Changing The Face Of Politics

Episode 18: Nora Noralla interviews Birgitta Ohlsson

In this episode, Nora Noralla, Egyptian LGBTQI+ activist, interviews Birgitta Ohlsson, Former Member of Parliament and Minister in Sweden and current Director for Political Parties at NDI, about her experience fighting for gender equality and LGBTQI+ rights in Sweden and what it takes to be a strong, resilient, and influential leader today.






Introduction: Welcome to the National Democratic Institute’s Changing the Face of Politics Podcast Series. In these candid conversations recorded from home, politically active women from around the globe interview each other about the male-dominated world of politics. They're the best examples of why we need to move faster to reach political parity between men and women before the middle of the next century, and change the face of politics. In this episode, Nora Noralla, Egyptian LGBTQI+ activist, interviews Birgitta Ohlsson, Former Member of Parliament and Minister in Sweden and current Director for Political Parties at NDI, about her experience fighting for gender equality and LGBTQI+ rights in Sweden and what it takes to be a strong, resilient, and influential leader today.

Nora Noralla: Hello and welcome to this episode of the Changing the Face of Politics podcast series. My name is Nora Noralla. I am an Egyptian activist for LGBTQI+ rights and gender equality. My guest today is Birgitta Ohlsson. Birgitta is a former member of Parliament in Sweden and also served as the minister of European affairs and she currently serves as the Director of Political Parties at the National Democratic Institute. I am looking forward to having this conversation today because I am amazed by your work and like everything that you have done so far and the steps and the risks that you have taken.

Birgitta Ohlsson: Thank you, Nora. It will be a great conversation. And I also admire your work and I think we need more persons like you, and not only in the global politics, but also moving the authoritarian regimes to a more freer society.

Nora Noralla: Thank you, a lot. We will have a very interesting conversation for our listeners. So let's hear, we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Beijing conference and the platform for action in that conference. What do you think has changed for women in politics and the political leadership for women and their decision making in the last 25 years? Do you think it stayed the same or did it change?

Birgitta Ohlsson: Yeah, that's a very good question. And I would say I would quote our Chairperson at the NDI and former State Secretary Madeline Albright. She, I think she once said that female politicians are kind of bumping a glass ceiling or rising from the floor. And I think we're still doing that in all parts of the world and, even if we live in a more kind of gender equal countries or in a really authoritarian regime. So I think we're facing many challenges and they're just going to statistics. I always say that the numbers are the best friend that the feminists can have. And right now we have like 25% women in the global parliament. So that's kind of embarrassing, embarrassingly low. And it would take, I think like 50 years before we would reach gender parity in parliament in the world. And if you look up on the highest level, only 13 countries in the world, 13 countries have a woman as head of government. That will take 130 years for women to be equal to men. And so, I mean, I think around 20% of the government ministers in the world are women and they mostly hold positions as families, children, youth, elderly(?) and, so on social affairs. So I think we still have a lot to do. And I mean, in my country and in Sweden and in countries like the United States and the Netherlands, we're now celebrating 100 years with democracy and all these three different countries never had a woman as a President or Prime Minister. So I think the feminist fight it needs to continue all over the world.

Nora Noralla: Yes, it's very interesting that even the countries that had started the fight early still need to fight longer. [Birgitta Ohlsson: [chuckles] For sure.] So you're a politician or maybe identify yourself as something else. What motivated you to get politically involved? Was there a personal connection, maybe a political party or a family member that influenced that?

Birgitta Ohlsson: Well, I grew up in a very, kind of a liberal family when it comes to values. So I had kind of a political environment around me. My father was a very strong feminist, so encouraged me to be more radical. And my mother was also very kind of dedicated when it comes to issues of solidarity and equality, but I was also very a kind of quiet person who, up until I was like in high school, I was kind of a typical we say in Sweden, “Kachin girl”, you know, very quiet girl that you put in between two very unruly boys in the classroom and she should calm them down. And I said almost like nothing when I was in school. And so the friends that I met in school, my classmates, they were quite surprised when they find years later, me in politics and they can see me on TV, and so on. So, I kind of came out when it comes to politics kind of late. It's still young from the global level, I was like 19 years old or so when I joined a political party, but then my journey was kind of quick and so on. And for me, my parents always told them that if you want to change your world, you need to kind of start with yourself and you need to say yes to power. So that has been kind of my mantra all the years, encouraging young women to say yes to power. You can, I mean, you can regret it later, but you need to kind of be more kind of straight forward. And then I have two young daughters myself---seven years old and eleven years old. And sometimes I kind of promote Disney feminists before them, because well this new one said, if you can dream it, you can do it. So, so I think that's always very important, we need to create role models from all different parts of society and all different types of women need to be represented out there for young girls, no matter who they are, to recognize and to follow. So that's extremely important for me, but I wasn't very vocal at a shy level, super shy and so on.

Nora Noralla: Well to come late to the game is better than not coming at all. [Both laugh] We're all so glad that you came to the game, even if it's late. [Birgitta Ohlsson: Yes, that’s true.] So in your opinion, why is having more women and girls engaged in politics is important? What impacts of their engagement have you seen, and do you have an example like that you see as important to share with us?

Birgitta Ohlsson: Well, I think right now we're kind of living in the Greta Thunberg era and yes, when it comes to working on climate issues, if you look around the world, you have my fellow Swede Greta Thunberg here, and you have Vanessa Nakate in Uganda and you have all these different strong young ladies pushing for one of the most important things that we need to deal with. And and I think that really shows that that women make an impact in civil society, as elected officials in business life and all around the world. Andthen, and I think, especially when it comes to two very burning political issues that we need to deal with right now, we're the last generation maybe to save the planet because we're also the first generation after the Second World War to face a democratic backlash. And here, I think that, that the women are extremely important and also through the last year or so, and thinking of politicians have been extremely successful in kind of this moment of [inaudible] we've seen the different revolutions in the world. In Sudan, Alaa Salah, a young woman to one of the leadership. She was a young student leader. We see in, in Belarus right now where the trio which is Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Maria Kalesnikava, and Varanika Tsepkala, and others are strong women doing a lot of brave and activities to get rid of dictatorship. So I think we see a lot of young women that, and women all ages that are engaging in politics and do have a lot of impact, even though we're obviously the minority when it comes to power.

Nora Noralla: So speaking of women and like their attitudes in politics, do you think that there is a difference in the way women and men lead and engage with others? Do you believe that there is bright examples on that?

Birgitta Ohlsson: Hmm. That's a really good question [chuckles]. I would say that women can be saints, but women can be devils too. But I think that, that women do have a kind of different, I mean, experiences from men, not all women, but many women. And I think what we've seen out of history is that many issues like childcare issues or climate issues,or some human rights issues, women have been kind of the, the front runners. And then for example, if I'm mentioning LGBTQI plus issues in my country of Sweden, I would say that many of the most strongest advocates for that have been women from very different backgrounds starting that kind of revolution in the parliament and on the streets. And Sweden, we had a queen called Queen Christina 400 years ago. I was quoting her because she's such a cool person. And in a children's book, I wrote a couple of years ago. And she resigned, so she left the royal family, she refused to get married, she moved to Rome, she changed her religion. She was quite queer actually. And she said, a very wise thing about this topic. She said, “There are men who are as much women as their mothers and women who are as much men as their fathers because the soul has no gender.” And I think that's kind of radical, I guess, to say that 400 years ago. But I think you had something here that I think it's extremely important to have a focus on the individual. Also, we have the gender structures, we need to carry our glasses on with our gender lenses, but it's important also to see that that that it's not only about gender and some men can be more kind of fierce feminists than other women are. But women's experiences do matter. And that's also one of the big reasons that we also need more women into politics. 

Nora Noralla: Of course, and like the dynamics differ from one person to another. And for our next question, how do gender equality and democracy work together in your mind?

Birgitta Ohlsson: Well, I would say no woman, no change. I mean women make up half of the world population or more in many countries. And I think in the time that we are living right now, it's extremely important to see how gender equality and democracy is kind of interlinked. We live right now in a a very kind of populist world. It's very tempting for political parties and governments, even in established to blame this kind of toxic political cocktail on populism. Andwe know for sure that in all these different 50 shades of authoritarian leadership from the church to Orbán and from Putin and the Ayatollahs in Iran. And so we know that what do they have in common? What do they have in common? They want to attack democracy. They want to attack minority rights. They attack the LGBTQI plus community. They attack women, they attack people around. So I think that's also important to see that if you want to defend democracy, you need to defend feminism too. And then the first victims for authoritarian leadership. I mean, you know, that you said very well. I mean, and that's always minorities and, and also women are not definitely not the minority, but they are very vulnerable. And this old stereotype, very sad gender ideals wanting to throw society back 50 or six years back or so connected to sometimes legends, sometimes conservative ideals and so on. So I think we need to do a lot to, and you can not only, you know, discuss how to defend the democracy without building these kinds of guerrilla war strategy around the world with agents of change and, and identify your allies, your friends, it's a global fight that we need to take together.

Nora Noralla: It is indeed a global fight and a long fight. It is during this long fight and your long political career. Did you have anything that's really surprised you and like what have the pluses and the minuses for you?

Birgitta Ohlsson: Well, I think definitely on the plus side, I would say, I will very much talk about meaningful power to have real power. And I could feel when I was the Minister and amember of parliament that I had real power, and I had a strong support from the voters in my constituency. So I could be kind of an independent politician and taking a lot of fights inside my party also to promote the values they provide close to my heart. So that was extremely important, but of course the minus side is always like the hate that you get as a politician. And I mean, I was active in one of the most kind of solid democracies in the world, Sweden, and we were respected for gender equality and so on, but, but the harassment and harassment is of course, I mean, it's much, it's much worse in authoritarian dictatorship countries and war-torn countries and so on. But it's still a global phenomenon. And that was something that I think that was very kind of alive. It was for me every day. I mean, every morning when you wake up, you read your emails and you have full of threats and hate, and most of them are anonymous, but not all of them. And you also get kind of used to this random men calling you nasty names on the street. When you go to your job, they are belittling you in front of your young daughters. And I once read these kind of fake Twitter thread, and it looked like it looked like it was like breaking news, but obviously not, but that, I just had been shocked outside the parliament building, you know, all these people that are really trying to be nasty on female politicians for them to leave politics. AndI think that's something that we need to discuss more and how to avoid getting thick-skinned, how to deal with the self silencing and, and how to kind of maneuver yourself in this very, very kind of toxic culture that we have in the world, the kind of the locker room culture, but some male politicians, even at the highest level are using it. And I mean, talking about the highest level in politics, I mean, through the years, we've heard the world leaders,saying things on women, like in the church, in the Philippines that we should shoot them in the vagina. Some women are too ugly to rape and we've heard in one of the election campaigns, United States quote from the former American president Donald Trump and so on. So the language and the situation and the threat and violence for women, I think is we need to focus much, much, much more on that. I had a very strong moment myself when it comes to this, and that was 11 years ago. And I was, I was seven months pregnant with our first daughter. And I had been asked to give a speech at the first big human rights March for LGBTQI plus people in a neighboring countries here in the east. And I had been following this this particular LGBTQI plus movement for many years. I had a strong commitment to them. I'd been to visit them so many times. But I also knew from this Georgia service that some extremist groups had advanced plans to kill me if I was going to go and give my speeches this pride march. So I had long conversations with my husband and with my staff and with the activists and everyone told me that we would respect your choice because I mean, you're, you're seven months pregnant and it's a very risky environment for you. But I went there and I went to Lithuania and I held one of the strongest speeches in my life. And, and we were surrounded by thousands of religious and political extremists, but also many people that supported us. And I felt that was very strong to kind of see that that sometimes you need to do something really strong to, to promote the values that are closest to your heart. And that [inaudible]tell my daughter, she's now turning 11 years old next week about this march. And she was like, it was good that you went out there supporting good ideas for me and my friends in the future. So that was a good moment. 

Nora Noralla: It’s a very happy moment as well, like it ended up happening [both laugh Birgitta Ohlsson: Yes, yes!]. And and of course, like the minuses come with a lot of challenges. And like the challenge is you can tell us a bit more about like the challenges that you have faced and how do you think, like what actually works to increase the number of women in political leadership and advocacy?

Birgitta Ohlsson: I think we talk very often about the free seats and that's what women kind of lack when it comes to being successful in politics. So women lack the like capacity. They lack confidence and they lack connections. So that's some of the things that I think that we really need to work with. And working on both on an individual level, but also of course, when it comes to, to tearing down all the conservative structures around the world. And we also know that, that we know the three things that are stopping women as leaders and politicians, and that's actually the parties themselves, and it's about campaign financing like money and also violence. So I think when we're dealing with these things I think it's far more easy to get more women into leadership and, and to, and democracy for feminist issues and other issues that women are putting emphasis on. But what I've seen through the years is that I think it's very important to not only to talk about when it comes to female politicians to talk about the leadership positions itself. I think it's important also to kind of discuss the realities in society. I mean, in most countries, we still have a family structure that is based on a model where women take the major responsibility for children, unpaid housework, et cetera. And of course that gives women fewer opportunities, less money, less power. So I think that's always important to see that if women still are financially dependent on their partner, it's also harder for them to get active into politics, but also harder to leave an abusive relationship. I mean, that's not like rocket science, and so I think we need to, we want to have more women into politics and political parties. We need to work on all different levels in society. One thing is putting pressure on the political parties to have more women on lists to get elected in the elections, but also to look at the site as a whole. That's extremely important for me when I work with this issue.

Nora Noralla: So like that there's new challenges in this world now, like emerging that was with the pandemic, like, do you think that COVID like the crisis have influenced or shaped your political viewpoints? Do you have examples on that, and also, have you changed the way you interact with other politically because of the social distance and the COVID virus in January?

Birgitta Ohlsson: I mean, of course, I mean, we lived in a virtual world since March of last year, 2020 and so on, but I think we should definitely use the different things that have happened that women have suffered a lot from to create real change. And I sometimes say the three L words here, the first one is definitely leadership. I mean, everyone knows that through the pandemic women that have been leading countries have had a staunch kind of response to the pandemic, the female heads of governments in Germany, Norway, Finland, Taiwan, New Zealand, and others, they kind of smashed these stereotypes about the political capabilities of women and also been great, great role models for, for good governance. So that's one thing, but also one of the things, the other L’s are life. I mean, we've seen the lockdowns in countries across the world. They've affected families in a number of ways. So we've seen the gender based violence dramatically increase, and also all these women having the online learning, homeschooling, and everything. And also last but not least the other L is labor, 70% of the world's healthcare workers are women. So what I want, just want to see off the pandemic. I would like to see like a global feminist roar or at least kind ofa wake up call for political parties to, to give space to women. And I mean, it would be so sad. I think if not the pandemic would have a feminist impact at all, because women have been suffering the most during the pandemic and taking a lot of responsibility. I mean, in my country of Sweden, we have reached a very long way when it comes to gender quality, but still we have a lot of big salary gap. Especially women working as nurses, medical doctors they are working the healthcare sector are not earning, earning it a lot, and they still have many of them have long academic education and so on. And so, but I hope that this can prioritize these things and be this kind of feminist roar for, for, for real change. . 

Nora Noralla: And real change is something we all need in the end, like when we need to adapt, like, and I guess in politics, like, like anything else, we're all adapted to this COVID virus in the end. So like in Europe, in Europe opinion, like what will you do to accelerate the pace of change of woman political empowerment in the next 10 years?

Birgitta Ohlsson: That's a very good question. And also European countries are very different. I mean, even though I would say, if you look upon statistics that it's the same, the best place in the world to be born as a young girl would be in Western Europe because I mean the five countries topping the list when it comes to, I mean, every frame from health, from education, from leadership and so on would be maybe the Nordic countries and some of the others in the Western parts of Europe. But, but also it's enormous gaps between countries. You also have some European countries that have, I think around them only like in 15% women in parliament and that's, that's lower than, than many countries in other parts of the world. So it's not like the west is always best that many countries still need to kind of step it up and to understand that pole is expired. It's like running a marathon. You need to work again, recall to every single day to get kind of the longer outset and so on. But I think it's important to, as I mentioned before, to continue to work with the basic gender equality things: that women are economically independent from their partners, that you have a good healthcare system, that you have a good childcare system, a lot of different welfare issues. They are as important, I think, as I see us working on, on them getting rid of obstacles to get more women into politics.  But, but I would say that, that it, it, it starts in the family and starts very early.

Nora Noralla: It starts very early, but you're honestly, you seem very optimistic and that's something that we all need, I believe in like something that I admire that you managed to stay optimistic and engaged with this long process. But the speaking of optimism, what are you the most optimistic about?

Birgitta Ohlsson: Well, I have alwaysbeen a feminist optimist, and I think we need to acknowledge sometimes when it's feeling really sad or really slow, and you're almost near to giving up, we need to realize that that we've done a tremendous journey. I mean, in most or all countries in the world when it comes to opportunities for girls and for women. And I always tell about my grandmother, Betty, she was born in 1912 in the Northern parts of Sweden. And she went to school less than two years. I think she was in school like 1.5 years or so when she started to work as a full-time worker at the farm before she turned 10. And when I was 10 years old myself, I realized that she couldn't spell very well from the postcards that she wrote, because you cannot get that many words into a postcard. But but I could see that she had some challenges and the very short, short time in school. But one of the most important lessons she taught me and my mother and my, my other cousins and so on was definitely to see that the futures will definitely be more bright than her life was. AndI mean, my own daughters, they have enormous freedom compared to her. And even if my grandmother barely left the neighborhood in her lifetime and so on, and my own daughters, they've already visited many countries and I have another, another lifestyle and so on. I think it's important to see all these, all the positive changes that we see in almost all family stories around the world. And that's extremely important for politicians. If you cannot provide a more hopeful future for people that people are feeling that their kids will have a more prosperous future, more liberty, more freedom, more openness, and so on. Then I think quite many people will turn to populist political parties and authoritarian leaders. They are really surfing on this wave right now to create a very kind of negative negative future and so on of them based on prejudice. So I think it's important to just see all the fantastic things that have happened in the world, even though it goes back to forth. And unfortunately we are in the 15th, I think consecutive year, when it comes to backlash from democracy in the world, you can also see all the fantastic things that happened. Andas I mentioned, my grandmother, she spent less than two years in school and she’s got nine grandchildren. And all of them have been studying at university. And I mean, that's just like two generations in Sweden and the story is the same in many countries. So I think they should be possible.

Nora Noralla: Every everything is possible with this added energy that you're bringing here. I thank you for taking the time to talk to us and exploring all of these aspects with us, I would say personally, I am very inspired by all of the work that you're doing. And like, I'm very sure that this long fight that you talked about, you are one of the people who are in the front lines. So we are thankful for having you, and thanks again for taking the time to talk to us about that.

Birgitta Ohlsson: And thank you, Nora. And I think I really also would like to take the opportunity to give a strong, strong message to all the LGBTQI+ activists around the world and to also see the enormous progress that we do every day. And when I was 10 years old in 1995 that was a long time ago, but, but I could hear just Swedish Archbishop on TV. He was telling that all the gay people, they should stay in the closet. They should, they should be living in the closet for the rest of their life. And not that many years later we had, we had a revolution in my country when it comes to gay rights. But, but it's also kind of interesting to see that all the major LGBTQI+ reforms in Sweden from same-sex marriage to, to transgender individuals’ situation, to adoption issues, and so on. All of these different reforms happened during the last 20 years. So it was a kind of a, it was a late journey, but a quick journey, and I'm pretty sure that many countries are walking the same way. When it starts to move., 

Nora Noralla: It’s a quick journey, like quick for some long for others, but in the end of the day, it is a journey that we all have to take and that we are taking currently. And like whether it's feminism or LGBTQ rights or other rights, we are all in the same journey, just in a different way.

Birgitta Ohlsson: Yes, we, we are on the right side of history and let's continue that fight. 

Closing: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Changing the Face of Politics Podcast Series. To learn more about the series and NDI's initiative, please go to NDI's website at


Copyright 2021 © - National Democratic Institute - All rights reserved