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Ms. Nyamko Sabuni: The First African Minister in Sweden

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“If they want to live here, have kids, have grandchildren, they must make an effort to adapt to the society where they live.” NYAMKO SABUNI would stand out anyway, being tiny, dark-skinned and obviously foreign in a place where those things are still anomalies. But as the recently appointed minister for integration and gender equality, she tends to draw more attention for her unusually blunt pronouncements about the place of immigrants in Swedish society.

As an opposition politician, Ms. Sabuni proposed banning the veil for girls under the age of 15. She proposed that schoolgirls undergo compulsory medical examinations to check for evidence of genital mutilation. She denounced what she called the “honor culture” of some immigrant groups, proposed outlawing arranged marriages and called for an end to state financing of religious schools. Given that Sweden is governed by a coalition in which parliamentary votes cannot always be counted on, it is unlikely anyway, that most of her ideas could plausibly translate into actual law. Nonetheless, she stands by her basic premise: that immigrants must try harder to fit into their adopted country. “A lot of people misread their rights,” she said recently. “They think that freedom of religion means that they can do anything in the name of religion, or that human rights means that they can act however they want against others.” Not true, she said. “If they want to live here, have kids, have grandchildren, they must make an effort to adapt to the society where they live.”  

Ms. Sabuni comes across as a dervish, all business and kinetic energy. Barely taller than five feet, she strode to lunch in a private dining room in Sweden’s handsome main government office building. She was interviewed in English and answered back in rapid, precisely enunciated Swedish, explaining in perfect English that “I would prefer to speak in a language that I speak fluently.” The daughter of a frequently jailed opposition politician in Congo, then  Zaire, who fled to Sweden as a political refugee, Ms. Sabuni has a past so singular for Sweden that she arguably represents a minority of one.

The story of how she arrived here with her parents and five of her siblings at the age of 12, learned Swedish, thrived in school and in college and ultimately got elected to Parliament and elevated to the cabinet, is almost American in its can-do trajectory. If there is such a thing as a Swedish dream, Ms. Sabuni embodies it. Never, she says, has she let herself feel like a victim or felt anything but accepted. Even putting aside her native French and Swahili for Swedish proved fairly easy, she insists. She holds firm to that view even though, before entering Parliament, she was regularly turned away from the jobs for which she applied, she said, getting work only through contacts or by being recruited. But she refuses to dwell on it.

“You can end up in a negative spiral where you attribute everything that goes wrong to discrimination,” she said. Ms. Sabuni has certainly been helped in her career by the Scandinavian-style feminism of her husband, Carl Bergquist, whom she began dating when she was 24 and he was 47. His regular hours at a travel agency allow him to devote himself to the housework and their children, 5-year-old twins, leaving Ms. Sabuni free to train her disciplined mind on her work. The path of a migrant to Sweden is not so easy and clear as it was when the Sabunis arrived in 1981, their relocation arranged by Amnesty International. About 12 percent of the population of nine million is now foreign-born; Muslims account for some 450,000. Swedes are far less likely to welcome new arrivals now. Newcomers, who often live in rundown immigrant neighborhoods, are less likely to learn Swedish and more likely to go to all-immigrant schools and to remain unemployed and poor.

Sweden’s experience has been mirrored across Europe, where governments with histories of tolerance are struggling to find a way to absorb growing immigrant populations, particularly Muslims. Some countries, like  Denmark, have passed tough anti-immigrant laws; others, like Britain, are rethinking the live-and-let-live policies they now believe have failed. Luciano Astudillo, a member of Parliament and the spokesman for immigration issues for the opposition Social Democrats here, said Sweden must move quickly to address its problems. Even though he believes that Ms. Sabuni’s fiery statements while in the opposition were delivered more for political consumption than as serious propositions, Mr. Astudillo said that she had proved nothing but divisive. “She has used very simplistic and general language when talking about problems,” he said. “She has often been the person who stressed the divisions instead of finding what brings us together.”

But Ms. Sabuni, who grew up non-religious although her mother is Muslim and her father Christian, says that on the contrary, she is eager to start a coherent dialogue. Muslims in particular have marginalized themselves by conveying an impression of intolerance and aversion to change, she said. “Practicing Muslims who live by the word of the Koran and the Koranic books — of course they limit their own opportunities,” she said. “A lot of people who live like me, or practicing Muslims who respect that religion is a private matter, have had it easier than those who think religion should be part of a larger society.” Ms. Subuni said many say, “I need to pray five times a day because my religion says so.” But she added: “Which employer will accept that? Or, ‘My child shouldn’t take part in music class, because my religion questions this.’ O.K., then we have a problem.”

As the minister for gender equality, she is particularly troubled at evidence that young Muslim girls are wearing the veil. “I would like to know what is happening in our society that makes families want to put a veil on our children,” she said. “Maybe we don’t need a law. Maybe we need something else so that people don’t feel so insecure that they need to manifest their religion by using their children.” Such talk infuriates Sweden’s Muslim groups, who say that Ms. Sabuni is unfairly singling them out while avoiding pressing issues like unemployment. And, they say, she has essentially betrayed her past. “I’m happy that she’s a foreigner, and I’m happy about the color of her skin, but I think maybe she has lost the connection to the immigrant communities,” said Helena Benaouda, chairwoman of the Muslim Council of Sweden, the country’s largest Muslim group. “Maybe she has thought too much about herself and her political career, and she should try to remember that she’s not representing just herself.” But Ms. Sabuni said that she was indeed sympathetic and that she fully understood that both sides — Sweden, and its immigrants — had to change.

“We have a society that has failed to adapt to new times,” she said. “We don’t offer people their rights, but we are also unclear about their obligations. So people end up in a kind of no man’s land, where they are neither Swedes, Turks nor Congolese.” She said she would identify herself as “Afro-Swedish, maybe.” But, she added, “I feel cosmopolitan. As long as I have my parents, my siblings, my family with me, I think I could fit in almost anywhere.”

NB: State-paid bodyguards have been assigned to protect Nyamko Sabuni due to threats from people who feel offended by her controversial proposals.

Source: SARAH LYALL. Published January 13, 2007 (The New York Times). Posted by Jared Odero

MarchUTCbThu, 15 Mar 2007 21:17:16 +0000000000pmThu, 15 Mar 2007 21:17:16 +000007 19, 2007 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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