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We endure the hard winters and the dark and sea
1 Jun 2010
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When I was young, I wanted to be so many things. I wanted to be a doctor, and a nurse, and I want to be a pilot and I want to be the prime minister and I wanted to work in the store as the cashier. I wanted to do everything. But you know if you had told me at seventeen that I would be doing this, I would’ve just laughed at you.”

Hugrún R. Hjaltadóttir. Project director at the Centre for Gender Equality; forefront of the third wave of feminism in Iceland; co-founder of Bríet, young feminists. Interviewed June 2010.

We endure the hard winters and the dark and sea

Icelanders, we just endure. We are used to living in a harsh nature and we endure what comes. I think it’s the hard winters and the dark and sea. Maybe we are used to the land walking over us in dirty shoes.

You know, before the army came to Iceland in the Second World War, we were not this nice country. That happened when the American army came here and flooded the land with money. We have this sophisticated Western nation today, but we were a rather poor colony of Denmark for a long time.

So we haven’t had a culture of protesting. Only crazy people protest, not ordinary people. To be vocal is not easy for the typical Icelander. It is very uncharacteristic. To be protesting and “be against” in Iceland is very different. We are not as vocal and open as, you know, French people. I think what we did with Bríet was this.

We were a group of friends, and we were very angry young women. I must have been 18, and we started this group that we named Bríet after the first woman in woman’s rights in Iceland. At the time, it was not a popular name used in Iceland. It was the dying name for a woman, and it was only relatives of this woman that carried the name.

We were just a group of girls. We went together to an annual meeting of a women’s party in parliament, and they said, “If you want to do something, you can borrow our local meeting room.” Then, everything started. Without that, we would never have been so powerful.

We met once a week and we got the grant to have radio shows. We made 10 radio shows about women’s culture and music and everything that we were interested in.

We translated a book called the Pikutorfan into Icelandic. It was a collection of articles by young girls that are working in media in Sweden, and they were reflecting on their childhood and how it was growing up as a girl. They were talking about different issues, like girls in futbol [soccer], why it’s so hard. You get the leftover time and the leftover t-shirts.

These were the stories that we wanted to tell but they were so personal that it would be hard to replicate in Iceland, which is such a small country. It would be easier to translate the Swedish version of this book and only add a chapter about our philosophy. Then, our translation became quite popular in Iceland. People were against it or with it and debating it. I think it would be hard to top that contribution to the feminist debate. Still today people are talking about this book.

We were very active. Then, we started to go to the university, and we kept it going throughout our time in university. We must have been active into 2003. Then, they started the Feminist Union in 2003; at that time, we were losing our wind. We are not as active. We were starting to focus on other things.

While we were active, we had helped close the strip clubs. We put signs on them that said, “Closed during menstruation” and things like that. We went outside the strip clubs and put up fliers, “If it was your daughter or your child…” and started some conversations. We tried to go into the clubs. I wanted to be there disrupting the peace, but I never managed to get into any.

We were doing small things like this, and we made a paper about beauty and images. We also visited other groups that wanted to know about us. We were quite active.

In Iceland, it’s very easy to get noticed because we are so few. It’s not hard to get the attention of media, if you have a subject that you’re passionate about. We have been interviewed by all media a lot of times regarding our issues. For a while, we were opinion-makers. They contacted us and wanted to have some opinion, but we were just small girls, so we were very radical and not very practical in our approach.

I think the work with Bríet was important for me just to know who I am and what I want to do in life. Just two years ago, somebody told me that now there are over 150 girls in Iceland with the name Bríet, so we changed something. We had maybe more effect than we thought we had. 

I think it just came naturally, my anger, this irritation. It’s not part of the curriculum or anything in school. It’s upbringing. My parents are Christian people. My father is a Lutheran priest. He’s also a professor at the university in theology history and my mother is deacon. They brought me up with a very strong sense of right and wrong. They brought me up with a very strong sense that if something is wrong, if somebody is stepped on, you have to do something about it. That is something I have from them.

When I tell them that I’m a feminist because of my upbringing, they didn’t realize what they were doing. They wanted to teach us children the way of right and wrong and very early on they saw that I had this very strong sense of righteousness. They thought of it as a good thing, but they never understood where I got these ideas and this power. I tell them, “It’s from you,” and they just, say, “Yeah… that’s maybe right.” I don’t know. This is what I have. I picked my fight.

My grandmother, she wanted to go to school like her brothers, but she couldn’t go. That is one of the things that made her bitter in her life, bitter and angry. She could go to house-mothering school and learn to cook and sew things, which she did, but it was not what she wanted to do. She wanted to go get the student diploma like her brothers. She never got to. I think that was just the beginning of the definition of her life.

The thing for me that started it, I had the passion. Then, I was asked to join a magazine, Vera, about women’s culture and issues. There were different women of different ages, from different places in society writing this magazine, and they asked me to join them. I was barely seventeen. I just came there and listened. I was star-struck by these women, and they had these crazy ideas. I read everything I came in touch with, and I think that they put me on the right path. I got a very good upbringing by these women.

            Also, as a child, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was the symbol that everything is possible.  She was the symbol for the power of women, that we can do this. When I was young, I wanted to be so many things. I wanted to be a doctor, and a nurse, and I want to be a pilot and I want to be the prime minister and I wanted to work in the store as the cashier. I wanted to do everything. But you know if you had told me at seventeen that I would be doing this, I would’ve just laughed at you.

            The only thing we wanted when we were in Briet was to found a company called B.U.S.T – Bitches Under Social Torture. It was the best idea ever, and that was really the place I wanted to be working right now.

            The idea was to have a company that would make money from big, international conferences for people about different issues. We would make our names in the feminist world by holding these big huge conventions for feminists in Iceland every year where all feminists from the world would unite. Of course, we all would be working with this, and we would also be engaging in research on gender issues. Yeah, that was the dream. But, you know, much of this dream I can do in my job now.

            Now, I work for the Center for Gender Equality. I studied gender equality and anthropology, and then I went to London and Sweden and got my Master’s degree. After, I came back. 

            I saw the Center for Gender Equality which is located in Akureyvi was advertising. It was the first time I saw it in the newspaper an advertisement that they wanted somebody with Gender Studies, so I decided to apply. I didn’t think I would get the job, but then, I got the job.

            My husband had just gotten a job here in Reykjavik, so he would stay here, and I would go  to Akureyvi and see if I liked it. I was going back and forth for two years to try it out. It takes 40 minutes to fly. It’s tiresome and it costs a lot of money. I practically lived in Akureyvi, and he lived here. I wouldn’t have done it for any other job.

            At first, I said, “Oh, I can’t take this job, it’s too far away, we are not moving there.” I decided to take the job because of my husband. He said, “We can try it out. This is your dream job.” So he’s been with me through the whole thing. He knows me inside out. I’m quite fortunate to have him, and he has a good sense of right and wrong. I can go and complain to him.

            Then, we were very lucky when we decided to have a child, my boss said, “We will just figure this out.” You know, we cannot raise a child living in two places, so I thought that I would have to quit. But I got a position in Reykjavik, to be a presence for the Center here.

            The Center for Gender Equality is the institution that follows the legislation. We insure that people are doing what they are supposed to be doing. We are under the Ministry of Social Affairs and Social Security. 

             The most interesting things that I do, I am in this gender budgeting[1] working group. I’m hoping that gender budgeting will be the biggest thing that I’m a part of that I can be proud of. I want to work inside the system; it’s so hard to become a part of the system.

            The Minister of Finance now is very passionate about this gender budgeting and is giving us space, time. I am hoping this is real. It’s happening finally. This is the first time that they’re going to put money in it. It is clear who is responsible and how the work is going to be. This is something that will lead us forward.

            I think that after the economic collapse, we have been standing still and moving slightly backwards. This economic collapse took us by quite surprise. Now, we are starting gender budgeting in the wake of the collapse. I think we have a real hope.

            We also have talked very much about gender mainstreaming.[2] Before 2008, we didn’t have a reference to gender mainstreaming in our law. It wasn’t a priority. It was partly through the influence of the Center for Gender Equality that it was put in the law. Now, it’s a goal, and it’s our responsibility at the Center to work with this.

            I got this idea for gender mainstreaming very early on when I started to work at the Center, but it was hard for me to get some understanding. In the end, I found this grant with the European Union to make material about gender mainstreaming. We got people to Iceland to educate us about it. We translated a book about it from Sweden.  We put in a lot of Icelandic examples and how we can use these different methods of mainstreaming, and then we published it. Now, we have seminars.

            That is one of the things I do: Seminars about gender mainstreaming for workplaces. I’m very proud of that project and the idea behind the project. Unfortunately, we have not been able to focus as much on it as I had hoped. We’re only seven people at the Center, and we have a lot of obligations that we have to fulfill. There are many different parts of the law that we have to follow up on. We have to be more outgoing and advertise that we have this information.

            But we are using the gender mainstreaming information in this gender budgeting project, and we have applied for another grant to the same fund to be able to continue this work. I will be the project manager, and I will take it very seriously and put a lot of effort into it.

            We are also collecting data from all the ministries now. It says in the gender equality law that every committee should be fifty-fifty male-female representation in these groups. If they’re not right, we send them a letter and ask, “Why are these committees not equal?” They have to tell us why. We are in this process of seeing if there are some good explanations or not.

            If there are no good explanations, we tell them that it’s best if they reappoint in the committee. Through this work, they become more aware that they have to do right. In the new committees, they refer to the gender equality law that says they have to appoint one man, one woman, and they are going to choose which one is going to be in the committee.

            Of course, equality is such a relative thing.  If we take the Icelandic gender equality definition, it’s actually really quite clear. It says that men and women should be equally represented and equally participating in all spheres of society. That is a noble goal, that we should be equally represented, both in board rooms and in municipalities and in state offices. We should be able to work with children even though we’re men and we should be able to be truck drivers even though we’re women. In a real way, we should be able to choose what we do in life without the gender being a part of the decision. Equality will be reached when we take equal responsibility both in work and family life.

            For me, I think the most important thing is to pick a project and be sure that they are going to do it. Like now we have a problem with parental leave.

            In Iceland, we have a parental leave fund that works the same as an unemployment fund. Everybody pays for this fund. Then, when I go on maternity leave or my husband goes on paternity leave, it’s not our work that pays for it. It is this fund that everybody pays into. The state puts in money as well. We had eighty percent of our salary for our leave before the crisis but because of the crisis, they lessened the money. They cut it down to seventy percent.

            Parental leave is nine months: Three months for mothers, three months for fathers, and three months that either parent can take. When I look at me and my husband now, I think the biggest part of this parental leave is that when he was at home alone with our daughter for hours, he was able to do everything for her. All these young men in Iceland are able to do that. It’s the thing that we have to work the most on—the reconciliation of work and family life and the distribution of work inside the home. I think that is something that we have to be consciously working with. Of course, it’s very hard to do that.

            Then, in nine months, the parent can go back to work, but most people cannot go back to work after nine months because you don’t have anyone to take care of the child. In the daycare system in most of municipalities, children can start between 18 months and two years old. What are you going to do during this gap between?

            This is having a very bad effect on women. You know, Iceland is very different from many other countries. Women’s employment rate is very high. It is very normal for us that both women and men work. There are very few women who have children and don’t go back to work. But we have this gap in the system that is really, really expensive, and then, you have seventy percent of your salary for nine months. You could decide to have lesser percentage paid and stay longer at home, but you cannot do that when the money is so low. If you were not very well paid, it’s just better to stay at home because it’s so expensive to pay for the daycare. Then, because of the current distribution of work inside the home, it’s women who usually stay home.

            So we have this big, big daycare gap. Then, they made this very stupid daycare insurance. It’s just a blanket over a very ugly thing. The municipalities decided to pay people 25,000 Icelandic kronas if they don’t get daycare for their child after they reach 9 months. What are you going to do with 25,000 kronas when it costs you 80,000 to pay for the daycare? This is no money you can do anything with. You can stay at home for 25,000kronas per month? It’s just a very bad joke. This is a very bad band-aid on a big, big problem, and it costs us a lot of money.

            I have decided that I’m going to focus on this problem, and I’m just going to make the state, which is responsible for the parental leave, and the municipalities, which are responsible for the daycare system, have a conversation about how they are going to bridge this gap. It’s having a bad effect and it’s a really big stress factor in the lives of parents.

            I’m going to focus on this.  I’m going to follow it through. They cannot make it disappear. By getting it into an action plan and watching out for this project that it doesn’t disappear when they are discussing, “Oh, we have too many ideas. We have to take something out.” I’m going to stick to it.

            We need somebody to pick an issue and stick to it. We need groups now that are not too broad and not too big. We have very strong groups for gender-based violence and sexual violence. We need some new voices talking about other issues. We’re always talking about the same things. I think it’s important to decide what voice you’re going to be.

            We also have ongoing debates on how we are going to close the gender pay gap. For years, they have done research that confirms that we have a gender pay gap and it’s not going away. In the big picture, it doesn’t matter if you make a brochure. You have to do something radical. You have to do something huge, across the board, to improve this problem. The problem of equal pay, there are so many factors. It’s very hard. The year I was born, the first law in Iceland was passed about equal pay, and we’re still fighting the same problem.

            They have been trying different things. The municipalities, they took up something that they call work evaluation. You evaluate the job and not the person in the job. The wages are decided by the importance of the job for the institution and not the person in the position. This has been used with good effect by the municipalities, especially the municipality of Akureyvi, which has measurable gender pay gap of 4%.

            Then, we have had some areas where the gender pay gap is huge. Everyone says, “This is a good idea,” but I don’t think they are ever going to do it. If you’re going to take every state bureau and measure the job, it’s a very big task. But you have to do something.

            Also, the employment market in Iceland is very divided. Even though we have all this work participation of women, women and men don’t seem to work together. Men work in one industry and women work in another industry. I think it’s like 80% of workplaces in Iceland that have one gender in the minority. That is an issue we have to work with.

            It is also very hard when politicians are taking positions that they have not thought through to the end but are going to have a huge impact on gender equality. They just didn’t think about it, and they very seldom come and ask us. They have a whole institution that they can ask, and they don’t. When they are working on laws in parliament they don’t even send it to us for review. They just forget about us. If it doesn’t say “gender equality” anywhere, we don’t get it. We have to ask for it to get sent for review, and that is very discouraging.  

            Yes, sometimes it’s hard to pick out what the feminist issue is in some situations. Sometimes it’s hard to see, but where you have people, gender matters. It’s important to look at the gender aspect everywhere.

            For example, a couple of years ago, the government decided to cut down on fishery. We couldn’t fish as much fish. Of course, a lot of people were losing their jobs. They put sixty million into job creation and six million of that was allocated for women. Only, the most people who were losing the work were not men. They were women. They only thought about the sailors, the seamen on the boats. They didn’t think about all the people working on the land with fish. They were putting a lot of effort and money into creating jobs that were not the jobs that were lost.

            We have to find ways to build permanent jobs equally for men and women.  We need to care now. We have to prioritize.

            We have had discussions, and you can hear it’s very clear about the gender budgeting that people are very angry that we are spending money on this. Actually one women said a couple of years ago, “Gender budgeting and human trafficking, can you give me something real to talk about?”

            But it’s good to work in a place where it’s quite clear if people are with you or against you. You always know what the people think that are against you. They express it in the parliament, and they just babble, “Gender, what does it matter?”

            Even though we might get some bad or negative responses, it’s always good to have a debate. There are lots of people that are on your side even though you don’t feel it always. You should not be afraid to take the fight because you always have a sister or brother on your side. Always speak up.

            Once one starts to speak up, then, all of the sudden, you have people that are passionate about the issues. I don’t think it matters what cause you’re working for, but to be able to work for a cause you have to believe in it and live for it. It has to be part of your blood.  

            It is important to stay true to your opinions. I think that is important that it’s clear what you stand for and that you not be afraid to be vocal about issues, even though it’s not a popular opinion. We have been on this “Yes” binge where everybody has to be in line with everything. Everybody is just usual, boring, and you have to be positive. Everything that goes against that is important.

            A strong woman, a strong person, is somebody who is not afraid to speak up if you see that we are going the wrong way. You don’t care if people say you’re crazy. You don’t let it break you down. You just continue. That is what I admire at this point in life.

            You know, you have the power to decide what an experience going to do for you. Is it going to break you or build you up? We always have to believe that we are the active in our choice of life, that we have the power to decide.

            You know, when it comes to gender work, the more the merrier. We all have our little hammers and are tapping at the foundations of patriarchy.

[1] Gender budgeting: Initiative to use gender consciousness in the raising and spending of money by governments; the goal is to consider women and girls and secure gender equality in the distribution of public resources.

[2] Gender mainstreaming: Strategy for gender equality that aims to incorporate a gender perspective into policy development, research, advocacy, legislation, resource allocation, and implementation of programs.

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