Iceland is frequently hailed as the best place in the world to live if you’re a woman. For nine years running they’ve led the World Economic Forum’s index of gender equality With bans, quotas, and public shaming campaigns (more on that below), their strategy to even the scales is the sort of stuff that third-wavers in the US would scoff at. The portrait of the average American feminist is an individualist concerned with identity and personal empowerment, and above all the sanctity of choice (unless your choice appears in a listicle on Everyday Feminism. At that point, your choice is problematic and will be forthwith called in). Iceland’s approach is one of collective liberation via redistribution of material resources, and it’s worth asking ourselves if what they’ve achieved, we might just consider trying out here.
Evening out Electoral Representation
First on the list of Iceland’s feminist wins is parity among elected officials. Originally working outside the official party system, the women’s rights movement put out a clear platform, including demands such as childcare, so that women could participate in the workforce on an equal footing. This outsider alliance put enough pressure on the party system that major parties adopted pieces of the women’s lib platform into their own or risk losing support from female constituents.
Not stopping at incorporating women’s issues as central to party platforms, major parties in Iceland also voluntarily created quotas of gender inclusion, such as the zipper system, which requires candidates in a party to alternate between men and women. Only one major party in Iceland does not use a quota system.
Instituting a zipper system alongside a system of proportional representation (by race for instance) could break up the overwhelmingly white and male election results of the party system in the US.
Women in government have led to radical changes in women’s status in Iceland. In 1980, when the country elected its first female president (a divorced single mom), only 5% of Parliamentarians were women. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was the world’s first female head of state, setting the example in Iceland where now representation in government has reached as high as 48% (although it is presently at 38% since its last election).
Family Leave Policy
In 2000, Iceland instituted a family leave policy where both parents get three months of parental leave, with an additional 6 months to split between them how they see fit. The result is that 90% of fathers take parental leave. When fathers participate in early childcare, it gives mothers a chance to decide how to steer their careers.
The US is the only developed nation without a paid leave policy for parents. Obama proposed a six-week leave for federal workers, which is about enough time to figure out how to find time for yourself to shower and sleep in between feeding and changing and getting your kid to sleep, but it’s a start. No laws were changed, and the order Obama issued was merely to allow federal workers to use paid sick and vacation time they were already entitled to after the birth or adoption of a child.
Shrinking the sex industry
In 2009, Iceland adopted asymmetrical decriminalization of prostitution, where sex buyers are penalized, but those selling sex are protected from arrest, prosecution, or discrimination. Rather than coming top-down from some sort of bureaucratic Feminist Killjoy, the Nordic model is supported by a broad consensus in the country. The Guardian reported “A 2007 poll found that 82% of women and 57% of men support the criminalization of paying for sex – either in brothels or lapdance clubs – and fewer than 10% of Icelanders were opposed.”
After that, Icelanders went after strip clubs, which they said were not only an example of commodification of women’s bodies, but also a convenient front for human trafficking.
Production and sale of pornography is outlawed in Iceland, and in 2013, the government, led by the world’s first openly lesbian head of state, Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir debated restricting violent internet pornography. Hildur Fjóla Antonsdóttir, a gender specialist at Iceland University, is quoted in above Guardian article saying: “This initiative is about narrowing the definition of porn so it does not include all sexually explicit material but rather material that can be described as portraying sexual activity in a violent or hateful way.” In the US, resolutions to ban or limit internet porn are widely derided as the wishful thinking of anti-sex Christian zealots. Porn is seen as a free speech issue, and nothing about it can be restricted. No matter that studies concluded 88% of porn featured sexualized violence or aggression including hitting, choking, and using slurs, and 94% of this aggression was directed towards women.
Iceland framed the debate around protecting child welfare, since the average age of exposure to porn is 11, pornography supersedes sex ed, even in Icelandic schools, where it’s not illegal to talk about condoms or orgasms. In addition to public health and child welfare, I’d like the US feminist movement to consider the fact that it should not be legal to profit from the distribution of images of women being assaulted.
It is argued that pornography is just the depiction of a fantasy. Would we next move to ban violent movies or video games? But gonzo porn is not the simulacrum of sex in service to fantasy. It is not a graphic representation. When the woman on screen is choked and called a whore, that’s really happening to her. When she’s spit on and beaten and penetrated, that’s not acting. That’s actually, really happening. And it should not be legal to financially profit from abusing someone. It should not be legal to sell images of someone assaulting someone else, just as it is already illegal (and not considered a lynch-pin free speech issue) to sell images of children being abused.
The debate to ban violent porn in Iceland stalled after center-right wins in the April 2013 election. But the conversation around what is protected speech and what is just a roadmap or even incitement for violently degrading and suppressing women is one worth having.
One more point before I step of my familiar soap box: one of the most popular search terms in porn is ‘lesbian,’ and the appropriation of lesbian eros for the male gaze should be an outrage to all lesbian and bisexual women. Our lives do not exist as wank fodder for chauvinists. While we may not be able to legislate away demeaning and inaccurate portrayals of lesbians, feminists should rally around the fact that “lesbian” porn for male consumption is disgusting and homophobic.
Shaming away the pay gap
Laws requiring equal pay for equal work have existed in Iceland since 2008, resulting in a 2% decrease in the pay gap. Iceland already requires companies to meet a quoa of sex representation on the boards of companies. Robust parental leave and childcare have reduced the negative toll that being (temporarily) knocked out of the workforce takes on a woman’s career and earning potential. Even with all of these factors taken into consideration, Iceland still had a 22% pay gap inn 2017. Now its taking a more aggressive approach, with new legislation requiring businesses with over 24 employees to obtain government certification that they pay comparable wages for comparable work. The certification is not a prerequisite to a business’s operation, but failing to be certified might function the way grading stickers do outside of restaurants. No I will not be having the desk job at the company that couldn’t even pass a basic inspection, thank you.
In 1975, Iceland’s Women’s Day Off drew 25,000 women to Reykjavik, fully one-fifth of the country’s female population. The protest focused on economic issues such as low pay and housework, as well as lack of representation in civil society. It was estimated 90% of Icelandic women struck from work that day.
Last year, there was a somewhat quiet call for women to strike on International Working Women’s Day. Where the women’s march drew huge crowds across the States and the world, A Day Without a Woman organizers said their goal was not to attract huge numbers, but to introduce activists to alternative tactics. Protests were scattered, and there were no conclusive reports of how many women struck, or if a bite was taken out of retail sales. It didn’t seem to jam or even gum up the corporate machinery here.
In the US, two-thirds of minimum wage workers are female, and Black and Latina workers are over-represented in low wage jobs by population. The feminist movement and the labor movement are not particularly good friends, and haven’t been since the 70s, when the emergent feminist movement broke with the mainstream left over its entrenched sexism. Today’s scattershot and humbled labor movement found a figurehead in Bernie Sanders, who famously derided identity politics as pertains to race or sex. Too often, we don’t treat race and sex as social classes with their own economic causes and consequences. And that’s exactly where we can look to the collectivism of Iceland’s feminist movement, which recognizes that women as a class live in a relationship of exploitation with men as a class, and that this exploitation must be fought in perpetuity. Not settling for small gains in representation or equal pay, and committing to never let those gains slip away.