Wednesday

21st Apr 2021

Opinion

Why Iceland isn't the gender paradise you think

  • For 12 years running Iceland has topped the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap report - but is that the full story? (Photo: EUobserver)

For 12 years running Iceland has topped the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap report. The index measures female economic opportunity, educational attainment, health, and political representation, areas where Iceland has been able to make considerable progress.

Alongside its stunning geography, Iceland's status as "the best place in the world to be a woman" has become a considerable arm of the country's soft power; a perception that the Icelandic government has enthusiastically traded upon.

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However, there are two criteria that are conspicuously absent from this index; safety and justice.

Here Iceland's international reputation masks two blunt realities that face the country's women - the disproportionate levels of gender-based violence that they experience, and a justice system that is frequently suspicious and hostile towards victims of this violence.

In recognition of this, the cases of nine women - selected as the strongest cases from dozens of others - have been appealed to the European Court of Human Rights.

Collectively, these cases argue that Iceland is in breach of six separate articles of the European Convention on Human Rights, including the right to be protected by law, the right to be protected from inhuman or degrading treatment, the right to a fair trial, and the right to be free from discrimination based on sex.

The details of these breaches include police and prosecutors delaying their investigations, key evidence being minimised or ignored; including medical records that detailed women's injuries.

Astonishingly confessions by perpetrators were also dismissed, and denials from men have habitually been given greater weight than testimony from victimised women.

Of course, there is a high burden of proof to convict people of crimes. Yet this does not prevent the justice system from being empathetic or understanding towards the unique insecurities that women face.

However, the high burden of proof is often used as an excuse to cover for male violence, and justify the ingrained culture of suspicion towards women within the judiciary.

The nine women who have submitted these appeals are being backed by 13 local women's organisations who assert that the Icelandic state systematically violates the rights of women who report gender-based violence.

These groups also argue that female trust in the justice system is so low that most gender-based violence simply goes unreported, with women believing that seeking justice in Iceland would be a futile endeavour.

In theory, the advances that women have made in other areas of Icelandic society should lead to greater safety for women, and especially establish a justice system that has a more nuanced and empathetic understanding of violence against women and treats it seriously. Yet, what is instead occurring is a backlash against female advancement.

Male backlash

Both in the form of male frustrations at a perceived loss of status that can turn to violence, and a justice system that is actively seeking to put women back in their place.

Many of the cases being brought before the European Court of Human Rights involve domestic violence. Here the Icelandic state still sees the household as a greyzone, where men have a traditional authority that exists alongside - or above - that of the state. This makes the justice system either reluctant to intervene in cases of domestic abuse, or hostile towards women who report intimate-partner violence.

This protection of male domestic authority also notably extends to child custody cases, where a pro-contact obsession within both the courts and the social services means that a woman's expected obligations are not to her child's welfare, but to facilitating contact with a father, regardless of his behaviour.

If a woman doesn't submit herself to this expectation she risks losing custody.

The idea - driven by male supremacist groups - that lack of normalised contact with a father is more damaging to a child than any violence a father could commit has come to dominate the state's thinking.

In a television interview in February, District Court judge Símon Sigvaldason illustrated this position when he bluntly - and confidently - stated that "We have many examples of men who are violent and have received many convictions for violent crimes, even serious violent crimes, but they are wonderful fathers."

Several days later he received a promotion to the National Court.

This is highly embarrassing behaviour for a country that seeks to project itself as a vanguard state for women's rights. Iceland is failing to recognise that the true test of a country's values is the conduct of its justice system.

If women cannot receive a fair hearing, or even trust that the justice system won't compound their trauma, then this undermines all the other advancements that women have made.

Having the brutal failings of Iceland's justice system exposed within the European Court of Human Rights should hopefully create the impetus for system-wide legislative and cultural change.

At the very least the state should stop expecting its women - and often children - to simply carry male violence for Icelandic society.

Author bio

Grant Wyeth is a Melbourne-based columnist for The Diplomat magazine, who has also written for Foreign Policy and World Politics Review.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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