Iceland has been ranked first in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index for the ninth year in a row. But what is their secret to this success in the gender struggle? A look at the history of Iceland reveals that gender equality does not come about of its own accord. It requires the collective action and solidarity of women rights defenders, political will, legislation, gender mainstreaming among others. Like any other community elsewhere, the gender equality journey in Iceland has been influenced by cultural, political, religious, social, academic and economic currents that have washed ashore and been domestically cultivated.
Women’s struggle against discrimination began more than 1,000 years ago and only started to show signs of success in 1914 and 1915 when women were granted the right to vote and vie for political seats in Iceland. However, there was a huge gap between the progressive, rights-based law development and cultural norms and societal reality, which kept men in their place of power. This is the similar scenario for women in developing countries today, who have all manner of laws in place that have been shrouded in cultural norms.
It is therefore little wonder that the Kenyan women rights crusaders efforts seem to be bearing very little to date and there is a lot that local feminists can learn from Iceland. Iceland’s progress can firstly be attributed to the solidarity of women rights defenders challenging and protesting the monopoly of power in the hands of men and the power of men over women. Women’s solidarity by means of political organising was instrumental in promoting gender equality in Iceland. During the period from 1915 to 1983, only 2 per cent and 5 per cent of Members of Parliament were women.
In 1983, history was made in Iceland, when 15 MPs out of a total of 60 elected that year were women. This was attributed to the women’s collective action and solidarity. In Kenya however, the adage that “women are their own worst enemies,” seems to reign supreme. In the latest bid to pass the Gender Bill in Parliament last week, it is reported that 15 out of the more than 70 women in Parliament were actively involved in lobbying for the Bill. The rest were missing in action probably because they don’t see the importance of gender equality. With a divided womenfolk, it will be centuries before Kenya gets to where Iceland is today!
Secondly, women in Iceland took power and created alternatives to the male dominant “truths” by making the invisible realities of women visible. They challenged discriminatory practices including sexual harassment and abuse. Since the passing of Njoki Ndung’u law in 2005 on sexual offences, not many new laws that enhance women rights have come up in the last 10 years. That’s in spite of the fact that such laws are compromised on the altar of traditions and corruption aided by women themselves. For women to realise gender parity, they must take power and create their own truth that will prevail in the society.
Perhaps the bedrock of Iceland’s progressive gender parity is attributable to women and men sharing power with each other as decision-makers and gradually having more men supporting the give and take of gender equality. The way to get is to give; and if the women rights crusaders want to realise their goals sooner, they have to clearly show the men what they are giving against what they are asking. The last straw that broke the camel’s back was the realisation of a critical mass of educated women penetrating palaces of knowledge and academia, making feminism a mass movement in the 1960s and 1970s. This is what really united women in their struggle for equal rights and influencing politics something that is yet to be realised in Kenya. Women in Iceland began to take power, to define and redefine the world we live in and even invent new “truths” from where they were standing.
- The writer is a media and communications practitioner. [email protected]