Malin Björk of the Swedish Left Party (Vänsterpartiet) has been a Member of the European Parliament and its Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM) since 2014. In her work she highlights feminist issues, anti-racism, LGBT rights, and worker's rights. Prior to her MEP mandate, she worked for the European Women's Lobby and edited the lesbian feminist magazine ScumGrrrls.
We spoke to Malin at the Feminist Forum 2018 in Brussels organized by the political group GUE/NGL.
This is the second year that the Forum, which is taking place in the European Parliament, is open to the public. What motivated this decision?
For many people, the EP is a strange place, a building far away, closed and opaque; you don't really know what's happening in there. So we've decided to tell the citizens: this is your space too, it's not just for a few elite EU politicians. It's important to communicate that this space belongs to all European citizens and that they can take this space, take the microfone, and say their opinion.
This year's Forum included topics such as sexual violence and #MeToo, migration policies, empowerment of rural women, equal pay and collective bargaining, rape culture… How did you choose the topics?
We on the left think that women's liberation and women's rights is everything from the right to decide freely about our bodies and freedom from violence to economic independence. The feminist struggle has always been about international solidarity - in the European framework but also beyond. Migration policies from a women's perspective – it's a very hot topic in Europe these days. In the context of migration, one can see that the armament culture is getting stronger and that security is becoming the only way to think about human beings; I think that's quite women-unfriendly. Feminists have a lot to say about how we think security – what is human security from a woman's perspective, is it safety for our children, safety on the streets, etc. Actually, the more closed our borders become, the crueller those policies become to women and children. If you are a refugee and you have to take this long journey, it is quite dangerous because you are at risk of being subjected to abuse and violence. Also, if it gets very difficult to seek refuge in Europe, then the family can only send person and it's usually the male, while women and kids are held back. This is a very difficult situation, and you can only hope to get reunited afterwards. So these are some of the issues we wanted to discuss.
Speaking about the #MeToo movement, you said that its importance lies in recognizing sexual harassment as a systemic issue which is not linked to a specific religion, but stems from the macho culture in all societies. You also warned that whenever we make a few steps forward, someone will try to make a step back, and this is happening within the European Parliament as well. How do you deal with opposition from right-wing MEPs?
One has to be realistic and admit that not even all my colleagues on the left are feminists. But if I put them to the test, if I say "You have to, you cannot remain silent", then they will do it. This is the case in some other political groups as well. Together with a few other colleagues I've formed a SRHR network called All of Us (in reference to the anti-choice initiative One of Us located in Brussels) which gathers people from different parties. We want to show that although our opinions may differ on many other topics, this is something that we all agree on. We've decided we won't be silenced when it comes to attacks on women's rights; we simply have to speak up. And that's had an impact. When there's a situation, we usually manage to get a progressive majority. We've also made sure that we have a positive agenda, that we're not just responding to anti-choice and anti-gender people, so we have events concerning sexual education, advocating better legislation when it comes to addressing sexual violence, etc.
You come from an activist background. How do you combine that with your current work in politics (which is often seen as bureaucratic and slow)?
I think politics needs to be a little bit more open than it is today. Political parties have a big responsibility to become more open, so that they can absorb new political energy, especially from young women. It is how I got involved in politics. I was an activist, and then at some point it became possible for me to enter politics. I thought it was going to be difficult and slow, because it's a very institutionalized field. But actually, it's very possible. Of course, sometimes I would like things to go faster or be more action-oriented, but it is very important that we as feminists don't abandon the space of party politics, I think we should go into those too. And if you become tired, get out! It's not a lifetime sentence. I can do this now, and later I will do something else. For me it's not a career, it's a mandate, a responsibility that I currently have.
Malin Björk criticizes the Bulgarian presidency for not attending the discussion about the Istanbul Convention on March 12: