I have always been a feminist, even when I was too young to know the meaning of the word. I’m surprised by how misunderstood this term is. It means believing that men and women should have equal opportunities. It does not mean that as one, I will be offended if a guy holds the door open or pulls out a chair for me.
As a little girl, I believed that I could do anything or be anyone and my choices wouldn’t ever have to be limited by my gender. I was the girl who wouldn’t take shit from a boy on the playground because he was a boy. I’d push and shove right back. Yes, I was that girl. Years later, that hasn’t changed. Except that in the time since, I’ve grown wiser to grim realities such as glass ceilings, unequal opportunities and gender discrimination that’s rife everywhere from the workplace to the tasteless sexist bullshit that often passes for humor in social situations.
I come from a country where women are still often blamed for inviting rape by the way they dress and university professors publicly question the characters of female students for showing up in shorts. In my culture, women are labeled as ‘mother’ and ‘sister’ to drive home the point that they must be respected as if being woman, by itself, is inadequate. I’m not even going to get into the portrayal of women in Indian cinema and television. The state of affairs, as it stands, is one that makes me angry.
On my recent trip to Iceland, I learnt that the country enjoys a stellar reputation (best in the world) for its efforts to reduce gender inequality. According to the World Economic Forum, the gender gap is 87% closed. Though the gap is relatively narrow, things aren’t perfect (except in education and healthcare). But feminism in Iceland isn’t new and it’s widely agreed that there is work to be done to achieve full gender equality. At its current rate of progress, it will be the first country in the world to reach 100% gender equality.
I don’t usually go looking into the gender equality and feminism records of the places I travel to, though I’m always curious about certain aspects of society and culture and especially the attitude towards women. Even if you set aside the fact that I am a staunch feminist, it’s easy for even the mildly observant tourist to see that in Iceland the commitment to reach gender equality is real and one that locals are proud of, as they rightly should be. And that gives me more reasons to love Iceland, other than its surreal landscapes of course.
Icelandic Sagas are full of strong women.
The Icelandic Sagas, stories of medieval history, are full of strong, smart women- queens, wise women and witches who plotted, strategized and ultimately played a huge role in how things turned out, without so much as lifting a sword. You did not want to invoke the wrath of a woman- if you slapped or hit one, it was highly likely you’d end up dead.
Honor and courage were qualities that weren’t only reserved for the brave Viking men who went out to fight but also for the crafty and intelligent women who ran things in their absence and made elaborate plans to defeat enemies. These women weren’t just supporting characters- they were thinkers and doers who set events into motion. In some sagas, freethinking women characters refused to accept traditional roles and fought like their male counterparts. In Njal’s Saga, Gunnar Hamundarson who is under attack, asks his wife Hallgerdur for a lock of her hair to repair his broken bowstring. She refuses, as revenge for being slapped by him a few years ago and he is killed at the hands of his enemies. That is pretty badass and a story that is hard not to like as a feminist.
And so is Icelandic politics.
In 1850, Iceland became the first country in the world to grant unconditional equal inheritance rights to men and women. In 1920, women were granted full voting rights. On 24th October, 1975, 90% of the country’s women left their jobs, kids and homes behind to gather on the streets of Reykjavik to make the point that they were indispensable and deserved equal pay- a fact that most men agreed to after having spent just a day trying to cope with babies, work and household responsibilities. This was the biggest movement for feminism in Iceland. A year later, women were entitled to equal pay by the law. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, Europe’s first female president, was elected in 1980 and served until 1996. Johanna Sigurdardottir, the world’s first openly gay prime minister came to power in 2010. Women are well represented in politics and the labor market. It’s hardly surprising that Iceland is also one of the happiest countries in the world.
In Iceland, women can have it all.
The support systems in Iceland are such that women don’t need to choose between their careers or education and raising a child even if they’re doing it single-handedly.
Both parents get three months each of non-transferable paid parental leave with another three months to share as they like. According to a Slate article from 2013, this was amended in 2012 to five months of leave each and two months of shared leave. This means that both parents must participate in their child’s early months and shoulder responsibilities equally. This prevents women from stepping back in their careers to raise kids without the risk of social pressure and guilt shaming. While the law is certainly successful (about 90% of Icelandic fathers take leave), the shared leave is far from equally distributed between both parents. Still, the conditions for women are remarkably better than many other countries around the world.
There is no stigma attached to divorce and single parenthood.
I love that in Iceland there’s zero shame attached to divorce, separation, and single and unwed parenthood- topics that cause people to drop their voices in other cultures and considered downright shameful in more conservative ones like my own.
The first time an Icelander that I’d just met remarked that his partner and he had four children from three exes, I was surprised by how casually he shared this with me. He went on to explain that it was quite normal for people in a relationship to have babies and get married later, if things went well. In cases where the couple separates, they jointly raise the kids with extended families that result from new relationships. The children don’t undergo the trauma of having divorced or separated parents because there are family support systems in place to ensure they have all the love and attention they need. Single and unwed mothers don’t find themselves alone and struggling and fathers almost always play an important role even when in other relationships.
Not having marriage as the end goal and taking the stigma out of failed partnerships offers greater freedom and flexibility to both men and women to move on without the stress of answering to society or thinking of children as anchors. The whole point of being with someone should be that you want to be with them and not have to be with them because the other options seem too scary or difficult.
Married women don’t take their husbands’ last names.
In my opinion, the practice of women taking their husband’s last names is completely unnecessary and a tradition that is irrelevant in our times. I have nothing against women who find joy in doing this- my point is that it should be a choice rather than an expectation or unwritten rule. In Icelandic culture, women don’t need to change their names after marriage and they’re doing just fine.
This idea is quite unimaginable in my own culture where people who pretend not to care about it can quote at least five reasons why a married woman must change her last name to her husband’s- from ‘feeling like a family’ to ‘legal paperwork becomes easy’. Not all women look forward to becoming a ‘Mrs. A-Name-That’s-Not-Mine’. An ideal world is one in which feeling like a family isn’t dependent on labeling the woman or asking her to change any part of her identity and legal systems that don’t indirectly enforce that. Iceland sure has that right.
It’s not just the women who care about feminism.
Feminism can become a lost cause if the other half of the population does not see why it’s necessary in the first place. In Iceland, men are not opposed to feminism or merely tolerant of it- they’re actually supportive. In 2015, the #FreeTheNipple movement saw women take to the streets topless and both men and women take to social media to post topless photos of themselves in an effort to desexualize female breasts as one step towards gender equality.
In Icelandic culture, men and women share responsibilities- whether it’s that of earning an income, raising kids or running a household. The idea of a kitchen being solely a woman’s domain is considered outdated- as it should be.
Iceland is safe for everyone including women.
Iceland is one of the safest countries in the world and as a woman, I’ve never been anywhere that I’ve felt safer. You could walk down the streets of Reykjavik alone at 4.00am on a dark winter morning and you’d feel completely safe (I did it and I know). You won’t be talked down to, ogled at, spoken to disrespectfully, scammed or mugged because you’re a woman. That just does not happen in Iceland.
I don’t see why men and women deserve anything but equal respect, opportunities and reward for work. An important part of opportunity is a social support system that offers the freedom to make choices without the burden of guilt. This support system is incomplete unless it considers the unique needs of women- without labeling them as some sort of natural disadvantage.
This article is not to say that as a woman, you’ll never get to hear a ridiculous sexist comment or joke in Iceland- that’s unrealistic- but here’s the thing, if you choose to react and call it for the bullshit it really is, you’ll most likely be understood and even agreed with. You might even get an apology because feminism is taken seriously. Iceland does an excellent job of empowering women with the freedom to choose and design their lives exactly as they please. And that’s one more reason why it is my favorite country in the world, but will there ever be such a thing as full gender equality? I can only hope that Iceland will succeed at establishing an example for the rest of the world to follow.
One thing’s for sure, if you’re a feminist or a solo female traveler- you’ll love being in Iceland.
If you’ve been to Iceland and have any thoughts to share, I’d love to hear it in the comments below. If you’re a feminist or just have something to say, I’d still like to hear it. If you’re a feminist from Iceland, that’s even better- I’d really like to know what you think of this post 🙂