Some say that nowhere in the world do women enjoy a better life than here – although Iceland’s reputation as a “women’s paradise” seems an inaccurate cliché since the country is hardly the Garden of Eden. Nonetheless, the position of Icelandic women, as well as their male counterparts, is quite remarkable.
Johanna, Asta, and Agnes know one another well. Still, in Iceland, everyone is on first-name terms and knows each other. At first sight, these three women don’t have that much in common: the first two grew up in Reykjavik, and the third is from a fishing village in the far north. The first started her career as a flight attendant, the second was a teacher, and the third wanted only to serve God. One is a glamorous platinum blonde, the other two inconspicuous brunettes. All are married with children; one is lesbian. Still, each has made it to the top and together they embody the distinct and unusually strong position of women in today’s Iceland, because these three women are at the helm of the country’s major institutions.
Johanna Sigurdardottir, 69, is the prime minister, the first woman to hold that post in Iceland’s history; Asta Ragnheidur Johannesdottir, 62, is the speaker of the Althing, Iceland’s parliament. In the spring, Agnes M. Sigurdardottir, 57, was elected bishop of the Icelandic Lutheran Church, becoming the first woman to head the church to which almost 80 percent of the population belong.
On the last day of June, voters were poised to decide whether the fourth key state position would also go to a woman. Polls showed former reporter and television moderator Thora Arnorsdottir running close behind or even ahead of the four-term incumbent in the presidential election.
Even though Olafur Ragnar Grimsson eventually was returned to the presidential palace, there was an interesting facet to the election. Arnorsdottir, a mother of five, had been pregnant for most of the campaign and for the last few weeks she campaigned with a newborn baby.
Such a constellation of women in high government and church positions – unheard of in other countries – reflects Iceland’s social changes of recent years. On a global scale, the social democratic prime minister is the first openly homosexual head of government. Two years ago she married her long-time partner, Jonina Leosdottir. Unlike in some other countries, Icelandic gays and lesbians don’t enter into registered partnerships, but frequently get married. And they even do so on religious ground. While previously this required putting some pressure on the Lutheran bishop, Agnes Sigurdardottir, the new head of the church, doesn’t question this right at all.
To see that something is different in this country, you don’t need to study international gender equality statistics. It is obvious at every step, starting with boarding an airplane. Czech Airlines plays music by Smetana and the first woman pictured in the airline magazine is a scantily dressed blonde luring passengers to a beer festival. Icelandair plays the global musician Björk and, while the magazine also shows a blond woman on the first page, she is an aircraft pilot holding a joystick. Football commentary teams on television always include at least one woman. The internationally acclaimed thriller series by Yrsa Sigurdardottir, dubbed a “new Stieg Larsson” similarly to a number of other Scandinavian writers, features a female heroine, allegedly a typical Icelandic woman: Thora is a divorced mother of two, but also a tireless attorney who takes on tricky cases that often bring risks to her life.
This trend doesn’t apply solely to women, however – gender equality works two ways here. For instance, Czech divorce courts are notorious for granting custody of children almost exclusively to mothers, while Icelandic fathers have a significantly better standing in this respect. In addition, men in Iceland can take a three-month, government-paid leave to care for newborns; in the Czech Republic, men are entitled to only a few days after the birth. Joint custody and so-called patchwork families, in which the parents’ new partners also get involved in the upbringing of children, are quite widespread. In addition, the average lifespan of Icelandic men is longer than in most Western countries.
Statistical data confirm this impression. Since 2006, the World Economic Forum has been monitoring gender equality with the help of dozens of indicators, and Scandinavian countries have been on top from the beginning. But in the past three years, even the other famously gender-equal Scandinavians could not surpass Iceland. Paradoxically, Iceland’s financial collapse helped solidify its lead; afterwards a number of top positions in government and banking went to women, which led to a raft of stories in the foreign press headlined “Women Clean Up Men’s Mess,” and considerably improved the proportion of women in both politics and business.
Currently women outnumber men in the Icelandic cabinet and hold about half the seats in parliament and regional governments. Among OECD countries, Iceland boasts one of the highest proportions of women on the labor market. When Newsweek compiled a list of countries with the most favorable conditions for women two years ago, using indicators for health care, legislation, education, business activity, and politics, the island state found no competitor among 165 other countries.
How has a volatile, sparsely populated piece of land become a “paradise of equality”? Isn’t this perfection a little suspect?
There is a popular explanation drawn from ancient history: Icelandic legend is overpopulated with intrepid female seafarers and warriors. Archeological finds provide scientific evidence that Viking women could measure up to their male counterparts whether in battle or on voyages of exploration. And Icelandic women of the post-Viking era are said to have toughened up by taking care of the family and homestead when men disappeared for weeks to catch fish.
“These are popular theories, but they are wrong – fishing was the male occupation in the Mediterranean countries as well, and look at women’s position there,” says Audur Styrkarsdottir, originally a journalist and political scientist and currently head of the National Library’s archive of women’s history, which over the 37 years of its existence has collected thousands of letters, photographs, and books.
With a little exaggeration, this special feature of Iceland may be attributed to one woman’s command of languages rather than to the Vikings. Briet Bjarnhedinsdottir was the eldest daughter of poor farmers in the north. Although born in the mid-19th century when there wasn’t a single girls’ school on the island, thanks to her father she learned to read and write, and thanks to her growing hunger for literature she later learned Danish and English. When American women fighting for equal rights were looking for allies in other parts of the world, they found one in Reykjavik, and an influential one to boot. Briet, at that time a financially secure widow, published a widely-read monthly, Kvennabladid. In addition to serialized novels, recipes and ads for “cheap potatoes,” the magazine soon began to carry articles calling for equal rights for men and women.
Icelandic women, inspired by the magazine, formed organizations and became the driving force of social change: they founded asylums and soup kitchens for the poor. They started schools and provided free school lunches for poor children, and introduced sanitary standards in public buildings that reduced the spread of disease. The first hospital built in Reykjavik was funded with money raised by female activists. This may explain why the demands of women’s organizations were not as fiercely opposed as in other countries – they did not focus solely on women’s issues but were included in a large family of social changes the women fought for. “The key factor was that women’s organizations have become a part of the system and did not stand outside of it,” Styrkarsdottir says. “And [women] succeeded in changing the system from within.” At the end of the 19th century, women already held seats in the Reykjavik city assembly and were able to push for new measures through the authority of a public body. It was this integration into the social system that helped amend a number of regulations affecting women, from inheritance to election laws, years ahead of many other countries.
TROUBLE IN PARADISE
A few meters from Reykjavik’s main street, amid new concrete buildings, sits a small one-story house in a traditional style. The paintings in a cozy office on the first floor are somewhat disturbing: One depicts a small figure consumed by dark red flames and trapped in a maze of barbed wire, another shows a corpse-like face with dark spots instead of eyes, spewing fire, and a huge clawed hand seems to reach out of a third painting.
“This is Kristin’s story as she painted it herself,” says Gudrun Jonsdottir, head of Reykjavik’s Stigamot center for victims of sexual violence and human trafficking, motioning her head toward the depressing decorations.
Kristin was sexually abused as a child and later became a heroin addict. She made money to buy the drug as a prostitute (the horrifying face belonged to her pimp, the groping hand to her customers). The last painting in the series is dramatically different: a bright red figure against a colorful background raises its hands in a victorious gesture. Therapy sessions at the center helped the young woman with a complicated past to pull herself together. She quit using drugs and prostituting herself and began to work in campaigns to combat prostitution. But there are no paintings in the office portraying mundane scenes: last fall Kristin committed suicide.
“It’s not that simple with the women’s paradise in Iceland,” Jonsdottir says. “In many respects it’s the same here as elsewhere.”
She isn’t referring just to prostitution and sexual violence. A closer look reveals that Iceland indeed is no alien planet, but a society quite similar to others. Thora Arnorsdottir, the unsuccessful presidential candidate, fared well in opinion polls, but she still had to face questions about why she was running for office while pregnant and whether she would manage to juggle presidential duties and care for a newborn. And it may have cost her the seat. “Some people told me they wouldn’t vote for me because of that,” the candidate was quoted as saying in the press. Before the financial collapse, the macho image of the financial world – fast cars, inflated egos, and risk-taking far beyond the bounds of common sense, was celebrated here just as elsewhere. The success of the financial sector had an impact on women holding down jobs: studies found that financiers receiving fat salaries were more likely to push their wives to quit work.
Sexual harassment is not quite unique in Iceland either. “If some guy did it to her properly, maybe she’d become a normal woman,” fitness trainer and TV celebrity Egill Einarsson wrote about a female member of parliament on his blog a few years ago. That did not stand in the way of using his photo – as a role model for many young men – on the front page of the telephone directory later on (although it did spark controversy, which escalated after police investigated Einarsson on suspicion of raping an 18-year-old woman).
There is general belief here that the high proportion of women in politics has made a real impact on society, in ways such as the availability of large-capacity preschool facilities almost fully financed by the government, which contribute to Iceland’s birth rate of 2.1 children per family, one of the highest in Europe. Or the quick rebound to prosperity: Iceland’s economy is growing again. Conversely, the high representation of women in politics has not yet resulted in any serious diminishment of sexual violence, prostitution, or human trafficking. Two years ago, parliament passed a series of laws restricting strip clubs and criminalizing the purchase, although not the sale, of sexual services. But some strip clubs found ways to stay in business and prostitutes there have no shortage of customers. Last year, Jonsdottir teamed up with 80 other female activists to offer sexual services using false names and photos. Hundreds of men showed interest. The event had its tragicomic side – one of the women got a response from her father, another from a co-worker) and it did spark a public debate, but failed to prompt police to do anything.
Despite the new legislation, no illegal strip club has been closed and only a few men have been given suspended sentences for purchasing sex. Statistics on domestic violence and rape are even less paradisiacal: the reported number of rapes per 100,000 inhabitants far exceeds the figures in the Czech Republic and many other European countries. That can be attributed to differences in legislation or to a higher proportion of rapes being reported. However, in an extensive survey conducted in 2008, four-fifths of women who had suffered domestic violence said they did not report it. The ongoing public debate and court rulings still lean toward the well-worn clichés about provocative clothing and blaming the victims; moreover, the proportion of unsolved cases is higher in Iceland than in other countries.
MOM, MOM, SON
Vesturbar is coveted by all young families – nicely renovated blocks of flats surrounded by green spaces, with two public swimming pools in the vicinity, all just a ten-minute walk from Reykjavik’s centre. The tenants of one flat have just unwrapped and positioned a new oak dresser, a wedding gift. The wedding, attended by dozens of family members and friends, took place in May at the main church in Hafnarfjordur, the bride’s home town some 10 kilometers south of the capital. The dresser instantly attracts the attention of Bjorn Olé, the 15-month-old son of the newlyweds, as he tries to climb it.
It looks quite ordinary. But an uninformed visitor might be astonished that the bride, Sigrun, married Hildur, another woman, in church, and that little Bjorn’s father is an unknown sperm donor. Looking at the satisfying, “normal” life of Danish teacher Sigrun and sports instructor and tour guide Hildur, we might think the Edenic image is not too strong. After all, the prime minister is openly lesbian. But, perhaps surprisingly, she has been criticized by the lesbians and gays themselves. “She mentioned it publicly only once, saying it is not part of her role,” says Arni Gretar Johannsson of Iceland’s leading advocacy group for sexual minorities, Samtokin ’78. “But we feel that she should speak about it.”
However, Iceland’s sexual minorities benefit more from tolerant legislation than political speeches. Where in the 1970s many homosexuals fled to Denmark and other countries to avoid discrimination, today they can get married, even in church, and adopt children, unlike in most European countries.
This article was originally published in the Czech magazine Respekt. Translated by Lenka Rubenstein. Photos by Kateřina Malá.