Iceland Is the Perfect Example Why Gender Equality Needs More Than Policy Change
Laws can outline how women ought to be treated — but enforcing them is another story
A lot of people can’t seem to grasp why women in Iceland, a country dubbed the ‘feminist utopia,’ would ever need to go on a strike.
Around 100,000 Icelandic women and non-binary people — more than a quarter of the nation’s total population— together with their Prime Minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, filled the streets of downtown Reykjavik for an all-day strike under the slogan Kallarðu þetta jafnrétti? (You call this equality?)
In multiple towns nationwide, thousands more women participated in protest events.
And it turned out to be the second biggest protest the country has ever seen. The first one, which took place in 1975, was another full-day women’s strike — also referred to as the kvennafrí — in which 90% of Icelandic women ceased both their professional jobs and domestic duties, causing the entire country to grind to a halt.
It was a pivotal moment for the country. And it led to pivotal change, including the government passing a gender equality bill just a year after, in 1976.
Today, Iceland is considered among the best countries in the world for women. In 2023, the nation topped the World Economic Forum’s global gender gap rankings for the 14th consecutive year.
So why the need to strike?
Why can’t Icelandic women just happily rest on their laurels and enjoy the hard-fought advancements won by their mothers, grandmothers and all the other women who came before them?
The most gender equal country still isn’t gender equal
You’d think it would be pretty standard to live in a country like Iceland without experiencing as much as a single whiff of misogyny and sexism.
In addition to the gender equality bill passed in 1976, in 2018, the Icelandic government introduced the first policy in the world that requires companies and institutions with more than 25 employees to prove that they pay men and women equally for a job of equal value.
There’s also no shortage of powerful and inspiring Icelandic women, whether in politics, business, science, art or entertainment, that prove women can do all jobs equally well. Iceland was actually the first country to have a female president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, elected in 1980.
On top of that, both mothers and fathers are entitled to at least six months off to look after their newborn child — one of the longest statutory paternity leaves in the world.
Many parts of the world can only dream about a situation like that.
And yet Iceland is far from a perfect place for women and girls.
In her recent piece for the Guardian, María Hjálmtýsdóttir, an activist and a teacher in a secondary school in Kópavogur, Iceland, says that you don’t even have to dig deep to notice gender inequality issues there, including sexual violence, domestic violence, misogyny, the wage gap, the authority gap and inequities of emotional labour, among others.
She also talks about her almost two decades experience of working with teenagers:
I have heard more stories of sexual harassment and violence than I can count. I have listened to girls describe their anxiety about living in an online world that pornifies them endlessly. I have spoken with hundreds of youngsters who are worried about the way everything is going, with the reactionary backlash to increasing freedoms, the Andrew Tates, the pressure to conform to narrow gender roles and beauty standards.
Statistics tell a similar story.
A national survey conducted by the University of Iceland in 2018 revealed that 1 in 4 Icelandic women have been raped or sexually assaulted during their lifetimes. (In comparison, in Europe overall, that figure is 1 in 10.) Due to distrust in the Icelandic justice system and fear of victim-blaming, only around 12% of these victims actually press charges. And those that do press charges find their cases dismissed roughly three-quarters of the time.
Even when it comes to the pay gap, there hasn’t been as much progress as expected.
According to Statistic Iceland, in 2022, women in the labour market earned, on average, 21% less than men. This year’s strike organisers also say that jobs traditionally associated with women, such as cleaning and caregiving, continue to be undervalued and underpaid.
Well. That hardly counts as a ‘feminist utopia,’ does it?
This is the case in many other seemingly gender equal countries, too
It’s not just Iceland, either.
None of the countries we think of as champions of gender equality, including other Nordic countries, have been able to achieve it yet fully.
And they all struggle, to a greater or lesser extent, with issues like the gender pay gap, unequal division of domestic labour, gender-based violence and sexual harassment, as well as a justice system that tolerates and excuses these behaviours.
Some scholars even coined a name for this phenomenon — the ‘Nordic paradox.’
One often proposed theory as to why it exists despite the introduction of numerous policies aiming to advance gender equality is that it’s precisely those gains that fuel male resentment and feelings of ‘injured masculine status.’ And it’s then those negative emotions that lead to physical and sexual violence — a mode of action where men can still dominate over women.
In other words, it’s the growing pains of a changing and increasingly equal world. A world where it’s no longer just some men who get to be at the top of everything it contains.
Sociologist Michael Kimmel already pointed it out over a decade ago, too, calling this state of anger and fear so many men feel as a result of losing their perceived social status and privilege as ‘aggrieved entitlement.’
It could also explain the situation in countries like the UK or the US, which, although aren’t as close to closing the gender gap as the Nordics are, do have policies in place that guarantee equal pay, equal representation, etc.
Another theory — which I think should be considered as complementing, not replacing, the first one — is that the cultural norms that once justified the patriarchal oppression and control of women didn’t exactly disappear. They just… hide themselves better today. And sometimes we don’t even realise they’re there.
Or, even worse, we do realise they’re there and impact how we act and behave, but we fail to do anything about it anyway.
I recently came across an article — thanks to writer Melanie Hamlett’s excellent video about it — by a seemingly progressive Swedish male writer who points out it’s a shame that despite decades of Swedish fathers being entitled to parental leave, only a tiny proportion actually takes it. He even bemoans his own father for being absent during his childhood.
And then he goes on to say that although he ‘tried’ being an ‘accommodating, considerate and egalitarian man’ after his wife gave birth to their third child, he had a ‘masculine urge’ to… pick up a new hobby — skiing, and then train for a race which required time and money their family did not have at the time.
But hey — he tried, okay?
Policies can only do so much
The cultural gender script has certainly changed in some ways over the past few centuries, but in others, it hasn’t.
But domestic and care labour isn’t really seen as ‘proper’ labour, an idea that then extends to the world of work and results in female-dominated industries and professions being severely underpaid and undervalued.
And even when women enter male-dominated fields, they are less likely to be promoted and paid as much as their male counterparts — and even when they explicitly ask for it — because, well, they’re women, and someone should probably tell them to go back to the kitchen.
It’s no wonder that when a man, even of the seemingly ‘egalitarian’ variety, feels like preparing for a ski race right after his wife just gave birth, he can do so without giving it a second thought.
A woman’s place is in the home.
A woman will drop everything to take care of it.
A woman has to drop everything to take care of it.
Similarly, it’s still women’s bodies or behaviour, or both, that we believe ‘provoke’ or ‘trick’ men into committing sexual or domestic violence, a rhetoric that continues to be regurgitated even by the legal systems in the most egalitarian countries on this planet.
Because she was wearing a short skirt.
Because she was clearly asking for it.
Because she should’ve known better than to anger him.
And sure, you can pass as many policies as you want, but that’s not enough to change any of these norms and beliefs. Policy change is, unfortunately, no guarantee for social change.
In particular, without a simultaneous push for a fundamental shift in how we think about heterosexual relationships, parental responsibilities, domestic labour, women’s labour, sexual and domestic violence and victims of such abuses.
That’s precisely why we still need to have conversations on these topics, over and over again, and point out all the harmful attitudes that hide in the crevices of our society.
And why we need to keep pushing for gender equality.
And yes, even in countries like Iceland.
The most frustrating thing about it all is that… none of this is groundbreaking.
Women from all over the world, and for decades now, have been pointing out that achieving equality and fairness isn’t as simple as just passing the right legislation and then calling it a day.
The enduring patriarchal beliefs that, in a nutshell, split the world into two unequally sized parts aren’t going to magically go away if you change a few laws here and here.
But to quote André Gide:
Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.