When you think about traveling to Iceland, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Is it glaciers, waterfalls, geysers, geothermal spas, or black sand beaches?
Is it the countless snow-capped mountains and active volcanoes, patiently waiting to be explored? Is it the Aurora Borealis, elusively dancing through the night skies?
It’s true that all of this can be experienced during your travels to this unique island nation - but Iceland has something else to offer that I found much more valuable during my time there: equality.
Social equality and feminism have garnered such widespread attention in the last few years, especially with the proliferous nature of social media and trending topics, that it doesn’t feel all that strange to hear these themes pop up in my travels. However, what is shocking is visiting a nation of just under 350,000 people and seeing social progress unlike anywhere else in the world.
Women in Iceland have had the right to vote since 1915 (that’s five years earlier than women’s suffrage in the United States).
The “Day Without a Woman” march held earlier this month in Washington? Yeah, Iceland had their own… More than 40 years ago.
In 1975, 90% of women went on strike for a day to show the rest of the country not only the value of their roles at home and in the workplace, but the singularity and determination of their efforts. Five years later, Iceland went on to become the first country in Europe to elect a female president, and the first country in the world to vote a woman into power in a democratic election. What’s more, they sit near the top of the list when it comes to maternity leave around the world; both parents are allowed a paid leave of three months when a child is born, with an additional three months to be divided between them as they see fit.
Indeed, Iceland has a lengthy history of passionate political action and discourse surrounding women’s rights, and they’re still setting the standard for equal treatment today. Just two weeks ago, the Prime Minister announced that the government is working on a law that will require companies with more than 25 employees to disclose their payroll to the government in order to ensure equal pay for equal work.
As I researched the tremendous social progress Iceland has made during the last few decades, I found myself both inspired by and envious of the rights and privileges they enjoy.
The United States has never seen a female president. Maternity leave is unpaid (although it can vary by state) and, in many cases, is not guaranteed. We have yet to close the wage gap, and we see an even broader divide in pay when we consider earnings by women of color.
In order to compare and contrast all of the utopian elements I had heard about Iceland with the real life experience of women living and working there today, I was offered an opportunity to have a casual interview with three local women at a small cafe in Reykjavík. At the beginning of our conversation, the youngest of the group said that she was reluctant to call her country a “feminist paradise”.
I laughed at first, glancing around the table at my friends, waiting for the joke to land. What more could they ask for? I was sure she wasn’t serious. But when I turned back to her, she met my gaze with quiet confusion, not sly sarcasm. “There is still work to be done,” she admitted. I was embarrassed, not just for myself, but for my country.
I made a poor attempt to defend my rudeness by expanding upon a few of the current issues that women in America face – things that Iceland handled years ago – and the response from the table was stunned silence. They were surprised to hear that we are still grappling with reproductive rights. When I worked up the courage to ask specifically about the public attitude towards abortion, and how it’s handled in the country, one woman simply put her hand to her mouth and shook her head. “They wouldn’t touch it,” she sighed, “The government would never touch this issue.”
Tears began to form in my eyes as I realized just how comfortable I had become living and working in what I thought was one of the most progressive places in the world to be a woman.
How could America, a country that was once viewed as a paradigm of civil liberties, fall so far behind in such critical areas?
As we continued our conversation, little details stuck out to me as the main ingredients that might keep a small but passionate place like Iceland on the forefront of equality. Both academic and social education are handled with the utmost care.
They foster inclusivity, and work hard from a young age to shatter tired preconceptions about gender roles.
Citizens are well-informed when it comes to political issues – not just in Iceland, but around the world. Last year, when the women of Poland took to the streets to make their voices heard and to fight for their rights, they held a sister march in Reykjavík as a show of support. The people of Iceland have done the seemingly impossible: they have elegantly infused an acute global awareness with a deep sense of local pride and action.
Toward the close of our interview, the women credited those who came before them, mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, with laying the groundwork for tackling these complexities – but they also explained how important it is to keep fighting, even after an issue is won. We can’t sit back and coast on the euphoria of a single battle well-fought, because many longer and more difficult battles lie ahead of us.
Although social media has played a huge role in uniting women around the world, it has also allowed many to become complacent.
We so often feel as though speaking out once, publicly, is doing our part in securing a future for women across the world. While it’s absolutely true that you can’t lead a march without first putting one foot in front of the other, it’s critical to stay focused on long-term goals.
We march, not just for the future of our generation, but for the women who will follow in our footsteps and go further than we ever could. Iceland stands as a shining example of what’s possible for the rest of us, if we fight for it.
We have work to do. We always will. Sexism is not a beast that can be slain in one swift blow; it’s a slow, creeping darkness that takes many forms and appears in unexpected places. We must do all we can to drive it out with our light. We need the love and support of our friends and families.
We need the voices on Capitol Hill, and the kindness of women in little cafes in Reykjavík. We need you.
With a little help, and a lot of passion, we can enact change. We are women. We are strong. We can do anything.
Alli Speed travelled to Iceland as part of The Travel Project, powered by Contiki. If you would like to contribute your own story to The Travel Project and want to see your writing published on six-two, click here.