Ice­landic women have it best

Given the rights that women have in Ice­land, it is un­of­fi­cially deemed the best coun­try in the world for women.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By KIRA COCHRANE

ON A wet day in Reykjavik, the rain bat­ter­ing the fish­ing boats, the tourist shops and the young male artists with their im­prob­a­ble mous­taches, Ice­land’s in­dus­try, en­ergy and tourism min­is­ter ex­plains that the coun­try needs to be “more bad-ass” about the gender pay gap.

The min­is­ter is Ka­trin Julius­dot­tir, a warm, at­trac­tive wo­man in her mid-30s, preg­nant with twins. As she speaks, a hint of frus­tra­tion en­ters her voice. Ice­landic leg­is­la­tion sup­pos­edly guar­an­tees equal pay for equal work, as in Bri­tain, “so why don’t we have more penal­ties?” she says. “Maybe we need to be even more bad-ass when it comes to peo­ple break­ing the rules.”

We are sit­ting in Ka­trin’s of­fice (all Ice­landers go by their first names), in an anony­mous build­ing a few hun­dred yards from Reykjavik har­bour, and she is talk­ing about women’s rights with no-non­sense pas­sion. Yes, of course she is a fem­i­nist; no, she wasn’t in the coun­try for the last ma­jor women’s march, other­wise she would cer­tainly have at­tended; yes, it’s good that the cur­rent Ice­landic cabi­net has four women and six men, but it’s not enough. She would like to see it reach the per­fect 50/50. (The cur­rent Bri­tish cabi­net is 86% male.) Fol­low­ing the dis­as­trous col­lapse of the Ice­landic banks in 2008, she says, the coun­try “wants bal­ance in our lives, and a big part of that is the bal­ance be­tween men and women”.

Some would say this bal­ance al­ready ex­ists in Ice­land – that the coun­try is, in fact, the clos­est the world has to a fem­i­nist par­adise. For the last two years, it has topped the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum’s re­port on equal­ity be­tween the sexes, and last month Newsweek named it the best place in the world for women.

The Newsweek sur­vey looked at health, ed­u­ca­tion, eco­nomics, pol­i­tics and jus­tice, and found that in all ar­eas, and the last one in par­tic­u­lar, Ice­land is about as good as it gets. The prime min­is­ter, Jo­hanna Sig­ur­dar­d­ot­tir, tells me via e-mail that she’s proud of the sur­vey’s out­come, “and not only for women, (but be­cause) we know that gender equal­ity is one of the best in­di­ca­tors for the over­all qual­ity of so­ci­eties”.

Salary still an is­sue

Through the cold mist on Lau­gave­gur, Reykjavik’s main drag, I ask Ice­landic women what they think. Gu­drun, 72, peers shyly from her vo­lu­mi­nous hood and says while she loves Ice­land – its clean­li­ness, beauty, the prox­im­ity of hot springs, vol­ca­noes, glaciers – it can’t pos­si­bly be the best place in the world for women “be­cause we don’t get the same salary as men”.

Aware­ness of this is­sue is run­ning high be­cause of a cam­paign by the com­mer­cial and of­fice work­ers’ trade union, VR. To em­pha­sise and re­dress the fact that Ice­landic women are paid, on av­er­age, 10% less than their male col­leagues, it set up a tem­po­rary dis­count of ex­actly that amount for all fe­male cus­tomers at a range of ma­jor shops last month. Ber­glind, a young shop worker with a metal bar through her sep­tum, tells me she’d like to see classes for teenage girls on how to ne­go­ti­ate hard with bosses.

Erla, 37, a lawyer, swad­dled in a thick, red mac, says that as an Ice­landic wo­man you can al­ways count on the sup­port of your sis­ters, and it was in this spirit she at­tended the Women Strike Back march last year, a protest against the pay gap and sex­ual vi­o­lence. “I don’t think I suf­fer from un­fair pay now,” she says, “but I have done, and I felt I needed to sup­port women, be­cause we didn’t come this far as a so­ci­ety by ac­ci­dent. It was be­cause peo­ple went out and worked for women’s rights.”

To an out­sider, the power of Ice­land’s fem­i­nist move­ment is as­ton­ish­ing. The coun­try was the poor­est in Europe be­fore World War II, but saw a boom af­ter­wards, and by the late 60s a whole gen­er­a­tion of ed­u­cated women was com­ing of age and feel­ing an­gry about wage in­equal­ity. Those who re­mained in the home felt sim­i­larly un­der­val­ued.

In 1975, a one-day women’s strike was pro­posed by rad­i­cal fem­i­nist group, the Red Stock­ings. The con­cept was then soft­ened to a “day off”, and on Oct 24 of that year an es­ti­mated 90% of the coun­try’s women downed tools, in both the work­place and the home. In Reykjavik, 25,000 women gath­ered for speeches, talks and singing – at a time when the en­tire Ice­landic pop­u­la­tion num­bered less than 220,000.

Tho­runn Svein­b­jarnar­dot­tir, 45, was the coun­try’s min­is­ter for the environment be­tween 2007 and 2009, and is now study­ing for a mas­ter’s de­gree. She was 10 at the time of the orig­i­nal Women’s Day Off, and went with her mother. “I just re­mem­ber the feel­ing of be­ing among this mass of women, who were all so happy,” she says, as we sit in a cafe on Lau­gave­gur. “That was a les­son for my gen­er­a­tion, and I think the se­cret in­gre­di­ent was that we man­aged to get women from all cor­ners of so­ci­ety – from both the left and right, po­lit­i­cally, and from all so­cial classes. That was very im­por­tant. It was a eu­phoric day.”

The abil­ity to mo­bilise women of all stripes – a re­ally un­usual feat – is still much in ev­i­dence. Last year, Women Strike Back re­vived the spirit of the Women’s Day Off, and de­spite storm warn­ings, 50,000 women – a third of the coun­try’s fe­male pop­u­la­tion – flooded the streets of Reykjavik. (In Bri­tain, it is con­sid­ered a strong, suc­cess­ful fem­i­nist protest when 2,000 of the coun­try’s 30 mil­lion women come out.) Videos of the event show women in padded jack­ets, pink cat­suits or Lopa­peysa (tra­di­tional Ice­landic jumpers), their hair, scarves and capes be­ing whipped by the wind. One wo­man was dressed as a Vik­ing. Some were laugh­ing, many bran­dish­ing signs, all looked de­ter­mined.

Out in the Reykjavik sub­urbs, I spend an af­ter­noon with Si­gridur Mag­nus­dot­tir, An­drea Hall­dors­dot­tir and Eva Gunnbjorns­dot­tir. When I ask which women’s is­sues up­set them most, Eva, 31, a post­grad­u­ate stu­dent, plumps for the pay gap, while Si­gridur and An­drea talk pas­sion­ately about the prob­lem of sex­ual vi­o­lence.

Sex­ual crimes

“If I could change one thing,” says Si­gridur, 35, an of­fice cleaner, “it would be the sex­ual crimes against chil­dren and women. Men will have to fight for them­selves.” An­drea, 27, a mu­sic teacher, says even in cases where some­one is raped and al­most left for dead, the re­ported pun­ish­ment seems shock­ingly low.

I talk to Gu­drun Jons­dot­tir, a vet­eran fem­i­nist cam­paigner in Ice­land, who works for Stig­amot, a coun­selling or­gan­i­sa­tion for vic­tims of sex­ual vi­o­lence. She says the coun­try is cer­tainly “a par­adise of gender equal­ity on pa­per”, but that the re­al­ity doesn’t quite match. Each year, Stig­amot and the rape cri­sis unit at Reykjavik hos­pi­tal work with around 250 women “but we can count the an­nual rape sen­tences on one wo­man’s fin­gers”.

She says there is still a huge prob­lem with peo­ple’s at­ti­tudes, “within the jus­tice sys­tem, among the pub­lic, and with the women who come to our place, who are filled with shame and guilt”.

Last year the head of the city’s sex crime divi­sion, Bjorgvin Bjorgvins­son, re­signed from that po­si­tion af­ter a news­pa­per in­ter­view in which he said many rape vic­tims had been drink­ing or tak­ing drugs, and there­fore bore some re­spon­si­bil­ity for be­ing as­saulted. In Novem­ber 2010, he was re­in­stated.

The Aus­trian way

So Ice­land isn’t per­fect, but there seems to be the pub­lic pres­sure and po­lit­i­cal will to tackle its prob­lems. The prime min­is­ter tells me the coun­try has “a very strong and vo­cal women’s move­ment, which keeps gender equal­ity at the fore­front of the de­bate. The move­ment has held the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem ac­count­able to a de­gree where we can say that no politi­cian who wants to be taken se­ri­ously can ig­nore the is­sue.”

In its two-and-a-half years in power, the govern­ment – a coali­tion of so­cial democrats and left-greens – has been im­pres­sively ac­tive. It has crim­i­nalised the pur­chase of sex, in­tro­duced an ac­tion plan on the traf­fick­ing of women, and banned all strip clubs. When it comes to do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, Ka­trin tells me, they have moved to­wards “the Aus­trian way”, in which who­ever com­mit­ted the vi­o­lence has to leave the home, rather than the vic­tim go­ing to a refuge. They have also in­tro­duced a law to take force in 2013, oblig­ing cor­po­ra­tions to have at least 40% of each gender on their boards.

Power to fe­male politi­cians

Ice­land has a his­tory of pro­gres­sive fe­male politi­cians. Vigdis Finnbo­gadot­tir, the coun­try’s pres­i­dent from 1980 to 1996, was the world’s first demo­crat­i­cally elected fe­male head of state. At the time of her ini­tial vic­tory, the num­ber of fe­male politi­cians in the coun­try was very low – just 5% of MPS – and so in 1983 the Women’s Al­liance was formed, an ex­plic­itly fem­i­nist party, which at its high­est point, in 1987, held six seats, out of a to­tal of 63. They fought for bet­ter wages for women, and, says Tho­runn, who was a mem­ber, “spent the 80s talk­ing about all the taboos – rape, in­cest, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, putting in place leg­is­la­tion to pro­tect women and chil­dren. All those is­sues are main­stream now, but it took a lot of courage.”

In 1994, In­gib­jorg Sol­run Gis­ladot­tir, who had been a politi­cian with the Women’s Al­liance for more than a decade, be­came mayor of Reykjavik, a po­si­tion she held un­til 2003. And in 2009, af­ter the fi­nan­cial cri­sis, and at a time when the coun­try was ques­tion­ing the val­ues that had led them there – risk-tak­ing and bravado, for ex­am­ple, which many de­fined as specif­i­cally mas­cu­line – there was much talk of women clean­ing up the mess. Women were ap­pointed to lead two of the dis­graced banks, New Lands­banki and New Gl­it­nir, and Jo­hanna Sig­ur­dar­d­ot­tir be­came Ice­land’s first fe­male prime min­is­ter. I ask Gu­drun Jons­dot­tir whether she thinks Jo­hanna is a fem­i­nist, and she says: “Per­haps not pri­mar­ily – she comes from the labour move­ment, she was a flight stew­ardess – but she’s been around in pol­i­tics for decades and has a great per­sonal re­spect for the move-

Winds of change:

de­mon­stra­tors gath­er­ing dur­ing the Ice­land govern­ment’s res­ig­na­tion in reykjavik in Jan­uary 2009. The poster reads ‘New democ­racy’. Women in Ice­land do not hes­i­tate to make their feel­ings known, as also seen in the 1975 strike where 25,000 of them gath­ered in the city for speeches, talks and singing.

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