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Two-thirds of the country’s babies are born to unwed mothers: Iceland

A unique culture of single motherhood

Americans, Iceland can feel like another planet, and not only because of the moonscape lava fields.

There are fewer people in the country than in Staten Island, the air is so clean that you can see for many miles on a good day, and several of the bankers who brought the country to the brink of collapse in 2009 have gone to jail.

Without the drastic cuts being imposed upon Europe’s other troubled economies, Iceland has experienced solid economic growth over the past few years. (The economist Paul Krugman contends that the country is some kind of economic miracle.)

It is also, in many respects, one of the most socially advanced countries in the world: having topped the World Economic Forum’s rankings for gender equality for the past six years, Iceland has become known as the most feminist country in the world.

One sign of this egalitarianism can be found in Icelandic attitudes toward motherhood.

In contrast to the competitive, anxious parenting of middle- and upper-class Americans, there is an ease to being a mother in Iceland, at least among the native population. This can be explained, in part, by the fact that Icelandic parents receive extensive social benefits, including nine months of paid leave to be shared between parents and affordable preschools.

Most people also have networks of relatives available nearby to pick up the slack. Lacking “stranger danger” fears, eight-year-olds are encouraged to cross roads to play at the playground, or walk home from school without adult supervision.

As almost all Icelandic mothers work, there are no “mommy wars,” and few women seem to suffer from the overwrought desire to “have it all.”

There is also relaxed sexual morality: two-thirds of the country’s babies are born to unwed mothers—the highest rate of out-of-wedlock births in the world—with couples often having children together and then getting married, or deciding not to.

The distinctive culture of single motherhood in Iceland forms the subject of a new series by the Canadian photographer Annie Ling, who first travelled to the country last winter, on an artists’ residency.

Ling has so far photographed six women—three who live in Reykjavík and three who live in the north of the country—spending time in their homes observing their lives and their interactions with their children. Ling, whose work was recently shown in an exhibit, entitled “Independent Mothers,” that opened in Akureyri, Iceland, on June 19th, the country’s hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage, says that she became interested in Icelandic attitudes toward single mothers, especially as they compare to those in the U.S.

The six women she has photographed are teachers, artists, and students. Two of them have five children with three different partners; one is raising two autistic children on her own. “These women aren’t getting judgment from the outside,” Ling said. “So, because they’re accepted, they’re much more at ease in their situations.”

At the same time, the reality of Icelandic women’s lives is more like that of American women than first meets the eye. Over the past few years, women have gone public with allegations of sexual abuse, including against a former foreign minister and the former bishop of Iceland’s state church.

While new laws against gender-based violence were recently passed, the criminal-justice system has been slow to respond, and young women this year turned a Facebook group on “beauty tips” into a twenty-five-thousand-member forum for sharing stories of abuse.

Despite its egalitarian culture, Iceland has a gender wage gap among the highest in Europe, leaving female-headed households with too few resources. Striking nurses, almost all women, were recently forced back to work by an act of parliament, with wage increases that did not come close to the contracts given to doctors, who are mostly men.

Ling’s stark portraits capture some of these tensions as well. Single mothering may be less fraught in Iceland, but the women she photographed are not what we Americans would see as comfortably well off.

You can see the independent mothers living in nondescript apartment blocks, in chock-full homes, in a sparse landscape—not easy lives, but full ones. “This one mother I photographed had had a pretty hard day when I showed up,” Ling said. “She told me this guy she was dating had broken up with her. Her mom was in the hospital, so she was on the phone with her. She was feeding the kids, bathing them, putting them to bed, and then heating up food at the end of the night.”

The photograph Ling captured shows the woman, Katrín, a kindergarten teacher and mother of two living in Reykjavík, standing on a chair, delivering a plate of food to a microwave wedged on top of the fridge. “I caught that moment of exhaustion,” Ling said. “It was kind of incredible.”

A new series by Annie Ling focusses on single motherhood in Iceland, where two thirds of babies are born out of wedlock.|By Janet Elise Johnson. She teaches political science and women’s studies at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. She is a coördinator of a monthly workshop on gender and transformation in Europe at New York University.

The priest, the warrior, and the peasant; (August 22, 2009)

Another alternative title could be more realistic and comprehensive such as “Elder, male, and female” but it is not catchy enough.

George Dumezil, a French researcher who can speak over 20 languages, says “The first 10 languages are the hardest to learn; the remaining languages come pretty easy because it is the same routine and same thing”.

George Dumezil wrote the trilogy “Myth and Epic” that describes the mythologies in Ireland, Iceland, Scandinavia, Germany, Roman, Greek, Ossetia (Caucasus region), and then links all these mythologies to their hierarchical transmission from the Indian Mahabharata and Bhagavat mythology.

Dumezil calls this unifying mythology “The Indo-European mythology” and end up with a summary that this mythology is based on 3 fundamentals the Priesthood, Warrior, and Peasant classes with their respective Gods.

After over 40 years of detailed research to reach this common sense conclusion is a monstrous let down.

Da! This classification of society is common to all cultures and civilizations and going pretty strong nowadays. (The main Gods in all civilizations were of Justice, War, and Fecundity. The all-encompassing unifying God was barely worshiped by the people because not symbolizing their trade or class).

The Romans had the (Jupiter, Mars, and Quirinus). The Scandinavian counties had Odinn reigning over the Val-Holl of (Porr, Mimir, and Odrerir) and  Ases was their unifying God. The Germans had Wotan reigning over their Walhalla.  In the Near East mythology we had (Shamsh, Baal, and Ashtarout); El or Allah in the Arab Peninsula was their unifying God.  In the Nile civilization we had Amon (Sun), Osiris, and Isis.

The major let down is this conventional direction of researchers of thinking top down or hierarchically.  Well, after the Scandinavian got their mythology from Ossetia that got their mythology from Northern India, then from whom did the Indian receive their mythology?  If there are any written records that go many thousands of years in antiquity (not probable) we might discover that mythology transmission is no longer hierarchical but cyclical.

Adopting the easy hierarchical line of reasoning is basically wrong. It is the wrong logic to consider: simply because it stick to the conventional that the King/Priesthood classes are the transmitters of culture and civilization. The Priesthood class is mainly the conservative maintainer of the status quo and barely the transmitter of much anything.

A more realistic and promising line of reasoning is to consider that it is the warrior classes that transmitted rituals, myths, and customs.

It is the soldiers and sub officers who were in direct and daily contact with the conquered people: they are the ones who interrogated prisoners, facilitated trade and communication, and learned by osmosis the new culture and civilization of the subjugated people.  The soldiers and sub officers returned to their hometowns and villages and disseminated their story telling testimonies and accounts of their war period.

The dissemination was quick because most soldiers were mercenaries from the neighboring countries to the powerful Kingdom. Once the war was over, the soldiers were disbanded to return mainly to their families and spread the news of alternative rituals, myths, customs, and techniques of the conquered culture.

Since frequent communication of central government of Empires with their neighboring vassal countries was not sustained, it stands to reason that the peasant classes managed to occasionally change their traditions before the government realized the changes.

When central government is strong then either of two possibilities was activated:

1.  If the mercenary warriors sided with the peasants then the King/Priesthood was defeated and the newer traditions and mythologies took roots.

2.  If the King/Priesthood vanquished then many varieties of sects and cults mushroomed in the neighboring kingdom.

Empires come and go, but the tank sources for mercenaries were constant.

These warriors came from mountain chain regions and high plateaus or desert regions.  In “Indo-European civilization” the mercenaries flocked from the Turkish Anatole Plateau and its extension in the Caucasus of Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Ossetia, Chechnya, Albania, and Romania.  The people were known as Cherkessk, Kurd, Tatar, Parthian, Scythe, and so on.  The other sources of mercenaries came from Central Asia such as Turkmenistan, Kirghizia, Tajikistan, and Mongolia.

The main central EMPIRE was Persia that extended many times from coastal Turkey to all of Afghanistan and part of Pakistan.

Babylon and later Assyria empires were counties of current Iran that moved the Capitals to their provinces as central power weakened in Persia. The same is true for the Hittite Empire in Anatolia that expanded to Egypt and signed the first recorded peace treaty with Egypt after the battle of Caddish. The Hittite aided the Greek by all means to defeat the Empire of Troy: Troy was a major handicap to extending to the coast and building a navy.

The urban centers in plains, rich with major water resources and large river,s hires mercenaries to defend or expand empires. The Near East region was constituted of City-States) that hired mercenaries for the war effort to defend the cities. A City-State was the center for Priesthood/learning class and peasant/skilled artisans class (the bread basket).  Empires that could not maintain autochthonous soldiers as majority of their armies vanished in no times.

When studying civilizations and their continuity we should never dismiss the main factor: climate.

There are the cold, mild, and hot weather civilizations. Within these 3 categories there are the plain and mountain region people. Talking about “indo-European” languages or civilizations is stretching the imagination a tad too far and forcing issues.

It is not with the antiques written records of the elite class that civilizations and dissemination of culture can be described and comprehended, but with archeological finds of daily living, rituals, and customs within homogeneous climatic regions.

Note 1: I had the topic from “Smell of the Time” (Odeur du temps) by Jean d’Ormesson who published three articles on George Dumezil. I didn’t read “Myth and Epic” and hope that d’Ormesson did.

Notes 2:  The nomadic desert Jewish tribes could not invent but one God “Yahwa”; Jehovah ended up to be their warrior God. When the Jews of Moses got in contact with the Canaanites in Palestine, Yahwa was set aside during peaceful period to be resurrected during war period and his statues and temples moved closer to God Baal in order for the Jews to be hired as mercenaries.




October 2019
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