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Children who were wishing for oranges
1 Jun 2010
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She traveled and studied languages and she hired a teacher. One of her sisters who is seventy today, she said, 'The only reason that I had any formal education after the age of twelve is because your grandmother hired the English teacher in town to come and teach us at night.'”

Silja Bára Ómarsdóttir. Teaches political science and international relations at the University of Iceland; Served the Icelandic Feminist Association, The Icelandic Women’s Rights Association, the UNIFEM National Committee in Iceland, the Center for Gender Equality, and the Icelandic Gender Equality Council. Interviewed June 2010. Photo copyright Huffington Post

Children who were wishing for oranges

The University as a community is very dominated by women. About two-thirds of our students are women. A large majority of the staff is women but when you look at the educators, the faculty, you’re going to see a different dynamic.

When I first started working here, I was the only woman on the political science faculty, besides the person who does our finances and administration work. Since then, the university’s undergone a transition and the department had to review its image. One of the things that came out of it was that all of my colleagues felt it was very important that we include gender in our self-identity. 

Since then, the dynamics have changed quite a bit. The people we’ve been hiring since then have been a lot more women than men. Now, we’re pretty much a faculty of half and half. So it’s changing quite a bit, and I’m an alternate member of the gender equality board for the school of social sciences.

I think one of the most important things that I do is I talk about gender in the “Introduction to International Politics” class. First year students, they come in, they think international politics is about nuclear bombs. Well, there’s development, there’s environment, there’s nuclear bombs, and there’s gender everywhere.

I remember I showed a film based on the report Women in an Insecure World from a research center in Geneva. They made short films on five different subjects: Femicide, gender abortions, domestic violence, trafficking, female genital mutilation, and war rape. After that I got feedback from students, “Oh, violence and gender actually is an international problem.”

It’s not an individual’s problem. It’s not just a person who decides to sell another person. There are all these international systems that allow it to take place, and like with war rape, this is systemic. It’s not just a horny soldier. It’s about power. It hasn’t got anything to do with sex. It’s about power, and it’s about abuse.

Some of them hate that I teach this way, but a lot of them like it. I can’t really prove it in any way, but the number of people who come and write their B.A thesis with me, the number who want to do something with gender, this indicates to me there maybe was a gap before. They didn’t have somebody they could go to before. I didn’t create the need.

Mostly I get these students who are feminists who are like, “Finally! Someone who will talk about the issues I care about.” Before, the guy who taught this class, fifteen years ago he’d say, “Well, then, there’s this chapter on gender. We’ll just skip that.” Five years ago, he’d say, “Oh, there’s this chapter on gender, you can read it if you want to but it’s not going on the exam.” The difference is huge between us, me being person interested in gender and somebody who emphasizes it.

Sometimes, I’ve gotten teaching evaluations that are like, “If I have to sit through one more class on the status of women in international politics, I’m just going to puke.” You’re like, “Oh yeah, because we talk about it all the time?” No, we don’t. It’s just because they notice. They’ve never heard this before because it’s always hidden.

It’s your right to express that opinion, but you have the choice of being in this program. This is what this program is and actually, I’ve been really happy in the last couple years because there is a deliberate effort to integrate gender into every single class.

We have this woman who is now the dean of the faculty. She has been going through the curriculum of all the courses and saying, “Ok, here, we can fit gender in. We can draw out gender here. No matter the program, if you’re doing public policy, public administration, comparative politics, always make sure that you’re addressing gender and diversity.” I think that’s a remarkable change, and that’s happened only in the time that I’ve been here.

It validates your interests, it validates your perspective. And for the students who are opposed, it hopefully is one crack in the wall?

Every now and then, the students surprise me. I had a student this spring who wrote his B.A paper on women in local elections in Iceland. I remember him as a first year student, he was always very aware of human rights and nondiscrimination issues but never would notice gender. After three years in the program, gender was what he wanted to study. Maybe he hasn’t gotten to the point of calling himself a feminist, but he has come to realize that gender is an important variable that you need to study. That was one of those yeah! victories.

Then, there are students, both men and women, who like to be the gatekeepers of patriarchy, who deliberately go into Gender Studies to disprove feminism. I'm like, “Aw, come on. Of course, you can twist data any way you like, so if that’s your objective then go ahead and do it.” The nice thing about this other student who did his thesis with me, his intent wasn’t to demonstrate that women weren’t shafted. He truly cared about it. 

My favorite is the the section on feminism in the theory class that I do at the graduate level. You spend half of the first semester on realism and neoliberalism and constructivism. Then you get into feminism. Instead of you looking at this systemic power, all of the sudden, you’re like, “Here, read this story. What does this story of a girl who takes care of other people’s children tell you about international relations? What does it tell you when a nineteen-year-old girl’s boyfriend is pressuring her to get married because he is going to war and his commanding officer has told him it’s much better for him to be married because that’s Pentagon policy? What is the state doing to a woman’s right to live her life the way she chooses when it’s forcing her to get married?” I love these lessons.

When you get people to see power that isn’t just might or size. It’s these little secret policies that nobody will talk about.

Just recently there’s this exhibit that’s up about the war years called “The Situation.” Iceland was under occupation during World War II and Icelandic women would go into the Situation when they were dating American soldiers. Of course, these women were in love with these men. They wouldn’t just sleep with any soldier. Only there were these self-appointed guards of propriety who were like, “We need to do something about these girls who are living such a dirty life and sleeping with soldiers.” In this exhibit, there’s actually a mention that Icelandic men thought that the American military should import prostitutes. The American military has built brothels around a lot of its bases around the world, but I’d never seen this here. The Icelandic men would rather bring in women from abroad to be sexual slaves than to allow American men to be in Iceland and steal their women! Their women. Talk about property.

When you find little details like that what does that tell you about a policy? What kind of theories can we use to explain this behavior? Why is this not a part of the history that we’re taught?

One good example is Kathy Moon’s book. She was waiting for documents at the Library of Congress, and there was a trolley with some documents there. She picks one up and starts to read as she was waiting, and they were documents that stated how the American military had collaborated with the Korean government on building brothels. That turned into her dissertation, the stories of these women. It’s still not talked about.

People need to realize this is international affairs. These are the things that states do and it’s not just buying tanks to guard their borders.

Really, it’s most important for a healthy society to be critical. Don’t just accept information the way it’s presented to you. Who does it come from? What purpose is it serving? What is it trying to make you believe?

You can educate yourself in any field and you can still look at gender, the interconnections. You can look at the way textbooks are written, the way that teachers treat men and women. Who speaks in class? Who gets noticed? Who gets complimented?

I consider myself very aware of gender biases, but I have to be active in making sure that the girls speak in class. I have to be vigilant about it and sometimes I forget. I come out and I’m like, “I don’t remember a single girl speaking. Did a single girl speak in class?” Be observant and be critical and say, hold on, don’t interrupt when someone else is speaking. The boys will interrupt a lot more when the girls are speaking. You can present it in a gender neutral way, but it’s a gender biased thing.

I have also on a number of occasions gotten students to come in to me about school-related experiences with gender inequality. That’s something that happens when you’re known to care about a certain issue. Students feel that they can talk to you.

For example, the student associations in political science, they had boy’s nights and girl’s nights, and at the boy’s night, they used student association funds to pay for a stripper. I ended up being the person that the students came to when they wanted to do something about this. I was able to funnel them to the right person to deal with it, but I remember that week was terrible.

I was really tired. I lost control of my temper. During that time, they were also reappointing the board of the central bank. They appointed two women and seven men. I just snapped. I came home after this thirteen hour day, and I was reading the news and I was like, That's it. I wrote a complaint to the Center for Gender Equality and asked that they investigate whether the government could be sued for violating the Gender Equality Act. I copied the letter to the Speaker of the Parliament and the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance who are the heads of their respective parties. Then, I copied the letter to the feminist mailing list online and said, “Here’s what I did. Feel free to use this letter.” This ended up being on the news for three days. Basically, “Silja Bára Ómarsdóttir charges the government with violating the Gender Equality Act.” I was like, ugh.

Then, a colleague of mine actually brought in a magazine from her students, which had two ads for stripping joints with sexual innuendos and this whole description of how on boys were trained in how to treat the female body. Who did she go to? She didn’t go to the gender equality advisor. She came to me. You sort of turn into a lightning rod.

I came into the activism through my work in the first place. I was working at a women's agency that had a very small budget and which was placed outside the capital to minimize its impact. It was very frustrating and there were a lot of things I felt I couldn’t do at work. So I started to join other NGO’s that were working on the same issues.

I worked with the council of the Feminist Association, and I was on the board of the national committee of UNIFEM and on the board of the Icelandic Women’s Rights Association. These are probably the three NGO’s that are the most prominent in the activism for women’s rights in Iceland but they have very different approaches.

The Icelandic Women’s Rights Association is over 100 years old. It was founded by a woman who is the Susan B. Anthony of Iceland. She was very active in campaigning for women’s rights at the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th century. She formed this association back then, and it’s always been active but for the younger generations, it hasn’t been radical enough. It hasn’t been aggressive enough. In the 1960’s, there was an offshoot organization that later morphed into the Red Stockings and the Women’s List.

In 2003, the Feminist Association was formed, and it was formed right around the elections. I mention that because in 1999 it was the first time in 16 years that the Women’s List wasn’t running, the Women’s Alliance wasn’t running. The idea was, “We don’t need to think about the women. They’ve already picked their alliances.” The number of women in parliament dropped quite a bit.

The Feminist Association uses more aggressive methods. They would run ad campaigns where they posted a picture of the prime minister and said, “In 60 years there hasn’t been a woman prime minister, how long do we have to wait?” Or the bishop, “In 1000 years of the national church we’ve never had a woman bishop, how long do we have to wait?” They do these more in-your-face things. That’s a bit more fun. You can agitate people a little bit and get at their gut.

As for the Women’s Rights Association, it’s a valuable organization but they’re more likely to write a letter to the Prime Minister, say, “Well, we think it’s very important that you think about this.”

I was on the board of these two NGOs at the same time, and then UNIFEM works more on the rights of women abroad. A lot of what UNIFEM has tried to do is lobby the government to donate money to campaigns against gender-based violence. We were trying also to get some corporations to put money into the UNIFEM fund against violence and to make sure that gender equality remained one of the fundamentals of Icelandic foreign policy. This is something we emphasize in all of our work. That’s actually the paper I’m finishing up right now. It’s about women, gender equality, and Icelandic foreign policy.

I never really thought of myself as a feminist before working in these groups, and it wasn’t really until I started reading academic literature that I noticed the discrimination around me. I think I was fairly old by the time I realized that I was actually a feminist. 

When I was little I wanted to be an astronaut, and I remember the UN year of the child was in 1978, 79, so I was seven or eight. There was a German project, and they asked children all over the world to write in with their wishes. I had a subscription to a children’s magazine, and this magazine would translate the letters and publish them. I remember reading it. I didn’t have the understanding of it but I remember thinking, I live a very privileged life. There were children who were wishing for peace and wishing for oranges. After that, I knew I wanted to do something international.

I thought I had to go to law school and then study international law. Then I was twenty when I realized International Affairs was what I needed to do. I still think it’s the absolute greatest field. It deals with anything, and there’s a good theoretical foundation. I’m very happy with my choices.

It’s kind of funny, though, I was raised with an awareness of women’s rights. My mom worked outside of the home, which wasn’t that common when I was little. I remember when Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was running for president, how important it was for me, for my mom to see a woman in that position. I was nine, my mother was thirty, and my mom turned our house into a campaign center. We lived in a small town so she ran the campaign for Vigdís.

There were other things that I remember she did. I had two brothers. Three years older and three years younger, and we all had to do the same thing at home. It wasn’t like they took out the trash and I did the dishes. It was, “You do the dishes, all of you.” Looking back I realize, she did a lot of very progressive upbringing.

My maternal grandmother was actually paralyzed before I was born but studying my family history, I’ve realized how strong she was. She left home and went to get an education. She was a woman born in World War I who went away for a year or two. She’d saved up for her own education and didn’t get married until she was around thirty because she wanted to work. She traveled and studied languages, and she hired a teacher. One of her sisters who is seventy today, she said, “The only reason that I had any formal education after the age of twelve is because your grandmother hired the English teacher in town to come and teach us at night.”

Everybody has stories like that in their families, but what women do, it’s not recorded. It’s very easily forgotten. That’s why it’s important to talk to the older people in your family, hear about what these people did. 

My grandmother got her driver’s license when she was thirty-something. She was the second woman in our town to get a driver’s license, and there are these stories about how her brothers-in-law were watching terrified when she took her sisters out for a drive. They thought she would just drive into the lake. A woman driving! She was the second woman and the other woman was a farmer so she needed a driver’s license to drive a tractor.  That was almost acceptable, but my grandmother wasn’t a farmer.

One of her sisters, she’s like 85 or 88, closing in on 90, she never got her driver’s license, and after her husband’s vision started going, she was quite captive. She was still fit and could have driven but she didn’t dare start learning how to drive in her 60’s. Back in 1935, in 1940, getting a driver’s license was messing with the system.

Then, in 1975, the UN was talking about the Year of the Woman. 1975 was supposed to mark the rights of women, and the women in Iceland, they wanted to do something remarkable. We want to do something special. The first thing that was organized was a conference, which was held on June 19th, at a hotel. I was 4 at the time, but I’ve heard the stories.

They had a conference and 300 people showed up. This was remarkable. All these people showing up for a conference on women’s rights and women’s affairs. At the end of the day, women were a little frustrated, and they had a meeting outside the main conference room. They decided they were going to make a motion. What were they going to do on October 24th, which was the big UN day for women that year?

They said, “We’ll make a motion that the women of Iceland take the day of the 24th off. They don’t work in order to demonstrate women’s value.” What if you take the women out of society? They’d been fighting a lot about this because at the time, class debates were very important. In the end of the day, they decided, “Well, we’ll just call it a day off. We won’t call it a strike because that will scare away the women who aren’t engaged in the socialist battle.” They make the motion to an almost empty room, but it’s passed by the people there.

They had no idea what was going to happen. Were women going to participate? This one of the most remarkable events in Icelandic history: Almost every woman in Iceland didn’t do anything that day, other than celebrate. They didn’t cook, they didn’t clean, didn’t dress their children, didn’t go to work. They did this to demonstrate that it is so important what women do in society. There are all these stories about how hot dogs were sold out all over the country because it was the only thing men knew how to cook.

At this time, you were looking at a society where most women did not have access to daycare. A lot of women actually stayed home. If they worked, they were also doing the cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the children. The men were not used to this. There are all these stories of what happened, and thirty thousand women gathered downtown, and all over Iceland. Women gathered in their community centers or squares around the country and didn’t work.

This was repeated 5 years ago, and I think 2 in every 3 women of Iceland gathered. Here, the downtown area was completely filled. That time, they calculated the gender pay gap and said, “Ok, if women earned the same as men at the hourly salary, they’ll have finished their working day for what they get paid at 2:15pm.” At 2:15, every woman in Iceland just shut off her computer, put down her tools at work, and walked downtown to demand equal rights. UNIFEM, the women’s rights association, the labor unions, the groups that work against sexual violence, all these different groups come together and work on this. This is a lot more fun than sitting there and writing a letter and making comments on some sort of legislative proposal.

There are two other markers when I realized that equality is something that I care about.

I remember as a teenager when the Women’s Alliance was running for parliament and Ingibjörg Sólrún[1] said, “Our politics is about three things: What will this policy do for women? What will it do for children? What will it do for the environment?” I thought, that’s my politics. It really can be that simple. I want politics that asks basic questions and bases decisions on the answers to these questions.

Then, I remember I was studying Russian in grad school. We noticed in the Russian textbook that the women were doctors, which was not common at the time in Iceland. We asked our teacher about it, and she was raised in the Soviet Union. She said, “In the Soviet Union, being a doctor is a low-paying job.” That’s when I realized. It’s not the job. It’s who does it. Is it done by men or by women? That makes it valuable.

Equality for me means that different tasks and different roles are valued the same way. That’s where we haven’t gotten yet. We’re still very focused on the right of women to choose to be a doctor, or the right for a man to choose to be a nursing school teacher. Then you get into this whole debate, is it natural for a woman to want to work with children? OK, let’s say we don’t want to change people’s nature, then why don’t we value the work with children the same way that we value the work that is done in a bank? That’s what we need to change. Not just equal pay but equal status, similar value. That’s when I think we will have equality.

Everything I do is shaped by this. Probably it’s a sense of justice. I don’t know exactly how to phrase it, but I feel like I have right on my side, which can be dangerous. I’m pretty sure that what I’m doing is for a greater good, and it’s not for me alone.

I think that’s necessary because you get a lot of negative feedback for what you do. It’s quite common to get anonymous text messages or emails after you write an op-ed that is not the popular view. You go out to the bar with your friends, and someone will come up to you, “You suck.” You have to have a sense that what you’re doing is important.

That’s the strength: I’m convinced that what I’m doing when I do these things is more important than just being popular or being disputed. I’m fine with being a controversial personality because I’m convinced that this is something that matters in the long run.

I haven’t gotten it nearly as bad as someone like Sóley, who was running for city council. She got rape threats. A discussion online, you know, “Somebody should go rape her” with her address. What I’ve gotten is piece of cake.

Also, with Gyda’s Dream, during the foundation of the Feminist association, a woman Gyda was basically saying, “I had a dream once that we would stand outside, and we would just look at these rapists, and they would feel shame.” That was considered so offensive for women to just look at men. We’re not talking about stoning them. Just standing there.

This work takes being willing to face fear, face fear when it matters. Taking a stand knowing there can be risks either to yourself or your reputation. Sóley’s mom, Guðrún, uses this wonderful phrase that my group of friends, we all attribute to her: “The best thing that can happen to you is to lose your reputation because then you don’t fear anything anymore.” When that happens, you can take a stand on just about anything because you don’t have that good reputation to protect. Being willing to do that to fight the good fight.

It is tiring. I don’t know, me personally, I get physical symptoms. I get cold. When I get a threat message, my hands, my fingers turn cold. It’s like, oh my god. I’m stepping over borders. I’m very non-confrontational in my personal life, but there are things that I believe in, and I’m willing to make a confrontation for them.

It can be very scary and it’s very uncomfortable, especially when the threats are anonymous. I think that’s a part of the way that women are scared of being alone. Sure you’ve seen headlines like this, “A woman was raped while walking home. She was alone.” You know, it’s like all these different things that are imprinted into your head. When you get an anonymous message, it immediately starts this film or footage of things that could happen to you. Is it my next door neighbor? Is it somebody I work with? I should be afraid.

It’s very difficult, and in my case I’m very lucky that I have a very strong group of friends that share my opinions and my view of the world. Having this group to fall back on, the support, that’s helps me to keep going. There are a few people that I know I can always go to, and I know will be supportive.

The biggest thing is to build a strong network of women who share your vision and share your goal. To have this kind of network of women who are willing to support you and you support them in return when they go through their fights, this can be what can save your life when you go through trying times.

One of my good friends, she’s fifteen years younger than I am and seeing how she burns for feminism reminds me that it’s not over. Not everybody is jaded. Another friend, she used to work for me in L.A., and now she’s living in Lebanon, working on human rights and gender rights. I remember I met her when she was eighteen, and I was like, “If we have brains like that, the world can’t be a completely bad place.”

There’s a phrase in Icelandic that comes from the Icelandic sagas.[2] It means, “Women are worst to women,” and the thought is that that’s what makes working for gender equality in Iceland so difficult. But this phrase is so far from being my experience. In my mind, women are women’s greatest supporters.

[1] Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir: Leader of the Alliance and Minister of Foreign Affairs who started her political career in the Women's List, and was mayor of Reykjavík as a member of Kvennalistinn.

[2] The Sagas of Icelanders: Prose histories of Icelandic settlers and well-known example of early Icelandic literature.

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