Sweden’s first MP in a hijab challenges swing to the right

David Crouch in Gothenburg
Monday December 17, 2018

Swedes will this week be treated to a new sight: a Swedish MP giving a speech in a hijab.

Leila Ali Elmi, who arrived in the country aged two after her family fled civil war in Somalia, will make her parliamentary debut after winning a surprise victory in this autumn’s polls, promising a voice for people targeted by the groundswell of hostility to immigration.

“My getting elected has caused a lot of reactions from the racists,” she says in the Green party offices in Stockholm. “They weren’t really ready for it, but here I am.”

Ali Elmi, 30, represents the other side of an election that was dominated by the issue of immigration and had an increase in the far-right vote. She fought on the issues closest to residents of Angered, the disadvantaged, immigrant suburb that has been her home for the past 28 years – unemployment, overcrowding, exclusion and segregation.

“The only people who were not surprised at my election victory are those who know that the suburb needs a voice. I speak for the suburb, not about it or to it,” she says. “If you have not lived there or spent a day in those people’s shoes, you cannot represent them.”

Ethnic segregation in Sweden’s suburbs drew international attention in early 2013 when young people rioted in northern Stockholm, torching cars and schools and fighting with police. They said they were angry at police racism and felt like second-class citizens despite having been born in the country.

There have been flare-ups since, most recently when masked youths armed with molotov cocktails set 80 cars ablaze in a Gothenburg suburb. Problems with gangs, shootings and even grenade attacks have led some politicians to claim the suburbs are ungovernable no-go zones.

The far-right Sweden Democrats have been effective in linking these problems with immigration. The party won 17% of the vote in September’s poll, up from 12% in 2014, but not enough to push the Conservatives down to third place as had widely been expected.

The party has also shifted the political mainstream to the right. Sweden has moved a long way from the years leading up to 2016 when it welcomed 370,000 asylum seekers – by far the largest number relative to population of any European country.

For Ali Elmi, the issue is not immigration but rather the conditions in which most people with immigrant backgrounds live. “The Sweden Democrats say everything that is going wrong here is because of the immigrants, because Sweden is bringing too many people into the country, but this is a fiction. It is not true,” she says.

“I am trying to say instead that this is a national issue. People don’t have jobs and they live in segregated areas, which puts them even further from becoming part of the society. People feel dignity when they feel part of something bigger. Criminality is due to social exclusion … we need more equality in this country, harder laws against discrimination and racism.”

It is too soon to say precisely who voted for Ali Elmi, according to Jonas Hinnfors, a professor of politics at Gothenburg University. But the election of a young, liberal Muslim points to fundamental changes. “There is something stirring out there, a new trend,” he says.

“She did not play the immigrant card. It was not: ‘We Muslims must stick together.’ Instead it was schools, segregation, jobs – all the issues that are important to people who live in the suburbs. And because she comes from there, Ali Elmi also embodies what she is talking about. That is unusual.”

Ali Elmi worked as an interpreter, helping newly arrived immigrants and refugees to navigate the administrative process. Before her election to parliament, she was a city councillor for the Greens, campaigning on the party’s broad agenda of social and sexual equality, feminism and climate change.

Her political inspiration is Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the US Congress. Ali Elmi’s speech comes in the week that Sweden marks 100 years since its parliament voted for women’s suffrage.

“I addressed all Gothenburgers who share my values and those of the Green party,” she says. “My election gives hope to people who recognise themselves in me, whether they are black, female, Jewish, Muslims or young people.”

This article is part of a series on possible solutions to some of the world’s most stubborn problems. What else should we cover? Email us at theupside@theguardian.com

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