In 2013, Parvin Ardalan, a former journalist and civil-rights activist from Iran, launched a project in Malmö, Sweden called 100 Years of Immigrant Women’s Life and Work – or, Women Making History for short. Ardalan was Malmö’s first ‘safe-haven writer in residence’ from 2010 to 2012. In 2007, she was awarded the Olof Palme Prize for her work campaigning for the equal rights of men and women in Iran.
At the time of the project launch, we, the authors, were involved in the Living Archives research project at Malmö University, which was rethinking the archive as a social resource. We were invited by Parvin and fellow activists to be partners in the work of documentating activity for Women Making History, alongside a few other Malmö-based organisations.
This article recounts the movement’s engagement in rewriting Malmö’s history – a rewriting that focused on the lives and work of immigrant women over the last 100 years from a feminist and activist perspective.
Like many post-industrial cities, Malmö has had cycles of decline and growth, as well as periods of migration and immigration. Today it is Sweden’s third largest city; sixty years ago it was only a third of its present size. The city’s history has been written mostly by white men and about white men, and is largely framed around the industrial boom that took place during the early and mid-twentieth century when Malmö had several big industries, large social divides, and recurring conflicts. However, the history of the local textile industry and its many women workers has been largely ignored.
Parvin Ardalan’s idea was to create a movement by gathering stories told by immigrant women in on their experiences of work and life, and the historical beginnings of migration to Malmö a century ago. The movement engages in the making of people’s history through events and workshops in the city, through exhibitions and newsletters, and by creating online material. The term movement, opposed to the procedural and target-oriented word project, was used to keep the work open-ended in terms of participants, goals and duration.
The Women Making History movement has been concerned with the difficulties of recovering the histories of past and contemporary immigrant experiences from diverse class and ethnic backgrounds. The idea was not to produce a new frame of what it means to be ‘marginal’, but to create a new diverse polyphony of history – a sense of harmony and respect across difference. The aim is to make history and heritage visible through active dialogue with contemporary and activist voices. Our modes of engagement have a strong concern with popular and social modes of memory production.
In addition to more traditional one-to-one interviews, the movement has had a series of group discussions and workshops, home conversations, seminar debates, roundtables, and a few exhibitions. The permanent Women Making History exhibition launched at Malmö Museum in 2014. Collaborative writing has taken place between academics, activists, and journalists to craft new city history timelines and write essays now available in the book Women Making History: 100 Years of Immigrant Women’s Life and Work in Malmö (published 2016 in both Swedish and English).
The material generated through three years of movement activity relied on multi-site exhibition production and archiving, generating printed newsletters, and a project website containing more extensive material. The potential of the movement could be said to lie not in individual testimony or interviews, but in stories developed in social relation to other texts and stories. Many of the movement’s activities have drawn from roundtable or small group discussions. The social format is crucial and many participants found themselves re-connecting with aspects of their personal pasts in unexpected ways through movement-led activity.
The workshops and seminars worked on getting rid of simplified framings. The sharing and dialogical character of the events served to build social memory. Storytelling can connect people together as well as it can reconnect the broken bits and pieces within ourselves. Rather than boxing finished stories from informants, the movement became a site of what we call multilogues – unfinished histories and voices within and between individuals. Social change does not happen outside our telling. Storytelling is the fuel of identity and a way to refine our power and persuasion. Sharing and debating is a vulnerable activity as identities are questioned and temporarily redefined. It also exposes the limits of knowledge, which at times could lead participants to frame each other categorically due to the lack of knowledge. However, the multilogue context can provide a space that allows for such framings to be altered. The process of telling is formative and reformative, and provides a route forward for Malmö’s communities as we continue to tell forgotten histories of female and migrant experiences.