Figureheads of political integration

At the Norwegian local elections in 2003, only 206 out of a total of 11 138 political representatives elected had ethnic minority background. 92 of them were non-Westerners. This equals 1 % of the representatives. Eight years later, in 2011, the number was 1,67 %. In comparison, 13 % of the country’s population has an ethnic minority background. About half of them have non-Western background. Why is the rate increasing so slowly, despite the fact that Norwegian political parties all stress the importance of integration of immigrants?

For the past few years, I have been working on questions concerning the political representation of ethnic minorities in Norwegian politics. I have interviewed political representatives with ethnic minority background, leaders and representatives from political parties. They all express the importance of having representatives with ethnic minority background. So why are they so few? And (this may come as a surprise to some of you) why are women overrepresented in leading positions?

To address the first question; all political parties talk about the importance of integration. However, integration is reduced to a matter of values and social citizenship.  Integration is a matter of education, of speaking Norwegian, of adapting to Norwegian values. Political integration is nearly absent from party programmes and the and from white papers.

Also, political parties see integration of immigrants as integration of individuals, unlike women, students and senior citizens, who have their own subgroups to ensure broader recruitment and a special focus on matters close to their hearts in many of the political parties. The Socialist Left Party is the only Norwegian political party that uses quotas to ensure the recruitment of political representatives with ethnic minority background.

Still, some immigrants stand a better chance than others.

Ethnic minority women participating in Norwegian politics are characterized as brave, independent and extremely competent by their political mentors, leaders and colleagues. They have backbone and are passionate about politics. Men, on the other hand, are frequently described as “a likable fellow”, “a nice guy” and “ok”. Why this hierarchy of enthusiasm?

Politically active women with an ethnic minority background are perceived as the ones who have broken out of the constraints of their culture, which is seen as intrinsically patriarchal. They have announced transfer from their native culture to the Norwegian culture of gender equality, they are gender equality personified.

Where does this leave the ethnic minority men? Well, according to several of my male respondents, they feel that it is easier being a woman with ethnic minority background in Norwegian politics. They feel that women are used as figureheads. Hence, they have easier access to influential positions in Norwegian politics.

The women, on the other hand, do not feel that their ethnic minority status is a disadvantage in politics.  What they perceive as a disadvantage, is their gender. At some point, usually as their ambitions grow, they  might face resistance trying to climb the party ladder.