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Ástandið: Icelandic Women and Their Interactions with British/American Soldiers During and After World War II

Ástandið: Icelandic Women and Their Interactions with British/American Soldiers During and After World War II

Though often forgotten in discourses about World War two, Iceland was a breeding ground for intense discussion around relations between Icelandic women and foreign soldiers. The debate about women's behavior was often cruel, and most of what women did was subject to close inspection and gossip, especially if they were young. This is what we, in Iceland, refer to as “Ástandið,” (literal translation: Situation). The moral corruption of young people in Reykjavík and of the “Nordic race” were topics of prime concern. The government responded to the debate by setting legislation on youth supervision. Ástandið and its discourses help us to better understand values about women, sex and child protection during the WWII and how nationalism shaped these ideas.

Ástandið is a term created by Icelandic men to explain the relationship between the British and American troops and Icelandic women during World War II. At one point, the number of foreign soldiers in Iceland was higher than the number of Icelandic men. Many of these foreign soldiers took interest in Icelandic girls and women and it is estimated that thousands of Icelandic women married soldiers. These relations between Icelandic women and foreign settlers did not always result in Icelandic approval, and the women who interacted with them were accused of prostitution and betrayal of their fatherland.

When the British occupied Iceland, people rushed to the street to watch the soldiers, but when people realized that girls were especially intrigued by them, there was immediately a discussion about the effects this might have and encouragement was made to minimize communication with the seating team. This proved difficult because settlement created many jobs for the Icelanders. An appointed committee gave an atrocious report on the matter, revealing that prostitution had become common. The government tried to implement effective measures to reduce the number of Icelandic girls engaging with foreign settlers, but over time Ástandið faded away on its own, and in the spring of 1945 the war ended and the foreign soldiers moved back home.

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*The women were aged 12-61.

*At least 500 women had close relationships
with soldiers.

*150 of these 500 women were under 17 years of age.

*At least 129 women out of these 500 became mothers.
The children were called “children of the condition.”

*In these studies, it was never indicated whether the
women were engaged, married, casually sleeping with,
or even prostituting themselves.

*The report with these 500 women is only 1/5 of Reykjavík.
One could estimate that all-in-all them women were around 2500.

*There were 332 military marriages in Iceland.

*Stats from https://astandidislandi.weebly.com

Photo of Martin and Guðfinna Bevans

Image Credit: Personal Collection/Dunda Bevans

On July 11, 1941, Vilhjálmur Jónsson, National Director of Health, wrote a letter to the Icelandic Ministry of Justice. In the letter, he expressed his concern for the moral issues of young girls since the arrival of the military. He stated that the police believed that girls from 12-16 had gone into prostitution due to the settlement. The government decided to act immediately and came up with the idea that the military should bring in prostitutes. However, the idea was terminated. On July 29th, Minister of Justice, Hermann Jónassob created an Ástandið committee. Its primary function was to investigate the relations between Icelandic women and soldiers. The three members of the committee were Sigurbjörn Einarsson, Benedikt Tómasson and Broddi Jóhannesson.

Jóhanna Andrea Knudsen, head of the youth supervision department of the police, conducted several personal investigations on Icelandic women's encounters with soldiers. The Ástandið  Committee used this information to create the Ástandið Report which was then published to the public. The report included police investigations involving more than 500 names of women and girls between the ages of 12 and 61 who were considered to have "close involvement with the soldiers." It was said that about 150 of the total numbers were girls 17 years of age or younger. However, these findings were widely criticized by the public. The widespread opinion was that the information from Jóhanna was a great exaggeration or even false. The Settlement Committee protested this report and launched its own investigation, where the results were considerably different and not nearly as striking. These committees and spies continued steadily until 1944 when a new government took over. The committees were discontinued and Jóhanna was terminated.

One of the most horrifying effects of this committee was Kleppjárnsreykir, a so-called "prison" for girls as young as 12 years old, located in Borgafjörður, a small town in South-West Iceland. It was known as a working camp for promiscuous girls. Girls who were believed to have had sexual relations with soldiers were registered and sent to interrogations, many girls were legally sent to the camps without their consent (or their parents consent if they were minors). In the opinion of Þór Whitehead, a history professor, this is the most extensive personal investigation in Icelandic history. These were major violations of human rights and the privacy of young women. The process was extremely degrading for the girls, and they were subject to IQ tests, medical examinations checking for virginity, and fierce interrogations. Even girls that were sexually violated by the soldiers were sent to these working camps as punishment.

If someone disobeyed during their stay were sent down to a so-called "cabin." The cabin consisted of one mattress and nails for the windows. They were left there for one to three days. The workplace operated at Kleppjárnsreykir for one year until a couple bought the property and shut down the work camps. Discussion about Kleppjárnsreykir has recently been brought to the surface.

The situation is a black mark on Icelandic history. Up to this day, it is considered to be one of the most profound violations of human rights in the country. Today, Iceland is considered one of the best countries in the world to be a woman, but it is important to look back and see how we got there and to acknowledge that this was not always the case. The suffering of these women must not be in vain or forgotten.

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