The world’s “best place to be a woman” is far more dangerous than its reputation suggests.
For the past 11 years Iceland has led the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, earning the country the label of “the best place in the world to be a woman.” Iceland has some of the world’s strongest laws on workplace equality and equal pay, as well as high outcomes for women in issues of health, education, economic opportunity, and political representation.
Yet these positive realities mask several insidious problems in Icelandic society, including persistently high rates of domestic violence and sexual abuse, as well as a justice system that remains suspicious toward the victims of these abuses. Scholars have termed this phenomenon the “Nordic paradox.” Iceland and its fellow Nordic countries have been able to achieve significant structural equality for women in some areas, yet maintain disproportionate instances of violence against them.
The brutality of life for many Icelandic women has been highlighted by a recent study for the Scandinavian Journal of Public Health. The authors traced admissions to the emergency department of Reykjavik’s main hospital, documenting not just the prevalence of intimate-partner violence (IPV), but the methods that were used to inflict injury, from punching to strangulation and the use of weaponry. Detailing IPV in this way provides a blunt and confronting illustration of the home environments for many Icelandic women, something a reliance on broad statistics can often obscure.
During the COVID-19 pandemic—reflecting trends globally—reports of domestic violence in Iceland have risen; two women were allegedly murdered by family members in the first weeks of the country’s partial lockdown, a significant spike for a country of just 360,000 people. While globally 38 percent of murders of women are committed by a male partner, according to the Commissioner of National Police this figure is 50 percent for Iceland. Of course, not all instances of domestic violence result in death or visits to the hospital, and like in other countries, a large percentage of cases of domestic abuse go unreported for a variety of reasons, including fear of retribution.
Sexual assault in Iceland is also widespread. A national survey conducted by the University of Iceland in 2018 revealed that 1 in 4 Icelandic women has been raped or sexually assaulted during her life. In Europe overall the reported figure is 1 in 10. Yet, according to Stigamot—Iceland’s center for survivors of sexual abuse and violence—only around 12 percent of these victims actually press charges. Many have no confidence in the justice system and fear shame, guilt, and condemnation. Those who do press charges find their cases dismissed close to three-quarters of the time.
These realities would seem to contradict Iceland’s reputation as a country where being a woman is particularly advantageous. However, there’s reason to believe the country’s prevalent violence against women may have been exacerbated by the very structural advances achieved by Icelandic women. One theory to explain the Nordic paradox is that increased gender equality fuels male resentment, creating frustrations that are channeled into physical violence—a mode of action where men can easily still dominate. Violent outbursts of this sort, fueled by feelings of injured masculine status, are so deeply psychologically motivated that they can be difficult for governments to counteract.
Yet, in Iceland, such violence is also protected and reinforced by a justice system that tolerates and excuses these behaviours—or indeed shares in the perspectives of the male perpetrators.
Of particular concern is the way Icelandic courts have a tendency to ignore—and often even punish—mothers who report the abuse of their children by fathers. The justice system strictly adheres to the concept of equal shared parental responsibility, which frequently overlooks or downplays violence against children in order to consistently allow unsupervised access to children for physically or sexually abusive fathers.
Icelandic courts also maintain a habitual usage of a discredited theory known as parental alienation syndrome (PAS) that actively seeks to break the bond between mother and child. PAS works on the assumption that almost all allegations of child abuse will be false, and the more a mother insists that abuse has occurred the more evidence that this “syndrome” is at work. PAS has been dismissed by all authoritative psychiatric, psychological, and medical bodies throughout the West, and its usage has been demonstrated in the United States to increase the chances of children being placed in the full custody of an abusive father. A custody case in recent weeks in Iceland produced this very outcome
The Icelandic #MeToo movement’s call for its justice system to “believe women” is not a demand for preferential treatment before the law, but an attempt to reform the implicit biases against women within courts which have enabled abusive men to use the courts as a weapon and routinely allowed victimhood to be reassigned to them, rather than vulnerable women and children.
The Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women stresses the need for judicial proceedings to respect the rights of victims and to avoid the secondary victimization of women by the courts themselves. Iceland ratified the convention in April 2018, and it supposedly came into force in August of the same year. However, in our inquiries to the Ministry of Justice, the Judicial Administration, and the Judges’ Association, we received no confirmation that Iceland’s judges had been educated in the convention’s provisions. This failure will allow judges’ suspicion of women who have endured abuse—or sought to protect their children from it—to persist.
There may be another, more unconscious motivation for the Icelandic judicial system’s failures—a fear that acknowledging the prevalence of male violence would inundate the system with reports, drain the country’s energy, and limit its overall capabilities. Given Iceland’s small population, this instinct might be especially pronounced. Instead the country places the burden of carrying this violence on its women, and often also on its children.
Yet Icelandic women should not accept such injustices complacently. All of their previous advancements have been hard-fought. In 1975, Icelandic women famously called a strike in which 90 percent of the country’s women ceased both their professional jobs and domestic duties, causing the entire country to grind to a halt. This should have been a definitive indication to all national institutions that women are the country’s backbone, that they are essential workers in every sphere, and that undermining their welfare is actually what inhibits Iceland’s capabilities.
As a country seen as a global exemplar in women’s rights, Iceland’s persistently high rates of violence against women—and legal system that doesn’t share the values Iceland would like to project—should be a major embarrassment. They should provide the country with clarity concerning the areas where it is failing its women and failing itself. The true test of Iceland’s commitment to gender equality will be whether it intends to acknowledge and confront this violence against its women, and whether it has the will to reform its justice system to believe and respect women who suffer these abuses.