Good people are good people – and they can easily be identified wherever they are. Not so good people can also be identified, but often it is not their fault but the structures around them that make them less good. It can be that we don’t want to see reality. It can be that we don’t admit injustices affecting others, but ourselves. If we have to share own comfort and privileges, then most of us may be hesitant to do so. We may do it in words and speeches, but not in deeds and actions. Backgrounds, traditions, loyalties and more may work against better judgement.

Last week, I had the opportunity to watch a series of dramatised gender, class and social history programmes from Sweden entitled ‘Fröken Frimans krig’ (Miss Friman’s War), summarizing the struggle for greater equality in that land at the beginning of the 1900s, running up to the time when all adult Swedes, poor men and women got the right to vote, notably in 1918, and the first elections when women participating and taking seat in parliament in 1921. The Swedish history is important not only to that country, but the rest of the world, too, including Pakistan today.

The impressive SVT programmes were made from 2015-16 by the Swedish Television AB (SVT), in cooperation with the other Nordic public broadcasting corporations, supported by the Nordvisjonfonden (Nord Vision Fund). The beautiful programmes, talking movingly to the heart and mind, explained to the viewers that the Swedish struggle towards democracy and development was indeed a struggle, especially manifested from 1884-1918, and further on. The manuscripts for the TV drama were written by Pernilla Oljelund and six other women and one man; film producer was Maria Nordenberg.

The programmes form part of Sweden’s 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote. They tell us that nothing was given to the poor men and the women on a silver platter; they indeed had to fight for their rights themselves. Sweden was the last among the Nordic countries to get universal suffrage; Finland was first, in 1906, and worldwide, it was New Zealand that was first with women gaining the right to vote from 1893. Some European countries were slow in allowing women into decision-making politics, including UK, France and others. But even in Sweden, it is mainly in the last fifty years that women’s participation and equal rights in politics and society at large have been manifested. There is still a good way to go, even in Sweden, before the ‘freedom fight’ is over. But now, most if not all admit that greater gender equality means better human rights for all, today also to include other sexual minorities and immigrants.

The reason why it took a bit longer for Sweden to become democratic than its neighbours, may have had to do with the country’s more advanced capitalism and industrial development. Many of the new rights that time had to do with socialist thinking, influenced especially from UK and central Europe, and indeed Russia with the unrest leading up to the Russian Revolution in 1917, at the end of WWI, 1914-18. Impulses, discussions and debates were many; and conclusions and answers were not given. The bourgeoisie of Sweden put up strong resistance to change.

Discussions that time included, inter alia: How far to the left should political groups and unions go in their ideas about change and improvement of the society to benefit the poor masses, the majority of the people? How should the labour unions be organized? How militant should they be, and how much force should they be allowed to use to gain improvement of work conditions and salaries, against the often ruthless company owners (and authorities)? Should labour unions be for men only, with women branches in the main unions run and led by men? Or, should women have their own unions and interest organizations?

It was sometimes argued by labour union leaders that women should accept lower salaries than men because it was the men who supported the families, more rarely women. That tradition has followed us till this very day: women still earn less than men, even for same work, and indeed in ‘women’s vocations’. Today, though, labour unions will work for equal pay for all, and other important gender equality issues. I believe Pakistan should encourage labour unions, and employers associations, to play a much greater role in politics and development than they do. They shouldn’t just be seen as historical, leftist ‘inventions’; they are essential to any country’s progress, indeed for overall equality, which is essential for development.

There was compulsory primary school in Sweden long before democracy came, and the parish priest in the state church that time had oversight over schools and people’s moral behaviour. It was considered very shameful and bad if a young woman became pregnant before marriage. Alcohol consumptions, mostly by men, should be limited. Active participation in radical political groups was discouraged to keep status-quo. The police and sometimes even the military were used at political rallies and strikes. The legal system was not class neutral, but favoured the upper classes of men. Laws related to sexual conduct and prostitution favoured men. Corruption and other unjust use of power were part of society. Many poor Swedes and people from the other Nordic countries emigrated to America in the 19th century; if that had not been possible, it is likely that the struggle for democracy would have been much harder at home.

In Sweden, as in the neighbouring countries and the rest of Europe, USA and Oceania, the women’s struggle for fairness and rights was often separate from men’s class struggle, although there were also clear alliances between radical women and radical, poor men. Women’s activists were often radical upper class women who could risk debates and fights with the men in power. Women working in factories, as housemaids, and in other lower jobs could be sacked if they took part in unions and political activities – if they at all would be given time off to attend meetings. Married women had to seek the husband’s permission to attend meetings as he was the guardian of his wife and children.

Betterment of women’s health was a key part of the early women’s emancipation movement. Health issues related to vaccination of children, labourers and other poor men’s health, were high on the agenda. ‘Poor people’s diseases’ were common, including tuberculoses, malnutrition and so on. There was high child mortality and many women died in childbirth, noting, too, that families were big and preventives expensive and often considered wrong to use. Abortion was illegal.

The Swedish history is important for Sweden – and the SVT films soften everyone’s heart and clear one’s mind. They are excellent history lessons. I hope we in Pakistan can draw lessons from Sweden’s history, indeed because much of the struggle there 100 years ago, is still under way in Pakistan. The struggle will be led by good and fair-minded people – and good people are good wherever they are. Pakistan has many good people who can lead us ahead!