As Denmark kicks an MP out of parliament for bringing her baby, it's time to reassess its progressive reputation
It garnered international attention this week when the Danish politician Mette Abildgaard, carrying her five-month-old daughter, was asked to leave the voting chamber of the Danish parliament by the speaker, Pia Kjærsgaard.
The story went viral because it clashes with Denmark’s reputation as a socially liberal and progressive country, but it is just the latest of a number of news stories that have chipped away at that reputation.
In 2016 the so-called “jewelry law”, which gave Danish authorities the right to confiscate valuable items from newly arrived refugees and was likened to the Nazi regime’s confiscation of gold and other valuables from Jews, made international headlines.
Last spring there were protests in Copenhagen when a ban on the use of face veils in public, dubbed “the burqa ban” by international media, came into effect. In December, two bills caused headlines and concern outside of Denmark.
First it was reported that the government had struck a deal to isolate unwanted refugees – criminal migrants and those who cannot be deported to their home countries – on a remote island, a decision that was inspired by Australia’s infamous offshore detention centers and immediately criticized by the UN.
Then it was announced that the country would require all new citizens to shake hands at their naturalization ceremony, a law aimed at Muslim men and women who refuse to touch members of the opposite sex due to their religion.
So far, the stories that have damaged Denmark’s street cred among progressives and its image as the frontrunner of Scandi cool have mostly been about the country’s refugee politics, but the most recent story has been a blow to the country’s reputation as a pioneer of women’s rights.
Denmark is known for having one of the most generous parental leave policies in the world. Kjærsgaard’s (the speaker and former leader of the far-right Danish People’s Party) message to Abildgaard that she is not welcome in parliament while taking care of her daughter raises the question of whether the country can extend that generosity to women who decide not to go on parental leave, too.
Abildgaard, a member of the Conservative party, part of the government coalition, was entitled to a full year’s maternity leave, but decided not to take it in order to stay in parliament and pursue her political goals.
With her decision to bring her baby to the voting chamber – she explained that she has not done so before, did not think she had to ask for permission as she has seen other new mothers do the same, and had to, as the father could not take care of the baby as planned – Abildgaard has inscribed herself to the long list of female politicians who have had to bring their baby to work, as well as to the debate of how welcoming the political sphere can truly be for women and working mothers.
While other female politicians who have brought their infants to work – recent examples include New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who brought her baby to the UN General Assembly, and the Canadian minister Karina Gould, who breastfed her son during a debate in parliament – have been hailed for showing what female leadership can (also) look like.
In Denmark, one commentator argued that Abildgaard ought to act as a role model for other families with young children by taking the parental leave she is entitled to.
“Are we really not past this?” former politician Özlem Cekic asked on Twitter. It appears that we are not, and Denmark is not done tarnishing its reputation as a progressive state just yet.