When Divorce Is an Opportunity

In Sweden, progressive gender dynamics can lead immigrant women to leave their husbands and become independent.

Anders Veide looks on as his friend Set Moklint plays with his child during paternity leave in Stockholm, Sweden.
Anders Veide looks on as his friend Set Moklint plays with his child during paternity leave in Stockholm, Sweden. (Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP / Getty )

STOCKHOLM—Sweden has the reputation of being one of the best countries in the world for gender equality. The women’s employment rate in Sweden is the highest in the European Union, and is nearly equal to the men’s employment rate. Nearly 90 percent of Swedish fathers take paternity leave—it is not unusual to see men pushing baby carriages alone in the city.

This can be disconcerting for the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who have arrived in Sweden in recent years—163,000 new immigrants arrived in the country of 9 million in 2016 alone. Although Sweden has lately reversed its open-door migration policy, the country for a long time admitted the most asylum-seekers per capita in Europe. Many of these refugees and other immigrants to Sweden come from countries like Somalia and Iraq, where gender roles are more uneven: Men tend to work and women tend to raise families. In Sweden, though, women—even immigrants—are expected by the government to work. The government offers free Swedish language classes and job placement counselors to immigrants, and launched a program in 2017 aimed at reducing unemployment among foreign-born women. In the immigrant-heavy suburb of Rinkeby, for instance, I ran into a man named Adam Hassan, who was an accountant in Ethiopia until migrating to Sweden with his wife three years ago. He got a job in a supermarket, she got a job in a school, and now, during the day, he watches their baby son, pushing him around in a stroller. “There, the mother takes care of the kids, and the man brings in money,” he told me placidly. “It’s different here.”

Not all immigrants find it as easy as Hassan does to adjust to Sweden’s gender norms. And that may be contributing to a high divorce rate in Sweden among immigrants from more traditionally patriarchal countries, compared to native-born Swedes, according to Merhdad Darvishpour, a sociologist at Malarden University who himself immigrated from Iran. (Iranians are one of the largest minorities in Sweden. Many of them arrived in the country in the 1980s.) In a recent study of women in Sweden who had been married at least once, 28 percent of people born to Swedish parents had divorced within 15 years of first getting married; that share was much higher for immigrant women from more patriarchal countries. (The study looked at women who had first been married between 1983 and 2007.) Nearly 60 percent of women from the countries in the Horn of Africa, 53 percent of women from sub-Saharan Africa, and 48 percent of women from Iran had divorced in Sweden within 15 years of getting married. Overall, women from the Horn of Africa were 2.24 times more likely to get divorced than women born to Swedish parents, and women from Iran were 2.15 times more likely, the study showed. Women from other countries where gender norms are similar to those in Sweden had much lower chances of getting divorced—immigrants from Western Europe living in Sweden were actually less likely to get divorced than Swedes, for example.

The divorce rates for immigrants in Sweden seem especially high when compared to the divorce rates in their home countries. In Iran, for example, about 20 percent of marriages now end in divorce, while 48 percent of Iranian women in Sweden had divorced within 15 years of marriage, according to the study. Another study showed that just 25 percent of women ages 15-49 in sub-Saharan Africa had divorced within their first 20 years of marriage (though the rates varied dramatically by country), as opposed to the 70 percent of sub-Saharan women living in Sweden who had divorced within 15 years of marriage. That the divorce rates are higher in Sweden may not be solely due to women’s higher workforce participation. In many patriarchal countries, divorce is less accepted, and it can be legally more difficult to get divorced. In Sweden, on the other hand, divorce is socially more acceptable, and more feasible.

Often, divorce is seen as a negative development. When families split up, children can find it difficult to adjust emotionally. Women and men who had depended on being a two-income household struggle with the new financial realities of single life. Divorce can also be lonely and isolating. But for women in Sweden who have migrated from more patriarchal countries, divorce may not be as negative, Darvishpour told me. “Maybe divorce is not a problem,” he said. “Maybe it’s an opportunity.”

Arriving in a country like Sweden can reshape dynamics between the men and women who make the journey, he says. Men who dominated their families because they had the economic power in their home countries lose that power when they integrate into a more gender-equal country like Sweden. They react to this loss of power in two ways, according to Darvishpour—they either adjust to their loss of power and accept being more equal with their wives, as Hassan did, or they try to reassert their lost power. In some cases, women submit to this. In others, they resist it, which can lead to divorce.

Women from patriarchal societies, after all, gain power when they integrate into a country like Sweden. There are more economic opportunities for them relative to their home countries, and resources for women’s rights are more developed—it’s easier for a woman to divorce her husband, or to live on her own, for example. The welfare system is also extensive in Sweden, meaning that even women of low socioeconomic status can leave their husbands with no jobs and receive low-cost health care, education, job training, and a stipend from the government. In Denmark, a country similar to Sweden because it has an extensive safety net and many opportunities for women, immigrant women initiated divorce more than men did, and the welfare state was instrumental in “liberating women and children from life in dysfunctional families,” a 2015 study found. (This safety net is less extensive in the United States, which may be one reason why divorce rates of immigrants are still lower than that of the native-born population.)

Another paper studying six Iranian divorcees who had arrived in Sweden still married found that men adjusted more slowly to new gender norms than women did. One male interviewee whose wife had left him told interviewers that she started changing once she began attending Swedish for Foreigners, a class in which immigrants learn the local language and customs. “She started behaving like a rival or business partner, trying to confirm her share in everything,” he told an interviewer. Another Iranian immigrant told interviewers that she and her husband started fighting when she began making more money than he did in Sweden, and asked him to start contributing equally in terms of childcare and other household duties, but he refused. “The change in power relations can intensify the problems in bad relationships,” Darvishpour said.

Some women in Sweden prefer not to work. After a decade in Sweden, just 64 percent of migrant women were working, compared to 80 percent of native Swedes, according to a 2014 report funded by the European Union. But in his own study of Iranian immigrants to Sweden, Darvishpour found that men often find immigration more challenging than women do. Many of the men he spoke to had good jobs in their home countries, and were often unemployed in Sweden, or working jobs that they were overqualified for. They suddenly had a lower status than they did back home. The women he spoke to, on the other hand, did not have as many economic opportunities in their home countries, so they had little change in status when they arrived in Sweden. If they hadn’t been working at home, nothing changed when they arrived; if they had been working and found a job when they arrived, they became better off in Sweden.

One woman told Darvishpour that she had wanted to divorce her husband in Iran because she didn’t love him, but was worried about supporting her child if she left him. “After immigration, I discovered, however, that I had the possibility to stand on my own legs, creating a new life where I could make my own decisions,” she told him. After one year in Sweden, she filed for divorce.

There are trends in Sweden that may make this emboldening of immigrant women more difficult in the future. Sweden has limited some of the welfare benefits available to asylum-seekers—people whose asylum applications are denied no longer receive a monthly cash benefit, and paid parental leave for immigrants has been reduced. With less of a safety net, women may be less inclined to take the risk of leaving their husbands.

In addition, segregation in Sweden—with immigrants concentrated in places like the suburbs of Stockholm and the industrial town of Malmo—can limit how much immigrant communities are influenced by Swedish gender norms. I talked to a Kurdish refugee named Sevi—she didn’t want to give her last name for fear of retribution from her neighbors—who said that in the segregated suburb of Husby where she lives, she is expected to obey traditional Kurdish cultural norms. Men loiter outside apartment complexes and harass women who aren’t wearing veils or who come home late, she said.

“Unfortunately, there is too much segregation now,” Amineh Kakabaveh, a Swedish member of Parliament who came to Sweden as an Iranian Kurdish refugee, told me. Kakabaveh was able to benefit from Sweden’s attitudes toward women—once she arrived in the country, she got an education, ran for office, and put off marriage, things that would have been difficult to do back home. But she worries that other women won’t have the same opportunities in the Sweden of the future.

Still, for many women who come to Sweden, the country does represent a chance at independence. Many of Sweden’s recent immigrants have been asylum-seekers from unstable regions in Asia and Africa. They arrive in Sweden to escape the terrors of their old lives, and find a completely new world, where they’re expected to adapt to new norms about gender and work. Some asylum-seekers, especially men, may resist these changes and cling to the old world for as long as they can. But for many women, Sweden represents a new beginning.