An article from KILDEN Information and News About Gender Research in Norway
Norwegian enough for local politics?
Persons with non-Western ethnic backgrounds must be “sufficiently Norwegian” to get nominated to a position in local politics.
KILDEN Information and News About Gender Research in Norway
Only one percent of county or municipal politicians in Norway have a foreign national background, even though their share of the general population is many times higher.
What holds back these candidates with a minority background? What can be done to get them on, and at the top of, political parties’ lists of candidates?
This is the topic of Beret Bråten’s doctoral thesis. She interviewed 20 heads of local nomination committees and leaders of the parties’ municipal council groups about the significance of an ethnic minority background when candidates are picked. Her findings are presented in a Norwegian journal on sociologiy.
Like other fields, local politics has particular qualifications that candidates should meet.
"The leaders I spoke with said that requirements like dedication and commitment, good communication skills and media savvy are relevant for assessment as a good candidate,” says Bråten.
Minorities should also speak Norwegian well and show that they “understand the Norwegian mindset”. Among other things, this means they must support equality between the sexes.
Participation = Integration?
“She stood up and fought for a position on the council. I’d say that was a good sign that she was integrated into Norwegian society, that as a woman she could do this,” said a local political leader about a female politician with a minority background.
In the past few years, sociologist Beret Bråten has been a research fellow at the Centre for Gender Research at the University of Oslo. Her doctoral project in political science is entitled Opportunities for and barriers to recruitment and advancement: Integration of representatives with an ethnic minority background in Norwegian politics.
This leader, who views the minority woman’s political participation as a good sign of integration, expresses a widely held belief, according to Bråten.
“A minority woman who volunteers to run for office is often perceived as someone who is rebelling against the patriarchal culture she comes from.
"It is assumed that she supports Norwegian gender equality ideology and – presto – she is ‘integrated’,” says the researcher.
Patriarch or gender equality advocate?
Minority male politicians, however, must fight harder to convince fellow party members that they support Norwegian gender equality values.
“Whereas the minority women are seen as victims of − or rebels against − a patriarchal culture, the men are seen as representatives of that culture.
"To prove they support gender equality, it’s not enough for them to say they do, they must be scrutinized more closely,” says Bråten.
In other words, having a minority background can act as a barrier for men, while for women it can make them more immediately appealing as political candidates.
“We don’t get the entire picture unless we take account of the fact that various social differences can interact. In this example, the combination of gender and ethnicity is the decisive factor, not gender or ethnicity on their own,” says the sociologist.
What does it mean to be “Norwegian”?
Of course, to be Norwegian, or to have a sense of what it means to be Norwegian, involves more than attitudes towards equal rights for women. But Bråten is hard put to define what “Norwegian-ness” actually is.
“On the one hand it’s crystal clear, and on the other hand it is almost impossible to explain.
"During the interviews, I only occasionally asked for an explanation when the local leaders used the term ‘Norwegian’. This is probably because when I first began the interviews, I also thought the term ‘Norwegian’ was self-evident and taken for granted," says Bråten.
A party leader described a candidate as a person with ‘a Norwegian way of thinking’, someone who has ‘decided to become Norwegian and act accordingly’. For instance he reads Norwegian history and is active on a sports team. Several talked about ‘Norwegian-ness’ as being a choice, for example, that a person has ‘made himself into a Norwegian’.”
Bråten believes this illustrates the relational aspect of “Norwegian-ness”.
“‘Norwegian’ is something that a person can be made into or that he/she can make herself into. Even though the majority obviously controls the definition, the concept of ‘Norwegian’ is not scribed in stone. It varies and changes with the passage of time,” says Bråten.
Skin colour does not appear to be an important criterion, according to Bråten. Second-generation immigrants with dark skin were referred to as “completely Norwegian” because they speak perfect Norwegian and master the social codes.
“To be described as Norwegian means that a person is considered to be socially adept, and many different backgrounds can potentially be included in this definition,” says Bråten.
None of the leaders referred to anyone as “un-Norwegian”. But the issue of culture was usually raised when they discussed practices and reactions that they felt were foreign.
For example, one of the leaders said the following about ethnic minority candidates who work actively to raise their ranking on a party list by soliciting personal votes: “It has to do with culture. A lot with culture. It has to do with the immigrants’ views of politics.”
Culture becomes an explanation
Culture is actualized the most when gender becomes the focus of discussion. Many leaders find that female representatives with a minority background, whom they would like to place on the list of candidates, are difficult to “get hold of”. In these cases, they easily resort to culture as an explanation:
“It’s so foreign for them to assume this kind of responsibility. I think it has a lot to do with cultural differences. (...) of course there are many different groups of immigrants. But (...) some cultures discourage their women from exposing themselves in the political sphere. They are supposed to remain hidden – and they don’t take part in public activities.”
Bråten believes that although this kind of explanation may be an attempt to understand, it can nonetheless have an excluding and stigmatizing effect.
“Culture quickly becomes a stigma that clings to the individual just as much as skin colour. It becomes an explanation that does not lead to greater understanding since it is only applied at the group level. Individual motives remain unexplained,” says Bråten.
Translated by: Connie Stultz