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Iceland May Be the World’s Most Gender-Equal Society, but Covid Exposed Vital Gaps

Tatjana Latinovic, the president of the 114-year-old Iceland Women’s Rights Association, which advocates for gender equality the country. It may reportedly be the most gender-just society in the world, but as Latinovic said, photographed here in Reykjavik, it has not reached 100 percent. PHOTOS BY JOHN PENNEY

REYKJAVIK — Iceland is reportedly one of the most gender-equal societies in the world, but during a visit to the country in July, it was not immediately obvious how this progress plays out in everyday life. The clearest sign came during trips to public pools throughout parts of the island. In the midafternoon, men were often seen taking care of their children at the pools, which are kept delightfully warm by Iceland’s abundant geothermal energy. Mothers were at the pools, too, but it was the presence of many fathers, alone with their children, that stood out.

The country of 356,000 is relatively homogeneous and well off, yet it is laced with active and dormant volcanoes, giving true meaning to the novelistic phrase “under the volcano.”

Nevertheless, Icelanders keep thriving, constantly adapting to their brutal but beautiful landscape. Gains on equality are now bred into national politics, as the first woman prime minister, Johanna Siguroardottir, held office from 2009 to 2013. She was followed by three male prime ministers, until Katrin Jakobsdottir won office in 2017 as a member of the Left-Green movement and the country was still climbing out of the 2008 financial collapse. She is up for re-election in September. (Siguroardottir declined to be interviewed for this article; Jakobsdottir’s communications officer also declined on her behalf.) Iceland was also the first country in the world to elect a woman president, Vigdis Finnbogadottir, in 1980.

Independent since 1944, after being controlled by Norway and then, more harshly, Denmark, Iceland — a Nordic country — has experienced, until the pandemic hit, an economic boom based partly on tourism, leading to shortages of labor and Icelandic workers demanding pay raises. Feminists are focusing on that demand, including the 114-year-old Iceland Women’s Rights Association (IWRA), a prominent nongovernmental organization based in the capital, Reykjavik.

A 2016 shadow report submitted by the association and the Icelandic Human Rights Center, an independent monitoring body, to the committee of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw), revealed stubborn obstacles to Iceland’s attaining full equality, despite breakthrough laws — such as the Gender Equality Act in 2008 — to tackle discrimination and a gender pay gap (a new law was passed in 2020). Legal enforcement could be stronger, the report suggested, for starters. The next review is scheduled in three years. Iceland ratified the convention in 1985.

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The Covid-19 pandemic halted tourism for Iceland until early this summer, when the government encouraged tourists to come again, if they could show proof of full vaccination, and I jumped on it. Yet two days before I returned to the United States after a 10-day trip throughout Iceland in July, the rate of confirmed Covid cases in the country jumped from zero to 114 overnight because of Delta breakouts. But Iceland’s high vaccination rate has reportedly prevented severe effects on the population.

In an interview with the president of the IWRA, Tatjana Latinovic, a day before the Covid spike occurred, we discussed women’s rights in Iceland. We met in a hotel lobby in Reykjavik in an elegant hillside neighborhood populated with foreign embassies. Residents had left for their summer holiday, and Latinovic, who has a full-time job specializing in intellectual property for a medical device company, was about to depart for a family camping trip in the north of Iceland, a remote area laced with fjords.

The IWRA was the first formal organization of Icelandic women to focus on gender political equality as well as demanding equal access to education and the workplace. The founder was Briet Bjarnheoinsdottir, a leading voice in the Icelandic suffrage movement. As the first chair of the association, she held that office until 1927, when her daughter, Laufey Valdimarsdottir, took it over. The organization has one full-time employee, whose salary is paid through a government grant. The other people involved in the organization are volunteers. — DULCIE LEIMBACH

The interview with Latinovic has been edited and condensed for clarity.

PassBlue: How has the pandemic been affecting Iceland, which is so isolated from many parts of the world? It’s amazing, for example, that many people, about 71 percent, have been vaccinated.

Tatjana Latinovic: I believe it was contained better here than in other countries because the government here, the politicians, they followed the advice of scientists, from academia, general epidemiologist and the surgeon general, so that was good. We have experienced a lot of unemployment, but this has mainly been related to tourism, which is a big percentage of GDP. The crisis of unemployment has also mainly affected people of foreign origin in Iceland. But now tourists are coming back to the country, and employers are complaining that they cannot get enough people to work.

What has been the impact of the pandemic on women overall?

Latinovic: We have been following the impact of Covid-19 in Iceland not only on our immigrant population but also and especially the gender impact. First of all, the front-line workers sustaining us during the crisis are mainly women. Women are the majority in the care industry and the medical industry. Our schools and kindergartens have also remained open throughout the epidemic, and teachers are mostly women. So these women have had to work throughout the epidemic, and they cannot work from home, like many other professionals. So last year, we organized a campaign on the traditional day of the Icelandic women’s strike, the 24th of October. We couldn’t go out to strike because of all the restrictions due to Covid, but we organized a social media campaign emphasizing the importance of the front-line workers and their struggle for equal pay.

As Iceland recovers from the pandemic like the rest of the world, will there be specific efforts made to help women who were working in the front lines who lost their jobs or otherwise been negatively affected by the virus?

Latinovic: The government has put into place many emergency programs to tackle unemployment and financial difficulties that have arisen because of the pandemic. One problem with many of these measures is that they are based on programs that were created in 2008, when the economy collapsed in Iceland during the global financial crisis, and in response the government invested quite a lot in construction and predominantly male jobs, which were most affected at the time. However, the economic impact of Covid-19 is very different from the economic crisis in 2008. This time, it is the service industry that is suffering, an industry which is dominated by women workers. However, following criticism of the disparate effect of these recovery efforts on women, the government has instituted more equitable programs, and it seems that we are going out of the crisis quite well. Iceland is an economically stable country, an egalitarian, middle income country. But more attention should have been paid to gender from the beginning, and the crisis has shown society’s devaluation of so-called women’s positions or jobs, and many of us think it’s a perfect opportunity to re-evaluate the contributions of people in our society and look at how companies and institutions value jobs that are performed by women. This is a crucial part of finally eradicating the gender pay gap.

What is the main focus of your organization, the Iceland Women’s Rights Association, IWRA, right now?

Latinovic: We have been preoccupied with thinking about how we can push for changes to our society in the post-Covid era, how we can create a more just society, a society that values all genders equally. We have parliamentary elections on September 25, and we have traditionally been a very political organization. We were founded in 1907 by suffragettes to fight for women’s right to vote, which we achieved in 1915. We are very preoccupied about women’s representation in politics, in the parliament and in all spheres of society.

Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir, a feminist and an environmentalist, is up for re-election in September. What is the latest prognosis for her winning?

Latinovic: There are currently eight political parties in our parliament, and no one party has the majority. Our governments are coalition governments, two or more political parties agreeing to work together on a specific agenda for the next four years. Traditionally, no party declares before elections that they are going to join a coalition; these negotiations take place after the elections. Katrin Jakobsdottir is quite popular. During her tenure, the gender equality issues were moved from the Ministry of Welfare in 2018 into the Prime Ministry, so she is also the Minister for Equality, and this move has emphasized the importance of equality work in the government. However, immigrant issues are still at the Ministry of Welfare, which makes it harder to work on intersectional inequality.

Fagradalsfjall Volcano, Iceland
The Fagradalsfjall volcano, not far from Reykjavik, erupted most recently this spring and continues to spew lava. Streams of tourists and locals trek up miles of narrow, steep paths to get as close as possible, rain or shine. Iceland gives true meaning to the novelistic phrase “under the volcano,” injecting a natural phenomenon into the culture that shapes people’s outlook. 

Is there a large immigrant or migrant population in Iceland?

Latinovic: Yes, I believe immigrants are around 14 percent of the population. [They come mostly from Eastern Europe.] I am an immigrant myself, having moved to Iceland 27 years ago. I also serve as the chair of the Immigration Council, in the Ministry of Welfare, and back in 2003, I co-founded W.O.M.E.N. in Iceland, an organization of women of foreign origins.

Where did you come from before you moved to Iceland?

Latinovic: I was born in the former Yugoslavia, in Croatia. My husband is Icelandic. We met when we worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Serbia. I like living in Iceland. It’s an egalitarian country, it’s a good place to raise kids, and our democracy’s quite good, especially compared to where I was born. I speak Icelandic, which many would argue is the key to integrating into Icelandic society.

Iceland is known as being the most gender-equal society in the world, at least according to the World Economic Forum and a few other global measures. But then I read your organization’s 2016 shadow report that was submitted to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) committee and saw that there are many gaps, such as few women police officers, at least then.

Latinovic: I think according to the criteria of the World Economic Forum, we have achieved around 88 percent equality, but this is not 100 percent, so we still haven’t reached true equality in Iceland. However, we keep improving, and this is absolute key to gender equality, we cannot ever stop working on improving our society. So, for example, in 2016, when we wrote the shadow report on the status of women in Iceland, there were very few serving as police officers, around 14 percent. However, today, women make up around 40 percent of the police service in Iceland. This change came about because of the consistent focus of outside advocates and inside forces within the police to make the force more equal and more representative of Icelandic society.

When I first got here, in mid-July, I was looking for signs of how this is a nearly gender equal society, yet I didn’t get an immediate sense of equality in Iceland, as the jobs in stores, at the airport, at hotels and guest cottages were traditionally broken down by men and women. What I did notice that in the public pools many men were taking care of their children on their own.

Latinovic: You will see that. The Icelandic labor market is very gender segregated, women are dominant in fields that are traditionally considered “women’s work,” such as in education and care work, while men are dominant in fields that are traditionally considered “men’s work,” like construction or fishing. However, the labor participation of women and men is equal. Around 80 percent of women work outside the home and so do around 80 percent of men. Women working outside the home gain financial independence, which is key to women’s liberation. This labor force participation is made possible because of universal day care. The vast majority of preschool kids are in day care, which obviously helps because both parents can work. We also have equal parental leave for parents.

In 2000, our parental leave act was amended to set aside specific paternity leave for fathers, which could not be transferred to the mother. The division was three months for the mother, three months to the father and three months that the parents could divide as they wanted. This proved popular and around 80 to 90 percent of fathers take their paternity leave. Last year, the parental leave was increased to 12 months, and the division is now six months for each parent. The parents can transfer up to six weeks of their leave to the other parent, but only six weeks. This means that men and women have a nontransferable right of four and a half months with their child. The parental leave is paid through a special fund which is financed by our taxes.

You work for the IWRA in your free time?

Latinovic: My role as the president is voluntary; we only have one employee. We are financed by our membership fees, competitive grants and a government grant. The funding from the government finances the position of the employee. One of our most important roles is to support and maintain the solidarity and community of the wider feminist movement in Iceland. Every year, we host Kynjathing, a feminist forum where grass-roots organizations that work on gender equality host meetings, panels and trainings. Last year, the forum was held online because of Covid, meetings were broadcast live online and videos later uploaded to our YouTube channel. This means that the forum was much more democratic than in past years, because everyone can access online meetings, not only those who are located in Reykjavik.

The Cedaw shadow report suggested that gender studies should be compulsory education. What does that mean? 

Latinovic: We want gender studies to be compulsory in our education system, a class taught in preschool, middle school and high school. We believe that school is where you get started to socialize and a great place to teach students about boundaries, the importance of gender equality, democracy and civic engagement.

Would you say young people here enlightened about gender equality?

Latinovic: I would say so, but there is always room for improvement. The younger generation is much more aware of boundaries, of equality, of social justice than the older generation. They have an innate intersectional understanding of inequality. Young people are leading the way to a more just society. It is up to us who are older to use our social and economic power, knowledge and connections to clear the path to equality for all.

 

Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel and Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and back in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina.

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