The Woman in Pink
“Emma, have you seen this anywhere else?”
She said she didn’t think so. I looked up at the monitor again.
“För din sökerhot, var uppmärksan på risken för ficktjuvar.”
For your safety, please be aware of the risk for pickpockets.
We were transferring to the blue line, about to hop on the train headed to Hjulsta.
Maybe I wasn’t looking for this kind of message on our typical journeys, but I could have sworn this is the first time I had seen it – on the blue line, where things look a lot different. A place that “real Swedes” tend to avoid.
“I don’t think we should have taken as many in.”
“Other countries should step up to the plate.”
“We need a better system.”
These are the well-intentioned statements of young White Swedes in Stureplan. Some are explained further; they’re pro-immigrant, usually unlike their parents. But they’re for a more “efficient” system. They make their case.
But among those statements is a recurring one.
“I’ve never been to Rinkeby.”
I remembered the last time I took this line, the last time I went to Rinkeby. The sun illuminating playgrounds and subsidized, standardized, sparkling-clean apartments. A bustling city center. Faces of color were all that gave away its segregated status.
As we neared the end of the line, where Rinkeby stands at the edge, isolated from Central Stockholm, a woman, dressed in pink with long brown braids, approached us, asking for change. We told her we didn’t have cash. The train stopped, and she got off with us, exchanging her cup with a man on the next car. She followed us up the escalator and out into the central square. Waiting for her were other women with long brown braids, who had parked themselves outside one of the stores. Across from them, men sold a variety of goods, which appeared to have been left behind in the subway. Phones, chargers, headphones, toys of all kinds. Men selling, a few women begging. The rest of the women were nowhere to be seen.
“Pay attention to gender. There’s a reason why only men are out here,” Dr. McKnight’s voice rang in my head.
We were craving a good coffee, so we stepped into a nearby café.
Tables of men eyed us from the outdoor section. I was wearing jean shorts. I smiled, trying not to seem offensive or intrusive. But I think it was too late.
23 men inside, I counted. Count the outside, and you’d probably have about double that number. A male manager and two female workers. One woman, clothed from head to toe, walked in briskly to grab an orange juice. She left immediately after she paid. Everyone else was seated, including Emma and me.
We sipped our coffee as Emma typed “Rinkeby” into her search bar. At the top were clips of some brawl – a “riot,” they called it. Bold words and clickbait headlines. No before or after. No context. Only our prejudice to fill in the gaps.
Fake news, I scoffed. People never know the truth about places like this. They make up their own narratives. They’re too scared to see for themselves.
Then she stumbled across a New York Times article from the nineties, written by an American man: “A Swedish Dilemma: The Immigrant Ghetto.”
In the first couple grafs, he mentioned the very café we were sitting in: “…olive-skinned men with rakishly upswept mustaches sip syrupy coffee.”
I looked around, wishing I could eavesdrop. Stories have been found here. I wanted to hear them. But I couldn’t. Different languages signified comfort and familiarity between the men. Brotherhood. Alliance. English would only disturb that. So would my femininity.
I began to wish I was alone. Maybe two’s a crowd, after all.
Then I started to think of what that may be like. Alone, in this coffee shop. I don’t think I’d be scared, but you’d bet I’d be anxious. In this moment, though, the anxiety was magnified, doubled.
She didn’t want to speak. To intrude. Encroach on their space. I didn’t either, but I wanted words. I began to wonder what mattered more. Voice, or space?
So we went to find the women.
The men looked but said nothing as we exited the coffee shop. We passed markets. Still men. We made our way through the housing complexes. The playgrounds were empty. We saw one family loading up a shiny black Tesla.
Then we came upon a trail. We followed young women walking dogs until we reached a central area. A park.
I smiled at a young boy and his sister who were playing on a set of swings. He smiled and said “hey” back. There’s a pool and a soccer field. More swingsets.
Mothers sit on benches as their children play. All are modestly dressed. Some are more covered than others. Some wear all black from head to toe. I realize I don’t have the vocabulary to describe them. In the rhetoric of an ignorant, fearful majority, “hijab” and “burka” have become interchangeable; we don't care to know the difference - "They're all terrorists."
I am not fearful, I decide, but I am ignorant. And they can tell just by looking at me.
I think about voice and space, and I think that question is more relevant here, in the safety of this park, than in the coffee shop infested with men.
That’s why we are cautious.
I walk over to the soccer field, where a boy is playing by himself. As I reach the field, the group of children sitting close by moves away. Great.
I kick the ball to the boy. I pray that he returns it. He does, but he takes a seat to put his shoes on. I tried, at least.
But then he kicks it again, and again, toward me. We keep a good rally up. He shows me his moves. I wonder if he learned in school. “You’re good!” I tell him. I stumble and fumble. He’s cool and smooth and nimble.
Shortly, he picks up the ball. “I need to go home now,” he says.
“Okay,” I smile.
I look back, and the group of children have returned.
Now, Emma has moved from the benches where we were. We sit close to the field, hoping our presence isn’t so off-putting this time.
A woman carts two young boys in a stroller. They look like twins, but one is much bigger.
She unfolds a metal walker for the bigger child. He’s wearing a shirt with tiger stripes. He makes a few strides, then tumbles. A few more strides. His brother laughs and his mom pulls out her iPhone to record.
His brother crawls toward us. We laugh, and the mother keeps a careful eye on him.
After a while of this, I ask her how old they are. They’re three.
They keep on. Now, the boy in the walker makes his way toward us. He comes up to me and says something I can't understand. He says this a few more times.
It’s his name. Ahmal.
I laugh. “I like your shirt!” I say.
The mother points from her forehead to the back of her neck. They boy has a scar there, and his right eye points upward.
“He is sick,” she said.
Soon, another woman joins us. I noticed her daughter earlier; she was on a hoverboard, carrying a soccer ball.
The girl, wearing glasses and a headdress, makes the boy I played with earlier look like an amateur. She bounces the ball on her heel and over her shoulder, then kicks at full force toward the wall.
The ball bounces over the fence, and she leaves to pick it up and move on to the swings.
A blonde girl rides her bike past us.
I see a man for the first time, with his wife and their baby.
We don’t say much. We just watch. I want to come back, but I only have today.
It’s approaching noon, and we still have to go to Stureplan, where we hear the words of White Swedes, the ones who’ve failed to venture as far as us. There is a stillness in their voices.
The words are the same, just said in different ways. I’m bored. We leave.
As we made our exit, after a long day on both sides of the blue line, I glimpsed something pink. We passed some Swedes playing chess on a picnic table. Then I saw the long brown braids. Olive hands digging from a trash can.
She was on her way back to the other side.