In November 2017, 1768 current and former Swedish women soldiers, sailors, officers and civilian employees signed an appeal calling to end impunity for sexual and gender-based harassment and abuse within the Swedish Armed Forces (SAF). Military women had now become the latest professional group to join the #MeToo movement. Through their detailed and deeply disturbing stories, these military women shed light on rape and violence within military ranks, but also on a sexist (and homophobic) culture that continues to subordinate women and mark their deviance within the armed forces. The appeal ended with the apt message “welcome to our reality” – a tagline from one of the SAFs many recent marketing campaigns.
On the one hand, these stories are not particularly surprising. Military institutions and identities have long been understood as global markers of (hegemonic) masculinity. Much feminist research has shown that military motivation, cohesion, and effectiveness is often achieved through a logic of masculinist protection. That is, men are encouraged to enlist in the military to protect women (and by extension the homeland) in exchange for women’s subordination. The all-male conscription has been the most salient manifestation of this power-invested logic.
Feminist research has also shown that the subordination of women rarely ceases even as women increasingly enter military ranks. A recent American study indicates that military sexual trauma (including rape) was the foremost issue negatively affecting the mental wellness of current and former servicewomen. The vulnerability of US military women was also underlined by the recent scandal where male Marines were exposed for having published degrading photos of and comments about female colleagues on Facebook. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, several reports stressed the high frequency of abuse and harassment of women soldiers also within the SAF. For instance, 8 out of 40 women deployed with the SAF as part of the NATO-led mission in Kosovo in 2003 reported abuse by a male colleague.
On the other hand, the timing of these testimonies was less expected. Over the past decade, the SAF has strengthened its posture in issues regarding gender equality. In addition to advocating for the gender mainstreaming of military institutions globally (e.g. through the Nordic Center for Gender in Military Operations, which trains military personnel from all over the world, as well as the Government’s feminist foreign policy), the SAF has also gender-mainstreamed the domestic image of the institution.
Since the Swedish government (although temporarily) abandoned conscription in favor of an all-volunteer force in 2010, the SAF has struggled with recruitment problems. In an effort to broaden their recruitment base, the SAF has worked resolutely to transform the public image of the armed forces from a masculine, hierarchical and traditional institution where boys become men – into a modern and progressive institution that offers opportunities for a wide diversity of young citizens. One of the primary aims has been to produce recruitment and brand-building campaigns that challenge the image of the soldier as solely a masculine protector.
On 8 March 2018, International Women’s Day, the SAF launched a poster campaign portraying a woman soldier in camouflage with the tagline “we are out-manned” [vi är överbemannande], aiming to increase gender equality in the ranks by recruiting women. The SAF has also launched campaigns containing rainbow flags, same-sex kisses, and non-conforming gender-expressions as well as ads and activities addressing the two P’s that so often have legitimized women’s exclusion from the military: periods and pregnancy. Marketing rhetoric about inclusion, tolerance, and diversity has, in other words, been one important way in which the SAF has tried to re-position the armed forces as a modern and progressive institution.
Against this background, it was no surprise that the SAF leadership reacted quickly and resolutely to the #MeToo-appeal, strongly condemning all sexual and gender-based violence within the institution. Most notably, Supreme Commander SAF Michael Bydén (who also became famous for dancing and singing in the Stockholm Pride parade during the summer of 2018) made an emotional video-statement where he spoke directly to abusers, letting them know that they did not belong in the SAF. Bydéns condemnation and trustworthy impression were celebrated widely in both social and traditional media. For instance, the men’s magazine Café advocated for Bydén replace the Swedish Monarch as the new father of the people [landsfarder] because of his ability to stay in tune with our times.
Although condemnations from SAF leadership are warmly welcome and absolutely necessary, the SAF’s history of discrimination against women should perhaps make us slightly hesitant to join in the celebration. When interviewed about the MeToo-appeal in the magazine Security [Säkert], former SAF officer Ingrid Mårtensson contended that the Supreme Commander seems to be relying heavily on giving orders to his subordinates. She continued,
That kind of leadership might work well when it comes to practical issues like cleaning weapons or raising tents. But it doesn’t work when it comes to opinions and values. To transform the culture [within the SAF], a deeper understanding among all employees within the organization must be achieved.
This is an important point. The SAF certainly has been working to transform patriarchal values within the institution over the past decades. However, the important testimonies shared by Swedish military women should – because of their timing – be taken as a critical reminder about how experiences of harassment and abuse risk being hidden behind the public image of the SAF as a tolerant, inclusive and diverse institution. Equally, the heroification of Bydén (in contrast to the women who shared their stories?) should serve as yet another reminder about power asymmetries within military ranks. As one year has passed since the start of the #MeToo movement (not the #MeToo moment) let us remember the stories and contributions of (Swedish) military women, but also to continue probing the unsettling role that sexual and gender-based abuse and violence plays in enabling state-sponsored war preparations and deployments.
Sanna Strand is a doctoral student of peace and development research at the School of Global Studies. Her research interests are located within the broader fields of Critical Military Studies and Feminist Security Studies. Her research focuses on intersections between war, military power and recruitment, neoliberal governmentality as well as gendered and sexualized (soldier) identities.
Her publications on the matter include:
“A country to fall in love with/in”: gender and sexuality in Swedish Armed Forces’ marketing campaigns, with Katharina Kehl. International feminist journal of politics. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14616742.2018.1487772
Inventing the Swedish (War) Veteran. Critical Military Studies. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/23337486.2018.1481267