The Red Lips of Empowerment – thoughts on gender and race in Finland

“I cannot understand Finnish women!”, exclaimed my long-time Iranian friend, Negin. “All the women here are trying to be like men. They walk so fast with long bulky strides, wear mostly dark colors, don’t have much makeup and talk with much lower voices. I cannot understand this! I feel that women should be able to show their femininity, wear their lipstick and high-heels. This is what I feel women should do.” This conversation took place three years ago and was one of the first instances where I started to see gender not as something wholly biological but more of socially constructed entity.

Negin, who is in her mid 40’s, has a differing view on doing femininity than apparently most Finnish women do. Interestingly enough, Iranian culture with its current government, represents one kind of setting were women are oppressed. In the case of Iran, this oppression is done through laws and regulations. Sometimes I have wondered that the heightened and overtly feminine concept is so pervasive in Iran because it has been so forcefully taken from them. It was not long ago, when women wearing lipstick in public had the color taken away from their lips with a pocket knife by the street police. The act of wearing lipstick therefore embodies not only femininity but freedom, power and defiance. Therefore, I can understand that it might seem counterintuitive to witness so few women wearing lipstick in a country were women have the regulatory support and freedom of doing femininity. However, the conversation with Negin gave me a clue that there could be laws and regulations, albeit tacit, that guide the behaviour of Finnish women too.

Reflecting on the differences between Iranian and Finnish femininity according to Negin, I could find that gender is done not only through individual behavior but also through a society. It is through socialization that individuals learn the appropriate behavior of femininity or masculinity. Gender is created and reproduced – therefore done – in different kinds of practices of social interaction. The reason why it is crucial to understand and acknowledge that gender is done, is that these practices have widespread implications resulting sometimes in unjust consequences. The fact that women are categorized more often as soft and emotional hinders women from reaching job positions that need tough and hard qualities in order to succeed.

Reading Aurélie Salvaire’s gender equality manifesto ‘Balance the World’ left me both shocked and determined. Gender inequality is not just about pay gaps, but also about other life opportunities: what interests should an individual have or how sexuality can be expressed. It truly encompasses all areas of life. The practices that create and maintain tacit regulations of femininity and masculinity are also the keys in undoing them. Practices can be recreated and behavior can be changed. This gives some hope of possible change.

Whiteness can also be seen as an orientation according to Ahmed (2007).

Does your body lag behind?

I think of Negin frequently, because being an Iranian foreigner she also represents a minority here in Finland. She moved to Finland 10 years ago with no prior knowledge of the language or the culture. She had to learn that a bus is always stopped by waving your hand and that people are not familiar with taroof (or what is called kursailu in Finnish). Negin was a professor in an Iranian university but was told by the Finnish employment service that she could be a kindergarten school helper at best. 

Frustrating as Negin’s story is, it is sadly not the only one. Being born into an intercultural family (Finnish mother and Iranian father), I have witnessed how in Finland your ethnicity marks your value more than your accomplishments. My father, as a researcher in marine biology in Iran, could only be a lab assistant in Finland and was one of the first to get fired from the department in the co-operation negotiations. Almost none of my Iranian acquaintances living in Finland could attain a job in their original discipline in Iran. However, very few of them have faced overt racism or hostility. This could reflect that there might be prevailing racist assumptions hidden in plain sight by both prejudice and institutionalized racism.

It was interesting to learn that like gender also concepts such as ethnicity and race are defined by society. Even though the criteria of a Finn or Iranian seem to be given and self-evident, they actually are concepts continuously debated and re-established through social interaction. The more I think of a concept such as Finn, the more elusive it becomes. Ideas once thought of as solid, suddenly become unambiguous. In my mind sauna, mämmisisu, snow, slush and midsummer brightness are notions tightly interwoven with being a Finn. But what if a person born in Finland would not enjoy or experience these things, would she then be a Finn? If my father, born in Iran, enjoys, embodies and experiences these Finnish concepts regularly, isn’t he then a Finn? I think that these questions of definition show how ambiguous these terms are.

I want to suggest here that whiteness could be understood as ‘the behind’. White bodies are habitual insofar as they ‘trail behind’ actions: they do not get ‘stressed’ in their encounters with objects or others, as their whiteness ‘goes unnoticed’. Whiteness would be what lags behind; white bodies do not have to face their whiteness; they are not orientated ‘towards’ it, and this ‘not’ is what allows whiteness to cohere, as that which bodies are orientated around. When bodies ‘lag behind’, then they extend their reach.

Sara Ahmed 2007

Still, even though the concept of a Finn is by nature ambiguous, it has very concrete consequences for individuals who are believed not to be in its scope. I think that these consequences were illustrated with poignancy by Ahmed (2007) in her article of whiteness. Despite its complexity, I found Ahmed’s concepts fascinating and illuminating – both on the general understanding of ethnicity and my own. Ahmed describes whiteness as an embodied privilege – something that just is “a background of experience”.

I see it like the supporting leg that a painting’s frame is leaning upon. A non-white body has no such support and therefore keeping oneself balanced becomes difficult – and so the painting stands on a wobbly surface, more likely to fall. 

As the supporting leg of a frame, so does a white body lag behind according to Ahmed (2007). It is in this dead zone that these issues are forgotten, denied and silenced. It is therefore vital to unravel things that sometimes seem self-evident – like whiteness, gender and ethnicity. I think that this has been the biggest takeaway for me: to understand the elusiveness of our given reality and how big concepts and phenomena are really constructed from tiny actions and fleeting moments. Therefore, I understand Negin and how just the mere act of wearing lipstick can suddenly embody defiance, freedom and ultimately power.

References and more readings:
Ahmed, S. (2007). A phenomenology of whiteness. Feminist theory, 8(2), 149-168.

Tienari, J. & Nentwich, J. (2012) The ‘Doing’ Perspective on Gender and Diversity. In Diversity in Organizations: Concepts and Practices, Eds. E.

Hanappi-Egger, M.A. Danowitz and H. Mensi-Klarbach. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 109-136.

Romani, L., Holck, L., & Risberg, A. (2018). Benevolent discrimination: Explaining how human resources professionals can be blind to the harm of diversity initiatives. Organization.