Once sidelined, Norway’s migrant minorities earn a voice in parliament

Courtesy of Martin Grüner Larsen
Mariam Hussein poses in the "wandering gallery," an open area outside the parliamentary chamber in Oslo, Norway. Ms. Hussein is the first ethnic Somali elected into the Norwegian parliament.

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Shazia Majid, a Pakistani Norwegian investigative journalist, is thrilled by the history-making composition of Norway’s new parliament. Eleven out of the 169 lawmakers elected last month represent visible minorities, and immigrants are now represented roughly in proportion to their fraction of the eligible voting population.

“Every community needs to be represented among lawmakers in any country,” says Ms. Majid. “This is a case of Norway giving opportunities and kids of immigrants grabbing those opportunities with both hands.”

Why We Wrote This

Norway’s general elections in September were a subtle but important victory for multiculturalism, giving the Nordic nation its most diverse parliament ever.

Some see in this class of politicians evidence of a gradual and subtle shift in what it means to be Norwegian; a sign the nation is coming into its own as a multicultural society.

Visible minorities are relatively new in Norway. The country characterized the guest workers that began arriving in the 1970s from Pakistan, India, Morocco, and Turkey as “alien” workers. Migrant communities grew over the years – especially in the capital, Oslo, where 1 in 3 residents today are of migrant background.

Ms. Majid still remembers when the first politician with a migrant background entered Norwegian parliament in 2001. It dawned on her then that anyone could reach the highest positions of power. “That is why representation is so important,” she says.

Marian Hussein started her first day at the Norwegian parliament rushing to overcome technical glitches before plunging into politics. “I am out of my comfort zone but I am looking forward to this,” says Ms. Hussein, smiling during a Zoom call.

Her journey into the vanilla brick parliament building in the heart of Oslo is the outcome of a colorful upbringing. It started in Somalia, where her father trained as an engineer, and included time in the Saudi city of Jedda before arriving in the forest-fringed rural Oslo borough of Stovner at the age of 10. As the first ethnic Somali woman in parliament, she hopes to change the conversations on race, religion, and migration, and push policies that reduce inequality.

“I have always been a minority and that gives you perspective in life on how we treat people who look different or how your status as a citizen is different,” says Ms. Hussein, who entered Norwegian society as a refugee and politics as a member of the Socialist Left Party. “Being here today, I also think Norway is the land of opportunities.”

Why We Wrote This

Norway’s general elections in September were a subtle but important victory for multiculturalism, giving the Nordic nation its most diverse parliament ever.

Ms. Hussein is part of the most diverse group of legislators to set foot in the Storting, Norway’s parliament, having started work on Oct. 1. Eleven out of the 169 lawmakers elected last month represent visible minorities who trace their roots back to Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Immigrants are now represented roughly in proportion to their fraction of the eligible voting population.

Some see in this class of politicians evidence of a gradual and subtle shift in what it means to be Norwegian; a sign the nation is coming into its own as a multicultural society. At the same time, anti-immigrant populists have also made electoral gains. 

Experts say inclusive party politics and successful integration policies of the oil-rich nation’s welfare state played a role in bringing candidates with such diverse backgrounds to the top.

Norwegian sociologist Grete Brochmann says the development is important from a representation point of view and a reflection of the fact that minority groups are getting more integrated into Norwegian society. “This is also a reflection of a realization that minority groups are important for the success of the parties, particularly parties to the left,” says Dr. Brochmann, who teaches at the University of Oslo.

“We see different things”

Unlike in the United States or the United Kingdom, visible minorities are relatively new in Norway. The oil-rich Scandinavian country characterized the guest workers that began arriving in the 1970s from Pakistan, India, Morocco, and Turkey as “alien” workers. As migrant communities grew over the years – especially in the capital, Oslo, where now 1 in 3 residents are of migrant background – the Norwegian Labour Party recognized the importance of mobilizing that voter base, as have other parties.

Most political careers begin at the local or regional rather than parliamentary level in Norway. Parties choose who to put forward in closed list systems so they determine who rises to the fore. The Labour Party has the highest number of elected parliamentarians with an immigrant origin. Out of the ten parties represented in parliament, most have at least one lawmaker of foreign descent.

“About 80% of politicians that enter parliament have served in a local council,” says Jon H. Fiva, an economics professor at the Norwegian Business School researching the dynamics of political selection in Norway. “This career system means that you will have a substantial time lag from when new groups of people [arrive] ... until they make it to the top of the hierarchy. Even though Norway has had quite a lot of migration for decades, it might take some time before individuals of migrant origin make it to the very top.”

City of Oslo/Sturlason
Kamzy Gunaratnam was elected in 2021 to Norway's parliament, called the Storting. Ms. Gunaratnam was born in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, and served most recently as deputy mayor of Oslo.

That was certainly the experience of Labour Party politician Kamzy Gunaratnam.

She arrived in Norway when she was just 3 years old and became politically active as a teenager, initially motivated by the Tamil conflict in her native Sri Lanka, but later driven by Norwegian issues as well. Her teens were also the first time she felt like an outsider, as she attended secondary school in a predominantly white neighborhood in the western part of Oslo. “Inequality hit me really hard,” she says. “We are brought up with different views on society because we see different things and we’re not living in the same reality.”

She joined Labour in 2005, then was elected to the Oslo city council two years later. Ms. Gunaratnam was at the Workers’ Youth League summer camp on the island of Utøya on July 22, 2011, which was attacked by far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, leaving 69 people dead. She managed to swim to safety and says that terrifying experience only magnified her resolve to work in politics and turn into reality the promises made by national leaders in the speeches that followed the attacks – fellowship and equality, freedom of speech, openness, democracy. In 2015, Ms. Gunaratnam was elected as Oslo’s deputy mayor.

She is proud to be among six lawmakers who survived that day, although she also worries that the values that galvanized Breivik are more widespread than Norwegians are willing to admit. “What Breivik did was an attack on a diverse Norway, so it is a sort of big slap in the face [to Breivik] for us to enter parliament this year,” she says.

“If she could do it I can do it”

For older migrant generations, the 2021 results mark progress because it shows that migrants have moved up the political ladder versus just being used by parties. “Twenty-five years ago, nobody in Norway was talking about immigrants. Nobody cared about us or what we wanted,” says Khadim Hussain, a native of Pakistan. “But some local politicians wanted our votes and tricked many who didn’t yet master the Norwegian language into voting for political parties we knew nothing about.”

Line Tiller
Khadim Hussein poses in what he says is Oslo’s first Pakistani dessert shop. The Lahore native arrived in Norway at the age of 14 to live with his brother. “Things have changed,” says Mr. Hussain. “Some years ago ethnic Norwegians would look at you … with curiosity. Today we are just like any other character in these streets.”

Shazia Majid, who is Pakistani Norwegian, is thrilled by the history-making composition of the new parliament – not because some members are visible minorities, but because the combination of their cultural, religious, and class backgrounds could inform the development of better policies. They also send a positive message to her children – second-generation Norwegians – that the country’s movers and shakers can come from all walks of life.

“This is an extremely important moment,” says Ms. Majid, an investigative journalist and columnist for the newspaper VG. “Every community needs to be represented among lawmakers in any country. It is essential for democracy. This is a case of Norway giving opportunities and kids of immigrants grabbing those opportunities with both hands.”

She still remembers when the first politician with a migrant background, conservative Afshan Rafiq, entered Norwegian parliament in 2001. That was 30 years after the first guest workers arrived in Norway. It dawned on her then that anyone, even a Muslim, Pakistani woman like her, could reach the highest positions of power in Norway. “I thought ... if she could do it, I can do it,” says Ms. Majid. “That is why representation is so important.”

That sentiment was reinforced for many when Hadia Tajik became culture minister in 2012, the youngest woman and first Muslim to serve in government as a minister. Ms. Hussein is now making history as the first Black woman to enter parliament and the first to wear a hijab in office. With her feminist, anti-racist discourse she is already an inspiration to many young girls.

“I feel more included in Norwegian society now,” says Yasmin Mohammed, a Muslim high school student window shopping with her friends on Karl Johans gate, a commercial street near the stony gray lion statues guarding parliament. She was born in Norway to Somali parents.

“Marian Hussein is the direct reason why I have recently started to look up political articles and books,” she says. “And even though I have no idea what I want to become in life, it’s not impossible I will go into politics in the future.”

Ashraq Said Hussein, who was also at Karl Johans gate, arrived in Norway as a 9-year-old. The Somali native finds it weird – and great – that people from so many multicultural backgrounds will author Norwegian laws.

“I have the feeling many Norwegians still want us foreign looking people to ‘go back where we came from.’ So how did this happen, you know?” she says. “The fact that now we have people in parliament who openly say ‘I am Muslim, Black, woman – and I am here to change things,’ is fantastic.”

Silje Kathrine Sviggum contributed to the concept of this article.

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