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9 October, 2015  ▪  Yaroslava Kutsai

Vigdís Finnbogadóttir: “The awareness of languages and human thought in different languages is very important for interchange and peace”

The first female president in the world talks about preservation of language and identity, gender equality, and promotion of peace through understanding and caring for the environment

On October 24, 1975, the women of Iceland took a day off en masse, leaving all their responsibilities, including housework and care for children, to men. Nine out of ten women went on strike. Thousands of them marched in downtown Reykjavík to prove that without their daily contribution, underestimated by men, the economy could not function. Abandoned bosses and husbands could barely cope and felt relieved at the end of the long Friday, as they called the event afterwards, not yet anticipating that it was only the beginning and that in five years the country would be led by one of the participants of this thriving movement.

Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was never a member of any political party and is reluctant to call herself a politician. Before she entered history books as the worlds first democratically elected female president, she had gained public recognition as a vigorous theater director, a television presenter teaching her compatriots to speak French, and the first single woman in Iceland who was allowed to adopt a child. Narrowly elected as a special candidate from the Womens Association in 1980, when Icelandic society was only toddling towards gender equality, she became extremely popular and won three more elections, facing no strong rival.

It has been 20 years since Vigdís Finnbogadóttir retired, but she rarely stays at home. Icelanders admire her, but somehow easilyas if taking for granted the way she is, not least due to the fact that most of them voted for her.

The golden argument

A lot of people abroad envision Iceland as a paradise for feminists...

That’s my fault. When I was asked in foreign countries, “You are the lady who was the first woman elected to be a president?”, what is the answer to that? “Me?” (Ms. Finnbogadóttir parodies perplexity - Ed.). No, the answer to that is: "I’m so proud of my countrymen that they had the courage and guts to do that, to be the first." They broke the glass ceiling. It was in the news all over the world.  

I traveled quite a lot. I was invited all over. And I was always asked this: “How was it possible to let a woman become president in Iceland?" And I think the Day Off showed to the Icelandic people that women are pillars of society just as much as men are. All fathers and all brothers know that their daughters and sisters are as clever as their brothers and sons. Then why follow the tradition from the Bible or the Quran whereby a woman has to be placed somewhere and be more or less hidden?

What is the principal difference between women and men in power? 

The brain is the same. And we have often seen that. There are women in the world who act like men. There are women in the world who think that they should act like men. 

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What exactly do you mean? 

Being tougher. Women carry and take care of children, they care for human life. A woman’s view is wider and more sensitive to that. Men don’t have this close contact to human life. Women are like a gold mine in the world. And if you had a golden mine in the centre of the square, don’t you think that those who pass the golden mine would take a part of it? They would. Why then the larger part of the world doesn’t recognize the intellectual capacity of women? I urge women of the world, everywhere, in every country to realize the intellectual strength they have when they get education. In general, women have the same intellectual capacity as you and I. But many of them are illiterate. Literacy opens up the mind. There are more literate men in the world who are very conservative. They are afraid of changes. They know about the intelligence women have and are afraid of that intelligence. Or, perhaps, not afraid, but shy.

Cooperation between women and men, when it is really creative, is not linked to love or sex—it is linked to the height. I know this. I’m four times twenty. My cooperation with men has been very rewarding in my past. And, actually, when it came to pushing me to become a candidate for president, it was not the least men who supported me. Because at that time women of my age still said, "I’m only a woman. Why do I have to do this?”

I have been cooperating with men when I was in the theater. We worked like a roof over something. Everyone had their role. We thought the same way. We supported each other. I think that cooperation between men and women will be a sheltering roof for society. 

What is still missing in terms of fostering gender equality in Iceland? 

Equal pay. Ladies are getting a tiny bit—10% or 15%—lower pay. Basically, women and men are doing the same job, but men manage to put different labels on it. That’s the way to do it. For non-specialized [workers] it’s always possible to say, for example, that this man looks after closing the door at night when everyone has left [and therefore deserves a higher salary]. That’s something very silly. 

When you were in the time of self-discovery, who was the most inspiring character for you?

My mother was a head of the Nurses Association in Iceland for years and, for some

time, chair of the Nordic Association of Nurses. She was a strong and very inspiring person, but I’m far from being a copy of her. Bless her memory. 

It was taken for granted that I should be as good as boys in my school. And my brother - we lost him when he was 20. After that I realized that I have to do everything for my parents. But that is not key. Absolutely not. It’s not an ambition. I was never ambitious for that kind of things. And there were never discussions about that in my home. I was shy at school, I was behind doors. I was one of those who was picked on. There’s another thing—this consciousness that one should do their work well in order to advance. I was brought up to do things well. 

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Dalai Lama XIV in his 18 Rules for Living suggests that once should judge his or her success by what they had to give up in order to get it. What is success for you? Is there anything you would call your sacrifice?

There isn’t. But, as everyone, I've lost my beloved whom I miss very much. And I understand people. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been in the theater. I care for people. That’s why you’re sitting here. I understood that you wanted to talk to me. One Ukrainian author [who is doing interviews with Icelanders for his book about Iceland] wants to talk. Why would you talk to me? You come from Ukraine, Ukraine is having difficulties, you’re here studying. Okay. I’m also listening to you and asking questions.

So, this question is not on the agenda. Here comes another philosophical question: do you want power or influence? I’m asking you. 

It depends on the definitions you give to these terms. With poweryou either have it or not. Influence is something to want.   

Power comes to people from above. If you choose between power and influence, you’re automatically linked to influence. Power is always an order that should be obeyed. Influence that inspires people for something positive is better than power that presses people and tells them what to do.

With more people than ever before

I know you avoid talking about politics, but how do you feel about the situation with refugees?

I think that everyone should put him or herself in the situation that a refugee experiences. They have to leave their country. Leave or die. They are in constant tension. They are trying to save their families. Everybody wants to survive. And we want a better life when ours is bad. That’s the first thing.

Second step—when you decide to leave and become a refugee, you take risks. You can find yourself in all kinds of situations. Then the future becomes a nightmare. And it takes years and years to overcome that. 

In the Nordic countries people are ready to receive some refugees. But there are questions: “Do we have doctors? Do we have psychologists and psychiatrists? Would the refugees be happy with us?” Their language is different, they have totally different customs and traditions. We are pacifists and want to help, but at the same time we have to be very realistic. When they are safe, then comes the responsibility to provide them not only with shelter and food, but with the house for thoughts and feelings? What about their traumas? Those are my worries. Not that we are not able to help with material things.  

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Does the unprecedented growth of tourism in Iceland bring more good or harm to the country?

Well, it brings more money. But we have to protect our nature. If you take a handful of moss from the lava and you step on and destroy it, it takes 500 years for it to grow up again. There were tourists who were camping in Þingvellir (the location of Althing, the Icelandic Parliament. It is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country – Ed.). The wind was blowing, so they took the moss underneath their tent to isolate it. For just one night. One night and 500 years! We need to make tourists realize: our country is vulnerable.  

The Haven for Language

You claim you are a pacifist. Your name claims the opposite: víg means "war" and dís — “goddess in Old Norse. 

It’s the goddess of the sward. I have a sward here. I’ll show you (Ms. Finnbogadóttir gets the sward from behind the couch where I sit – Ed.). It’s a tradition. When you get an honorary degree at the University of Tampere in Finland you receive a sward to defend knowledge, wisdom and ethics in the world.

You look very persuasive. How about the Vigdís Finnbogadóttir Institute of Foreign Languages that you are currently establishing? What is the idea behind it? 

We are now building the premise. It’s growing out of the ground, which is kind of a miracle. And the aim of this International Institute of Foreign Languages in Iceland… You may ask, why Iceland? Iceland is the stepping stone between America, Continental Europe and the East. And we are still speaking the oldest language that is unchanged, which is quite a challenge. Iceland is also much visited. And I’m sure that with this institute in the future everybody who visits us will come and look this up—just to see if their language is there, because we are collecting data on as many languages in the world as possible. There are about 6,800 languages now. It’s an official number. Language is the identity of people. The awareness of languages, awareness of human thought in different languages, is very important for [cultural] interchange and for peace—to negotiate and understand the difference between countries, which has been my task in UNESCO. 

How to preserve the least spoken languages?

It’s very difficult. The prognosis is that half of them will disappear before the end of the century. There are so many endangered languages. And the irony is that education kills some of them. In parts of the world where there are official languages, like in South America, children are educated education in the official language, so the official language is prioritized and can suffocate “small” languages. 

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What languages, except Icelandic, do you see as a priority for Iceland?

The young generation thinks that English is the key to the world. It’s not. I remind them of studying other languages, because English is not the key to the past.

Students in Iceland think that Danish is so dull. And there is this utilitarianism: “What can I use it for?” It’s never the thinking about the pleasure of it, the intellectual gain and inspiration. In Iceland, Latin was about to disappear [from the curriculum], but we managed to keep it. Students can choose Latin. In certain fields you have to know it. Medical language is still Latin. 

Spanish is very popular in Iceland. That’s because youngsters often traveled to Spain and the coasts of the Mediterranean with their parents.

We were in America and I was introducing my vision in one of the universities there. They say, for instance, "French is good for nothing.” In the US and Great Britain, in secondary school they could omit teaching French and German, not to mention Latin. And suddenly they realized that they cannot, because of the knowledge of the world. When you do research like ours, you must have access to the fundamental sources of knowledge, like philosophy, which is in German and French. So now languages are being introduced again.

What is the main gain for a foreigner from learning Icelandic?  

Learning Icelandic language is the key to the mind of an Icelandic person. Absolutely, definitely the key. And Icelandic culture is very solid.  

What possibilities do you see (if any) in establishing cooperation between Iceland and Ukraine?

If you have inspiration and ambition, everything can be done. But there also has to be an occasion.

Cultivating hope in deserts

What are the main environmental issues in Iceland you are particularly concerned about today?

We need to keep the country intact, stop it blowing away—stop soil erosion. I vindicate reforestation, binding the earth and teaching children that they have to do something with it. There was a fund that was established when I became 60, called Yrkja, which means "to cultivate.” It gives money to buy trees to plant in areas that are barren [approximately 25% of the country]. All youngsters and schools in Iceland can apply. The idea behind it is that everybody wants to look at what they have planted. My father once told me that children have to go out and take care of what is their own. I did it with children while I was in the office.       

What are your expectations regarding the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Paris this year? 

I’m afraid. I can’t deny that. I think, however, that people are wiser now. They have realized that Copenhagen was a failure [the agreement between the countries didn’t provide any legally binding commitments for reducing greenhouse gas emissions]. Now I think that eyes are open. I allow myself to hope that something comes out of it. 

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Speaking about energy production in Iceland, should the country aim at self-sufficiency alone or consider going beyond by sharing its energy with other countries?

We have to take care of our attitude to the country for the future generations, think whether future generations agree on harnessing whatever is sinking the land to produce electricity? We have enough electricity for ourselves. Can we survive without selling electricity on the international market? That’s an open question, an ethical question.

Icelandic way

As someone who once worked as a tour guide, what place in Iceland you would recommend visiting to experience what it means to be an Icelander? 

Þingvellir is of course the symbol of what means to be an Icelander. But I could never do that [pick a certain place]. There are spots in Iceland that are incredible. The West Fjords for instance. There are spots all over Iceland that some Icelanders think, "There is nothing about this place." But when you are there you see that there is something, some magic. Especially when you are an Icelander and you know history and all the legends about giants living in the rocks. I’m often asked whether I believe in elves. I don’t know. But for nothing in the world would I forget or lose all these stories, created by the fantasy of people of the past who lived with the darkness, people who wrote them down. 

What is good about living in Iceland?

It’s a security, day-to-day life. And the intimacy of using this language. Knowing the environment. Friendship. And it’s wonderful to have access to people. 


Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was born in Reykjavík in 1930. She studied at the University of Grenoble, the Sorbonne in Paris and at the University of Iceland, obtaining degrees in literature and drama. In 1972—1980, she served as Artistic Director of the Reykjavik Theatre Company; was a member of the first experimental theatre group in Iceland called GRIMA and a member of the Alliance Française. Since 1978, Ms. Finnbogadóttir has been Chairperson of the Advisory Committee on Cultural Affairs of the Nordic Council. In 1980, she was elected President of Iceland and remained in the office until her retirement in 1996 (re-elected in 1984 and 1992. In 1988, she got 92% of the votes). During her 16 years of presidency, she was mainly preoccupied with preservation and development of the Icelandic language and culture, protection of the environment, and promotion of peace and humanity. Ms. Finnbogadóttir is the founding Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders, UN Goodwill Ambassador In the Fight Against Racism and Xenophobia, and Goodwill Ambassador of Languages. In 2001, the University of Iceland established the Institute of Foreign Languages, which was named in her honor.

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