THE WORLD’s MOST FEMINIST NATION
Reykjevic, June 14 - On this island nation where continental tectonic plates crashed into each
other millions of years ago and dormant volcanoes rise like pimples on the skyline, eruptions are
ommon not only among the six still active volcanoes but among a society branded
“the most feminist nation in the world."
Over the last 45 years a succession of women Prime Ministers and cabinet members have
converted Iceland not only into a Shangri-la for tourism but into a country where equal pay between men
and women for the same job is mandatory today. So is nine months maternity leave with three months
paternity leave included. This is a country where 79 per cent of women work (34 per cent part time)
while 56 per cent have academic degrees. Here children attend kindergarten from age one to five at
municipal expenses and 38 per cent of members of parliament are female.
While a renaissance of reactionary forces in the U.S. and parts of the world are curbing or
cancelling the right of a woman to seek an abortion the international media hardly noticed that here, with
only token religious opposition, Iceland's Althing (parliament) passed legislation recently increasing the
right of a woman to terminate a pregnancy up to twenty two weeks following conception. This extension
most likely was not due to a change of mind after a five months pregnancy but medical evidence the
foetus is abnormal.
The so-called feminist revolution began in 1975 when 90 per cent of Icelanders, mainly
women, went on strike against a government dominated by fishing tycoons and their political
cronies. Five years later the island nation elected its first female Prime Minister, Vigdis
Finnbogadottir, the divorced mother of three children whose name means 'goddess of war.'
The goddess of war stayed in power for 16 years erasing many of the unfair wage and power
gaps between men and women.
In 2009, with the country bankrupt after a financial debacle. the job of Prime Minister and
saviour was given to Johanna Sigurodottir, the first prime minister in the world who openly declared
herself to be a lesbian. She went to work with unusual zeal to hunt down the bankers responsible for the
shady deals that created an investment boom in Iceland, a boom that went bust leaving this little country
of 345,000 citizen with 50 per cent of its Krona currency devalued and a loan debt nine times the
country’s annual GNP.
After fierce public protests with women banging pots and pans in the streets demanding
punishment for those guilty of reducing the country to bankruptcy thirty-nine
bankers were indicted and convicted to jail terms totalling 100 years between them. Iceland
refused to pay back foreign investors who it argued had gambled – and had lost.
Yet not a single politician faced criminal charges though it was obvious politicians did
collaborate with bankers to produce an investment boom that attracted not only local but also foreign
Today Iceland's new Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir, 42, an environmentalist (a mother
of three who could easily double as a model) has been facing new protests to indict politicians named
in the scams ten years ago but now back in prominent political jobs, among them minister of finance.
Iceland, where the sun can shine 24 hours a day and the night can last also 24 hours, is a
microcosm of our modern world buffeted by unscrupulous speculators and the crooked politicians
facilitating their schemes. Being small in population it has more of a chance to right its wrongs. The
country was rescued from total bankruptcy by IMF and European Bank loans and the brave decision not
to pay back foreign investors who had jumped on shaky quick-rich schemes that collapsed like a house
of cards once the world-wide recession hit banks by 2007.
Of the nine prominent Europeans mentioned in the 'Panama Papers' as
associated with putrid investment projects four are Icelanders. And this in a country with a
population of only 345,000.
But not a single politician, not even those mentioned in the Panama Papers, was ever
indicted. Instead in a country were loyalty has clannish roots, sullied politicians were re-elected and one,
Bjarni Benediktsson, became Prime Minister for ten months before his coalition partners pulled out after
the Panama Papers were published naming him. Yet right now Bjarni, the leader of the Independence
Party is entrusted with the post of Finance Minister of Iceland.
"I don't think we would have had Brexit or a Trump if there had been more
prosecutions in the United States.," University of Iceland economist, Thorvaldur Gylfason has
His analysis had a positive echo. Iceland is currently experiencing another boom, this
time thanks to tourism (2.2 million last year) a solid currency and high salaries superior to the rest of
Europe. But Icelanders, already burned once, perhaps fear another boom could go bust unless the rest
of the bad weeds are pulled out.
Iceland has always been a country of contradictions, a country located in the icy polar
region though centrally heated by geothermal waters, a country where people make deals while seated
in 38 to 42 C geothermal hot tubs under the open sky in subzero temperatures. School buses ferry
students to hot tub pools after classes and workers have a hot tub session before they go home.
During the last Euro song contest in Tel Aviv the Icelandic band Hatari defied a ban on political
'propaganda' and showed the Palestinian flag. The silent gesture of support might not have
gone down well in Israel but opposition in Iceland was muted, as it always is when this small country
bats against injustice, perhaps a trend that had its roots in the already successful and superseded
‘me too’ movement here.
In case the male population relapses into its patriarchal arrogance and
machismo the Icelanders built ‘The Museum of the Phallus.” In it are kept 282 penises from
the animal world, mainly mammals, preserved in glass phials filled with formalin. The exhibits
range from the log-sized sperm whale penis to more common animal species like the pig. All
of these penises are proportionally much larger than that of a human male - in this case the
penis of a local tourist guide who left ‘it’ in his will to the museum.
Last year the museum had 50,000 visitors, sixty per cent of them women.
This island nation wrested its independence from Denmark's often cruel colonial rule only
in 1944. For the first time Iceland could sell its fish catches on the European market instead of
Copenhagen. But real economic independence arrived only after Britain, the great naval power of
Europe, bowed to two plucky Icelandic patrol boats, the Tyr and Thor, fighting the British to gain a
50 mile offshore limit that would stop English, but also German trawlers from depleting the rich fishing
grounds around Iceland.
Known as the Cod Wars, there were three, between 1958 and 1976. Iceland won them,
yet no bullets were fired.
The third Cod War was in full swing when I boarded the Tyr, the flagship of the Icelandic
Coast Guard in 1975. On the bridge I introduced myself to captain Guomundur Kjaernested, who
would become the legendary and iconic hero of Iceland's Cod War against missile-armed British
It turned out to be a war neither seafaring nation wished to end in bloodshed. The Icelanders
had no intention to bait the naval superpower into armed retaliation. The British did not want to use their
superior fire power to hurt a small nation with two courageous patrol boats, a mini nation which had
garnered world sympathy by fighting for its main economic asset - fish.
It soon became a dangerous game of chicken. The Icelanders had their own weapon, the
cutter (an example is kept in the Museum of Colonisation). When they spotted a British trawler the patrol
boats would speed towards the trawl, running their cutter (trailing on a chain behind the vessel) across
the fishing net. The ‘cutter’ shaped like an anchor with knife sharp edges would cut the trawl, an
expensive loss, forcing the trawler to go home. The British frigates, faster but more vulnerable, would try
to cut off the patrol boats, placing themselves between the enemy boat and the trawler. In the ensuing
hair-raising dodgem game patrol boat and frigate would try to push each other out of the way, a game
of chicken that often ended in the frigates being bumped and ‘holed’ though both sides had to seek
repairs in port at times.
I watched this game of skilled seamanship, often from Captain Kjaernested’s bridge,
dictating my stories to London for my employer, Reuters News Agency, via the Tyr’s two-way radio.
Then came the day when a cut trawl cable snapped back onto the British fishing vessel and
knocked out a fisherman on deck. The report of the mishap came over the trawler’s radio and I saw
Captain Kaernested’s lips tighten. Nothing was said for an hour until the radio reported the man was
conscious and would be fine though the trawler captain signed off his radio report with: “Bluuudy Iceland
I could see the Captain Kjaernested’s face relax.
Turning to his first officer he said: “The loss of just one life would not justify this conflict.”
It was only later it dawned on me: In that one sentence Captain Kjaernested incapsulated the
humanity and compassion characteristic of the people of this maternal nation in the icy polar north.
Uli Schmetzer is a former foreign correspondent for Reuters and the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of six books all available on
Amazon and Kindle. He is writing a book on his experiences in ‘The Cod War.”