The Icelandic Gaze

For those who wonder how more gender equality in the arts in Belgium can look like, Iceland is an inspiring example. For those who come from Iceland to work in the artistic field in Brussels, it feels a little bit like another planet. Why feminism is not self-evident in the arts in Belgium?

Lees hier de Nederlandstalige versie van dit artikel

In the morning of March 26th last year Icelandic women broke the internet. Thousands posted pictures of their bare breasts and nipples using the hashtag #FreeTheNipple. Social media was filled with Icelandic boobs in all shapes and sizes. These women were claiming agency over their own body, taking their breasts back and protesting revenge-porn. College students showed up topless in class and marched down the center of Reykjavík without their shirts on. This was the revolution of the breast! Having been born and raised in Iceland I felt connected to this movement and everyone I knew there took part in it. I was in Brussels at the time when this happened, where I currently live and work, and it felt a bit hard to be a part of the movement without the spell of the unifying consensus taking place in Reykjavík. The following days many people in Brussels asked me about the movement. Some asked if these women weren't just seeking attention and I wondered if a movement like this, on such a large scale, could ever take place in a big city like Brussels?

In my experience it is almost considered radical to claim oneself a feminist here in Brussels

I come from Iceland where feminism is not only something for radical activists but has become a part of the mainstream. It is almost a taboo to not consider oneself a feminist there. Feminism to me was similar to the northern lights; I was so used to seeing them, I didn't realize they weren't visible everywhere. After moving away from Iceland I realized my own naiveté: most people have never seen the northern lights, and feminism is certainly not taken for granted everywhere. In my experience it is almost considered radical to claim oneself a feminist here in Brussels, as if it is just something us Scandinavians do. I meet people who think feminism is unnecessary. Women can get educated, they can work and they can vote. But that is not the whole story. There are many implicit biases that still linger and help keep women undermined in many fields and positions.

73_Omarsdottir_Free the nipple, Reykjavik (c) Vilhelm Gunnarsson_700.jpg


It's a boy-girl-thing

These implicit biases can appear in many places. What became most apparent to me moving to Belgium was the differentiation between the gender roles, even for children. In the supermarket one can see 'girl-candy' and 'boy-candy', because boys of course would be in great danger if they'd ever eat anything wrapped in pink. Sometimes I exercise my right of a little civil disobedience in children's clothing stores, moving clothes between the gendered sections for children. Who knows, maybe a lucky little boy who has been dreaming of a princess dress finally found one in the boys’ section and convinced his mom to buy it for that reason. I say mom here, because I hardly ever see dads in children clothing stores in Brussels. I rarely see fathers out with strollers either, at least not as much as in my home country. The other day we had friends from Iceland visiting with their newborn baby. The mother was working here and the father took care of the baby in the meantime, as often happens with young Icelandic couples. When the father and two other Icelandic male friends were out in the center, heads turned at the sight of them three with the baby and all that goes with it. It seemed as this was not a very common sight in the center of Brussels.

Three men with the baby seemed as this was not a very common sight in the center of Brussels

Gender role definitions easily inform the professional sector when it comes to parenting and parental leave. In Iceland people have children quite young because women mostly don't have to chose between motherhood and their career. Both men and women receive three months of parental leave which they can take together and also three months separately. These months can not be transferred between parents. This was done in order to prevent the habit of transferring more months over to the woman.As well as to take this decision away from the home and make parenting seen in the public sector as an equal responsibility between the parents. Neither of them should have to risk their career in order to have children.

There are many examples that have come as a big surprise for me moving away from my feminist upbringing in Iceland. Maybe I especially notice them because of the feminist glasses I have learned to put on in Iceland. I have heard jokes implying I should go back into the kitchen and sexist comments about what I am wearing which I had never experienced before. Cat-calling had also been an unknown phenomenon to me before I moved to Brussels. These are maybe small examples that may seem unimportant to the bigger picture, but they are still there and have to be taken seriously so that the genders can be seen equally in all ways, implicitly and directly, in all fields.

Women in the arts

'Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? Only 5% of the artists in the Modern Art section are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.' Guerrilla Girls, a feminist activist group of artists, asked this question on their historic poster made in 1989. Women have been underrepresented in the art field since, well since always really, and still struggle to get the same visibility as men do. The dance field, which is the most familiar to me, was for a long time considered more of a 'women's field'. More girls start studying dance at an early age than boys, but in higher education now there are sometimes even more boys accepted into the school than girls.

73_Omarsdottir_(c) Guerrilla Girls_700.jpg

During my studies in P.A.R.T.S. there was a whole semester where we only had male teachers teaching the workshops. The only female teachers that year taught technical classes, like ballet. We, the students, made some fuzz about it and when we asked why this happened, the answer we got was that the program was only representing the larger field.

Maybe that is true because internationally male choreographers often get more visibility than women. This has been made apparent for example in the U.K. in many articles on that matter and caused a lot of stir and debate around the topic of female choreographers. More articles and reports keep popping up revealing the underlying gender bias in the arts. However because of more awareness and more discussions on these topics I have also seen more measures being taken to correct this imbalance. At my graduation from P.A.R.T.S. a woman was invited for the first time to give the key speech at our graduation, which is a great development. Although from my Nordic point of view this happened quite late. I was in generation 10, which means that 9 men had spoken before a woman was invited to speak. But hopefully now with more awareness and focus on gender balance this is changing.

Things are not perfect in Iceland either and women have been underrepresented in arts there too. But many systematic measures are being taken to correct this imbalance. One example can be found in subsidy applications; when applying for subsidies in the arts from Reykjavík one has to write how she will promote gender equality in her work. Furthermore, the subsidies are awarded on a gender equal basis. In 2010 the government of Iceland announced that they would enforce a gender quota, where one gender can not be below 40% in all management positions, both private and public.

In Iceland subsidies are awarded on a gender equal basis

Last year was the 100 year anniversary of women's suffrage in Iceland. A committee was formed to organize many events throughout the year celebrating this anniversary with a specific focus on women in Icelandic history. Every week the national television would broadcast a short episode about the history of women's rights in Iceland. Books about female artists who hadn't had much visibility before were published and documentaries were made about Icelandic women in the arts. The Reykjavík Arts Festival was no exception and for both the 2015 and 2016 edition their theme has been to focus on female artists and feminine art. For example, they invited the aforementioned Guerrilla Girls to give lectures and make a new poster in Reykjavík. In preparation the Reykjavik Arts Festival researched the previous editions and revealed that women had been greatly underrepresented since the festival’s beginning. These results may not seem surprising on an international scale, but since for a long time Iceland has been ranking at top of the list for the most gender-equal countries in the world and one could expect better results. However, this study shows that there's still a long way to go for gender equality in Iceland's art sector. Belgium ranks number 19 on the same list, lagging far behind the Scandinavian countries, and I wonder how much that gender-imbalance bleeds into the Belgian art sector.

73_OMarsdottir_Poster van Guerrilla Girls voor het Reykjavik Arts Festival, 2015_700.jpg

A total equality has not been reached yet in Iceland, but these steps have helped accelerate the process. These are just few examples of measures being taken in order to correct the gender imbalance. It has to be noted that these gestures do not happen on a small scale, these are grand gestures focusing not only on the symbolic but also on the systemic. There is a common consensus of many, not only the active feminists, to correct the gender imbalance.

Feminist artists do not only use systematic ways to fight for more gender balance in Iceland, but also through their subject-matter. Many Icelandic artists actively work with femininity or feminism as content or use a female viewpoint as a part of their artistic process. Feminism, and critique on the objectification of women in pop-culture and art, have often beenthe topic of female artists and even many male artists and writers in the recent years. One such art work can be found at the harbor in Reykjavík; of a large uterus knitted from fishing nets which encourages passers-by to climb into it and get 'reborn'. Recently novels about violence against women have been written from a critical and feminist viewpoint. And just this summer, a group of male musicians threatened to cancel their performance at the biggest summer festival unless more measures would be taken against sexual violence.

If the traditional storytelling of a patriarchal society is building up to one climax with one resolution, maybe a more feminine storytelling would have more climaxes and various resolutions?

I myself am also inspired by feminism in my own work. However I don't think of it necessarily as a subject matter for my work, but more something I allow to influence me in my artistic process. For example, I sometimes play with finding vulvic shapes in movement or scenography, in opposition to phallic shapes that are often apparent in art and architecture. Theories of a more feminine dramaturgy also inspire me. If the traditional storytelling of a patriarchal society is building up to one climax with one resolution, as – some psycho-analysts have compared to the sexual pleasures of a man – maybe a more feminine storytelling would have more climaxes and various resolutions? I like to play with these questions of how we value things differently if they are feminine or masculine and whatthat can mean. Questioning and subverting femininity and/or masculinity is a very current subject matter in Iceland, both among male and female artists. I notice a great urgency for having a feminist discussion and for making feminist art among Icelandic artists, more than I have noticed anywhere else. This does not only occur in some small activist groups but can be seen in the mainstream as well, and is widespread.

Women coming together

But why does feminism have such a strong presence in Iceland? One reason could be the unifying tendencies of Icelandic women; 40 years ago Icelandic women went on strike–they refused to work, cook and look after their children for a day and 90% of the women in Iceland took part in the protest! This historical moment changed the way women were seen in the country and this strike has been repeated several times since then. Now Icelandic women have groups, unions and associations for everything: Women in the Arts, Women in Science, Young Female Entrepreneurs, Non-Icelandic Women in Iceland, Women Against Violence and Women in the Workplace, only to name a few. Everywhere women gather and talk about their experience of being a woman in their situation, whatever it is. Men also have groups, amongst them are The Responsible Fathers and Men Against Sexual Violence. The feminist discourse is also very apparent in Icelandic media. For example, when toys and clothes are made gender specific, blue legos for boys and pink legos for girls, it is immediately noticed and one can count on that there will be several opinion pieces written in the newspapers on the matter. Sexist humor or objectifying and degrading pictures in media immediately cause a fuss.



But most importantly: women support other women, they show solidarity, they make annual reports about their situation, they talk and write publicly about their experience. Here in Belgium I have not come across many female organizations or associations actively supporting each other and criticizing their situation on the same scale. There are few great initiatives though and this discourse seems to be growing, as the Wowmen festival that took place in Kaai, but this not on the same scale as the numerous initiatives in Iceland. I have had many conversations with other women in Belgium about their experience of being a woman in the arts and the gender biases they face. But these conversations happen mostly in small groups over coffee, we complain about it a little and then let it go. Lacking the infrastructure of protest, women's voices don't reach the public on the same scale as in Iceland.

In small groups we complain about it a little and then let it go.

I am a feminist. I am the product of feminism, if it wouldn't be for feminism I wouldn't be writing here, I wouldn't be an educated women pursuing a career as an artist. For me it is easy to make this statement in Iceland, and I don't have to justify it by explaining why. Here I sometimes find that I have to explain why I'm a feminist and what that includes. But in my opinion feminism is still needed. The message of the Guerrilla Girls is still relevant and it is important to raise awareness on the gender-imbalance which is still very present. The first step might be to really dig into the statistics like I mentioned both the Guerrilla Girls do and the Reykjavík Art's Festival team did. This kind of data source can bring to light where women really stand, even though when it may seem equal on the surface.

But it can not end there. The underlaying biases and specified gender roles also play a role here. With Icelandic women, the driving force for real change can be found in their enormous capacity for togetherness. Icelandic feminists through the years have made feminism into a mainstream ideology through education, awareness and unity. The numerous associations have been helpful to both illuminate the issue and press for a structural change. This has made it easy for young girls to start a new movement like #FreeTheNipple. The unity has made it easier for all women to share their experiences and demand to have the same benefits and the same representation as men. Of course many may differ in opinion inside of the discourse, but in my experience there has to be some sort of unity to have a platform for discourse, and that unity is what will extend the discourse into action.


Rósa Ómarsdóttir is dancer and choreographer. She graduated in 2014 at P.A.R.T.S. and lives and works in Brussels.




^ Terug naar boven


Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • No HTML tags allowed
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

Als maatregel om geautomatiseerde spamrobotten tegen te gaan, vragen wij u het huidige jaar in te vullen. Op die manier kunnen we uw bericht onderscheiden van spam.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.