Sat, Oct 08, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Is Iceland the best country for women?

An openly lesbian prime minister, affordable childcare and a formidable women’s movement — Iceland may just be a feminist paradise

By Kira Cochrane  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illsutration: June Hsu

On a wet day in Reykjavik, the rain battering the fishing boats, the tourist shops and the young male artists with their improbable mustaches, Iceland’s minister of industry, energy and tourism is explaining to me that the country needs to be “more badass” about the gender pay gap. The minister is Katrin Juliusdottir, a warm, attractive woman in her mid-30s, pregnant with twins. As she speaks, a hint of frustration enters her voice. Icelandic legislation supposedly guarantees equal pay for equal work, as in the UK, “so why don’t we have more penalties?” she says. “Maybe we need to be even more badass when it comes to people breaking the rules.”

We are sitting in Katrin’s office (all Icelanders go by their first names), in an anonymous building a few hundred yards from Reykjavik harbor, and she is talking about women’s rights with no-nonsense passion. Yes, of course she is a feminist; no, she wasn’t in the country for the last major women’s march, otherwise she would certainly have attended; yes, it’s good that the current Icelandic Cabinet has four women and six men, but it’s not enough. She would like to see it reach the perfect 50/50. (The current UK Cabinet is 86 percent male.) Following the disastrous collapse of the Icelandic banks in 2008, she says, the country “wants balance in our lives, and a big part of that is the balance between men and women.”

Some would say this balance already exists in Iceland — that the country is, in fact, the closest the world has to a feminist paradise. For the last two years it has topped the World Economic Forum’s report on equality between the sexes, and last month Newsweek named it the best place in the world for women. The Newsweek survey looked at health, education, economics, politics and justice, and found that in all areas, and the last one in particular, Iceland is about as good as it gets. Icelandic Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir tells me via e-mail that she’s proud of the survey’s outcome, “and not only for women, [but because] we know that gender equality is one of the best indicators for the overall quality of societies.”

Through the cold mist on Laugavegur, Reykjavik’s main drag, I ask Icelandic women what they think. Gudrun, 72, peers shyly from her voluminous hood and says while she loves Iceland — its cleanliness, beauty, the proximity of hot springs, volcanoes, glaciers — it can’t possibly be the best place in the world for women “because we don’t get the same salary as men.”

Awareness of this issue is running high because of a campaign by the commercial and office workers’ trade union, VR. To emphasize and redress the fact that Icelandic women are paid, on average, 10 percent less than their male colleagues, it last month set up a temporary discount of exactly that amount for all female customers at a range of major shops. Berglind, a young shop worker with a metal bar through her septum, tells me she would like to see classes for teenage girls on how to negotiate hard with bosses.

Erla, 37, a lawyer, swaddled in a thick, red mac, says that as an Icelandic woman you can always count on the support of your sisters, and it was in this spirit she attended the Women Strike Back march last year, a protest against the pay gap and sexual violence.

“I don’t think I suffer from unfair pay now, but I have done, and I felt I needed to support women, because we didn’t come this far as a society by accident,” she says. “It was because people went out and worked for women’s rights.”

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