“The best place in the world to be a woman”. Iceland as a role model for gender equality: myth or reality?

Praca zaliczeniowa na studia, poświęcona udziałowi Islandek w życiu politycznym oraz dużej partycypacji w protestach wobec dyskryminacji kobiet i seksizmowi obecnemu w dyskursie publicznym (#FreeTheNipple, #metoo, Klaustur scandal). 
Język: angielski. Pod spodem załączam również wersję PDF.

In 2018 Iceland took the first place in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index for the tenth time in a row (WEF GGGR 2018). It means that for the last decade Iceland has been a forerunner in terms of establishing gender equality, by minimalizing differences between men and women in many sectors. This led to painting an idealized picture of Iceland as a “paradise for women” or “the best place in the world to be a woman” (Hertz 2016). Although Iceland can be regarded as a role model for gender equality in many ways, it is still far from being an ideal. Regardless numbers in official reports, Icelandic women themselves claim that the situation still needs improvement, if not a serious change.

2018 was also a crucial year for Icelanders for other reasons. They celebrated the 100th anniversary of independence and sovereignty, with culminating festivities on  December 1st, the exact day of the centenary. However, the main celebrations in Reykjavik, the capital, were disturbed by protests against women discrimination in political discourse, provoked by a so-called “Klaustur scandal”, which exposed blatant sexism in private male politicians’ talks (The Straits Times 2018). Reaction to the recordings, together with popular movements of the previous years, such as #FreetheNipple and #metoo, prove that real condition of gender equality in Iceland is no better than in other European countries.

In this paper, I would like to juxtapose historical facts and contemporary numbers with “mythical” views on Icelandic gender equality. My aim is not to compare Iceland with other countries, but to analyze to what extend does the conviction of Iceland as a “women’s paradise” stay in relation with actual situation. To do this, I am originating from a historic perspective, giving a brief summary of Icelandic women’s role in the country tradition, which will be followed by its contemporary aftermath and already mentioned scandal up to date. By focusing on Icelandic women participation in power, I would like to confront the myth of gender equality in the public sphere.

To do this, I am analyzing press material from the period of 2015-2018. Sources chosen consist of articles in English, written by both non-Icelanders and Icelanders, women and men. I am also referring to various academic papers on the subject, as well as official reports (The Global Gender Gap Report of 2018) and analyses given by the experts (mostly Icelandic).

Herstory. 100 years of women in Icelandic politics

In press material and/or academic papers about Icelandic women’s share in power and politics, authors usually start with the Vikings times (circa 890-1000). For example, Thorgerður Einarsdóttir relates to medieval sagas and Nordic mythology describing women as strong and independent, which helped establishing the gender equality contemporarily (Einarsdóttir 2005, 182). Magnea Marinósdóttir and Rósa Erlingsdóttir underline that women had to take care of the household when their men were absent (gone on viking), not to mention that many women held priests positions and were respectful rune-readers in the pagan times (Erlingsdóttir et al. 2017).

Despite this promising ouverture, situation changed with the Christianization of Iceland and women’s authority disappeared for following centuries. No sooner than in the beginning of the 20th century could Icelandic women participate in public life again. In fact, suffrage movement was very vivid already in the 19th century; widows and unmarried women above 25 gained their right to vote in 1882, and the Icelandic Women’s Association, created to fight for universal rights, was founded 12 years later. Thanks to involvement of such women as Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir, who since 1907 used her Kvennablaðið (The Women’s Magazine) to reinforce the suffrage movement, next groups of women acquired right to vote. In 1908 married women gained the right to participate local elections and thanks to so-called “women’s slates” they could also be elected (Einarsdóttir 2005, 134).

The parliamentary vote was gained in 1915, which is the official date of suffrage in Iceland (in relation to the franchise introduced in Denmark, having power over Iceland since 14th century). However, Auður Styrkársdóttir (2006) points out that this would concern only women over 40 years old. 1915 was regardless an important date for women wanting to take part in religious power, as since then they could officially hold priest positions in the Lutheran church (Erlingsdóttir et al. 2017). As for seculars, the franchise limits were lifted in 1918, when Iceland entered personal union with Denmark and regained sovereignty. Only two years after Icelandic women acquired national suffrage and the right to hold office (Kvennasogusafn 2017).

Last 100 years of women in Icelandic politics was much of a prolific time. According to Styrkársdóttir, women participated actively in both government and local elections of the 1918-1922, maintaining the tradition of Women’s lists (1998, 109). In 1922 the first woman was elected to the Icelandic Parliament (Kvennasogusafn 2017) but later on women’s participation declined and in the period of 1915-1983 the Althing consisted of only 2%-5% women (Erlingsdóttir et al. 2017). Although little participation in the public sphere, another milestone took place in 1957 when the first woman was elected a mayor in an Icelandic municipality (Kvennasogusafn 2017), and in 1970 first woman held a minister office in the cabinet. Regardless, Icelandic women did not have their actual representation in power and the atmosphere of the 1970s was very tense. In 1975 90% of women went on strike due to disproportions of wages between women and men, and the day of October 24th went down in history as decisive for the following changes.

The strike consisted in taking a day off, regardless the character of employment. Women gathered on the streets of Reykjavik and other cities to debate, claim their demands in public, or take a coffee (Brewer 2015). The organization of the strike was ascribed to the Red Stockings, a feminist association founded in 1970 which was presumably inspired by such group founded in New York in 1969. The Red Stockings was a radical feminist organization attacking traditional image of a woman, which since the 1930s had been related to an ideal of a “perfect housewife” (Brewer 2015). During the strike, the demand for more woman in political representation was postulated, which fulfilled in 1980 with electing Vigdís Finnbogadóttir for the president of Iceland.

Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was not only the first woman elected president in Iceland, but also in the whole democratic world (Einarsdóttir 197). She had been involved in the feminist groups of the 1970s, later becoming part of the Women’s List of 1983. Re-elected three times, her presidency lasted sixteen years, making her the longest-serving elected female head of state of any country to date. Followed by Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, an active Red Stocking member, elected the mayor of Reykjavik in 1994, Vigdís consisted an inspiring role model for next generations of female politicians (Einarsdóttir 2005, 197). In fact, at the turn of the 20th and 21st century number of women in Icelandic politics rose; from 9% of female ministers in 1990 to 33% in 2000 (Einarsdóttir 2005, 197). Futhermore, since Women’s list and Finnbogadóttir’s victory, the proportion of female members in Althing increased from 5% to 15% and culminated with 35% in 2000 (Einarsdóttir 2005, 199).

Next decade was also in the name of women in power. In 2009 first women in Iceland was elected a prime minister, and she had to get through the most challenging period in the contemporary history of Iceland: financial crash in 2008. Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir was chosen to assume the then prime minister, Geir Haarde, who – accused for the crisis – was forced to resign in January 2009. The election of Sigurðardóttir was confirmed by Icelanders in April 2009 and she remained on this position despite various political changes in following weeks. Under her cadency, she tried to overcome the crisis, by among others making decisions about Icesave. She was not re-elected in 2013, yet remained a very important figure on the women’s political stage, also due to the fact that she was the first politician talking openly about her sexual orientation (Moody 2009).

2011-2018 seemed also very promising for women’s situation in power, to mention first female nomination to a bishop in the Lutheran Church in 2012 (the consecration of Agnes M. Sigurðardóttir took place in Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavik, Lutheran World 2012). However, in past 10 years female shares in politics dropped, “the proportion of men to women – 33 to 30 in the previous parliament – is now 39 to 24, the lowest tally of women MPs since 2007” (Morgan 2017). Still, the prime minister elected in 2017 is a woman, Katrin Jakobsdóttir, chairperson of the Left-Green Movement (Martyn-Hemphill 2017). Moreover, the number of women holding CEO positions (with Halla Tómasdóttir as the first female CEO of the Iceland Chamber of Commerce, Murphy 2018) or becoming authorities in professions traditionally linked to men, such as police (with Sigríður Björk Guðjónsdóttir becoming head of the Reykjavik Police Department in 2014, Euronews 2018) did not improve much in the second half of the decade.

Gender gap. Icelandic women’s empowerment facing men

As mentioned above, for past 10 years Iceland has been number 1 out of 149 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, with the score of 0.858 in 2018 (WEF GGGR 2018, 121, Figure 1). What exactly a “gender gap” is? According to Cambridge English Dictionary, it is “a difference between the way men and women are treated in society, or between what men and women do and achieve” (Cambridge Dictionary 2018). The Global Gender Gap Index is measured by four criteria, subindexes: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, political empowerment. In other words, differences between women and men in each of 149 analyzed countries are defined by measurable factors: access to education, participation in politics, economic performance etc.

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Figure 1: Iceland’s performance in 2006 and 2018 in each of four subindexes, source: World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, see: WEF GGGR 2018, 121.

Although Iceland has closed its overall gap in more than 85%, and remains on the first place in the political empowerment subindex according to the Global Gender Gap Report for 2018 (WEF GGGR 2018, 121), the recent situation of women’s participation in politics is worse than before. As stated in the report: “Even the best performer in this subindex, Iceland, still exhibits a gap of 33%, and this gap has widened significantly over the past year (WEF GGGR 2018, 8). The number of women’s share in parliament dropped, together with their economic participation and opportunity, “due to an increased gender gap in the number of women among legislators, senior officials and managers” (WEF GGGR 2018, 18).

Also, by comparing data given by a platform Statistics Iceland (statice.is 2018), the difference between women and men having influence and power generally dropped drastically in 2017. First of all, it is noticeable that women’s interest in politics has been relatively even since 1897 (between 40-50%, see: Candidates) while their actual share in power has had its ups and downs. Since 1983 (the Women’s Lists) the growth of women in politics was linear until 1999 and then dropped in 2003, slightly increased in 2007 and then reached over 40% in 2009 for the first time, but dropped in 2013 in order to rise to 48% in 2016 and slid to 39% in the following year. What caused this drastic drop?

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Figure 2: Women and Men in Iceland 2017 and 2018: Influence and power, source: Statistics Iceland.

One of Icelandic activists, Sóley Tómasdóttir, replies:

Despite the feminist waves of recent years and decades, and despite the government disbanding over sexual violence and secrecy, we still got an election campaign based entirely on traditional male-centric terms (Morgan 2017).

Styrkársdóttir describes how men in power (and media) would manipulate public opinion already in the 19th century. The idea of women’s suffrage was debated in Althing already then, however, once women got together to make their first steps in politics, supportive encouragement turned to attack. No sooner than the franchise limit of age was put into debate in 1911, had media changed their view on giving power to women, doubting in their skills (Styrkársdóttir 2006). Not much has changed since then;  Halla Tómasdóttir, who ran in the presidential election 2016, was excluded in official graphs in newspaper and TV debate, because – as she understood it – she is a women (Tómasdóttir 2016).

Furthermore, the female elections’ ups and downs can be related to the general mood in the society. For example, the increase of women in power in 2009 may be caused by the financial crisis, which was generally a “men’s fault”. As the then elected Prime Minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, suggests, women were important for overcoming the crisis:

Women also proved to be wiser than men as the financial crisis unfolded. There were hardly any women among the managers of the Icelandic banks that defaulted in 2008. In fact, it was banks run by women, such as Audur Capital, that provided the best examples of how to weather the financial storm. In contrast, the chief executives of companies that were hardest hit by the crash were predominantly male (Sigurðardóttir 2018).

Both 2016 and 2017 parliamentary elections were based on political scandals. First was related to resignation of Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, who was accused in Panama Papers scandal, and another was held exactly a year after, because the then Prime Minister, Bjarni Benediktsson got involved in a pedophilia scandal. Despite the overall drop in women’s share in the parliament, a woman was elected the prime minister. Since then Katrin Jakobsdóttir has fought to improve Icelandic women’s situation, not only by closing remaining gaps (such as pay gap) but also struggling with unmeasurable problems such as discrimination, sexism and violence against women (Jakobsdóttir 2018).

No such a feminist paradise. Icelandic women toward inequalities

2015 and 2017 were important years for putting women subjects into public debate. Both arose on social media and attracted international interest. First, called #FreetheNipple, was a grassroots initiative of teenagers and young women who claimed “freedom” for their breast, and another, #metoo, came to Iceland from the United States. Along with the recent Klaustur scandal of 2018 and its aftermath in social media, all three put the “Icelandic paradise for women” in doubt. International media were particularly interested in such “breaking news” from the country that is officially “the best place in the world to be a woman”. Despite reports and figures, it is still a patriarchal country.

In fact, an unofficial slogan of the #FreetheNipple initiative was “Fuck patriarchy!”. The movement went viral in March 2015, when many teenagers started posting pictures of their naked breast to fight with sexualization and pornification of female body. (Jóhanssdóttir et al. 2018, 133) The movement spread to topless marches and involvement of female politics in posting their breast on social media (Iceland Monitor 2015). The protest was aimed at patriarchy and double standards concerning male and female bodies. As Heiður Anna Helgadóttir, chair of the Feminist Association of the University of Iceland, explained, breast  is “just a body part. Boys have breasts and nipples and it’s fine for them to expose them. The same should apply to us” (Dicker 2015).  The movement had its continuation in the following months of 2015, yet came back to discussion in 2017 after a girl was shown out in one of the pools for having no top bikini (Iceland Monitor 2017). Regardless, the #FreetheNipple movement was called a revolution (Jóhanssdóttir et al. 2018, 140) and exemplifies grand participation of young women in the fight against social inequalities, admitting that social media can be another mean for women’s empowerment.

Treating female body instrumentally, which leads to violence and sexual abuse, is a key argument for Iceland not being a paradise. This is confirmed by both a gender studies professor Gyða Margrét Pétursdóttir  (Bjarnason 2017) and Guðrun Jónsdóttir, spokeswoman for Stigamót, the Icelandic Counselling Centre on sexual violence in Reykjavik (Pelaez 2018). The former suggests that as long as there is any percentage of violence, there is no gender equality. In fact, Iceland has one of the highest rates of reported rapes per capita (Pelaez 2018) and has recently faced serious cases confirming bad situation in this area. For example, Bjarni Benediktsson resigned after a scandal that burst out when his father applied for special treatment of a friend  accused for multiple pedophiliac rapes on his stepdaughter (BBC News 2017). Light sentencing of sexual crimes in Iceland was also discussed due to #metoo declarations of over 5000 women, together with politicians, female priests and celebrities, who claimed having been sexually abused in their workplaces (Iceland Monitor 2018a). Still, the #metoo reaction increased awareness and encouraged more women to take action and claim justice from the perpetrators, such as a former Prime Minister, Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson, accused by 150 women for sexual harassment (Iceland Monitor 2018b).

Last, but not least, the recent events deform the idealistic picture of Iceland’s women paradise. The Klaustur scandal, which burst out in November 2018, revealed serious flaws of the “female-friendly” country, as discourse used by Althing representatives is definitely unfavorable to women. Deputies from the Central Party, among others: former Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson and Bergþór Ólason, were recorded while having private talks in a bar in Reykjavik. In the talk they use crude and sexist language to gossip about their female colleagues, usually by commenting their appearance or “fading charm” (Peter 2018). The most shocking comments concern Freyja Haraldsdóttir, a former MP and an activist for disability rights (Haraldsdóttir 2017), who was called “an animal” due to her brittle bone disease. The tapes put the society in shock and provoked numerous protests in December 2018, gathering not only feminists, but also people standing up against discrimination of the disabled and immigrants (Mörtudóttir 2018).

Conclusions

As piteous as it looks, women’s empowerment depends on men in large part. Starting with the Viking times, women had chance to make decisions on their milieu as long as their husbands were away. First vote rights were given to single women and widows, similarly, Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir’s achievements were only possible due to the fact that, as a widow, she was a master to herself (Styrkársdóttir 2006). Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was a single mother, and Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir – gay. And this is not a feminist statement that women can only make carriers when not limited by men on their sides; many examples prove that women had greater chances to make politics when their male colleagues got weaker politically, not to mention that franchise was given to women from men.

However, gender equality does not claim women’s superiority but ultimate cracking down the patriarchy with its misogyny, discrimination, sexual abuse and sexism. Even such “women’s paradises” as Iceland have to struggle with these problems, and many believe that closing the gender gap completely is only possible when women have their actual representation in politics and other influential institutions.

By far, Icelandic women can be proud of their achievements. Some, like Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, claim that had that not been for women participating in politics in the 1970s – 1980s that Iceland would not introduce female-friendly bills (Topping 2017). In other words: women in power make other female citizens’ everyday lives better. “Maternal politics” is also flattered by Thorgerður Einarsdóttir 2005, who points out that they created the foundation of the welfare state system (Einarsdóttir 2005, 197). As seen in Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir’s and Katrin Jakobsdóttir’s performances as Iceland’s female prime ministers, the “maternal politics” is still needed; thanks to the former the parental leave was introduced in 2000, the latter managed to pass the bill about the equal pay.

Is Iceland a role model for gender equality? On one hand: yes, as proved in numbers and social facilities developed in past decades. On another: no, because in many cases female representation in power is limited by general attitude to women in the society. By far, Iceland surely is not a “women’s paradise”, yet it is a promising island of opportunities, with hope for closing the gap in the future and giving lesson to other countries in the region.

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