A Love Letter for Iceland

photo: Gunnar Vigfússon/www.forseti.is

Iceland is considered one of the most ecological countries and, at the same time, the country where women have the best life in the world. These are the facts we could hear in speeches of Icelandic President Gudni Thorlacius Jóhannesson and his wife, Eliza Reid, during their official visit to Slovakia at the end of October.

They met with Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová and Prime Minister Eduard Heger, who participated in a business forum that opened the way for cooperation between Slovak and Icelandic entrepreneurs. Together they paid tribute to the memory of the victims on Zámocká Street.

The book of Eliza Reid, The Secrets of the Sprakkar was also recently published in Slovak, photo: www.grada.sk

In particular, the presidential couple focused on two important topics. The first is renewable energy sources. Iceland ranks first in the world in the use of geothermal energy, so its experience can be highly inspiring for us. The second topic is gender equality, the heart matter of the First Lady. Iceland also motivates the whole world with the importance of equal rights for men and women and the freedom sexual minorities feel here. The message of the Icelandic President and his wife was clear: “If every member of society, regardless of gender, color, origin or sexual orientation, has the opportunity to express all their talents fully, it is of great benefit to the whole country.”

The Best Place for Women

By the way, more than five hundred Slovaks live and work in Iceland, and two hundred young people from Iceland study in Slovakia (in Martin and Košice). Let us believe that the good this country has done for its people will spread to us thanks to them. Iceland, with 368,590 inhabitants, is one of the smallest independent countries. It has a high GDP, invests a lot in art and literature, is peaceful (it does not have an army), and regularly appears in the top ten happy countries of the world. The World Economic Forum listed it at the top of countries that have successfully blurred the gender gap.

It’s a story of great love, says the first lady about how during her postgraduate studies at Oxford University, she met a tall and attractive student from Iceland who, while not saying much, when he said something, it was to the point and funny. He didn’t even drink as much as college kids used to. He had a lot of books in his room. He went to all the lectures and talks. He used to cut out the facts about Iceland and the entire world from the newspapers. He used to glue the cuts to the folders, from which he still draws data for his presidential speeches. Eliza grew up on a small farm in Canada. She didn’t know much about Iceland: “It was only slowly I discovered that this island was considered the best place in the world for women and that a rare mixture of history, people, rules, and happiness created a country closest to gender equality.”

Inauguration, photo: Gunnar Vigfússon/www.forseti.is

When Your Child Is Hungry

When she moved to Iceland five years later, she sometimes experienced cultural shocks. In the first company where she found a job, the employees had one room full of pillows and games where they could bring the children when they didn’t have school. The Chairperson of the Board chaired the meeting while breastfeeding the child. One of the men on the board swung the baby on her knees while she continued her work. It was clear that everyone considered such behavior of the mother during the working session to be natural and healthy. A few years later, a member of the parliament, Unnur Brá, also breastfed her child during the speech. The daughter, sleeping in the stroller, had cried just before her mother’s performance, so the maternal instinct decided. Television transmitted this footage to the whole world. The media had something to discuss. The MP responded: “If your child is hungry, of course, you will feed them. I was surprised that some people found this remarkable.”

Eliza also remembered her husband’s reaction when their friends invited them to the christening. She suggested they buy the new parents some champagne. “It’s a baptism!” Gudni was terrified to imagine someone bringing alcohol to celebrate the baby.

Gudni taught at the university, Eliza wrote for various magazines, later founded Iceland Writers Retreat, where she organized events for people who want to write – and in the meantime, gave birth to four children. Their father took four months of parental leave with each of them, forming a strong bond with the children. He knew which slippers to wear and which songs would put them to sleep. Studies show that children in Iceland have a stronger relationship with their fathers than in other countries because they spend more time together when the children are still young.

I’m Not My Husband’s Handbag

In 2016, the name of the Icelandic Prime Minister appeared in Panama Papers. Gudni, a well-established historian, was often invited to the media to comment on a situation lacking experts. A lot of people were trying to persuade him to run for president. It was he who beat eight other candidates.

Eliza Reid, Iceland’s first lady, photo: Sigurgeir Sigurjónsson/www.forseti.is

When Eliza became the first lady, she saw that she was expected to be his polite and always well-tuned accessory. That she will shake hands with the official guest and, during state visits, go through what, according to outdated protocols, belongs to the interests of women, i.e., visits to schools, hospitals, or art galleries. However, she decided to use the position of the first lady so that her activities also reflected her values. She attends business incubators and university lectures on gender equality and the empowerment of women and sexual minorities. “I’m not going on trips where I should only be the ornament in the photo,” she describes in her book. When she saw a photograph of the G7 leaders’ wives that reduced them to just their husbands’ props, she wrote on Facebook and later in the New York Times how offensive it was: “I am not my husband’s handbag, to be snatched as he runs out the door and displayed silently by his side during public appearances.” The reactions were mostly positive, and the expression “I’m not my husband’s handbag” became the motto of the modern First Lady of Iceland.

The Secret of Sprakkar

Eliza does not like to appear in the media, but when she has to, she can also use this to the benefit of good thoughts. As the tabloids began dismantling what she was wearing, she wore a black jacket she had bought in charity to an important award ceremony. It promoted two essential themes: the need to buy fewer unnecessary things and the need to support charities. She wore second-hand clothes when her husband was re-elected president.

In Iceland, it is said that everyone walks “around with a book in their stomach” and that every person has stories they want to share, unique experiences, and knowledge they ask about the world. There is also the proverb, “a blind is a bookless man.” Every tenth inhabitant of the island published their book. The First Lady has done so too. In mid-July, she came to Slovakia to present her “Icelandic Love Letter,” the book Secrets of the Sprakkar, in which she asked several exceptional women how they change the world. Here, however, we are a little lost in translation because Slovak does not even have a separate name for this type of woman. Words such as “exceptional” or “extraordinary” are not enough. In Iceland, since ancient times, they have known a unique concept for women who are independent, optimistic, courageous, and open-minded, those who never give up and who strongly influence life around them – they call them sprakki, in the plural of sprakkar. The first sprakkar got into Icelandic myths. We can find today’s ones on farms and the companies’ boards of directors. They are teachers, writers, journalists, women who protect nature and human lives, sportswomen, transgender personalities, and immigrants who have come here in recent years to start a new life.

The Government Must Not Get Their Citizens’ Bedrooms

In Iceland, it is also said that “Clear is a guest’s eye.” That someone new sees things more objectively than someone, who’s lived here a long time and gotten used to it. What exactly does that mean that Iceland is a country of gender equality and that women live well here?

No one here considers single mothers worse than married women. On the contrary, since marriage is expensive here, most firstborn babies are born out of wedlock. Women are found everywhere. They run farms and chair boards of large companies, and a woman is at the head of the police and the state church. In 1980, Iceland elected a woman president for the first time. In 2009, they elected a lesbian president, also the first country in the world, with no one bothered by President Johanna Sigurdardóttir’s ten-year relationship with a well-known writer. The media mainly discussed that the new head of state had no political experience, as she had previously worked as a stewardess. In Iceland, they simply believe there is no place for the state in the nation’s bedrooms.

Slovenia official state visit, photo: www.forseti.is

We Must Become the Change We Want

Not everything is, of course, perfect. Iceland, which has been a closed society for centuries, is experiencing fading elements of patriarchal thinking, with (some) men finding it more challenging to accept an influx of women in business management. Here, too, there is sexual harassment in the workplace. The shelter for abused women is complete, and the number of reports of domestic violence increased during the pandemic. Women have lower incomes than men, which is reflected in lower pensions. Although there is a change for the better: companies that pay women the same wage as men for equal work receive state certificates that they are employers with equal pay.

The struggle of local women for a better position began in 1975. The UN⁠ focused on women in that year. Only five percent of female members were sitting in the Icelandic Parliament; women earned 60% of what men made. On 24 October 1975, they organized something like a women’s strike to prove that their contribution to society was more significant. Women did not come to work. Bank managers had to sit at the counters. Children were running around on TV while their fathers reported that women gathered in the center of Reykjavik, speaking, singing, and chanting the slogan “I dare, I can, I will.” Within a year, Parliament adopted a law on equal rights for men and women. Five years later, the country had its first president. She was a 50-year-old theatre director Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, who held her office for sixteen years with insight, dignity, humor, intelligence, and cordiality. In 2017, Iceland already had 47.6% of women in parliament. More than half of women have a university degree. If you ask the girls today about their role models, Vigdís will be the first they think of.

Íris Róbertsdóttir of the Westman Islands, who became the first mayor of her hometown, says: “Most women want to have an impact on their surroundings. We just need to expand this range. Nothing will happen if we complain at home at the kitchen table. We need to become change, not just talk about it.”

Being Small Is Our Strength.

The book of Eliza Reid, The Secrets of the Sprakkar was also recently published in Slovak, photo: www.grada.sk

In 2021, new legislation entered into force in Iceland allowing individuals to indicate on official documents (including passports), in addition to the male and female gender, gender-neutral X. In 1996, Iceland became the fourth country worldwide to recognize same-sex unions. The adoption of children has been possible for these couples since 2006. The current president is the patron of the National Gay Association, the first president in the world to participate in the Pride parade, similar to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Here, too, homosexuals and transgender people were once attacked, and it took a long time for everyone to realize that they had unnecessary prejudices. Iceland, however, has the advantage of being small. On a small island, nothing is hidden. They know each other, who is what, and from whom they do not have to fear or force them to be anything other than them.

“Our smallness is our strength,” writes the First Lady. “We are not a giant tanker but a small speedboat in the global context. The changes are thus easier to request and implement. The isolation of the island and the threat that an earthquake or a volcano may erupt at any moment require that all human resources be used fully. An open economy, functioning democratic institutions, relatively small differences between rich and poor, and an educated, internationally minded, and technology-loving society more than offset narrowness and dogmatism. If we want to achieve gender equality, we cannot leave out anyone, including immigrant women, women of different skin colors, women with disabilities, and queer women. We must work with male allies who recognize that gender equality serves everyone, not one gender over another. We have the right to equality. You have it, too.”

photo: www.forseti.is

One of the most photographed images from Iceland is a kilometer-long street leading from the center of the capital to the church Hallgrímskirkja. Painted in rainbow colors as the colorful ribbon, it reminds society that it has accepted the commitment to diversity and equality because society is made up of everyone.

Text: Danica Janiaková, photo: Sigurgeir Sigurjónsson, Gunnar Vigfússon/www.forseti.is, www.grada.sk