I was having cinnamon rolls and coffee with a Finnish friend at one of Helsinki’s better cafes when he asked what I thought of the scandal surrounding Finland’s Prime Minister. (A video showing her dancing with friends has recently become a scandal among the more conservative citizens of Finland.)
Archly, I replied that I didn’t see how it was a scandal at all.
A few minutes later, we were walking past the huge square outside Helsinki’s cathedral when my companion pointed out the yellow facade of the prime minister’s office on the other side of the square. ‘Let’s go to the gate and ask, where’s the party?’ he joked, grinning widely.
I must admit I didn’t see the joke. My instinct was not to mock, but rather to support Prime minister Sanna Marin, not least because she has an outstanding record – even according to some of the conservatives who don’t approve of her dancing. Indeed, seeing my raised eyebrow, my companion was quick to add that she is ‘the best prime minister we have ever had.’
To me, that’s the main point. In fact, it’s the only relevant point.
Right to have fun
A woman in public life has as much a right as any other citizen to have a private life and to enjoy herself with her friends now and then. This surely applies even more to someone as young and vivacious as the 36-year-old Marin.
However, the controversy has become complicated. My friend and I had that conversation just after a picture of the prime minister’s associates emerged online. The word scandalous could fit that picture more aptly; it showed two women smooching each other while holding a placard that read ‘Finland’ (evidently picked up from a conference table) in front of their breasts.
That picture involved Marin since the placard had evidently been obtained from around her. It had indeed been clicked in a bathroom of the prime minister’s summer residence during a party in July, Marin – who values transparency – acknowledged publicly. The women in the photo were a model and a poet. They had been at an after-party at Marin’s residence. The model, who had posted the picture on Instagram, apologised publicly, saying that she was wrong to have posted the inappropriate picture.
The publication of that picture at this point complicated the controversy around Marin’s partying. For, by highlighting gay sex and nudity, it switched the issue from one of privacy and letting one’s hair down with friends to one of gender and sexual libertarianism.
It threatened to drag the beleaguered Prime Minister into also having to address the issue on that far more political plane. In fact, poor Marin was forced to explain herself tearfully before the media and dial the issue back to one of privacy.
She made the telling point that she had never missed a day of work. After the party video had surfaced, she had already taken a drug test, at her personal cost, which showed that she had not taken narcotics. The test result was posted on a government website.
Lack of empathy
The issue highlighted the polarised insensitivity on the Right and left. (I include the Left since I suspect that, even while Marin was on the back foot, the poet-activist in the kissing picture from July may have wanted to extend the issue to the politics of promiscuity and nudity.)
Blinkered approaches can be irresponsible. They muddy the political waters and smack of nastiness. I miss the empathy that used to be the hallmark of public and political discourse in the more inclusive times that I was lucky to live through half a century ago.
It was encouraging to see lots of random Danish women tagging Marin in pictures of themselves dancing soon after the controversy broke. Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton followed suit on Sunday, tagging Marin in a tweet of herself dancing in Cartagena while she was secretary of state. Marin acknowledged the Tweet with a heart symbol.
Empowerment must seep into minds and hearts
Finland prides itself on being the very first country to give all women the right to vote and contest elections – in 1906. And yet, it sometimes seems almost as if women’s empowerment remains cosmetic, not just here in several similar places.
Pictures of a male leader (let’s say, Emmanuel Macron) dancing with friends would not be considered scandalous – even though he is eight years older than Marin – as long as he had his clothes on and did not seem inebriated.
Indeed, Britain’s recent prime minister, Boris Johnson, kept shrugging off parties at his official residence when parties were forbidden across his country owing to Covid. His male privilege ensured that no one considered his ridiculous, tousle-haired prancing a scandal – only the fact that he held or attended parties when they were forbidden.
David Devadas is a journalist and security, politics and geopolitics analyst.
Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author’s own