Dialogue Series, Race & Society

Refusing the Uniform: Immigrant and Ethnic Minority Women's Activism in Denmark, 1967–1997


The Center for International and Regional Studies invited GU-Q student Emma Mogensen (class of 2018) to present her senior thesis, “Refusing the Uniform: Immigrant and Ethnic Minority Women’s Activism in Denmark, 1967–1997,” at a public talk on March 19, 2018, in which Mogensen shed light on an often-overlooked period of activism in Danish history. This event formally inaugurated the CIRS Undergraduate Research Advancement (CURA) initiative.

In the thirty-year period from 1967 to 1997, there was a dramatic increase in immigrant and ethnic minority women’s activism in Denmark. Frustrated with their social standing and economic situations, immigrant women from various minority ethnic backgrounds began to rally together to oppose the discrimination they experienced. Mogensen’s study on immigrant and ethnic minority women’s activism in Denmark analyzed content from publications by immigrant women’s organizations from the late 1960s to the 2000s. Mogensen began her talk with a news story from 1975, which depicted two Pakistani women in Denmark who were denied unemployment benefits because they had refused job offers. The women argued that these were not actual refusals, however, because the Danish hotels had offered them positions that had mandatory uniform rules requiring women to wear short skirts, which went against the womens’ particular social norms.

The Female Workers’ Union (FWU) might have been expected to support these women in their case because they were members of the organization. But the union failed to address the “inherently gendered discriminatory policies of hotels that required women to wear revealing uniforms,” and instead chastised the women for their refusal of the jobs and the uniforms. In an article in The Foreign Workers’ Magazine, the union hinted at larger tensions between the union and immigrant women. A union spokeswoman generalized the women’s refusal as “allegedly emblematic of problematic attitudes of immigrant women,” further nothing that “if we accept the foreigners’ excuses we discriminate against the Danes. We wish to treat everyone the same.” These comments were remarkable because the Danish women’s movement and the FWU had been actively advocating for wage equality and universal access to childcare for decades prior to this case.

“Immigrant and ethnic minority women have challenged Danish feminist organizations, trade unions, and politicians between 1967 and 1997 through their commitment to combating intersecting forms of discrimination.”

“The Female Workers’ Union’s criticism implied its inability to see the Pakistani women as facing similar systemic challenges as Danish women,” Mogensen said, adding that its criticism conveyed a “maternalist” attitude. This revealed the FWU’s exclusionary treatment of immigrant women, despite their commitment to strengthening women’s solidarity. This position was further supported by the Pakistani community’s accusation that the union had intentionally set up the women to have their benefits revoked since they had arranged the jobs. Although the resolution of the event is unknown, Mogensen said this case was representative of tensions between both immigrants and Danish unions, and immigrant women and Danish women’s organizations.

Mogensen’s central argument was that “immigrant and ethnic minority women have challenged Danish feminist organizations, trade unions, and politicians between 1967 and 1997 through their commitment to combating intersecting forms of discrimination.” They pushed for more complex understandings of how various forms of discrimination functioned simultaneously in Danish society based on gender, race, class, etc. Immigrant women activists forged international networks with immigrant women and feminist organizations, understanding how oppressive systems like sexism were not territorially limited.

Mogensen explained that immigrant women experienced double discrimination on the basis of both race and ethnicity. She shared a quote from a 1989 Danish-immigrant women’s magazine: “We are doubly oppressed—as women and as black.” Today, the term “intersectionality” is used to describe this phenomenon—a term that was practically unheard of in Denmark in the 1980s, especially when it came to questions of race and ethnicity.

Denmark had received immigrants for centuries, but the late 1960s marked a turning point in Danish immigration history through the Guest Worker Program. Like many other Western European nations, Denmark experienced an economic upturn following WWII, leading employers to bring in foreign workers to meet growing labor needs. In 1973, the Danish economy entered a severe recession with increasing unemployment due to the global oil crisis. This pushed the Danish parliament to restrict the flow of migrants, and later that year they enacted a law ending all labor immigration.

Fearing that migrant workers would leave Denmark to return to their families, employers lobbied to open up legal avenues for workers to bring their spouses and children to Denmark. Their efforts succeeded in 1974 when the parliament passed a new family reunification law. Through this new law and Denmark’s subsequent acceptance of refugees, many female immigrant activists arrived in Denmark. The early period of immigrant women’s mobilization efforts was marked by discrimination at the hands of Danish trade unions and women’s organizations. These women’s activism was generally spontaneous and ad hoc, and centered on individual ethnic or linguistic groups. Through their opposition to such discrimination, these early activists exposed contradictory and hypocritical policies theoretically dedicated to supporting female immigrant workers, as seen with the FWU.

In the late 1980s, immigrant women in Denmark expanded their efforts to create more permanent multi-ethnic organizations. Rather than operating on an ad hoc basis, they developed institutional roots, which allowed them to more comprehensively address immigrant women’s issues, according to Morgensen. While earlier activists had discussed the multidimensional sources of discrimination, starting in the late 1980s, immigrant women explicitly placed intersectionality at the center of their mission. Through these organizations, immigrant feminists also forged links with existing international feminist movements.

The first such organization in Denmark was Soldue, which was founded in 1988 by a diverse group of immigrant women, and the focus was on shared experiences rather than nationalities. Soldue focused on intersectionality and criticized the discrimination immigrant women faced at the hands of Danish authorities and Danish women’s organizations. Many women used the organization’s magazine to discuss gender discrimination in their own communities. From the beginning, they recognized that racism and sexism were intertwined. From 1993, their efforts began to impact Danish legislation, and started leveraging influence by collaborating with Danish women’s groups and the government on policy issues.

One of the main objects of Soldue’s advocacy was the Three-Year Rule, introduced in the 1983 Aliens Law. Soldue was highly critical of how the law tied foreign women’s legal status in Denmark to their spouses. It argued that the law rendered immigrant women especially vulnerable to domestic abuse, since leaving an abusive partner before the end of three years could result in their deportation. According to Soldue, domestic abuse was common everywhere, and thus the law needed to protect immigrant women as it did Danish women. In 1993, Soldue was appointed to a special commission on immigrant women’s legal status in Denmark set up by the Ministry of Interior. The parliament eventually incorporated the commission’s recommendations into law by amending the Aliens Law in 1996. Not satisfied with parliament’s limited concessions, Soldue activists continued to argue against the Three-Year Rule even after the amendment, Mogensen found.

Soldue simultaneously increased their local and global influence, increasing their outreach and international networks. A new generation of Danish-born children of immigrants was becoming politically active. They had never immigrated, but they had experienced various forms of discrimination. Although they built on the efforts of their predecessors, they developed their own strategies based on their position as Danish-born minorities. “Their increasing political activity was especially marked by debates over citizenship,” Mogensen said.

Immigrant and ethnic minority women actively confronted the multilayered forms of discrimination they experienced in Danish society. Through their activism, they argued for the need to understand how various forms of discrimination intersected. They engaged with international feminist and activist movements and paved the way for a new generation of ethnic minority women’s activism. The activists who took a principled stand in 1975 for their right to reject a mandatory revealing uniform, “paved the way for a new generation of ethnic minority women’s activism in Denmark from the 1990s onwards,” Mogensen said.


Article by Khansa Maria, CIRS Student Assistant

Emma Mogensen is a fourth-year undergraduate student majoring in International History at Georgetown University in Qatar. Originally from Denmark, she has lived in Qatar since 2009. She works as a Research Assistant at the Center for International and Regional Studies at GU-Q, where she has conducted research on labor migration and citizenship in GCC countries, among other topics concerning international migration. Her research interests revolve around migration and transnational activist networks, as well as global understandings of citizenship and feminism.