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Creating gender equity: Lessons from Iceland

The sexually liberal country has not only criminalised the purchase of sex, but has also banned strip clubs.

Last Modified: 02 Apr 2013 11:25
Meghan Murphy

Meghan Murphy is a journalist from Vancouver, Canada.
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After a series of protests, the conservative government was forced to resign and progressive government, led by Social Democrat Johanna Sigurdardottir - the world's first openly gay premier - took over [Getty Images]

When Iceland announced they were considering a ban on hardcore pornography online, Americans, for the most part, responded as though it were a (potentially) regressive move. But with Iceland's current track record of prioritising equality, perhaps it is Americans who should be taking a cue from the progressive country. 

Since the economic crash in 2008, the country has turned itself around in more ways than one. 

Iceland ranked first place in the 2012 Global Gender Gap report, moving up from number 4 in 2008. Based on factors like economic participation and opportunity (so, looking at things like wage equality and the number of women in the labour force and in positions of power), educational attainment (based on factors such as female literacy and the number of women enrolled in higher education), health and survival (which looks at life expectancy and mortality rates), and political empowerment (which takes into account the number of women holding political office as well as the number of female heads of state); this report ranks countries throughout the world. 

The US, on the other hand, ranked 22nd, having moved down a few notches from 17th place in 2011. 

For a country that does such an awful lot of talking about liberty, justice and democracy, one might assume a concerted effort towards gender equity. Perhaps, following the lead of a country like Iceland would be wise. 

Gender parity in government

Iceland's economic crisis turned out not to be such a terrible thing after all. After a series of protests and demonstrations, the conservative government was forced to resign and a new, progressive government, led by Social Democrat Johanna Sigurdardottir (the world's first openly gay premier), took over. 

Unlike the US, Iceland dealt with the crash by prosecuting those responsible, holding banks accountable, minimising, and in some cases forgiving individual household debts completely, cutting government spending and raising taxes. 

They also came to the rather radical conclusion that a male-dominated economy and business culture were part of what led to the crash in the first place. In response, Iceland developed a legislation that ensured companies' boards were composed of 40 percent women and incorporated what they called "feminine values" into the "mainly male spheres of private equity, wealth management and corporate advice". 

Throughout all this, the new government made maintaining Iceland's extensive welfare system a priority, protecting the middle and working classes above the rich. The country learned the consequences of right-wing privatisation policies and responded accordingly. Sigurdardottir said in an interview with Transform!

"The system was not only economically harmful, but every day we have more information about the corruption and the greed that existed in that system." 

While there are financial lessons the US could learn from Iceland's recovery and from what some have called a "peaceful revolution", the country also became a model in terms of gender equity. 

 Iceland president: Let banks go bankrupt

Having nearly reached gender parity in government, women hold 41 percent of seats in government, in comparison with the 17 percent of women in parliament in the US. The country offers generous maternity and paternity leave as well as and childcare provision from the state. 

The sexually liberal country not only criminalised the purchase of sex in 2009, but, the following year, Iceland banned strip clubs - a move mocked and deemed impossibly idealistic by many North Americans. When this legislation came into place, many Americans worried it constituted an attempt to restrict women's "choice" to objectify themselves (a rather ridiculously post-feminist notion). 

Others fell back on the oft-repeated concern that strip clubs would be forced to go "underground" where they would continue to thrive illegally. The same concern is being repeated now, as the country considers a ban on hardcore pornography online, though there is no evidence to justify these fears. 

A feminist and a progressive endeavour, the proposal to ban hardcore pornography online has wide support in Iceland, as does the ban on strip clubs and the criminalisation of johns. 

Restricting violent pornography

This is a country that clearly values women. 

When I talked to author and feminist activist, Professor Gail Dines, about this proposal, she emphasised that this was not about restricting sexual content, nudity, or erotica. Iceland's Interior Minister Ogmundur Jonasson, who is currently drafting the legislation, is looking specifically at restricting pornography that is hardcore, violent and cruel. 

Dines, who has been advising Jonasson on this proposal as it develops, says this means looking at the acts that are being done to the women - things like "choking women with a penis, which is standard throughout hardcore pornography… Very, very rough, pounding anal, oral and vaginal sex, where there's often three men and one woman; where they're spitting on her and calling her 'cunt', 'whore', 'cum dumpster', 'bitch' - all those kinds of images". 

Dines says you don't need a "complicated, scholarly, academic definition. Just look at the stuff and say: 'These acts constitute violence against women'". 

Now, it is not as though concerns about censorship or giving the state further power over our lives are to be thrown aside. But the Icelandic government now has a track record of putting the people's, as well as the particular interests of women, first. 

"We should all be concerned about free speech; especially in a capitalist society where the capitalists control most of the media and access to the media," Dines says. But she points out that there is a difference between corporate speech and free speech from individuals: "Iceland is going after corporate speech produced by a global industry," (meaning the porn industry, which is now a multi-billion dollar industry). 

The porn industry, Dines says, actually controls much of the discourse around sex. To limit that control, she argues, doesn't restrict "free speech". "The question is: Do we want to have broader debates and a broader discourse about sex, or do we want the pornographers to control it?" 

Iceland's work to phase out the sex industry has been done, not on a puritanical or moralistic basis, but, is simply based on the belief that "it is not acceptable that women or people in general are a product to be sold". 

And really, what's so scary about that? 

Meghan Murphy is a journalist from Vancouver, Canada. Her website is here.  

Follow her on Twitter: @meghanemurphy

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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