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Fika and Feminism: Part 1

The country that started a foreign policy revolution.

Words: Laicie Heeley
Pictures: Mao Yuqing

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  • This season on Things That Go Boom, we’re on a mission to figure out this new thing spreading like wildfire across the world: feminist foreign policy. But to even begin to understand what it is and where it’s going, we had to start in the place where it failed. We’re calling this season, “The F[...]

This season on Things That Go Boom, we’re on a mission to figure out this new thing spreading like wildfire across the world: feminist foreign policy.

But to even begin to understand what it is and where it’s going, we had to start in the place where it failed.

We’re calling this season, “The F Word.” And on this episode and the next, we take a deep look at the chasm that caused Sweden’s feminist foreign policy to break in two.

And we ask: If this thing can’t succeed in Sweden, can it succeed at all?


Dr. Brian Palmer, Senior Lecturer/Associate Professor, Uppsala University; Dr. Elin Bjarnegård, Professor, Uppsala University; Margot Wallström, former Foreign Minister of Sweden

Additional Resources:

Antigone’s Diary becomes a mural when youth in the suburb of Husby tell about their lives, Stockholm University

Handbook on Sweden’s Feminist Foreign Policy, Government of Sweden

Sweden’s New Government Abandons Feminist Foreign Policy, Human Rights Watch

Jantelagen: Why Swedes won’t talk about wealth, BBC

Special thanks to all of our guests, including our anonymous panel participants and Dr. Brian Palmer who went above and beyond to help our team understand and connect with folks in and around Stockholm.


[ footsteps crunching on gravel] 

Laicie: You know, we’re walking into– like this is considered one of Sweden’s most dangerous neighborhoods. It doesn’t feel very dangerous. 

Nikki: Doesn’t seem like it. 

Laicie: Yeah, they never do though, right?

In the northwest corner of Stockholm, almost at the end of the blue line, is this neighborhood called Husby. 

It sits next to what is essentially Sweden’s version of Silicon Valley, a place called Kista.

But Husby isn’t teeming with tech giants. 

Brian: In Husby 88 percent of people were born abroad or have two parents who were born abroad. 

Dr. Brian Palmer is the reason we’re here. He’s a social anthropologist at Uppsala University. And he told us he likes to take his students on this same walk that he’s taking us on now. 

I can see why. On this day, Husby is… lovely.

[kids talking]

As kids run by with their friends, and an older woman sits on a bench under an outcropping of trees, we stop to take a look at a beautiful multi-panel mural covering the side of a building.

Brian: Someone speaking – maybe reading poetry outside.

Then a colorful image of a local sports figure, paired with a female gender symbol and some text in Swedish. 

Brian: (reading) ‘Dream greatly.’ 

Brian: But also a sense of the calmness and the beauty of the neighborhood – The contentedness.

But Brian told us that some of his students are actually a little apprehensive about going to Husby. 

DW News Clip: Sweden is planning to bring forward measures to curb gang crime that’s risen to unprecedented levels.

Locals hear a lot of these kinds of stories about Husby. Some Swedes even started calling Husby a no-go zone… suggesting that the police won’t enter the neighborhood…which is not true.  

News Clip: Dozens of masked youths reportedly set fire to several cars…in overnight riots in Husby in northern Stockholm.

As the mural goes on, we see this unrest is pictured also.

Brian: And they’ve exaggerated the extent of the flames a little bit.

In 2013, protestors took to the streets in Husby.

It was around the same time that the first Black Lives Matter protests were forming in the US. And the protests and burnings took place after Swedish police shot and killed a Portuguese man in his apartment. 

Brian: But a key part of this image is the word, ‘nyheter’– ‘news’ and someone with a camera. 

Brian: So, as I read it, what they’re trying to say is, this is what the news shows of Husby. They have their camera only directed at the flames, and they don’t even see the rest of our neighborhood. 

Like a lot of countries around the world, Sweden is changing. Demographically and politically. They were the first country in the world to adopt something that they called a feminist foreign policy — one that matched their feminist agenda at home.

But they were also the first country to abandon it.

That’s partly because, in 2022, Sweden narrowly elected a right-wing government 

And the hardliners in the new administration — they argued that Sweden was accepting too many immigrants. And they linked neighborhoods like Husby with a narrative about danger and disorder. 

They said that they could make Sweden safer… from everything from incoming refugees… to a Russian invasion.

NBC News Clip: Now that Russia has invaded Ukraine, fears are growing that there could be war on Swedish soil. 

That means the change in government also came with a change in foreign policy. 

Tobias Billstrom: The Swedish government is now going to conduct a policy based on Swedish interests and democratic values. 

This season on Things That Go Boom, we’re on a mission to figure out this thing that Sweden created — this feminist foreign policy.

But to even begin to understand what it is and where it’s going, we had to start in the place where it failed.

We’re calling this season, “The F Word.” And in this episode and the next we take a deep look at the chasm that caused Sweden’s feminist foreign policy to break in two. 

And we ask: If this thing can’t succeed in Sweden, can it succeed at all? 

I’m Laicie Heeley, and this is Things That Go Boom.

The next snowy morning, after visiting Husby, our team traveled about an hour north of Stockholm to Uppsala University, the same one where Brian works, to meet with Dr. Elin Bjarnegård. 


Sounds of setting up in Elin’s office.

She is a professor of political science in Uppsala University’s Department of Government. And we came up to talk with her because we wanted to get a better sense of what exactly it was that Sweden abandoned.

Laicie: Can you describe for me what a feminist foreign policy is? 

Elin: Uh, I can and I can’t because in a sense, there’s no consensus.

That’s because every country that’s adopted a feminist foreign policy so far – places like Mexico, Canada, Colombia, Germany… they’ve all come up with their own definition of what exactly that means. 

Elin That’s one of the things that makes it interesting because it’s an initiative that is coming from individual countries for particular reasons but that then has different ingredients in different countries.

But Sweden’s feminist foreign policy was the first. And when it was introduced in 2014, it was kind of a big deal.  

News clips montage: 

Sweden has become the first nation in the world to have a feminist foreign policy.

It aims to dismantle patriarchal structures across societies

Hailed by some as progressive and dismissed by others as provocative

Sweden has always been pretty progressive on feminism at home — they’re famous, for example, for their generous paid family leave policies. Each parent gets eight months.

And a lot of folks we spoke to came right out and they told us that Sweden is a feminist country.

The trick was in finding a way to bring Sweden’s foreign policy up to pace with its established feminist ideals at home.

Elin: Adding the word feminist, I think really signaled increased ambitions and that we want to do something new and perhaps a bit more radical.

Elin: So I think there was also a lot about that, like sending strong signals that we are taking this seriously. We’re not going to do the same old thing over and over. 

And moving forward meant not limiting the work to what we might think of as more traditional “women’s issues.” Instead, feminist foreign policies like Sweden’s provide a framework to try and see the whole world differently — a way to stop ignoring the knowledge and experience of half of our population. Which means going beyond just reserving seats for women in parliament or inviting women to speak on a panel. 

Elin: I mean I’m not saying that adding more women is unimportant. It’s just that I don’t think it–it stops there.

Elin: And I think it’s so easy to think of as a quick fix. You know, more women, more peace and more women, less corruption. And the fact is that I mean those women who are put there are put into a very, very male dominated context. 

Elin: So we cannot just work with adding women. We need to work with institutions.

Sweden’s Feminist Foreign Policy established the idea that women’s rights, resources and representation — what they call the three Rs — should be incorporated into daily work and reporting across all areas of Swedish foreign policy. 

This meant asking so-called “feminist questions” like, where are the women in this meeting? Or, how will this trade-deal affect women’s rights? 

And they wanted to make sure this applied not just to activities like humanitarian aid where gender has been part of the conversation for a really long time — they wanted this perspective to lead the way everywhere. The idea was that when you get more people in the room who look at issues through this feminist lens of equality and human rights, the policy solutions will meaningfully shift — they will better incorporate things like health and environmental security into foreign policy decisions, for example. 

But, Elin says that even when you get more of the right people in the room, making this work is no simple task. 

Elin: So I have this, this one example, uh, from a peace conference in Myanmar, where I think they had worked successfully with getting actors there. So women’s organizations were there, women were there. They were to some extent speaking about, you know, new issues, such as sexual violence and conflict that had not really been taken seriously and taken up before. But then one of these women were standing up–speaking. And she noticed that the official note taker just stopped taking notes.

Elin: So she was there. She was at the table. She had been, you know, taught. She was capable. She could speak up about the issues she wanted to talk about. But the note taker had not been taught that he needed to record whatever was said by whomever was speaking. And I honestly don’t even think that this note taker – I don’t think it was a part of a conspiracy or something like that.

Elin: I just think that this was a note taker who was used to taking notes when someone important spoke, probably a general or, you know, at least the male senior person. And he just, you know, probably didn’t even realize that this might be important. 

But that’s not the only structural issue Sweden’s feminist foreign policy had to overcome.

Since this was a foreign policy, that meant that Sweden had to navigate communicating and implementing its feminist policies in other countries… which some saw as a kind of ideological colonialism. And, even at home, the policy faced some criticism for failing to take a fully intersectional approach. 

Margot: I think we have to make sure that it is and it always has been inclusive but I can tell you, I think that if we had focused on that, it would have gone nowhere.

That’s Margot Wallström, Sweden’s former foreign minister and the person responsible for introducing Sweden’s feminist foreign policy. 

And when we pushed her on this case, she said it’s really in the way you carry out the policy. Those who do the work need to choose to hold people accountable.

Laicie: Could you say all people have rights? 

Margot: Of course they have, but that’s the universal declaration on human rights. That’s where it starts and that, that’s the basis for all of it. But we just have to make sure that, you know, also if you’re a trans woman that you feel that you are part of this and enjoying the same human rights as everybody else. So I think you have to make an effort and you have to make sure you have to look at the room and say, well, why are there no women of a different color in this room? Where are they? Don’t they feel that they belong to this? So I think it’s about, again, about the mindset and the way you follow up and make it completely inclusive. But don’t make that –sort of the, the differences we have, the identities–don’t make that the main point.

Despite its challenges, eight years of Sweden’s feminist foreign policy did yield some success. 

The country canceled a major arms deal with Saudi Arabia and elevated a discussion about women’s rights in Afghanistan to the UN Security Council.

Sweden also increased its peacebuilding budget… a change that the new right wing government would eventually reverse. 

But… not before promptly killing Sweden’s feminist foreign policy.

Margot: They hated it from the beginning. And it was so important that this was the one concrete thing that the new foreign minister had to mention that they would not do. It was not about what they wanted to do but rather what they did not want to do.

We reached out to the office of the current foreign minister, too, and we didn’t hear back. 

But if we had, we might have asked him about the most confusing part of their decision to drop this thing. Which is that, in their official announcement of the policy change they said they would basically continue to support gender equality, they just… didn’t really want to call it feminist. 

Margot: It’s just stupid by a foreign minister to say that, ‘No, no, I will not use that, that network because I really don’t like the name of it.’ 

Margot:  So, I tried to be very generous. I said to them, ‘Well, if you continue with the content. You can call it something else if you, if you know, if you’re really interested in the results and the aim of all of this.’  But, they didn’t. They’re not.

Laicie: How much do you think the word really weighed on that decision?

Margot: It has, but if you don’t choose a word that leads the thought or creates that accountability, then I don’t think you will see results. Sometimes you have to be courageous also as a politician. You have to come up with some new ideas. 

Margot: If women are not around the table where peace is negotiated,  a deal is negotiated, then it means that nobody will bring up the issue of sexual violence or rape in war and conflict. And it means that impunity will continue.  

Margot: There was this girl, I remember that from the DRC.

Margot met this girl at a legal advice clinic while she was serving as the Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict for the United Nations. 

Margot:  And this young girl that came with her father, and she was totally, you know, she was looking down all the time.

Margot: She wouldn’t look us, in the eyes. She would,  just sit there completely crushed. She looked crushed. And the father said that she was, uh, the hope and promise of, of the family. The first one that was excellent in school. She wanted to go on. She had the highest marks and then she had just been taken away for several days, by some men, uh, armed men.

Margot: And,they were not even sure exactly what she had been exposed to, but clearly  violence and sexual violence included. And now she didn’t want to talk or eat or do anything. And the father said, ‘I cannot accept this. She was the hope of our whole family and village and all of us. She meant something new and hopeful.’  And, in the end, we explained to her, ‘you are not to blame for what has happened to you, first of all. And you can get help.’  And they explained the procedures and how she could be helped and how  the perpetrators could be brought to justice and that we needed her voice and her as a witness and so on or  a victim.

Margot: And  then when we said that, you know, clearly all of us, in the end she started to look at us and she looked up and you could see that, ‘yes, maybe there is a chance for me.’  And this is what it does to an individual, but also to, to her family to the hope of this whole village because she was kind of the personification of, of all of that.

Margot: And if you can then organize that, help you will also change the future of a country. So we said also to the politicians in the DRC, you know, ‘You have to change your country’s destiny.  You don’t want to be the rape capital of the world. You must be something else.’ And it means dealing with this particular problem and putting an end to it. 

Justice. Accountability. These goals are hard to argue with. And approaching them through a lens of gender equality makes sense considering how Sweden has positioned itself for generations.

So, is it really just the word, or politics, that sent this thing flying into the abyss?

Even as tons of countries around the world, including the US, experience rightward political shifts, somehow, the election of a right-wing government in Sweden kind of feels like it came out of nowhere.

But what we found when we dug in, is that… it didn’t.

That’s after the break.  


We traveled to Sweden to get to the root of feminist foreign policy. Because that’s the place where it began.

Sound of guests arriving, saying hello

What we found is that Swedish society is more deeply divided than we realized.

While we were in Uppsala we spoke with three women who all had different experiences of what it means to belong in Sweden. 

Panelist 1: I’m a historian and an archaeologist. I’ve lived all over the world, but born in Sweden and live in Sweden.My family’s from Sweden forever. But we have a lot of Sami. 

Laicie: Yeah,

Panelist 1: Yeah, you can see on my high cheekbones and we love reindeer.

You’ll notice that we’ve chosen not to use names in this section so that the folks we talked to felt comfortable speaking more openly about their experiences and their concerns. 

Panelist 2: I have been living in Sweden for seven years, but I’m from the UK, and my parents are from Portugal and Romania. I’m a student.–kind of. Yeah.

Panelist 3: I was born and raised in Sweden as well, but both of my parents are immigrants. One is from another Scandinavian country. She’s from Finland, my mother, and my dad is from Turkey.

Laicie: Let’s talk a little bit about Sweden’s current government. Were you surprised when Sweden’s current government was elected?

Panelist 2: A little. Yeah.

Laicie: A little.What about you? 

Panelist 1: Yes, I was. 

Laicie: We were trying to get a sense of the feeling, whether we could compare it to our own more surprising elections, but I guess one of the differences was that the polls were actually saying that they were probably going to win. So maybe it came as less of a surprise?

Panelist 2: I guess because I’m a lot younger and haven’t been here for as long, I don’t know as much about it. I mostly hear about the bad things, which is maybe why I was like less surprised when the government moved in a different direction. 

Laicie:  Tell me about the bad things.

Panelist 2: Well, in 2017. I started going to like an international middle school. So most of the kids were immigrants or half Swedish or their parents were here for work. And we were studying politics and I remember they put this big poster up in our school with all the different political parties.

Panelist 2:  And the Swedish Democrats, They had this quote where it was like, Sweden has always been a white land and it will continue to be so. And it was just such a crazy thing to have in that environment where a lot of kids are not from there or they’re like people of color and stuff. So yeah, that was like mostly the things we noticed. Especially because we were younger and we were like, Wow, they don’t want us here.

Sweden has — at least on paper — been a pretty welcoming place for new arrivals. 

During the height of the 2015 refugee crisis, it accepted more asylum seekers than any other European nation. And since WWII, generous asylum and immigration policies have been a point of pride on both the left and right side of the Swedish political spectrum. 

But, in practice, the treatment that immigrants receive in Sweden hasn’t always aligned with Sweden’s open-arms ideology. And in recent years more Swedes have begun to express concerns over crime, question the influence of Islam, and generally critique the way that immigrants have not, in their view, integrated themselves into Swedish society. 

This is part of why, in the last election, Sweden’s farthest right political party — The Sweden Democrats — got a large share of votes. 

And the election brought to the surface a divide immigrants and Swedish people with an immigrant background have felt for a long time. Because integrating into Swedish society is surprisingly hard to do. 

Panelist 3: One of my best friends She came to Sweden when she was seven or eight years old and at this point I’ve lived away from Sweden for so long that she’s lived here longer than I have at this point she’s been here her whole life. Her kids are born here. 

Panelist 3: But she Is still viewed as an immigrant after I mean she’s in her 40s now, you know, she’s been here for over 30 years and even her kids all of who are, like myself, born in Sweden And they speak perfect Swedish.

Panelist 3: There isn’t like, like any accent, nothing. They’re perfect Swedish, of course, because they were born there. But at least one of the children–the teacher pulled her into a class, the förberedelse, the prep class.

This is a class designed for children who recently immigrated. It’s meant to teach them the Swedish language and get them ready to participate in the standard Swedish curriculum. 

Panelist 3: And of course, my friend was furious and called the teacher and said, you know, why is my daughter coming home from school saying that she’s been placed in this prep class? She’s born in Sweden, you know, like, have you, have you talked to her? Have you, you know, or are you just looking at her and saying, you should be in this class?

Panelist 3:  But I’ve also heard my friend and other people who have an immigrant background, they talk about themselves as immigrants and I feel like it’s like an internalized racism where they start to like think of themselves that way because it’s how society looks at them. 

Panelist 3: What’s– I mean, what do you think about that?

Panelist 2:  Well, they treat you that way. So you behave that way. 

Panelist 2: There were kids who were born here and spoke very fluent Swedish and behaved like the Swedish kids do, which includes putting the rest of us aside. And they were given advantages and extra help over the kids who didn’t speak fluent Swedish or like just didn’t behave like the other Swedish kids did.

Laicie: What does that look like to behave like a Swedish student? 

Panelist 2: This is going to sound kind of rude. I don’t know– I think Swedish people think of themselves in a very particular way. They think very highly of themselves.  And then there’s also the, what is it, Jantelagen? 

Panelist 1: Yeah. 

Panelist 2: Where everybody has to be kind of the same. So, yeah when you meet people, no matter how they dress, they might dress like they’re, like, goth or super preppy, but they act the exact same way. It’s almost like a copy-paste personality.  

Laicie: And there’s a word for it?

Panelist 3: Yeah, It’s like, don’t think that you’re better than anyone. And if you do, many people really I think look down on that here and they will try to correct you. There’s like this sort of self-policing in society that if you don’t behave as everybody else they will call you out. I think people can get pretty rude about that .

Panelist 2:  Now that I’m a little older. If I speak English in public, a lot of Swedish residents, I think, have the idea that maybe me and my friends are students here at the university. And then they’re very friendly. But once you start speaking and they realize that, ‘oh, you live here and you’ve been here for a long time,’ then they kind of get standoffish, like, ‘whoa, you’re really here?’

Laicie: What about you? How you see that dynamic playing out in Sweden from your perspective as someone who grew up here? Is that something you see also, that the immigrant populations are kind of kept separate? 

Panelist 1:  Yeah, and it’s been worse the last years. It’s been a big difference. It’s really hard to get into the Swedish society from the beginning. Even if you are coming from the northern part of Sweden, moving south, it’s, it’s hard to, you never know the name of your neighbors and, uh, you don’t say hello, no, no. So it’s from the beginning hard, but I’ve seen it’s been even worse. The last years.

Panelist 1:It’s coming small changes all the time. That normal Swedish people don’t notice. I heard on TV this morning that the police should have the possibility to stop everyone and make, look if you have something in a specific area.

This is a program proposed by the current Swedish government that would work kind of like “stop and frisk” did in New York. Police would have the authority to search people and vehicles without suspicion of a particular crime. 

It’s another sign, our panel told us, that fear and distrust seem to be taking over. 

Panelist 1: Scared people are easy to rule. You just tell them, I can rescue– I can save you. So, today I think it’s more in media, it’s a lot. I worked at the biggest newspaper in Sweden forty years ago or something, I’m very old. And then we had killing, it was these motorbikers, they were killing each other all the time. And we just, as long as they kill each other, who cares? We have about the same today, but it’s more the criminals. And every little thing that happens is on the first side. So we really like, they want the Swedish people to be scared.

When compared to the US, Sweden is a remarkably safe country by pretty much any measure. A recent OECD report shows that almost 80% of Swedes feel safe walking alone at night. 

But compared to its European neighbors, Sweden’s crime and violence statistics look less impressive. Stockholm, for example, has more gun violence than other high-income cities in the region. Which has Swedes feeling more anxious than ever.

And while Russia invading Sweden seems highly unlikely to say the least… it is unquestionably scary to witness a powerful country so close to your own borders wage a full scale invasion of another state.

That fear is pushing Swedes toward the far right in ways that were previously unthinkable.

And it’s moving Sweden farther away from the feminist ideals that led to this foreign policy in the first place. 

But the simmering tension that led to this move? Well, that was already baked in to Swedish society.

All that said, despite Sweden’s change of heart… its Feminist Foreign Policy sparked a global movement that isn’t going away.

But there’s one part of foreign policy that this new movement is struggling to reconcile… and that’s the part that “goes boom.”

In our next episode, we dive into Sweden’s militarization in the wake of Ukraine and look at the uneasy relationship with defense that could threaten the success of feminist foreign policy wherever it lands. 

Patrik: Sweden is supposed to be a neutral country. Actually, Sweden’s Air Force was the fourth biggest. You couldn’t believe that for a small country. 

Welcome to the ninth season of Things That Go Boom! We’re distributed by Inkstick Media and PRX.

And if you like what we do, you can find more at

This episode was produced by Nikki Galteland and me, and edited by Amy Drozdowska.

The music for our show is written by Darien Shulman, and Robin Wise is our engineer.

Thanks, as always, to the supporters and foundations that make our work possible: the Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund, as well as Inkstick’s supporters, including the Colombe Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, Prospect Hill Foundation, and the Jubitz Family Foundation. 

We’ll see you in two weeks!

Margot: As I think Madeleine Albright said, I’m, I’m a worried optimist. So, I’m an optimist, I worry a lot.

Laicie Heeley

Editor in Chief

Laicie Heeley is the founding CEO of Inkstick Media, where she serves as Editor in Chief of the foreign policy magazine Inkstick and Executive Producer and Host of the PRX- and Inkstick-produced podcast, Things That Go Boom. Heeley’s reporting has appeared on public radio stations across America and the BBC, where she’s explored global security issues including domestic terrorism, disinformation, nuclear weapons, and climate change. Prior to launching Inkstick, Heeley was a Fellow with the Stimson Center’s Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense program and Policy Director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Her publications include work on sanctions, diplomacy, and nuclear arms control and nonproliferation, along with the first full accounting of US counterterrorism spending after 9/11.


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