Published in the 2014 October-December issue of Iceland Review & Atlantica – IR 05.14. Words by Zoë Roberts, Photo by Páll Stefánsson.
It’s so good to come back to Iceland, especially when it’s so hot and humid in Istanbul. The air is so fresh here, and there’s the wind,” Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir says during a recent trip to Reykjavík.
She’s taken some time out to discuss her life, work, and women’s issues around the world.
Ingibjörg Sólrún spent close to three decades climbing the Icelandic political ladder with her career culminating in her becoming minister for foreign affairs in 2007, a position she served in until her exit from politics in 2009.
From Feminism to Foreign Ministry…and Back
With her roots in the feminist movement, Ingibjörg Sólrún started out in The Women’s List, which she represented on Reykjavík City Council from 1982 to 1988 and then later in Alþingi, Iceland’s parliament, from 1991 to 1994.
Other highlights of her political resume include serving as mayor of Reykjavík for nine years and as the leader of the Social Democratic Alliance, Iceland’s second-largest political party in parliament, from 2005 to 2009.
Immediately preceding the October 2008 economic collapse, Ingibjörg Sólrún was hospitalized after she fainted at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Doctors discovered that she had a benign brain tumor.
The period was particularly challenging, she says. “The circumstances were very difficult. It was a terrible time. First I was sick, then there was the economic collapse, the government fell apart and there was the court case,” she recollects.
The Independence Party-Social Democrat coalition government was terminated in January 2009 after a series of protests following the collapse.
When former Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde, Ingibjörg Sólrún’s coalition partner, faced charges of misconduct in office in the years leading up to the financial crisis in a Landsdómur Court case in 2012, she came to his defense.
The year prior, in 2011, Ingibjörg Sólrún had come full circle in her career, taking up a position at UN Women in Kabul, where she oversaw the organization’s program in Afghanistan.
UN Women is the United Nations body which focuses on gender equality and women’s empowerment, mainly in developing countries and war-torn regions.
At the end of 2013, Ingibjörg Sólrún relocated to Istanbul to help set up and head UN Women’s new Europe and Central Asia regional office.
The move from Kabul to Istanbul was a welcome change, she says. “I live much more of a normal life now than when I was in Kabul. I can enjoy what Istanbul has to offer, go to concerts, to the cinema.”
Due to the security situation in Kabul, she was unable to travel freely, meaning she spent most of her time inside the walls of the UN compound.
The move also means that Ingibjörg Sólrún and her husband, Hjörleifur Sveinbjörnsson, a translator, have been reunited.
During her two years in Afghanistan, they lived apart with him remaining in Iceland, as the UN isn’t able to guarantee the safety of staff members’ partners in the country.
“We met every six weeks, which was all right but at the same time it’s difficult when there’s such a huge gap in what you and your partner are experiencing,” she says.
Despite the security situation in Afghanistan, she cherishes her time in the country and is well aware of the fact that she lives a privileged life.
“It was difficult to live there because I had hardly any social life, but the people, the country and the culture were amazing. I also learnt a lot. One thing that I have taken away from my experience in Afghanistan is how fortunate people are to be born in a country like Iceland, so very, very, fortunate. But this is only something you fully realize when you experience life in these countries. It really is a coincidence where you are born.”
Upholding Women's Rights
The transition from politics to the UN was an easy one, Ingibjörg Sólrún says. “I think my experience in politics prepared me very well.
“In the work I was doing in Afghanistan, my experience as city mayor proved to be most useful because being mayor is both about working in policy and ensuring that things get implemented—it’s about being practical. As mayor, you’re always putting out fires.
“In Afghanistan I always had to have an eye on where the problems were and where I needed to step in, whereas the work I’m doing now in Istanbul uses my experience as foreign minister because I have to work with governments in many countries. My new role involves more policymaking but less action.”
The UN is sometimes criticized for getting bogged down in bureaucracy, but Ingibjörg Sólrún stresses that a lot has been achieved in the areas of awareness and policymaking on women’s rights, particularly from 1990 to 2000, and more recently on the economic issues facing women.
However, she doesn’t shy away from acknowledging that there’s room for improvement.
“The UN has passed a lot of resolutions, but they are still very much words on paper and in many countries there is still a huge gap between policy and implementation. When it comes to the rights of women, we are a long way from achieving the Millennium Development Goals, for example. It’s time to think about the next steps.”
Successes and Setbacks
Recent examples of inequality, abuse or violence against women, such as the kidnapping of 200 school girls in Nigeria, gang rapes in India, lashings in Sudan and women being sold into slavery by Islamic State (IS) fighters have made global headlines and helped to keep women’s rights issues in the spotlight.
Whether or not these incidents indicate a widespread deterioration in the situation for women in these countries is an issue that Ingibjörg Sólrún has given much thought. She’s careful in her response to point out that there have been both gains and setbacks.
“It wasn’t so long ago that domestic violence, for example, was considered a private matter in all countries of the world. Today, the issue is more in the open, there is more discussion about it, and women are less scared about stepping forward to put forth a charge or discuss the event openly.”
Another positive development is women’s participation in recent uprisings due to social media, she notes.
“Women have been taking part everywhere, in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Ukraine... and it’s possible through social media to reach them very fast. A fun example is when [in July] a Turkish minister said that women should not laugh in public. In a case like this, we get the reaction right away through social media.”
Women in Turkey, and later around the world, posted pictures on social media of themselves laughing in public.
On the other hand, she worries about conservative forces.
“They are getting more wind in their sails and what is remarkable about the Islamists and the extremist nationalists in Western countries, what unifies them is that the first thing they do is attack the rights of women, especially sexual and reproductive rights.”
Iceland No Utopia
Iceland is often ranked at the top of indexes measuring gender equality and has been rated the country with the world’s smallest gender gap by the World Economic Forum (WEF) for the five years leading up to 2013 (this year’s results have yet to be published).
The rating suggests that Iceland is the country where women enjoy the most equal access to education and healthcare and are the most likely to be able to participate fully in the country’s political and economic life.
Despite receiving top marks, there is still a lot of work to be done, Ingibjörg Sólrún argues.
“Iceland is doing very well and we have of course made a lot of progress—there is no question about that. However, this doesn’t mean we can become overly confident and think that everything here is perfect. It is of course not. There’s still a gap between the salaries of men and women and single mothers are still one of the groups that are likely to rank among the poorest in Iceland,” she explains.
Ingibjörg Sólrún says one problem is that the Icelandic culture is what she describes as primarily masculine. “There’s a great culture of clashes in Iceland, a culture which is masculine. People confront each other in a dispute rather than try to achieve consensus. When it comes to politics, there’s a total lack of consensus.”
Out of the Spotlight
Ingibjörg Sólrún goes even further to describe Icelandic society as a “bullying society.” “If a public figure does something or says something that opens him or her up to criticism, then everyone goes at that person. They’re chased by both the media and politicians,” she argues.
As far as she’s concerned, Icelandic society’s tendency towards bullying is a product of the country being so small.
“We are so few here in Iceland. Common parliamentarians—and actually this isn’t just in politics but in other fields too—in the U.K. or the U.S. are more sheltered. There are so many individuals on the stage there, and so many different media organizations, that a public figure is not the subject of all of them—unless of course they’re the president of the United States,” she explains, adding that the proliferation of social media use has also contributed to the intensity of being in the spotlight.
She mentions Iceland’s small society again when discussing her personal experience as a female politician. While admitting she doesn’t have experience from other countries, she feels it is particularly difficult to be a female politician in Iceland.
“There is less tolerance towards women than men in Iceland. Many women have left politics, they’ve left the stage, because it’s a very tough world that affects your family and private life. Politics in Iceland is such a hard game. I think it’s worse here because Iceland is so small. If you are someone who plays along,someone in a team, then everything is all right. But, if you want to establish your presence, then it can be very difficult. Undoubtedly, this also applies to men but women have suffered more as a result.”
Ingibjörg Sólrún, who turns 60 at the end of this year, seems content in her new role and with life in Istanbul. It’s little wonder listening to her that she’s decided not to return to politics.
“No, I’m not going back. I was in politics for 28 years. Sometimes I feel that I should have quit earlier. I really felt it when I quit, how much I had sacrificed my own quality of life by being a public persona for so long. Everything has its time.”
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