What are Icelandic Women Like?

What are Icelandic Women Like?

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Selma Björnsdóttir in the Icelandic national dress

Icelandic women and Icelandic girls are awesome. I know I'm pretty biased since I am one myself, but the rest of the world seems to be taking notice of this too.

I quite often get asked this question: What are Icelandic women like?

People around the world have often heard about the strong and independent Icelandic women. Quite often they've also heard about the sexy and beautiful Icelandic women - there always seems to be quite a large number of foreign men that just hear the words 'beautiful Icelandic women', which they automatically translate to 'sexy Icelandic women' but don't seem to listen when words like 'strong, independent and feminist Icelandic women' come up. Or at least that's what some of the messages I receive indicate.

But I want to write about what it truly is that makes Icelandic women so great.

Nanna Bryndís from Icelandic band Of Monsters and Men

Singer Nanna Bryndís from Of Monsters and Men is a great role model. Picture by Steve C. Mitchell

A while ago I was being interviewed by a girl from Kenya who wanted to know more about Icelandic women and what they are like - and why exactly they are so strong and independent. What is it in the Icelandic society that allows for such equality to grow and thrive?

I hope I can shed some light on it, at least I'm going to try.

Icelandic Women in International Media

2016 threw a few Icelandic women into the international spotlight, for all sorts of different reasons. I wrote a blog about the Icelandic MP that breastfed her baby during congress (but I disagree with her completely on what she was addressing in congress) and about Miss Iceland who quit a beauty pageant after being told she had to go on a diet.

It's interesting however why these two women were being thrown into the international spotlight, one for showing a breast and the other one for leaving a competition that's based on women's physical beauty.

Miss Iceland on a warm day in Iceland

Arna Ýr, Miss Iceland 2015, posing in the Icelandic Westfjords. 

Is that all that the world cares about? Nudity and beauty? (Did you start reading this blog post because of the 'clickbait' picture of the beautiful woman posing in a bikini on a beach?) 

None of the international media mentioned one word about what the bill was that the MP was proposing (stricter laws on immigrants). That's what the Icelandic news covered (along with the fact that she made news around the world for publicly breastfeeding in parliament).

Here's a hidden camera video showing Icelandic response to public breastfeeding (warning: There's absolutely no drama in this video).

Miss Iceland competition

Very few international media articles mentioned that Miss Iceland is a member of the national team in athletics, none of them mentioned that she's a pole vaulter. No-one actually mentioned anything about what she does (she's in her last year in high school). They all just focused on her beauty, and the ridiculous body shaming.

Personally I think this picture shows her in her best form:

Miss Iceland pole vaulting

No-one really criticised beauty pageants in their own right. In Iceland people were proud of her for leaving, but it also opened up on a discussion about why beauty pageants still exist in modern society. 

Of course there is still pressure on looking good, but after having lived abroad for a number of years, I feel that the pressure on good looks is somewhat less in Iceland than elsewhere. Beauty pageants aren't helping to lift this pressure however.

Icelandic MP that breastfed during parliament

Unnur Brá, the Icelandic MP that breastfed her baby during parliament, along with other politicians and former president of Iceland.

As for the public breastfeeding, I do sometimes wish that people knew that public breastfeeding and pride of your body comes from years of growing up in a very equal society, where women fight hard to get, and maintain, their equal rights. 

Another piece of international news about Iceland should have been the one getting the most attention, as it was about the thousands of Icelandic women that left work early, to protest against the wage gap between men and women. This took place on the same day as Miss Iceland quit the beauty pageant, but it seems Miss Iceland got a lot more media action. 

Icelandic women protesting the wage gap in 1975

Icelandic women's 'Day Off' in 1975. (Central Reykjavík hasn't changed much!) Picture by Ólafur K. Magnússon

This wasn't the first time that women left work or their homes to show unity in demanding equal pay, the first time it happened was in 1975, when 25 thousand Icelandic women gathered in the centre of Reykjavík to protest (out of around 118 thousand people living in Reykjavík at the time). The country came to a standstill. 
Women's 'Day Off' then happened again in 1985, 2005, 2010 and in the year of 2016.

When videos like the one posted below are made, they all make Iceland look like some sort of a fairyland where women have already gained equality in Iceland. Often they highlight that Iceland is slowly, but surely closing the wage gap.

When you first see the numbers and see that Icelandic women stopped work at 14:08 in 2005, then at 14:25 in 2010 and in 2016 they stopped work at 14:38 then it looks impressive.

But wait, 2005 is 11 years prior to 2016, and the wage gap has only been closed by 30 minutes in that time? That means that Icelandic women won't be getting equal pay to the men for the next 52 years. Change takes time, but it sure doesn't need to take that long time for such a basic matter.

Thankfully, an equal pay policy was legalised in early 2018 where companies with more than 25 employees will need to obtain a government certification proving that women and men are being paid equally. This will hopefully help speed up the process, but still, Iceland isn't expecting to have eradicated gender pay gap until 2022.

I for one know that sometimes when you see positive news about other people you feel motivated and want to do better yourself - but at other times it may do the opposite and you feel like you can't ever obtain the same for yourself.

So I want to encourage women and men all over the world that are reading this, if you feel like your country could do better when it comes to equality between genders, race or sexuality, please get up and do something about it!

Notable Icelandic Women

There's a number of notable Icelandic women that are doing amazing things to promote equality, either by actively fighting for it, or simply by being strong and powerful and good role models. Here are just a few examples.

Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the world's first democratically elected female president

Vigdís Finnbogadóttir - Iceland's first female president.

I think it's impossible to measure how much influence Vigdís had on the Icelandic nation. She is loved and highly respected by all of Iceland. When I saw news about the impending American presidential elections in 2016 and someone mentioned that Hillary Clinton could be the first female president in the country I thought to myself "what would it feel like to live in a country where there has never been a female head of state?" For the first 12 years of my life there was a female president in Iceland. I remember being quite shocked when I was 12 that a male was her successor!

I hope other countries in the world will follow suit before long, and when they do, I congratulate them. The country will be taking a massive step towards female equality, no matter how she handles the position. At least little girls and grown women will know that it is possible to become president.

For my whole life, I have never once doubted that I couldn't one day become president, if I truly wanted to. (Not sure I want to, but we'll see in the next elections, or maybe 20 years down the line) ;)

Björk is the most famous Icelandic woman in the world

Björk Guðmundsdóttir. Picture from Electronic Beats

Björk Guðmundsdóttir - Iceland's most famous musical icon.

I hardly need to introduce Björk, she's pretty well known around the world. I went to her 3D visual exhibition a couple of weeks ago, and was reminded of how remarkable of a career she's had.

She's influenced artists all over and has total creative authority over all of her work. She definitely paved the way for other influential female artists from Iceland, such as Emiliana Torrini and Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir from Of Monsters and Men.

Reykjavíkurdætur - an Icelandic all female rap band.

'Reykjavík's daughters' rap about women's rights, female equality, what it means to be a girl in today's society, politics and all other sorts of topics. They've shown little Icelandic girls that women can be successful rappers - without needing to take all their clothes off in their music videos.

The Slut Walk in Iceland in 2015

Icelandic teenage girls.

I'm very proud of Icelandic teenage girls and young Icelandic girls and women. I feel like we still live in a society where there's a huge pressure put on how we look and how we're shaped, but so many Icelandic girls are giving these beauty standards and societal 'norms' the middle finger.

A great example of how they are fighting this is by pointing out the number of Icelandic girls and women that partake in Slut Walk each year, and the #FreeTheNipple campaign that took place a few years ago.

Young Icelandic girls are strong and independent feminists

Picture from Iceland Monitor

A popular elementary school talent competition was won by a group of 13-15 year old girls in 2015 that recited a feminist poem they'd written along with a dance performance, an idea they came up with themselves.

And finally, I have to mention that the Icelandic men are also equally amazing.

In all this talk about how strong and independent the Icelandic women are, the men tend to get forgotten about. But Iceland wouldn't be the most equal country in the world if the men weren't also wanting equality, making it all the easier to strive towards it together.

Icelandic men are great!

The Icelandic men are supportive and respectful. If something needs doing, they expect women to be able to do it just as well as them. Most men I know don't think about tasks as being male tasks and/or female tasks. 

(This means that if you start dating an Icelandic man and you're out driving and the tyre goes flat, he'll probably expect you to know how to change it yourself. It's also very rare for Icelandic men to go out of their way to hold doors open for women, or even to offer to pay for drinks - they normally expect women to be able to hold their own doors open, and pay for their own drinks. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule).

I think Iceland has a history of strong women, since the women would have to stay at home while the men went out at sea and then the women had to be able to completely take care of their farms on their own. Take care of the animals, do repairs, take care of the kids, clean, cook etc - and quite often their husbands and/or sons would die at sea, so they'd be left to continue on their own.

We learn from our mothers and fathers and grandparents. I've always viewed my parents as equal. I asked my mother if she attended the protests in 1975, and she said no, she was busy working. She had just started her own company (along with my dad) and couldn't afford to take the time off. Besides, by being her own boss she was already helping to close the wage gap on her own terms.

You don't always need to be doing the same thing as everyone else to be a part of the change.

Daughters of Reykjavík, Icelandic all female band

Reykjavíkurdætur are a collective of Icelandic girls, up to 20 in total. Picture by Reykjavíkurdætur.

Change happens in small doses, but someone needs to be the one to start. And you can help it in so many ways. If you don't want to organise meetings or give talks, you can write posts or blogs or share positive articles. Do your bit. No matter if you're male or female. And hopefully one day all people will be treated equally, no matter what they look like, where they are from or which gender they are - and kids will read about unequal pay in school books and find it as bewildering as the fact that women were not allowed to ride bicycles - just earlier this year, it was frowned upon that women were riding bikes in Iran.

We still have a long way to go.

All in all, it seems that Iceland is the best place in the world for women to live and work, and has been for a number of years now. And I wholeheartedly agree, I can almost feel the difference in the air each time I come back to Iceland after having spent some time abroad.

I don't know exactly what it is, maybe it's the fact that there's no cat calling on the streets, or that in the office where I work there's pretty much a 50/50 of men and women, or that it doesn't take more than 'no thank you' to shake off a guy that's hitting on you if you're not interested.

I think it's all the little things.

The fact that you go to a protest, such as Slut Walk, and you see your little cousins there. And your friend's parents. Or that outside sport stadiums there are posters of female athletes as well as the male ones. Or that when the presidential elections take place, half of the candidates are female - and that fact isn't blown up. It just, is. And if you're walking down the street and some mother is breastfeeding her kid, nobody takes notice of it.

Hopefully this gives you some idea of what Icelandic women are like - as well as the men :)


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