With the most positive attitudes in the world towards gender equality, the Nordic region has long led the way – in 1907 Finland elected the first female members of parliament in world history.
More recently, in 2003 Norway passed a law that all publicly listed companies must have at least 40 per cent of women on their board, a target that was achieved by 2009. It’s no surprise that Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden are four of the world’s top five best countries in which to be a woman.
But what is it really like to be a woman in the Nordic countries? What can we learn from them about how to live more equal.
ForWOW festival 2017, we asked two of our Nordic artists and speakers to share their thoughts on women’s lives in the region today.
Hailing from Iceland, Anna Tara acknowledges that as a Nordic woman she has ‘enormous privileges compared to most women in the world’, but there is still much to fight for. A member of the 16-piece female rap group Reykjavíkurdætur (Daughters of Reykjavik) Anna told us about her experience as an Icelandic woman and the importance of feminist lyrics:
How does your music address issues of gender equality in Iceland?
First and foremost by practicing it. That is, making music, performing and everything else that goes with being in a band. Truth is some of the girls in the band are tired of being viewed first as feminists and secondly as musicians. Some of our lyrics are about slut-shaming, sex-positivism, sexual abuse and more but a lot of our lyrics are about something completely different. As time passed we got tired of the double standard of us having to have a ‘meaning’ in our lyrics. We started to want the same freedom as men have to make meaningless lyrics. I personally could talk endlessly about gender equality and I do focus on that in my lyrics but not all of the girls do. Some women want to practice feminism simply by doing while others also want to talk about it, both equally as valid.
You've talked about using rap to 'try to be heard' - what are the main factors stifling women's creative voices in Iceland?
It is simple really, freedom. For me personally it makes it easier to live in an unfair world when I can at least have a voice. We rap about everything from simple stuff like how cool we are to more serious topics like sexual abuse. A lot of my own lyrics are about self acceptance as well, I like talking about things that people usually feel ashamed to talk about.
When Finnish journalist Anu Partanen moved to America in 2008, she rapidly realised that there was much she had failed to appreciate about the country in which she was raised. Her book The Nordic Theory of Everything was described by the New York Post as a ‘must-read’ and was selected by O – The Oprah Magazine as one of the best books of 2016. She told us about some of the advantages of being a Nordic woman:
How are women's lives impacted by the Nordic emphasis on equality?
The aim of all Nordic social policies is to support equality of opportunity and independence for every individual. It starts with securing a child’s opportunities regardless of his or her parents’ wealth or abilities, so making sure that all children have access to good health care, education, hobbies, and so on. But this approach certainly reaches into the lives of adults as well, and both women and men benefit from it in many ways.
Free prenatal care for all families ensures safe pregnancy but also educates families on many practical questions as they prepare to welcome a baby. This care and counseling continues after the child is born, and fathers are welcomed to the process as well, so that parenting is not treated as a task for women only. Long, paid parental leave allows parents to be there for their children while also holding onto their jobs and careers. Women take most of this leave but most Nordic countries have carved out special daddy-only months to encourage men to stay home with their kids as well.
Affordable, publicly subsidized, high-quality day care for all children allows both parents to return to work once the parental leaves are over. Free, high-quality public education from kindergarten to Ph.D. ensures that all children have access to educational opportunities, and in the most recent PISA education survey, which compares 15-year-olds in different countries, Finland was the only country where girls performed better at science than boys.
Because of all this, Nordic women are more likely to be employed than women in many other countries and men are more likely to participate in the daily tasks involved in taking care of children. This has resulted in more financial independence and political power for Nordic women, and more skills and power in the realm of children for Nordic men.
What do you consider the greatest success of the women's movement in the Nordic countries?
Nordic countries have still much to do and they are far from being perfect, but it is phenomenal that on most fronts – health, education, political empowerment, economic participation – they are the most gender-equal countries on earth today. As much as in any country in the world at the moment, Nordic women have the same opportunities as men to enjoy both children and a career, to become presidents and prime ministers, to run companies and their own finances, and to walk home alone at night without fear of harassment – as well as to go to the office without having to wear high heels or make-up in order to be considered ‘professional.’
What does it mean to you to be a Nordic woman?
As I’ve lived and traveled in other countries, I’ve come to feel that growing up in Finland instilled in me a certain down-to-earth confidence in my abilities and right to participate in the world as a full-fledged individual without being defined by my gender. Compared to what I see in many other countries, I find the relationships between Nordic men and women to be less burdened by notions of gender.
The assumptions, expectations, and limitations that in many other countries go with the idea of what it means to be a woman or a man strike me often as somewhat irrational. We’re all individuals with different interests and characters, and I really don’t see gender as automatically defining those interests or anyone’s character.
What do you hope for for Nordic women in the future?
I hope that gender equality in Nordic countries continues to advance. Nordic women are still less likely to work as managers in private business than women in many other countries, Nordic women are still much more likely take care of children on parental leave than men, and in Finland, for example, men and women still choose very different career paths so that some fields are dominated almost entirely by women and others by men. I hope that we can get to a point where everyone can make their choices truly freely without preconceived notions about what women or men can or should do.