Gender-neutral Sweden departs from 'he' and 'she'

Published 19 April 2012  |  
Sweden, which in 2010 was recognised by the World Economic Forum as the most gender-equal country in the world, has stepped up its gender neutrality initiative by introducing a new word that refers to both boys and girls with the pronoun "hen".

A report on Slate.com states: "What many gender-neutral activists are after is a society that entirely erases traditional gender roles and stereotypes at even the most mundane levels."

Earlier this month, the gender-neutral pronoun "hen" was proposed by lobbyists to be used in public schools instead of "he" (han in Swedish) and "she" (hon). The decision came shortly after the publication of Sweden's first ever gender-neutral children's book, Kivi och Monsterhund (Kivi and Monsterdog). It tells the story of Kivi, a child who wants a dog for "hen's" birthday. Jesper Lundqvist, the author, also introduces several gender-neutral words in the book.

The Swedish Bowling Association is already planning to merge male and female bowling tournaments so that competitions are more gender-neutral.

Other recent examples of Swedish businesses pushing this idea of genderless children include a clothing company that removed the "boys" and "girls" sections from its store. Toy catalogue Leklust published an ad in which a boy in a Spiderman costume pushes a pink pram, while a girl in jeans rides a yellow tractor.

"Gender roles are an outdated thing," said Kaj Wiberg, CEO of Leklust, in an interview with Swedish newspaper Metro. "I'm 71 years old, and those of us who have worked in this industry for a while know that boys play with doll houses. We know that boys can play with Barbie dolls."

Not everyone in Sweden approves of the new gender neutrality standard, however. Jan Guillou, a popular Swedish author, said that the introduction of the pronoun "hen" was "silly because it doesn't change anything".

"And I don't think that my gender has anything to do with my equality because that is a political matter," she said in an interview, and referred to gender-neutral lobbyists as "feminist activists who want to destroy our language".

Others have suggested this new initiative could be both psychologically and socially damaging for Sweden's children.

Elise Claeson, a columnist and a former equality expert at the Swedish Confederation of Professions, said that school-aged children can become confused by talks of a third gender, the one referred to as "hen", at a time when they are developing both physically and mentally.

"Adults should not interrupt children's discovery of their gender and sexuality," Claeson insists.

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