ethnic background because they are too 'assimilated'. The visual symbols like dress, language accent and behaviour becomes central to define who is authentic and who is not.

We can find all these positions representing the discourse of multiculturalism in Norway. The debates on whether Norway is a multicultural society started already in the seventies. Given the historical background discussed previously in this paper where the politics of assimilation has been promoted actively, the research work initiated by the social sciences on ethnic minorities has mostly been dominated by the conservative notion of multiculturalism. A large number of studies within the ethnic research work define the cultural background of ethnic minorities as one way or another hindrance in their integration in society. The term integration is often used to mean assimilation. To give few examples we can take the situation of multilingual education in the Norwegian schools. Despite the documented evidence that the children who have a developed mother tongue do better, it was removed from most schools. The reasons given for such an assimilative action were that it would promote a better integration in society. At the same time the language classes are divided into two sections namely Norwegian one and two where ethnic minority children are often forced to attend Norwegian two which is meant to improve their language competency without any previous test of their present ability to comprehend that language. It is often assumed that being born in an ethnic minority family one would have reduced knowledge of Norwegian culture and language.

The Christian education has been made obligatory in the schools despite the fact that in some schools over sixty percent of the children have other than Christianity as their religious faith and many children come from the families who practice human ethic as their spiritual belief. On the other hand the concession to open a Muslim school was denied by the authorities that at the same time talk about tolerance and multiculturalism.

Multiculturalism without a transformative political agenda can be just another form of accommodation to the larger social order. The integration polices are often based on reform and do not go nearly far enough in advancing projects of social transformation. This has also been the case with the gender equality polices and the situation of ethnic minority women.

Gender relations and multiculturalism

The work to achieve equal rights for women has come far in Norway. The women do enjoy many formal rights and we have an equal rights legislation as well as an equal rights ombud. Women's representation in all major governmental workplaces is demanded by law to be no less than 40 percent. However, the situation for minority women is quite a contrast to that reality. They often top the statistics of unemployed or low paid manual labour force and are discriminated against on the basis of both gender and ethnic background. Researchers or other experts often study their cultures of origin to find causes of oppression and propose solutions such as sewing and cooking, dance and entertainment courses in an attempt to integrate minority women in society. Very little research is conducted on the institutional and structural mechanisms that exclude minorities from equal participation.

In the multicultural discourse in Norway the situation of ethnic minority women is thus seen in relation to their cultures of origin although these cultures might no longer have any direct impact on their daily lives. The existing research define the situation of ethnic minority women as problematic due to their family and cultural background which is considered hostile to women compared to the Norwegian equality ideals. Since these cultures are often defined as foreign and more patriarchal than the Norwegian culture, the oppression of minority women becomes marginalised within the broader struggle for gender equality(10). Instead of finding political answers a kind of helplessness is expressed by the equality promoting institutions when confronted with the lack of analysis on minority women's particular conditions. The main argument is often that knowledge about women's cultures of origins is not sufficient to come out with the viable solutions.

This argument does not hold the ground if we look at Norwegian women's movement and their relation to the national minority women's situation through history. The Norwegian women's movement from its very beginning never really addressed the particular situation of minority women in Norway, unlike in the United States, where women's movement and civil rights movements worked closely together. The wide spread belief that only gender could define all women equally oppressed and they will all benefit the same way from the equal rights reforms has dominated the scene. Thus, the effects of the process of assimilation and invisibility and how it has influenced the minority women has not been addressed directly by the movement.

When the migrants entered the labour market in the sixties and seventies they were not seen as a part of the broader society but as alien elements defined on the margin of Norwegian culture. The particular situation of immigrant women in relation to gender discrimination therefore was not addressed within the Norwegian context as they were considered a part of the immigration legislation and not the national equality laws.

As the majority society has focused on the cultural aspects to understand the particular situation of immigrant women, the immigrant women themselves have redefined their realities differently. First of all, they have stressed the fact that they represent various cultural, economic and political backgrounds. The factors, which unite them, are racism as well as their shared invisibility created by the majority society. They maintain that as minority women they are workers, political activists, homemakers, and much more. But those who analyse their situation have often ignored this multiplicity of their character.

The dominating multicultural discourses in Norway either focuse on assimilation or aliened with the preservation of so called authentic cultural values that perpetuate male domination within the ethnic minority communities. Violence against women is one of the important issues where this alliance is most visible. The space in this paper does not allow elaborating this point in detail. It is however important to refer to the debate on arranged and forced marriages as an example. The conservative multicultural discourse has dominated the debate trying to find explanations within the cultures of origin, isolating them from the context the ethnic minorities are living at present. The Norwegian context is only referred to when talking about bringing in the spouses after arranged or forced marriage in order to show that the purpose of marriage is to import more men in to the country. The solutions have been that only if these minorities adopt Norwegian culture the problem will be solved thus isolating the whole issue from the mainstream discussions on violence against women and confining it within the boundaries of ethnicity. The minority women who wants to bring the issue into the human right and gender equality discourses have often been disregarded as not going far enough to condemned the communities.

The daily experiences of ethnic minority women shows that the constant struggle between their self-conception and the way society conceives them begins the very day they enter Norway. As society forces them into anonymity and caracterless plurality, the struggle to free themselves and regain their individual character and identity intensifies with the passage of time. And as society speaks for them, feed them with information about who they are and provides them with explanation to their problems, the urge to speak for them selves and define their own situation becomes stronger.

To conclude I would say that for ethnic minority women facing the increased racist and sexist oppression both from the Norwegian society and from within their own communities, it has been a feeling of being caught mid-stream. One either loses control and is drowned on the spot or is forced, through a show of strength to free oneself and swim across. The past twenty years of struggle indicates that minority women have managed to swim, if not across, then at least away from the deadly currents! (11)

We have entered a new historical phase in the Nordic countries where even the monarchy is becoming racially mixed. The Danish prince has married an Asian woman, and the Norwegian prince is actively promoting the respect for plurality and has engaged himself in the struggle against racism. It shows that we are gradually moving towards a progressive multicultural discourse where we have to include the socio-political and economic rights for the minorities within the national polices. It can only happen if we take an active stand against what has happened in history and consciously work for a multicultural society.


1. McLaren Peter, White Terror and Oppositional Agency: Towards a Critical Multiculturalism, p. 49, Multiculturalism, A Critical Reader, ed. David Theo Goldberg, Blackwell Ltd. 1994

2. Per Ole, Oss Selv nærmest, Gyldendal Norsk forlag, 1984, p. 83

3. Jonsen Øyvind, Gode Nordmen, !99?

4. Dyson Eric Michel, Essentialism and the complexities of Racial Identity, p. 219 in Multiculturalism, A Critical Reader, ed. David Theo Goldberg, Blackwell Ltd. 1994

5. Terence, Anthropology and Multiculturalism, p. 407, Multiculturalism, A Critical Reader, ed. David Theo Goldberg, Blackwell Ltd. 1994

6. Modal Bitten, Adresseavisa, 1990

7. Peter McLaren, White Terror and Oppositional Agency: Towards a Critical Multiculturalism, p. 47, Multiculturalism, A Critical Reader, ed. David Theo Goldberg, Blackwell Ltd. 1994

8. Ibid., p. 51

9. Ibid., p. 52

10. Parmar Pratibha, Gender, Race and Class: Asian women in resistence, p. 236, in The Empire Streikes Back, Hutchinson &co, London, 1982

11. Salimi Fakhra, Immigrant women's struggle in Norway, p.42, in Diva, A Quarterly Journal of South Asian Women, vol. 2, Issue 3, July 1990, Canada

Av Fakhra Salimi
Publisert 25. nov. 2010 13:52 - Sist endret 5. nov. 2013 13:06