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.
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.
“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.