Heroines of the Past, Present and Tomorrow (JB)

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julianabjornsdottir_dlMy entire childhood was shaped by the presence of one woman, President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, who showed me (and thousands of young girls and adult women) that I could aspire to achieve great things in life.

At the time, her presence was so strong and overpowering that I lived under the illusion that Iceland was already a feminist state in the 1980s and 90s, when in fact much was needed before we could say we were a truly progressive egalitarian state.

That being said, I was blind to the hidden expectations to women and the gender-based salary gap. I saw my heroine as the nation’s captain and couldn’t imagine anyone ever stood in her way.

Thanks to Vigdís and her 16 years in the presidential office (1980-1996), Icelandic women aspired to be great and work towards their goals, be it professional or otherwise.

I admired her intellect and cultural background. Behind the beautiful façade was a woman who possessed great zest and the kind of personal strength that took her from a cultural position as the directress of the National Theatre to becoming the cultural ambassador a president should be. She was also the very first woman elected to presidency in the world.

She spoke languages I only dreamt of learning at the time, and later in life pursued privately and academically.

She traveled extensively and spent years in the land of my dreams, France, a country I have always admired for its historical and extravagant architecture, the joie de vivre lifestyle, and revolutionary history.

After her time in the presidential office, came a second wave of popular feminism—or so we thought, at least. The Spice Girls released Wannabe, a female empowerment anthem featuring women with a largerr-than-life presence but an ambiguous feminist ideology.

The anthem was upbeat but the permanent effect superficial whereas Vigdís changed the course of the women’s rights struggle in the 80s and 90s.

When she ran for office, voices of concern were raised because she was a single mother with a child and couldn’t possibly juggle both roles, let alone do them well.

She proved them wrong.

Last year, Þóra Arnórsdóttir, a slightly younger woman and more in the public light, was scrutinized for similar reasons when she ran for president against several other candidates, including her current president.

She was pregnant and her due date was in the month before Icelanders were to cast their votes. Some concerned voters worried she was in no position to be a president to a nation at these most difficult times as some would have it.

The fact that she had a husband to look after their children, and her partner’s children from a previous relationship, was just not good enough.

“An infant needs his or her mother.”

In other words, fathers play a much smaller role in looking after their children. They contribute the sperm but because they are not the ones carrying the child, they are automatically excluded from that special bond between mother and child.

I am not a mother but I disagree wholeheartedly in giving unequal value to parenthood roles, and so does the feminist I want to profile in my column this week.

She has done a splendid job promoting the feminist cause and it can truly be said that notable progress has been made.

Like the sudden appearance of hail on a warm winter day, she has made her presence known to the people that matter and promotes the feminist cause in an effort to finish the struggle for gender equality in our society.

Her critical thinking is born from intellect and a strong sense of justice. She opened the ears of many to the poor state of affairs in our justice system for victims of sexual assaults.

Her name is Þórdís Elva Þorvaldsdóttir and she has accomplished much, particularly given that she is just in her 30s. She is a published author of a book that tells the ugly truth about sexual assaults and the lack of resources in Iceland, as well as a formidable playwright, actress, academic and the chairman for the Women’s Shelter in Iceland since May 2012. She led a fundraising effort earlier in the year to support the organization.

Her name is already written in Iceland’s feminist history.

She has been vocal about the lenient sentencing for individuals found guilty of sexual assault in Icelandic courts, participates in dialogues and by raising awareness through various events with which she has been involved.

Her articles have been noticed by both media and the general public and often sparked heated debates about pressing issues.

Her latest article focused on the recent gang-rape in Delhi that led to the death of a 23-year-old woman and how it is not an isolated problem in India but rather worldwide. Her message is that the same emphasis must be placed on educating young men, in particular about the objectification of women, that goes into educating girls from a young age about how best to avoid finding oneself in circumstances where one might be raped.

So that she won’t become another forgotten casualty of rape.

I have rarely encountered an individual who fights injustice with such ferocity. She possesses the much-needed zest and personal strength we need to turn a struggle into victory. She is of the generation of women who grew up believing in themselves and their intellectual capacities.

The world pays attention to India now, and Indian officials respond to the nation’s call for justice. In the United States, an Ohio town is torn by a rape case where the victim is assaulted in a drug-induced coma.

As we approach election time here in Iceland, it is my hope, my deepest, most sincere wish, that equality will be enforced not encouraged. That severe but effective methods be applied in the uphill battle against sexual assaults; longer sentences, potential treatment programs if considered a viable method, and a full support system for the victim and his or her family.

In my mind, Þórdís Elva is a role model because she speaks out against injustice.

Feminist debates are a touchy subject in Iceland and more often than not lead to aggressive confrontation from those who perceive feminism to be a one-sided cause, instead of the egalitarian values I as a feminist and most in fact hold dear.

I hope that 2013 will continue to bring awareness to the cause both locally and internationally.

It’s about time.

Júlíana Björnsdóttir – julianabjornsdottir@gmail.com

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.