Tag Archives: Immigration

Underemployment of Immigrant Women in Iceland – A case study

The number of immigrants living in Iceland has been steadily on the rise for the last decade; between 2007 and 2017, the percentage of immigrants living in Iceland has increased from 7.6 % to 11.9% (Statistics Iceland, 2017a, 2017b). Akureyri, the largest town in the North of Iceland with considerable industry and service, has seen its immigrant population double in the last decade, and is now home to 931 immigrants for a total of 18 488 inhabitants (Statistics Iceland, 2017a, 2017c). New research from the University of Akureyri[1]shows that immigrant women are the most vulnerable people in the labour market in Iceland. Many occupy positions that do not fit with their level of education; despite having received higher education than men. For example, in the survey conducted 30% of immigrant women in Akureyri answered that they are in employment that does not suit their background, compared to the same answer by only 8% of Icelandic women. This difference has a direct impact on the income: just 11% of immigrant women answered that they earn 300 000 ISK or more per month, compared to 37% for Icelandic women and 22% for immigrant men.

We begin the discussion by reviewing the literature on migration, labour market and gender, with an emphasis on the Icelandic context. Then, we introduce the context for this study and describe the participants and the methodology, before we explore the immigrant women’s thoughts on their employment situation.

Migration, gender and the labour market in Icelandic and international research


From 2000 onwards, increased job opportunities in construction and the opening of the labour market to citizens of the new member-states of the European Union were the main reasons behind the increase of immigrants working in Iceland. However, migrants coming to work in Iceland were not seen as active participants in the long-term economic prosperity of the country but rather as a temporary labour force. Support for the integration of immigrants by the government was scarce, the issue was mostly left to private initiatives and a policy was constructed only in 2007 (Skaptadóttir & Loftsdóttir, 2016).

At the peak of the Icelandic economic boom in 2008, the Directorate of Labour reported that 9% of the Icelandic workforce was composed of immigrants (Skaptadóttir, 2014). Data from 2010 shows that the immigrant unemployment rate was 14.5%, which was twice as high as the rate for Icelandic citizens, as immigrants were often employed in the boom-bust sectors (ibid.). The chance of obtaining a new job after the crisis decreased for immigrants, as their previous work experience abroad was not always recognized. Before the crisis, the lack of knowledge of the local language was not seen as a big issue for securing a job in Iceland, but afterwards it proved to be an important problem. Funding for language courses became scarce (ibid.).

A survey among immigrants showed that three-quarters of the respondents thought it would be difficult to get a job in Iceland: 71% named the lack of fluency in Icelandic as a reason, 62% assumed that employers were not eager to hire foreign workers, and 41% indicated that they felt they were not well connected within Icelandic society (Wojtynska et al., 2011). There were a growing number of immigrants seeking aid after the crisis; a study showed that a third of those who received help from charities were foreign citizens, and the most were unemployed immigrants from Poland. However, most of them had lower income but more education than the Icelanders receiving aid (Dofradóttir & Jónsdóttir, 2010). It is suggested that accomplishments and achievements are the predicators of immigrants’ personal self-esteem (Nesdale & Mak, 2003).

Immigrants are mostly invisible in regional development policy and application (Júlíusdóttir, 2010). Even though migrant workers are a growing group in all regions of Iceland, they are presented as a simple labour force, not as a source for economic prosperity (ibid.). They are absent from the discussion on entrepreneurship, despite research showing that 26% of immigrants are interested in starting their own businesses and 51% having graduated from a university (Jónsdóttir et al., 2009).

There is hardly any research on the relationship between immigration, gender equality and the labour market in Iceland, however it is a topic that has been looked at extensively at the international level. In the literature on migration and gender, female employment displays the most negative associations in host countries (Fortin, 2005) and the gender gap between men and women, as well as between natives and immigrants, is widely recognized (Brekke & Mastekaasa, 2008). Immigrant women experience “double earnings penalty” (Hayfron, 2010) from their status as immigrants and as women, and a Norwegian study suggests that gender has more effect than ethnicity on inequality and disadvantage within the labour market (ibid.).

Regardless of Iceland’s stereotypical portrait as a gender equality nation, the persistence of a gender-segregated labour market remains (Júlíusdóttir et al., 2013). Women have less access to the labour market, are under-represented in most companies, do not often hold management positions and earn less than their male counterparts (Jafnréttistofa, 2012); the opportunities for immigrant women in the labour market are even worse (Júlíusdóttir et al., 2013).

So far social scientists have not combined the issues of gender equality and immigration in Iceland as one, when they need to be tackled together to address the issue of equality. It is argued that the discourse on equality in Iceland “has primarily emphasized gender and class, and needs to be reformulated pertaining to the multiple inequalities linked with recent immigration” (Skaptadóttir, 2015).

The consequences are that often immigrants are not incorporated in the (gender) equality discourse. In the Nordic countries there is a division between the “we—the Nordic” and the “gender-unequal immigrants” (Þorvaldsdóttir, 2011). Even though the Nordic countries are represented as being in a leading position regarding matters of equality, negative stereotypes of both immigrant men and women hold a strong position (ibid.). In the last two decades, there has been a shift in research from gender equality to equality for all (Þorvaldsdóttir, 2010), but social scientists and policy-makers are still hesitant in exploring this concept, as they fear that it will push the gender equality issue behind the scenes (ibid.).

Methodology and participants

This study uses a narrative methodology (Coffey, A. & Atkinson, 1996). The authors realized interviews with immigrant women and thereafter analysed them by using discourse analysis. Data were gathered through semi-structured in-depth interviews in which eight immigrant women recollected their employment experiences in Iceland. The participants were recruited on a voluntary basis as long as they suited our criteria, which were to live in Akureyri, to consider oneself an immigrant woman, to have formal education and to be in employment that did not reflect your education. Alþjóðastofa Akureyrar helped with the recruitment of participants from various countries of origin and occupations. Women came from various backgrounds, their age varied from 25 years old to 56 years old and seven of them were married or in a relationship. Half of the participants were highly educated: four of the women held a M.A degree. The interviews mostly took place in their home, although a few participants preferred to be interviewed in a café. The interviews were conducted in English, and one interview was conducted in Latvian; the interviews were recorded and accurately transcribed, and the interview in Latvian was translated into English. The interviews lasted on average an hour. Participants were asked about their background, their education, their migration stories, and their experiences of employment in Iceland. All the interviews were conducted by the authors; the names used in this article have been anonymised to preserve confidentiality.

The challenge of recognizing foreign education in Iceland

One of the key problems immigrant women face is the difficulties relating to the recognition of foreign education. Most of the participants reported using the support available from Alþjóðastofa Akureyrar, the Intercultural Centre of Akureyri, where they received guidance and help regarding the recognition of their education. Several received help from the staff at Símey, a lifelong learning centre and umbrella organisation promoting adult education in the Akureyri region. Neither of these two organisations is directly responsible for the recognition of education. Four participants considered taking courses at the University of Akureyri in order to either gain new knowledge or to take extra courses to get their past education recognised or supplemented. One participant with a nursing degree joined the nursing program at the University of Akureyri, but could not complete it, owing to the fact that her proficiency in Icelandic was limited.

I was talking to someone at Símey to recognize my qualification and I stopped somewhere in the middle… because of the time… […] this paper stuff… I just left it behind for the moment. […] I am not sure how it is working here, with my job and my qualification. (Interview 7)

The geographical location of Akureyri can also be an impairment for practical matters related to the recognition of education, as all the important institutions are in the capital. It is particularly problematic for immigrants who do not possess very good Icelandic or English language skills. Several of the participants commented on the long and fastidious process of getting their education recognised, arguing that the Icelandic administration was being slow and over particular, always requesting new documents or being selective regarding the words employed in the translations. One of them has been in the process to get her nurse diploma recognised for six years and has even employed a lawyer to help her, but still hasn’t succeeded. Another woman, also with a nursing diploma, seems to be unaware of all the procedures needed in order to become a practising nurse in Iceland, as there is no systematic guidance provided to skilled immigrants to help them secure a position matching their qualifications in the labour market.


We sent it [the diploma] to Reykjavik, [The employee from Alþjóðastofa Akureyrar] called but they said: “It is not enough, you need many more documents with you.” (Interview 6)


Here is my diploma, it’s looking like that. And the first time [I tried to have it recognized in Iceland] they told me, because in [my native language] they wrote here I was declared a nurse in assistant social and pedagogy, and they say: “No, you are not a nurse, you are a social worker.” And I said: “No, it’s how they translated, because I am a nurse!” […] The problem is, on my papers, there isn’t [mention of] this law, and it has to be exactly like this. It doesn’t matter what I can bring, it doesn’t matter, they want this. […] I must have this law on the paper. (Interview 2)

In general, individuals who have studied abroad have the possibility to have their education recognized in Iceland. If the purpose of recognition is to prepare for further studies or to compare qualification levels, an application can be sent to the relevant education institution or to the Naric/Enic network[2] in Iceland. If the purpose of recognition is to acquire rights to work within a regulated profession in Iceland, the applicant must apply to the appropriate competent authority in this country (Recognition of Professional Qualifications, n.d.). Different Icelandic government ministries administer the recognition of credentials that refer to their various jurisdictions; for example, certification of teaching degrees, for teachers of pre-school, compulsory, and upper secondary classes are handled by the Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture, and regulations for nurses are enforced by the Ministry of Health in Iceland through the Icelandic Nurses’ Association.

In order to have foreign education recognized in Iceland, three main policies are in force:

  • Act on the Recognition of Professional Qualifications no. 26/2010
  • Regulation on the recognition of professional qualifications for working in Iceland no. 879/2010
  • Regulation on the recognition of qualifications for working in regulated trades in Iceland no. 585/2011 (ibid.)

In general, for foreign education to be recognised in Iceland, an application must be submitted together with a copy of the diploma from the home country along with a translation in Icelandic, English or a Nordic language. The applicant must provide official confirmation and information about his experience working in the profession he intends to practice (Assessment and recognition of vocational qualifications, n.d.).

There are various institutions and organizations in Iceland that create and use assessment tools in order to validate education and experience, especially in technical jobs. In 2001, the Education and Training Service Centre (ETSC, in Icelandic Fræðslumiðstöð atvinnulífsins) was set up for this purpose. The Centre funds education and training courses, offers counselling, and validates diplomas; it developed methods for validation of non-formal and informal learning. The role of the ETSC is to ensure quality and guarantee that the approved methodology is implemented in various work sectors, as well as to manage the implementation of the validation process in new sectors (The Education and Training Service Centre, n.d.). This organization has been a forerunner in initiating and implementing work assessment programs for technical jobs (Renner, 2010).

Nurses have often been needed on the Icelandic work force so provisions regarding recognition and certification are in place (ibid.); there are various regulations that one has to comply with before receiving certification. Two participants in the research, one from the EEA (European Economic Area) and one from outside the EEA, were nurses who had not yet gained recognition for their education. In order to work as a nurse in Iceland one is required to have an Icelandic nursing license. The main requirements for getting a nursing license in Iceland are:

  1. To provide certified proof of your citizenship in an EEA country/ a certified copy of your permanent address. A certified copy of your passport is sufficient.
  2. To provide a certified copy of your diploma or nursing degree showing that you are registered as a nurse in your home country.
  3. To provide a certified copy of your nursing license. This certificate must not be older than three months to ensure its up-to-date validity. (Icelandic nursing licence, n.d.)

To recognise nursing diplomas, requirements differ between member and non-member states of the EEA. Nurses that are citizens of a state member of the EEA are requested to submit a letter of good standing, which includes a statement that their training for basic qualifications comply with the training standards laid down by EEA; they are also requested to provide proof that they have a valid nursing licence in their home country. Nurses that are citizens of a state that is not part of the EEA must submit a certified copy with full details of the programme and content of the nursing studies. The Directorate of Health also asks the prospective holders of Icelandic nursing license to be able to speak Icelandic (ibid.).

Supporting immigrant women with their carrier goals


The interviews reveal that due to current work and family situations, not all of the participants are very flexible. If their current life situation allowed more flexibility, especially concerning economic aspects, they would have more possibilities to increase their skills, knowledge, and experience. One of the participants had applied to university to obtain education in a different field that would provide her with a new career, but was then offered paid employment; her financial circumstances constrained her from pursuing new education in favour of the offered work position. Another example shows that one of the participants had an opportunity to have an internship related to her education, but she could not take it because having a paid position was essential for her, although there was a strong gap between her education and the aforementioned position.

She told me that if I wanted to I could stay [at this government institution for an internship], because it is, for example, the type of job I could do. […] But then I got a job, so I don’t have time anymore. (Interview 1)

With the support from the current employer, there is a greater probability for immigrant women to get their education recognised at a fast pace. One of the participant’s boss contacted the adequate institutions to have her credentials recognised, so she could benefit from having a wage equivalent to her education. Another participant implied that she could be promoted to work as a nurse, for which she has education from her home country, instead of working as a carer. Both her career and financial situation would improve if she could be in a position more suitable to her education. Her employer seemed interested in changing her position, however, she wasn’t provided with any help. Another participant noted that she had an idea of what she would like to do and it would suit her education but this employment wouldn’t provide her with enough income to support herself and her family due to unavailability of full-time positions during winter season. Two participants mentioned that they wouldn’t like to have employment that would involve work outside the “regular” workday hours as that would interfere with having quality time with their children.


Because I made this one here [because I volunteered], they accepted me. It was very difficult to go inside this care system. (Interview 2)

The capital area, which is home to large number of immigrants, is the place where most institutions and support organisations are located. Nevertheless, there are some institutions available for support of immigrants in Akureyri. Five of the participants mentioned the University of Akureyri in connection with education related opportunities. Only one of them had tried to pursue further education there, however without success. Many had taken language classes or planned to enrol in future courses in Símey. Moreover, some had received help there regarding the recognition of their credentials. The Intercultural Centre of Akureyri was named as an important institution to receive support relating to education recognition, future career planning, social support and activities (organising cultural events etc.). The Directorate of labour was also noted, but with the least significance; some of the participants didn’t believe they could obtain valuable support there.

I went to the Vinnumálastofnun [job centre] and I told that I was looking for a job. They did nothing. […] So I asked: “Do you have some plan how to help us [immigrants who are looking for jobs according to their education]?” He said: “No. […] We have some plans but nothing in general in Akureyri.” (Interview 8)

Some of the women noted the importance of social networks in connection to employment opportunities. As the length of time spent in Iceland varied between them, it influenced the size and nature of the networks. Sometimes it was clear that the participants have networks of different quantity and quality available, even when length of stay was similar.

There is probably some jobs available, but I just don’t know about them. (Interview 1, in Iceland for 7 years)


I think friends can help you most to find a job. (Interview 8)

Creating networks in the new country of residence is crucial for integration as it may help provide basic requirements for the life in the new environment (Ryan et al., 2008). However, some networks may put migrants into specific ethnic sections, thus resulting in migrants remaining within bonds of trusted family and friends from the country of origin (ibid.).The ability to speak the local language and to communicate with people from a wide spectrum is important not only in improving employment opportunities but also in gaining a fuller understanding of the new society (ibid.). It is suggested that despite the length of time since the migration, it is apparent that the dynamics of networks can vary (ibid.).

 “I wasn’t feeling that my Icelandic is that good”: the language problem

Upon their arrival in Iceland, all of the participants used English for communication. Several participants also noted that they had had to improve their English knowledge when they arrived or are still trying to improve. However, for many of them, English is still widely used as a means of communication in everyday life. This may be the result of better language skills in English rather than in Icelandic, and most of the participants seemed more confident to speak in English, rather than Icelandic.

The participants feel that being accepted into the Icelandic community is no easy task, but it is uncertain whether the barriers are set up by the native population or by the immigrants themselves. In immigration contexts, language is extremely important both as a medium for everyday communication and to secure a position in the new labour market (Esser, 2006). Language and accent are symbols of “belonging and foreignness” (ibid.). One of the participants believed that it takes five to six years to adjust to a new society and become part of the group; she had been in Iceland for seven years, however, when asked about whether she felt accepted, she answered ambiguously:

The others [co-workers] are complaining that we don’t speak the language good, we don’t know exactly the culture and how they are doing, and what…           [I’ve been here] seven years. I know the culture… […] If they are thinking “she is a foreigner, she doesn’t speak good Icelandic”, it’s the energy they are transmitting me… (Interview 2)

Four participants explicitly expressed the issue of not having high proficiency in Icelandic. Two of them declared that there is a lack of opportunities to practise the language. However, at least five of eight women had taken part in at least one Icelandic language course and showed interest in participation in more courses. Moreover, four of the participants enthusiastically expressed willingness to improve their skills and knowledge of Icelandic.

I will take a course and at home I need to learn one, two words. [..] I’m learning. I like it. (Interview 6)


Three women mentioned the need or the wish to speak Icelandic “perfectly”. They made an unreasonable comparison between the native speakers and the non-native speakers of Icelandic. Maladaptive perfectionism characterizes people who experience exaggerated concerns about making errors, doubt their actions, and feel anxious; adjustment is negatively influenced by this psychological trait and emotional difficulties are also created (Rice et al., 1998). Maladaptive perfectionism can also be associated with low self-esteem (ibid.).

There are enough Icelanders to work there who speak perfect Icelandic. (Interview 6)

Language learners generally feel that anxiety is a major obstacle to be overcome in learning to speak another language; language learning itself is an unsettling psychological experience as it threatens a person’s self-concept and worldview (Horwitz et al., 1986). If the women experience low self-esteem, are they in a position to evaluate their language skills adequately? Negative self-image could make them underestimate their competence.

There is clear evidence that immigrant women lack confidence in utilizing their current level language skills. One participant mentioned a past event where her lack of knowledge caused a small incident at work, while another woman admitted that her co-workers expressed dissatisfaction with her language skills, although she also had other types of disagreement with them. However, they were not the women who communicated most negatively about their language competency. As there were only two concrete examples of problems caused by lack of language skills, low self-esteem seems as big of a problem as the actual lack of proficiency in Icelandic. Many of the women interviewed showed fear of rejection caused by low self-esteem rather than real examples of rejection.

I don’t think I could do it [a job I saw advertised] because I don’t have so good Icelandic to talk with Icelanders if there is some problem or something…I was stressed about it and he [my partner] is angry with me because he thinks I have enough knowledge of Icelandic to do that, but I am still… I didn’t feel comfortable. […] I think they will prefer some Icelander, I honestly think they will prefer someone who is Icelandic. (Interview 1)

Fluency in the local language facilitates integration to a new environment (Esser, 2006). Therefore, it is important to be given the opportunity to learn the language. The primary institution in Akureyri to learn the Icelandic language is Símey. There are three levels available; however, two of the participants mentioned that courses they had applied for had not taken place due to an insufficient number of participants for the course. One participant mentioned the cost of the course as the main reason for not taking part. However, it wasn’t clear whether this participant was aware of the possibility to get partial reimbursement of expenses for Icelandic courses from her trade union. There are additional options to learn Icelandic in Akureyri: Alþjóðastofa Akureyrar, the Intercultural Centre of Akureyri, offers support to find volunteers keen to assist immigrants practice Icelandic; there are teachers who offer private lessons, however the prices for them are usually very high; there are websites to improve your knowledge of Icelandic.

Over recent years there has been different activities for immigrants to learn Icelandic in Akureyri. For example, Zonta’s International Education Fund funded a language course for immigrant women with children; the Salvation Army in Akureyri offers support to learn Icelandic; there is an Icelandic chat group at the municipality library of Akureyri; reading and homework assistance is available for primary school pupils (attending first and second grade) at the municipal library. In 2015 and 2016, there were two workshops entitled Icelandic through artistic expression, in which immigrants expressed their experience of living in Iceland.

Self-confidence or how immigrant women doubt their capabilities

Six out of eight participants are experiencing issues that are possibly caused by low self-esteem. These participants were overly critical not only about their language skills but also about their capabilities in general, overall showing lack of self-worth. Some of the participants were aware of their lack of self-confidence, but there were also examples where women didn’t see the connection between high self-esteem and ability to forward in their lives and careers.

When people see that you are very quiet, you are not sure of yourself, they can’t or don’t want to accept you to work. Maybe this is the main problem. (Interview 5)


I think that I am not that confident also…you have to be very strong if you want to have a business. (Interview 7)


I think there are people who don’t speak Icelandic but have better jobs, but I don’t know where the key is, I didn’t find out… (Interview 1)

Some of the participants are unable to see or doubt the existence of possibilities that would help them to improve their career prospects. The relative long time spent under-employed in Iceland can make immigrant women look negatively towards the future. Our past experiences influence our present actions; we know our competences and capacities based on past experiences (Strandell, 2016). ‘‘Previously I tried being X by doing Y, which failed, making me feel ashamed. It is unlikely that I will succeed in doing X today, either.’’ (ibid: 6).

Honestly, I think I won’t make more money than what I am on now. (Interview 1)


I don’t think I can find a job [according to my education]. (Interview 4)

For some lack of confidence has influenced their career advancement, which has caused tension at home. The partners feel unhappy as their help and support is not sufficient to improve the women’s self-confidence. Some women even mentioned disagreements with their partners caused by this. Most of the women expressed willingness to have employment rather than being at home, as with their jobs they contribute to the family’s economy, meet new people, develop skills and gain work experience.

[I] start to fight with my husband, crying, not meeting anybody it’s not good for me, I want to do something… (Interview 2)


[My husband] says: “You put your head down, [but] you must look in the eyes!” (Interview 5)

The interviews revealed that several women are influenced greatly by what others suggest and say about them. Social factors can have an important role in valuating oneself. Recognition of others is important because it verifies the successful depiction of one’s identity (ibid.). Therefore, it is sometimes helpful to receive encouragement and support to pursue a goal that is not easily achieved. However, self-esteem can be deteriorated by discouragement.


I just never think that someone could do something to give me a job. I have to do it myself, […] I need someone to push me, my husband did but that wasn’t enough. (Interview 4)


I was very nervous [..] I didn’t believe in myself too much. It look like I lost hope in myself […] And my size maybe, [..] in the bakery they say they need someone strong… (Interview 5)


 I was like: “Let’s do it!”… but then I spoke with the woman who organise this course and she was like: “Maybe it is hard for you.” (Interview  4)

Several women of this study compared themselves to others in similar situations. They were under the impression that if someone had done something alike, they were their “role models” and therefore they themselves couldn’t do things in a different way or even be better than others. Therefore, they have made negative evaluations from upward comparison. Social comparison is a part of the construction of our self-esteem (Stangor, 2011). When we compare ourselves favourably with others, we feel good about ourselves; however when the comparison suggests that others are superior, the self-esteem will most likely be influenced negatively (ibid.). There are two main types of social comparison: upward comparison and downward comparison. In the former, people compare themselves to others who are better than they are; in the latter, people compare themselves to those who are less accomplished than they are (ibid.). It is suggested that exposure to someone who is superior to oneself can lead to positive or negative evaluations. Such circumstances suggest that either one is relatively disadvantaged or that one could improve (Suls et al., 2002). Unfortunately, the women interviewed mostly saw further faults in themselves.

I was working there until eight months of pregnancy […] My other colleague, she was pregnant as well, […] she quit one week before she gave birth, so I was feeling a little bit like… at the end, out of power but I felt so stupid to say I’m done here because she was so full of energy all the time and she’s a rough woman… I was feeling stupid to tell them I was seven months pregnant and leaving. [Interview 1]


X did this course last time and […] I thought if it was hard for him then [I cannot do it]. (Interview 4)

Some participants believe they are in worse circumstances than they actually are, or presume something is a disadvantage while it actually not necessarily like that. People’s general sense of self-worth is regulated by three main factors: their positive and negative feelings about themselves, their beliefs about themselves, and the way that they create these beliefs (Pelham & Swann, 1989).

I had a breakdown there [at the language course], I said I shouldn’t be there because you have to know a lot. (Interview 7)


I still have an accent. There is nothing [you can do about it]. I have an accent and to teach [with an accent is a bad idea]… (Interview 6)


Maybe people are not interested in what I am doing, maybe they don’t like it. (Interview 7)

Lack of self-confidence has hindered several women from taking opportunities that could improve their work situation and satisfaction. Self-esteem works in motivating in two directions: pushing or pulling, thereby influencing an individual’s behaviour (Strandell, 2016).

I never tried [to find employment related to my education] because I thought that language is really important in that. I was offer [to take part in my education related project] but I was not sure if I could handle it. [..] I think I was afraid, I am a kind of chicken. (Interview 1)


I was thinking about taking some course, but I don’t know if they ask you to have some more [education than I have]. (Interview 7)


I somehow… I couldn’t… I would be happy to do it one hand [take a cooking   course], but on the other I am afraid… but there is no point to be afraid. (Interview 6)

Self-esteem can be defined as a degree to which one values oneself or a ratio between one’s competence and worth (Reber, 1995). Orth and Robins (2014) believe that there is an interconnection between self-esteem and development of important life outcomes; high self-esteem can often predict success and well-being in life domains such as relationships, work, and health. Research shows that high self-esteem is “a predictor, not a consequence of life success” (ibid: 384). However, “prior experiences of success, a perception of the environment as supportive and nurturing, and involvement in close encouraging professional relationships are identified as important antecedents to professional confidence” (Holland, 2012).


I’m still trying to find a job, but I’m not so positive about it anymore. […] Maybe I wasn’t lucky enough. (Interview 1)

It is not always the lack of opportunities that prevent women from taking small steps towards better career prospects, but negative evaluation of their abilities. Therefore, they should be provided with experiences that would improve their self-esteem and consequently provide them with the confidence to improve their language skills and advance their careers in suitable employment.



When trying to determine the causes of underemployment of immigrant women, it was necessary to look in detail at four main issues: recognition of foreign education, availability of support, Icelandic language, and self-confidence. The findings of this research unveils the tedious process of credential recognition in Iceland. Although, there are guidelines of what should be done, in reality the process is not always clear and takes extremely long time. Even though there is some support available in Akureyri for the recognition of foreign education, the examples clearly show that they are not sufficient. As the recognition process takes place in institutions that are located in the capital, the procedure is complicated for people living in other parts of the country. There is scarcity of support from institutions and current employers. This situation should be improved as not all of the immigrants have vast social networks to rely on. Most of the women believe that their current Icelandic language level is not sufficient for both everyday life and employment opportunities, and are therefore willing to make improvements. Immigrants should be provided with more classes free of charge for language learning. Although language is important for integration, many experience issues due to fear of rejection, striving for perfection, and low self-esteem. In our analysis, poor self-confidence is not necessarily conscious in the immigrant women’s mind, but low self-esteem builds negative social comparisons and creates negative self-image and discouragement. The negative influence of low self-esteem not only hinders advancement in the labour market, language learning and use, but also has an impact on family life.

Even though it would be greatly beneficial to have more support for foreign education recognition, language learning opportunities, and help with forwarding their careers, it seems that the most fruitful action should be to address women’s self-esteem first. The fact that many of them have tried unsuccessfully to obtain their education related employment for several years have contributed to poor self-confidence and loss of hope for change. Self-esteem improvement workshops should be provided, as well as internships that would provide the women with experience of success and new, supportive environment.





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[1] Funded by Jafnréttissjóður Íslands in 2015

[2] ENIC-NARIC Network purpose is to help interested organisations and individuals find information on procedures for the recognition of foreign qualifications.

The Ambiguity and Danger of the Concept of Border

Some scholarly friends have recently invited me to discuss the theme of the border. The first thing that came to mind was the ambiguity and danger of the concept of border.

Already starting from the definition given by the Italian encyclopaedia Treccani, we realise the duplicity of the concept of border:

The border is the line that separates one state from another. The concept, however, has a different origin and above all has a much wider use: we also need “boundaries” to organise our thoughts. The concept of the border is one of the tools we use to master reality (…) the word end comes from the Latin finis and, as in Italian, it indicates the conclusion of something (in Latin it was used precisely to indicate the border); “Con-finis” means that that conclusion is common, it is the same for both territories or lands. Each of the two territories ends, has an ending point, is limited, and ends up on the same border.

A first observation arises spontaneously for me: the border delimits the self and preserves one’s identity but at the same time it prevents reunification and exchange.

The cognate and synonymous concept of boundaries is, moreover, a common heritage of various branches of knowledge. We have deep traces of it in the myths of the Greek world, but we find the concept of border in the history of philosophy, in the biological sciences, in psychology, but above all, the concept has been widely explored – in the field of study closest to me – in law, both classical and modern, and finally in international law.

The border in the Greek and the Latin worlds separated order from chaos, the known from the unknown, the right from the wrong. You can always go beyond the border, however, as long as you have a good guide with you, a new Virgil.

For Heraclitus, the soul has such remote boundaries that it is not possible to reach them.

Horos in Greek is the border that separates two lands but also the stone that concretely signals their limit. Horos defines both a concept, an experience but also the norm that separates and defines. Horos also has a normative power; it represents a necessity guaranteeing an order. To raise a boundary means to recognise a difference, an otherness, to regulate the relationship with it.

In Hesiod’s Theogony, the boundary is the original delimitation between heaven and earth starting from primordial chaos. The limit is an ordering element through which to get out of chaos. The limit is a barrier to man’s fear of the infinite.

Heracles, during his journey in search of Geryon’s herds, defeats monsters and monstrous creatures, sets a physical boundary between the known world and the world where human beings must not go, placing the border with two columns placed on the two shores of the Strait of Gibraltar. And this limit, if you think about it, resisted until Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the Indies. For Christians for centuries, on the other hand, the edge of the world was Santiago de Compostela on the Portuguese shores of the Atlantic Ocean where the remains of St. James the Great arrived.

But the boundary seems to exist to be crossed, as Dante’s Ulysses teaches, even at the risk of death (see verse 119 of Canto XXVI of the Inferno, known as the “Canto of Ulysses”, which reads: “You were not made to live like brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge”).

It should be noted, however, that Hermes (not surprisingly the protector of travellers, merchants, and thieves), the deity who protects borders but at the same time encourages them to be overcome.

The boundary marks a dividing line that establishes a relationship of inclusion/exclusion. At the border, you can make two choices: either stand at the threshold or cross it.

The border is always defined but at the same time open. It has in itself the idea of limit and difference, of otherness and passage as a link between the inside and the outside, between the known and the unknown. It is not a locked door but a passage to be crossed, possibly with good moral guidance.


The concept of boundaries in the natural sciences

In biology – although the statement should be taken with approximation as the writer is not an expert on the subject – the so-called primordial cell has been hypothesized, and subsequently reproduced in the laboratory, a cell with a circumscribed environment, separate but in communication with the outside world and with the potential to increase its complexity; Going beyond the boundary of the cell produces new life; reproduction occurs only by penetrating the other cell, mixing and splitting the DNA of the mother cell so that the daughter cell contains part of the DNA of the two fusing cells.

It is well known that the structure of the cell is formed by the cell membrane, the nucleus and the cytoplasm. For the cell to reproduce, it is necessary to penetrate the cell membrane, reach the nucleus and then allow the DNA to be mixed.

A French psychoanalyst, Didier Anzieu, in his work “The nomadic epidermis and the psychic skin”, borrowed the behaviour of cells, and elaborated the metaphor of the skin, an imaginary metamorphosis of the skin: the skin as a “psychic envelope” that ensures protection against excess stimuli, allows the development of the senses, and acts as a support and containment to the feeling of self.


The sphere of law

In Roman law, the “limes” in Roman law marks the boundary between Roman civilisation and the barbarians who cannot be integrated (barbarians are those who stammer, who do not speak Latin, the language of the fathers).

Throughout the Middle Ages, during the Empire and during the Papacy, the border did not represent something essential because all the space belonged to the Emperor thanks to the investiture of the Pope.

It was only with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which put an end to the Thirty Years’ War and effectively created the modern absolute state, that the concept of the border returned and the modern border as it is understood today was born.

In Roman civil law, property, the “dominium ex iure Quiritium”,  was recognised only  to “cives”  and only on Italian soil; defined by the classics as absolute law that extended “usque ad coeleum et ad inferos”, it was protected by robust actions to defend the borders (“actio finium regundorum”). It was often granted as a war prize, but with the disintegration of the Roman Empire small property almost completely disappeared and already with the barbarian invasions, in the Middle Ages, everything had returned to the property of the occupying sovereign.

With the fall of feudalism, private property was reborn as a positive concept for the emerging bourgeoisie (according to the French Civil Code of 1804  “the right of property is that which belongs to every citizen to enjoy and dispose of his goods, his income, the fruit of his work and his industriousness”); already in the Napoleonic Code it is stated that property is recognised within the limits of laws and regulations; and also in the Italian Civil Code of 1942 property is recognised “within the limits and with the observance of the obligations established by the legal system”.

After all, feudalism dies when it is reborn and private property is recognised. The border divides what belongs to the Prince from what belongs to the bourgeoisie. Among private individuals, “u limmitu” (a word from the archaic Sicilian language), acts as a boundary, it is what separates my property from the property of others.

And yet, in modern civil law, the concept of property has always had limits, it must have boundaries and it must be crossable in the general interest. This is stated in art. 832 of the Italian Civil Code of 1942. According to art. 42 paragraph 2 of the Italian Constitution of 1947, the right to property is not a right without limits, it must be based on the principle of solidarity, and it is necessary to impose limits on private property for purposes of social solidarity (the so-called social function of property), these limitations must allow society to grow economically beyond the selfish needs of the individual owner.


The border as a place of separation within our society

Be careful, sometimes borders have crept into our own society: what else are prisons and asylums? They are confined places where the inside/outside exchange is difficult, complex, sometimes hindered and marginalised. The best sociology and the most modern psychiatry, however, indicate that the resocialisation of the prisoner passes through the exchange with “the outside”; just as mental distress is cushioned by social inclusion (see the illuminating pages of Franco Basaglia on this point).

Turning to modern international law, it is noted that the ambiguity, and above all the danger, of the concept of the border that delimits the nation is back. That of nation is an idea of romantic derivation: as a unity of language, religion and traditions, but it is an equally dangerous idea because it is at the basis of nationalism and its authoritarian drifts: think of the exaltation of the Aryan race by the Nazis, of the magnificent roots of the Roman Empire exalted by fascism and the examples could unfortunately continue. In the early 1900s, this concept of the nation was opposed, without any success, by the utopia of socialist internationalism, the borderless homeland of workers all over the world, an idea, in turn, sadly exploited by the Bolshevik revolution and Stalinism.

Borders are often drawn for political reasons, as often for economic reasons, and the economic question is often deliberately confused with the religious or historical-political one. Think of the border disputes over international waters for the exploitation of marine resources, or more recently, the war for the conquest of space. On the other hand, we cannot fail to point out how difficult international negotiations are for the protection of the seas and the atmosphere from pollution, where seas and atmosphere cannot but be considered as universal goods, without borders, functional to the very existence of the human race.

For the conquest of the border, wars are fought and deaths are caused, and this is why I am increasingly beginning to distance myself from the concept of border, as is now openly outlined in this article.


The open society

I can say without hesitation that the border must be crossable: the border that can be crossed is functional creating of an open, multicultural, multiethnic society.

And yet, despite having taken sides, I cannot ignore that this ambiguous and dual concept of border also has limited positive aspects: it allows the preservation of traditions, cultural heritage, the teachings of the fathers, it is a barrier to the vulgarity of the world and resistant to the so-called liquid society described by Zigmunt Bauman.

According to Zigmunt Bauman, in fact, we Westerners live in a “liquid society”: an environment without definitions, where everything mixes and merges with something other than itself, producing a single media soup. Liquids dilate, mix, have no boundaries.

 After all, respect for other people’s traditions and cultures is respect for the border.

Integration is therefore the solution that is perhaps not definitive and perhaps not a salvation: it represents the virtuous fusion between two cultures without one becoming hegemonic over the other: this is how the United States of America was born and became great, mixing Irish, Italians, Germans and Jews.

But the West is burdened by the sin and the unhealed wound of colonialism that is still at the root of the Third World’s serious backwardness and at the root of continuous and ever dormant disputes and claims. In fact, it is difficult to talk about integration in countries where poverty still reigns and where the economic and cultural disasters of colonialism are still visible.

Recall that for years the American colonialists denied the culture of the American Indians and the Spaniards did the same in South America. More recently, think of the extermination of the Armenians or the Kurds. The systematic eradication of indigenous cultures has sometimes been carried out by genocide. It is difficult for the West to allow us to forget such outrages.

A dominant culture must not only respect minorities but must also be able to tolerate aspects of “other” cultures that are often not easily understood.

There are many examples: think of the problem of the veil of Islamic women resolved in a heterogeneous way within the EU, often banned because it is seen as an intolerable harassment of Islamic women, while in the perspective of the Parisian “banlieues” it represents the affirmation of an identity. In Iran, on the other hand, the imposition of the veil remains an authoritarian act of rejection of Western culture, considered dangerous for religious customs, so a real civil war is being fought in which women are the absolute protagonists. In modern Turkey, until the advent of Erdogan, the state, which wanted to be secular, forbade women to wear the veil at public activities and in universities because there was a desire for modernisation and integration. Today in Turkey, the veil is back in fashion. It is equally difficult in our eyes to accept certain forms of “jus corrigenda” typical of certain patriarchal cultures. Think again of the controversy over the ban on the use of pork in state school cafeterias or the practice of circumcision.

Beyond easy and populist slogans (“immigrants must respect our rules and must adapt to our culture…”), we “dominants” must also have the ability to set limits that are often not always shared by the majority: just to give an example, think of the ban on displaying the crucifix in public offices. Of course, the crucifix identifies a large and millenary community such as the Christian one, but if we want to be truly “open” and affirm the secularity of the state and the equality of all religions before the state, then we need to take a small step back.

However, efforts must be made to understand and the best Western models must be promoted, without imposing them. There is, in fact, a non-negotiable core of Western values, encapsulated in the 1950 European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which we must be proud defenders of. And here the border once again takes on a positive value of defending fundamental values that characterises us as a virtuous community that, after the disaster of the two world wars, recognises itself and is founded on those values inscribed in the Convention.

The only boundaries we must preserve are those of the freedom of others, of property, culture and the language of others.

In this sense, applying the principles of the Convention, and of other national and supranational fundamental charters, means attributing to positive law an educational function. The same thing happened in Italy when “reparative marriage” was abolished or the so-called abandonment of the marital roof was decriminalized.


The issue of immigration

The concept of border leads us to confront the great, pretended border that perhaps never existed represented by the Mediterranean Sea, which has always been a place of exchange of civilizations: from the Phoenicians, to the Greeks, to the Romans to the Arabs.

Today we want there to be an undrawn border beyond which many peoples fleeing war and famine must not cross. Syrians fleeing a bloody internal war that has already caused more than 430,000 deaths must not pass; Eritreans and Somalis who are weakened by years of wars, famines and dictatorships that in Eritrea impose an endless military conscription on men and women must not pass; sub-Saharans or Pakistanis whose living conditions are miserable must not pass through (just think that the annual per capita income in countries such as Pakistan stands at $1,505, in Ivory Coast at $2,549 or in neighboring Tunisia at $3,800, compared to $35,657 for the annual per capita income in Italy and $43,658 in France); The Bangladeshis in their country of 170,000,000 inhabitants live crammed into a space that is three times smaller than Italy, afflicted by floods, where there are 50,000,000 people living in poverty and where 40 % of the population lives on less than two dollars a day.

But before accusing ourselves of populism and giving ourselves the usual handy lesson, “let’s help them at home”, I want to recall some positive norms only formally signed by almost all the states of the world:

Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948: “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of any State. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his own country.”

Art. 14 c. I Dec. Univ.: Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution “.

And what can be said of our Constitution, which not only recognises a broad right of asylum (art. 10 of the Constitution). “a foreigner who is prevented in his country from effectively exercising the democratic freedoms guaranteed by the Italian Constitution has the right to asylum in the territory of the Republic under the conditions established by law”) but recognises the right of our citizens to emigrate (Art. 35 c. III “… recognises the freedom of emigration, subject to the obligations laid down by law in the general interest…).

If, therefore, there is a positive right to emigrate, if you will allow me to provoke you, there are no borders, no frontiers, no barriers, no walls.  And as Pope Francis said on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall: we need bridges, not walls!

And how odious it is the distinction that we Westerners strive to emphasise between those who can be recognized as “asylum seekers” and those who are only “migrants of necessity” who must be rejected.

Of course, this is not to deny the right of each individual state to regulate immigration, but as the Italian Constitutional Court pointed out in its judgment no. 105/2001: “… Although the public interests affecting immigration are manifold and however much they may be perceived as serious problems of security and public order linked to uncontrolled migratory flows, the universal character of personal freedom cannot be affected in the slightest, which, like the other rights that the Constitution proclaims inviolable, cannot be affected in the slightest. It is up to individuals not as participants in a particular political community, but as human beings.”


From the border to the ghetto

Allow me now to make one last comment on what I have now revealed to be my negative judgment on the border: how much horror is emanating from the Gaza Strip, which is nothing more than the violent imposition of a border that tightens like a noose around the neck of the Palestinian civilian population and has caused as many as 20,000 deaths to date, including at least 8,000 children.

This is not the place and the time to reflect on the causes of the war between Palestinians and Israelis, but it seems paradoxical to me how Israelis have forgotten the suffering inflicted on them by the Nazis in the Jewish ghettos of half of Europe: today the new ghetto is the Gaza Strip! The extremes connect.

Fortunately, it leaves me with a glimmer of hope, which comes, as always, from culture and dialogue, and I am referring to the so-called Israeli writers of dialogue: Abraham Yehoshua, Amos Oz (who already in 1967 said “even an inevitable occupation is an unjust occupation”); David Grossman, advocate of coexistence between Arabs and Israelis.

Two peoples in two states, it is hoped: at this moment, the impassable border is not the one defended by tanks and barbed wire, but the one erected by religious absolutism and economic selfishness. The certainties of the Jewish religion against the absolutism of Islam; the Western wealth of Israel and the poverty of the Palestinians; the arrogance of the Jewish settlers and the lack of water and arable land of the Palestinians… and we could go on…

But now it is time for me to stop after rambling on too much.

Nafisa Yeasmin, Waliul Hasanat, Jan Brzozowski, and Stefan Kirchner, eds. Immigration in the Circumpolar North: Integration and Resilience (London: Routledge, 2021)

The social inclusion of immigrants into local communities has been extensively studied in the Social Sciences. Since the mid-1990s, the sociology of migration has shifted from economic and demographic issues towards central sociological questions such as “how societies negotiate membership and boundaries in the face of globalization” (Kasinitz, 2012: 583). Most theories on the sociology of migration are based on research in urban places but there is an increasing interest in migration to rural areas (Marrow, 2011).

This new edited volume by Yeasmin, Hasanat, Brzozowski, and Kirchner is a noteworthy contribution to migration studies as it addresses the experiences of migrants in the Arctic, “the most sparsely populated world region” (Brzozowski, 2020: 163). The anthology brings together 10 articles on migration in the Arctic. Five of these case studies are based on research in Finland, one on research in Iceland, one on Canada, and three of these case studies are transnational studies. The book is divided into five chapters: An introduction written by the authors, a chapter on Youth Perspectives in the Arctic, a chapter looks on Family and Diversity Challenges, a chapter on Human Rights and Indigenous Communities in the Arctic, and a chapter on Migration and Development Issues in the Arctic.

The comparative approach is one of the strengths of this anthology. The case studies collected provide valuable and diverse approaches to migration to the Arctic, sometimes presenting contradictory results. For example, a comparison of the findings of El Hariri, Gunnþórsdóttir, and Meckl (2020) and Adams (2020) shows that immigrants in Iceland are critical towards the educational system but immigrants in Finland perceive the Finnish educational system positively. These findings show once more that the “Circumpolar North” is not a monolithic place where migrants have similar or even identical experience.

The editors of this book emphasize resilience and integration as the key themes of their publication. They understand community resilience as “a readiness to react in a positive and constructive way to social and economic transformation, but at the same time being able to preserve local cultural and social values and systems” (Yeasmin et al, 2020: 2). One of the limitations of this anthology is that the terms integration and resilience could have been challenged more. Both concepts are debated as they imply an expectation towards people to behave in certain ways, e.g. to integrate or to be resilient, without necessarily discussing structural inequalities that might hinder these people in complying to these expectations. In fact, one of the contributors to the anthology states that “There are strong critiques of this idea of resilience, tying it into the offloaded responsibility and entrepreneurialism of neo-liberalism” (Merhar, 2020: 134).

Despite these small limitations, this anthology overall tells a very interesting and valuable story about migration to the Arctic. In my opinion, this book provides an answer to a question which is not raised by the authors themselves, namely “What can we learn from the Arctic about theories of migration and integration?” One of the key findings emerging is the significance of place. This is particularly striking in the fourth chapter where Merhar writes that “the north (or maybe smaller communities in general exist as a protective factor against the alienation that the child welfare system provides through placement bouncing, as youth get to remain closer and connected to their cultural and spatial communities of childhood and adolescence” (Merhar, 2020: 135). Similarly, Kirchner discusses the dangers of cold temperatures for forced migrants from a law perspective. These statements shows that social inclusion is grounded in preconditions of places.

Another strength is that the anthology contains implications for theory building in the sociology of migration, e.g. the theory of superdiversity. Yeasmin and Uusiautti (2020) add to this theory which has been developed by the US-American sociologist Vertovec in 2007 (Vertoved, 2007). The authors reflect on the meaning of superdiversity for migration to rural areas in the Circumpolar North, finding that the concept of superdiversity theory can also be applied to places with a comparatively low in-migration rate. As mentioned above, theories on migration to rural places are underdeveloped and findings such as the one of Yeasmin and Uusiautti are thus important contributions to the field.

I will be assigning this book to my students when teaching about migration as it addresses aspects that have previously been understudied. It does so by closely observing and learning from the preconditions of places – in this case the Circumpolar North.



Adams, R. (2020) Immigrant Youth Perspective: Understanding challenges and opportunities in Finnish Lapland. In N. Yeasmin et al. (Eds.), Immigration in the Circumpolar North: Integration and Resilience (56-72). London: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429344275.

Brzozowski, J. (2020). Mixed embeddedness of immigrant entrepreneurs and community resilience. In N. Yeasmin et al. (Eds.), Immigration in the Circumpolar North: Integration and Resilience (163-175). London: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429344275.

El Hariri, K., Gunnþórsdóttir, H., Meckl, M. Syrian Students at the Arctic Circle in Iceland. In N. Yeasmin et al. (Eds.), Immigration in the Circumpolar North: Integration and Resilience (30-55). London: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429344275.

Kasinitz, P. (2012). The Sociology of International Migration: Where We Have Been; Where Do We Go from Here? Sociological Forum, 27(3), 579-590. Retrieved January 18, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23262179

Massey, Douglas S., and Sánchez R. Magaly. Brokered boundaries: Immigrant identity in anti-immigrant times. Russell Sage Foundation, 2010

Marrow, H. B. (2011). New destination dreaming: Immigration, race, and legal status in the rural American South. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Merhar, A. (2020). Embodying transience: Indigenous former youth in care and residential instability. In N. Yeasmin et al. (Eds.), Immigration in the Circumpolar North: Integration and Resilience (126-144). London: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429344275.

Vertovec, S. (2007). Super-diversity and its implications, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 30(6), 1024-1054, https://doi.org/10.1080/01419870701599465

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Arab Muslim Immigrant Women in Iceland: Immigration experiences and future expectations

In the last two decades the immigrant population has increased greatly in Iceland (Statistics Iceland, 2020a). Immigrants come mainly from Europe and Scandinavia. Recently, due to the war in Syria, Iceland has experienced an influx of refugees from the Arab world. The most visible symbol of these new arrivals is seeing women wearing headscarves (Hijab) in Iceland.

There are cultural challenges involved in moving from an Arab country to Iceland, particularly because many Arab countries limit the participation of women in decision-making in almost all public and private aspects of life (Valentine, 2004). Arab Muslim societies are mostly considered to be patriarchal cultures, in which men have power over women (ibid.). Moving from this culture to Iceland, which prides itself as a leading country for gender equality, creates challenges.

The present study explores the perceptions and experiences of Arab Muslim immigrant women in Iceland. At this time only one MA-thesis has been done on the self-image of Muslim women in Iceland (Guðmundsdóttir, 2012), which focuses on their relationship towards Islam. The intention of this research is to gain more insights into the Arab Muslim immigrant women’s post-immigration experiences, the social and cultural challenges they face in Iceland and how they deal with conflicting norms and values between home and host society.

Background, theoretical framework and literature review

In recent years Iceland has experienced a growing number of Arab immigrants.  In 2010 Iceland was home to 342 Arabs, up to 430 in 2015 and 833 in 2018 (Statistics Iceland, 2020b). The majority of Arabs in Iceland in 2018 were from Syria, with 217 individuals, and 215 from Morocco. From the total number of Arab immigrants, 279 are female and 554 are male. Compared to the Scandinavian countries, the Muslim community in Iceland is small (Seddeeq, 2017).  The participants in this study are either refugees or women who immigrated to Iceland with their families.

Immigrating to a new country is a challenge for every immigrant (Kim, 2017), but the experience of immigration to a new country varies between individuals. Each immigrant has his/her unique immigration story. In general, when people immigrate to a new country, they bring with them their social and cultural capital, which encompasses their language, skills, education, behaviour, habits, traditions and experiences (Erel, 2010). Thus, when immigrants try to adjust to a different social and cultural environment, acculturation may occur (Berry, 2005). Acculturation is defined as “the dual process of cultural and psychological change that takes place as a result of contact between two or more cultural groups and their individual members” (ibid.: 698). Moreover, the acculturation process is related to two basic issues which challenge individuals and groups (ibid.). The first issue is the extent to which one can maintain one’s heritage, culture and identity, while the second is the proportion of contact and participation in the host society and with other ethnic cultural groups (ibid.).

When ethnic immigrants like Arab Muslim women move to a new environment like Iceland, many of them face cultural clashes between their own and the new culture. One of the options for Arab Muslim women to confront these cultural challenges is to use acculturation strategies by selecting and adopting cultural values and traditions from both cultures. In Norway, which is culturally similar to Iceland, Predelli (2004) describes how immigrant Muslim women in Oslo use the flexibility and complexity of Islam to define gender roles and to support their own views and practices like getting jobs or getting help in their homes.

The effect of the new society’s values on Arab Muslim women and families varies from one individual to the next, depending upon different factors such as religiosity, the effect of their own culture and traditions, education and class. Immigrants who live in an environment with a strong emphasis on tradition can find it more difficult to change their roles and values, while those with a more open mind may find it easier to accept these changes (Erel, 2009). In addition, the adaptation process for Arab Muslim women in the new society is affected by how flexible they are and by how the host society treats them (Barkdull et al., 2011; Kim, 2001). In his study on immigrant women from Turkey living in Germany and Britain, Erel (2010) discovered that if immigrants were flexible and able to change their cultural capital, the integration process was facilitated, even if it was difficult for these women to adapt completely to the new culture.

Being a minority group surrounded by a different culture with its values, traditions and beliefs leads immigrants to reassess themselves and their identity (Duderija, 2007). The development of a new identity for a Muslim Arab is closely dependent on his/her primary religious-cultural identity. There is a tendency for immigrants belonging to minority religious groups to become more religious after leaving their countries. For many Muslim immigrants in western societies, religion is considered to be an important component of their identity because it helps them to feel in control, and gives them a sense of belonging while living in western culture (ibid.).

In western societies, Muslim women wearing Islamic outfits are easily recognised. This visibility adds another challenge to adaptation. Arab Muslim immigrant women are the group of “others” because of their appearance. Studies have shown that the migration process may lead to isolation and the feeling of loneliness (Bereza, 2010; Ísberg, 2010). It is common that immigrant women feel isolated and culturally homeless when they move to a different social and cultural environment where they have less access to social life and less support (Bereza, 2010; Ísberg, 2010).


This research focuses on the social and cultural changes and challenges faced by Arab Muslim immigrant women in Iceland. The aim is to gain a deeper understanding of the women’s post-immigration experiences and to map the experiences of Arab Muslim immigrant women who live in Iceland outside the capital area; their main social and cultural challenges, which are related to life changes, religion and cultural identity, differences between Iceland and the Arab world, adaptation, future expectations and how they experience the attitudes of the locals.

To answer these questions, a qualitative research method was used. As Creswell (2009) states, qualitative research is an adequate method used as a “means (of) exploring and understanding the meaning individuals or groups ascribe to a social or human problem” (p. 4). While doing qualitative research and during data collection, the researcher uses what he sees, hears and notices; it helps him to develop new concepts, to analyse the data, and to answer and justify the research questions (Patton, 2002).

The method applied consisted of semi-structured in-depth interviews with nine Arab Muslim immigrant women who live in Iceland outside the capital area for one to four years. The women were of three different nationalities. The age of the women ranged from 18 to 70 years old, and they had all lived in Arab countries for more than 15 years before moving to Iceland. By using semi structured interviews, the researcher is able to use a set of core questions in all interviews, but the structure is not set in stone; it is also possible to add questions or explore some topics in more detail or follow a new thread that the interviewee introduces.

The data was analysed and interpreted by using the grounding theory approach tools. The grounded theory method uses a very systematic and structured strategy to analyse the data, which helps to delve deeper into the interviews materials and elicit meanings from the data (Woods et al., 2002). The grounded theory process is based on three coding steps: open coding, axial coding and selective coding. These three steps help break the original data down and clarify and arrange the concepts (Woods et al., 2002; Lawrence & Tar, 2013).

The participants grew up in different environments; three of them lived in developed cities. while the others lived in rural areas where it was not common for girls to go to school. Three of the participants do not read or write, four had only finished elementary school, while two are studying in secondary schools in Iceland. All but one wore headscarves.

Issues of confidentiality were raised at the beginning of the interviews and the participants were briefed about the research. At the beginning of each interview, the aim of the study was explained and permission to record the interview was given. The duration of each interview varied from 40 minutes to one hour. The location and the time of the interviews were chosen by the interviewees. They were carried out in Arabic. They were transcribed in Arabic and then translated into English. All the transcriptions were reviewed and analysed to bring out categories that related to participants’ experiences and attitudes, and themes were identified and explored in the following sections.

Data analysis procedures

Grounded theory is a systematic approach that helps the researcher to analyse the data through three steps. The first step started during and after each interview by writing notes and comments. The second step was coding the data. The coding includes three steps to find the core categories: open coding, axial coding and selective coding. In the grounded theory approach, you can use more than one coding at the same time. First, the interviews were read carefully and analysed line-by-line. Many codes that reflected the main concepts were created. This is called open coding. By doing this step the codes and concepts that were the basic units of analysis were discovered from the data (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Before going deeper into the codes, the codes were given similar labels to outline the primary categories for the analysis (Crang & Cook, 1995). Fourteen categories were found and labelled according to the aim of the research; lifestyle changes, social life, following their country’s traditions that the participants brought with them, culture shock, adaptation, language barrier, cultural and social differences, religion, dress code, gender roles, reactions of the host society, expectation vs reality, children’s happiness, children’s future prospects and educational approach in Iceland.

Secondly, the concepts and the codes discovered in the first step were connected, this step is called axial coding. Axial coding helps to find the connection between the codes, the concepts and the categories since “the use of the grounded theory approach allows the connection of codes and categories in the data to be established and theoretical propositions to be developed” (Woods et al., 2002: 46). The categories were combined and reduced to six sub-categories. These sub-categories were: lifestyle changes and traditions, differences and adaptation, isolation and social life, gender roles, religious identity and children’s school.

The third step was to select the codes and concepts which were related to the research aim and this stage of coding was the final step of coding and is called selective coding. Selective coding identifies categories that build the framework (Woods et al., 2002). This third step identified five categories which were labelled: life in Iceland, adaptation and lifestyle changes, social and cultural values, cultural and religious identity and children’s schooling and future expectations.

Ethical issues related to the study

All participants were willing to take part in this study voluntarily and gave informed consent. Before each interview, the purpose of the study and the benefits that would come from it were explained (Akaranga & Makau, 2016). Issues of anonymity and confidentiality were raised at the beginning of all interviews. To increase confidentiality, all personal information like real names, nationalities and ages, the name of the cities where the women live were removed. All women were given pseudo names in the findings chapter for confidential reasons. These names are: Aya, Fatima, Hanan, Hiba, Lubna, Maryam, Marah, Qamar and Zena.


The main findings are discussed in four main themes. The first theme explores the purpose behind migration and explains the challenges faced by the women; the second theme explores adaptation and lifestyle changes, the third discusses gender roles and values and the fourth theme is concerned with the women’s religious and cultural identity. These themes are all interconnected and highlight issues that affect Arab Muslim immigrant women’s lives in Iceland.

Life in Iceland and its challenges

The women have different stories behind their immigration to Iceland. Nevertheless, most of them implied in the interviews that they came to Iceland involuntarily. Marah and Fatima immigrated to Iceland because their husbands were already living there. For the refugee women in the study, the decision to move was mostly for safety and a better future for themselves and their children, since they had all left their native countries because of war. The opportunity to come to Iceland was arranged through the UNHCR resettlement program which does not give refugees the opportunity to choose the country of resettlement and leaves refugees without much agency in the decision process (UNHCR, 2018). Aya was the only woman who came to Iceland by choice.

The women’s first impression of Iceland was a shock due to the different environment and culture, and the distorted image they had of life in the country. Maryam had built up her ideas about Icelandic culture through Western media and movies. When Maryam came to Iceland she was surprised that “people in Iceland are respectful and they (Icelanders) wear conservative clothing”. She thought that “in Europe” she “would see naked people” and “people kiss or hug each other in the street” but was “totally wrong”.

Most of the participants had very little knowledge about Iceland before they immigrated. All the women agreed that when they tried to look for information about Iceland, the cold weather was the first occurrence they read about. The first image they had was of a very cold snowy country. Hiba was laughing when she explained that she thought she was going to live in a “freezer”. Lubna shared her experience: “We looked for information about Iceland on the internet because we didn’t know anyone living there, but the biggest difference was the weather. There was too much snow when we arrived. It is colder than we had expected, and the darkness and the daylight were different to what we were used to. I found it difficult in summer to see only the light, I like the darkness more.”

Socio-cultural challenges

The findings showed that most women experienced socio-cultural challenges when they first came to Iceland, because of the differences between the two countries. Lubna explained: “Men and women here like to hug and kiss and shake hands, which is unacceptable in my culture. Also, I was shocked when I went to the swimming pool for the first time. Women there take a shower near each other and without any clothes on. They don’t even try to cover themselves.” Zena also talked about cultural differences: “I am always afraid about my daughter, I don’t want her to have any sexual relationship outside marriage, it is shameful and forbidden in our culture. I am not afraid about my boys simply because they are boys and that makes them different.”

Aya grew up in a traditional Arabic society but her family was “open-minded” and gave her a lot of freedom. She could have friends of both genders even though that was not common in her society, however, she also experienced a culture shock in Iceland, when she met transgender people for the first time. She admitted that she was avoiding contact with them as much as possible. Aya was confused about the way to interact with them because it was something she had never experienced before moving to Iceland.

Language was one of the main obstacles in the participants’ lives in Iceland, since they found Icelandic very difficult and complicated. Still, the women agreed that learning Icelandic was important for their integration because it would build bridges between them and the Icelandic society. The findings indicate that learning the language was even more challenging for illiterate women. Zena was quite “happy” learning Icelandic but being unable to read and write made it more “difficult” and it might take her a “longer time” to be able to speak it. Fatima stated that Icelandic was “very difficult” and she was “not sure” if she would learn it.

Due to the lack of language skills the participants had trouble communicating with others, particularly professionals and institutions. They found it very hard to express themselves without a translator. Being unable to communicate and express their feelings and needs led to anxiety when they first arrived in Iceland. Hiba said: “Language is the most difficult challenge for me. It is hard and new, and because I don’t speak any other language like English I always need a translator when I go to doctors or to the bank or to my children’s school.”

Even the women who had been living in Iceland for a longer time still considered language as one of the biggest challenges. Marah expressed her disappointment at not being able to communicate without a translator: „Language was and still is the biggest challenge for me. It is very difficult and because I don’t speak English I always need someone to translate for me (sigh).” Like Marah and Hiba, Lubna was frustrated about how complicated she thought Icelandic was. She added that people did not understand her because of her “different accent”. In a similar way, Qamar was aware of the difficulty of the Icelandic language but she was also aware of the importance of the language in order to build her future, continue studying or find a good job. Qamar missed communication with her classmates and other people because she did not “speak Icelandic or English”. Consequently, she felt lonely and isolated.


Loneliness and isolation

The other participants felt lonely and isolated too. The lack of language proficiency, which creates communication difficulties, isolated the women to some extent from the local community. All the participants came from a cultural background where they had strong family ties. The extended family lived in the same area and they visited each other frequently. They also had a very active social life within their neighbourhoods. All the women had in common that they missed the social life they used to have back in their countries. Hiba explained: “I have a nice home here and my life is better but I am bored and I feel lonely here, I am sitting at home almost the whole day. I used to go out and see my friends and meet my family almost every day.” Zena’s story is similar: “My life has changed since I left my country […] I am sitting at home almost the whole day. I used to go out and see my friends and meet my family.”

It is common among immigrants who come from very different ethnic groups to attempt to keep the connections to their culture of origin in order to decrease the feeling of homesickness and loneliness. Two factors were important in the participants’ immigration experience: ability and flexibility. For example, Hanan, the oldest woman in the group, did not find it hard to adapt to the Icelandic society. Hanan was flexible and open to the Icelandic culture. She was grateful, “happy and satisfied” to be in Iceland. Even though she experienced many social and cultural barriers to be accepted and welcomed in Icelandic society, it was enough for her to feel “stable and secure”. The biggest obstacle for Hanan was being far from her family but she dealt with that by communicating almost every day using social media.

Marah had a different experience. She felt that adaptation was very hard and slow because she wore a headscarf and was worried about people’s reactions. After Marah first came to Iceland she “preferred to stay at home and never go out”, because of her Islamic outfit. She was depressed and withdrawn for a long time. Marah was isolated until she made a personal decision to “integrate more into the society by learning Icelandic”. When she started to learn the language, she felt more confident and she decided to find a job to communicate more with people. Marah was very stressed in her first days at work, worrying about communication and she was afraid that people might not accept her headscarf. However, she mentioned that everyone was willing to help her and that no one bothered her because of her headscarf. She was happy at work and continued to learn the language.

Qamar’s experience was similar, she found it hard to adapt because of her headscarf. She noted that learning the language was the key to adapting to the Icelandic society. Qamar was one of the refugee women who started to learn the language soon after she arrived. She participated in an organised program for refugees which included learning the language and some aspects of Icelandic culture. Getting to know the Icelandic society helped the women and was an important part of their adaptation process.

Arab Muslim immigrant women in this research described very different cultural and religious backgrounds which affected their adaptation processes. The women who came from very conservative families found it harder to adapt than the women who came from more liberal families. Aya had no problem shaking hands with men or even friendly hugs. Hiba’s experience was very different, she felt “guilty” when she had to shake hands with men, but she was too shy to tell them that in her society people do not shake hands with the opposite sex. In her country, the opposite sexes greet each other by leaving a space between them and putting their right hand over their heart. Likewise, Lubna claimed that she was unhappy that men and women sat together when they visited each other because, in her country, men and women would be seated in different rooms.

The interviews reflected that all the participants experienced positive and negative transfers in their lives after they immigrated to Iceland. Some of the changes in the participants’ lives helped their adaptation processes. For example, for Maryam, Lubna and Marah, working was a big transformation in their lives; they used it to meet people and learn about the Icelandic culture and also to learn the language, which they considered as the key to understanding the social structures.

The findings indicate that the most obvious changes in the women’s lives occurred in their lifestyle and personality. One of the women thought that she had a “more organised life”. In her opinion, she had started to think like Icelanders who “have time organised for everything; for work, food, family, study, and holidays. They work during the winter and travel in the summer”. Another woman said that she is more “responsible” than she used to be in her country. She has learned how to “respect and deal with people”.

The women feel that living in Iceland gave them more control over their own lives. Seven of the women said they used to spend most of their time in their home country caring about the family and its needs. After moving to Iceland, they were able to do more for themselves and “not only for the family”, like learning the language and having a job. This was a big change for them and they said they were more satisfied and confident and trying to be independent, even though the majority of them agreed that their roles within the home would not change.

Maryam, who had already found a job, expressed her feelings by saying: “I have a job and I feel that I am doing something for myself not only for my family, I am also learning Icelandic. I feel more confident and appreciated.” Similarly, Lubna’s lifestyle has changed. She “used to stay at home most of the time” caring for the children and doing housework. Going out alone was not possible for her and “her husband always had to be with her if she wanted to go out”. After she moved to Iceland, she was very happy that her life is “totally different”. Lubna said that in Iceland she is a “stronger woman”. She is “looking for a job, goes shopping alone sometimes, takes her children alone for a walk”. She also added that “the women who work or study are more appreciated and responsible”. Lubna’s husband supports and “encourages” her “to study and work which was impossible” in her country because of the traditions which made women feel “guilty” if they decided to get a job.

The support of the husbands played an important role in the acceptance and adaptation to the Icelandic lifestyle. Marah’s husband “helped and supported” her “a lot” to adapt to her different Islamic dress. He also helped her to understand the different lifestyle and gender role values in Iceland. Marah explained how her life is different in Iceland by saying: “My lifestyle has changed a lot. There were many things I couldn’t do in my country but here I can, like driving and learning another language. Now I am studying. It is just different here.”

Gender roles and values

The women all experienced differences in gender roles from their home countries. According to the women in this study, traditionally women have fewer rights in their countries, for example in education, work and choice of a husband. The women explained that girls have limited freedom in their countries and parents restrict girls’ social life because girls are special and have different roles. Five of the women did not go to school or stopped studying because of traditions which consider girls as a source of honour that has to be protected by their families. As Hiba described: “I studied only to 6th grade because it is thought that it is better for girls to stay at home and marry early. Only boys can continue studying and go to university.”

The women pointed out that in Arab societies men and women have different responsibilities. The women’s priority is inside the homes, doing housework and raising children while men are obliged to take care of the household expenses. As Hanan explained: “it is shameful for men to help with any housework […] In Iceland men clean and cook and wash the dishes. In addition, women are often financially independent.” Similarly, Zena explained the responsibilities of men and women in her country: “Men’s responsibilities are to go and have a job and make money while women’s responsibilities are inside her home, doing housework and caring for the children. Even if a woman has a job, it doesn’t give her the right to ask for help in cleaning or cooking but if a man helps her that means that he is a very good man.”

The findings indicate that women who are married to Arab men who have lived for a long time in Europe have different experiences from the women who are married to men who have always lived in Arab countries. Marah said she was happy that all the responsibilities inside her home are shared between her and her husband because “he has been living in Europe for a long time, he knows about women’s rights”. He supported her integration by helping her with her Icelandic language homework.

On the other hand, Fatima’s husband, who has also lived in Europe for a long time, was different. When she first came to Iceland her husband was very helpful but after a while he “began behaving like a typical Arab man, giving orders, controlling” her life and limiting her freedom. She said: “My husband didn’t want me to go out or learn the language”.

The different gender roles in Iceland have positively influenced these women. Most of the women participating in this study have tried to adopt new roles at the same time as accepting their traditional responsibilities.  Fatima explains: “The way of thinking is different. Men here (in Iceland) respect women and help them while in Arab countries they try to control them as much as they can.” This adoption could be comprehended in the common desire of most of these women to learn the language and to get jobs outside the home. Hence, most of the women believed that their responsibilities at home would not change even if they got a job and shared the household expenses. Lubna said: “Even if I had a job he (her husband) would not help me with cleaning or cooking. Arab men are not used to doing it and they would not.” The home is still a very private place, as exemplified by Luban: “if my husband does anything bad to me I will not complain or go to the police, and I will not ask for a divorce because this will affect my children and my family and my life, I am happy like this and I can deal with my problems inside my home.”

Cultural and religious identity

Religion plays an instrumental role in the lives of all the interviewees. Their religious identity is reflected in their commitment to religion: praying, fasting, reading and following the Holy Quran and the Islamic dress or hijab. Religion is also the foundation of their cultural identity and a way to maintain their traditions and lifestyle. This was clearly demonstrated in their responses when asked what specific cultural traditions they brought with them to Iceland. Lubna said: “My commitment to my religion, praying, fasting and reading the holy Quran.” Hiba agreed: “The most important things which are always with me and I bring here are my commitment to my religion, my prayers, reading the holy Quran, not shaking hands with men, and my Islamic outfit.”

As Muslim women, religious practices before immigration mostly occurred inside the home. However, the lack of an Islamic religious atmosphere outside the home made them feel that they do not belong. The absence of a religious atmosphere was a big concern for the women who were afraid of losing their identity. Zena found it strange not to hear the voice of the Adhan (the call to pray which is heard loudly five times a day in all Muslim countries), and she was very emotional when she said: “They don’t have a mosque […] I miss our religious atmosphere.”

In addition, being recognised as a Muslim woman was important to the participants after immigrating to Iceland. The Islamic outfit or headscarf which makes Muslim women visible is a very important part of the interviewees’ religious and cultural identity. Hiba describes: “My Islamic outfit is my identity and I am happy to wear it.”; Lubna said: “I am proud of my headscarf. It is only for me and I don’t like to be criticized because of it, but luckily here in Iceland people accept me as I am.”

The women in the study explained that Icelanders are very curious to know more about the Islamic outfit. Most other immigrants in Iceland are from Eastern Europe and they are not identifiable, whereas the Arab Muslim women wearing headscarves stand out. When asked about her feelings when they wear the Islamic outfit, Zena said: “When I am wearing my Islamic outfit I feel people are very curious about it, they want to understand why we wear it.” Some worried if they would be accepted, as Maryam explained: “I was afraid about how people in Iceland would treat me with my Islamic outfit. They are curious to know more about it, so they ask many questions and sometimes I feel they don’t believe that we have hair (laugh).”

Nevertheless, all of the women agreed that this curiosity about the headscarf makes them feel uneasy. All the participants faced either questions about their headscarves or uncomfortable looks, although these questions about the Hijab did not bother some of my interviewees. Hanan described: “My Hijab is part of me and people here respect it. Sometimes they ask me why I wear it or they want to see my hair. These kinds of questions don’t bother me and my answer is that this is my religion and God asks me to do it.”

On the other hand, the younger women were more sensitive to these kinds of questions or looks. They explained how young people have strange ideas about the Hijab. They said most Icelanders do respect and appreciate them as Muslim women, although a few of them do not, especially young people. For example, Qamar was not sure if people respected her Islamic outfit. She was very upset when she explained that one girl thought that she wore a headscarf because she did not have hair: “I am not sure if people respect my Islamic outfit. They tried to tell me that I would be more beautiful without it. Sometimes they ask strange questions like once a girl asked me if I have hair… can you imagine!!”

The one woman who chose not to wear the headscarf was challenged by her own community. Aya was a bit excluded and she explained that her relaxed dress code was taken as a sign of excessive freedom in other matters, especially by Arab men. She blamed the Arab traditions which make her be judged according to her appearance by saying:

I don’t wear a special costume like a headscarf or long tunic and that causes me to have troubles, not with Icelanders but with other Arab people who live here especially men. I feel that I don’t belong to the Arab community in any way. They judge me by my looks and my clothes and forget other things. This is the Arabic way of thinking, unfortunately.

When asked if they consider their Islamic dress as a barrier to accessing the facilities in Iceland, most women said it does not. They felt glad that they were respected as they are. In addition, they are all planning to have jobs and some already do. Fatima explained: “My religion is very important no matter where I am. I wear the headscarf and inside my home, I sometimes wear the traditional dress. I don’t consider my headscarf or dress as barriers to accessing the facilities in Iceland. People respect me as I am and do not judge my dress at all.”

Others described their experience as similar, except for one younger woman who thought her Islamic outfit was a barrier. Qamar felt that there would be people anywhere who did not understand her Islamic outfit and would need time to accept it. She said: “I consider my Islamic outfit as a barrier to accessing services, and not just in Iceland because people need time to accept and understand me, it might take time until they become used to my Islamic outfit.”

The findings revealed that all women have a common hope to preserve their culture and traditions for their children. The interviewees thought it is important to preserve their religious and cultural identities and this was obvious when they insisted on teaching their religion, culture and traditions to their children. Arab Muslim immigrant women’s traditions, norms and values are influenced by Islam, which is considered as a way of life for most of these women. The women preserved a strong sense of their own religious and cultural identity, but their identity was also changing by having jobs and learning the language which helps them to integrate more into the Icelandic society.

One of the important factors which help the participants maintain their religious and cultural identities was the supportive local community, especially for the refugee women. Before moving to Iceland some of the women felt stressed because they had so little information about the people in Iceland. These women were worried about the way they would be treated in Iceland because of their different cultures and special outfit. After they moved to Iceland, some of the women were surprised about how welcome they were, which made their adaptation process easier. Hiba explained: “Yes, I feel welcome, all Icelanders I have met have shown me respect and they are happy to have us here. They have helped us a lot since we arrived. In the same way, I also respect them and always try to show my best behaviour.” Other women described their experiences as being similar.


The findings indicate that the immigration of Arab Muslim women to Iceland created a cultural conflict, which led to social and cultural challenges. Even though the different environment and the weather was the first shock for all the women in this study, the cultural shock has had more effect on the women’s lives and adaptation process in the long run. The findings showed that the women adopted two acculturation strategies: separation and integration. When it comes to Islam, the women chose to maintain their religion and said that Islam is the foundation of their lives. It plays a prominent role in their lives and it influences every aspect of their daily activities. The women adapted to the new society while keeping their commitment to their religion and celebrating their religious festivals. For some of them, religion is considered as a culture and tradition which they grew up with and which they feel a need to maintain and keep their commitment to and teach to the next generation. The women coped with their membership of a minority religious group by putting an extra effort into ensuring that their children kept their home country’s religion, traditions and beliefs. The women were dissatisfied with the unequal gender roles in their countries, while at the same time they maintained this gender regime, for example by being more relaxed about raising boys than girls.

The feeling of being unwelcomed and discriminated against based on their race make immigrant women feel isolated and disappointed (Kim, 2017). However, the women in the study all felt welcomed and appreciated in the Icelandic society. The supportive welcoming society made the women’s immigration experience more positive. Social networks in the new society play an important role in supporting immigrants and may reduce the loneliness and the trauma of family separation. These social support networks assist immigrants during their adaptation process to the new life in the new country (Kim, 2017). Still, the women in the study expressed a feeling of loneliness and some felt isolated.

Kim (2017) found that immigrants tend to have a special social connection with their ethnic group and in line with that all the women in this research have good connections with Arab society. Ethnic groups tend to keep their original identity as part of their ethnic community. In the host country, they meet to share, among others, language, music, food which they had in their culture and which may help to decrease the acculturation stress and the loneliness of the family separation (Kim, 2017). The relationships with the other women from the same ethnic group helped the participants mentally and emotionally when they needed help. Although strong relationships between the same ethnic group members help ethnic immigrants in their early adaptation, this may limit their integration and active involvement in the host society which can lead to more isolation after a while (Kim, 2001).

The women integrated into the Icelandic society by adjusting to some of its values and behaviours. Most of the women showed that they respected and accepted the new culture with a positive attitude and showed an interest in adapting to new values in Icelandic society like gender role values. This is in line with Perdelli’s (2004) findings from Norway where Arab Muslim immigrants use the flexibility of Islam to be employed outside the home and to get help from their male relatives. The participants in this study were empowered by the Icelandic gender roles values and most of the women had tried to find a job (some already had one) or were learning the language to become more integrated into the Icelandic society. Hence, they had faced many challenges and obstacles related to the different cultural values between the two societies.

Language is considered to be the key to the adaptation of immigrants. Learning the language is an effective way for immigrants to get to know the new culture with its beliefs, norms and values and to manage the daily activity in an effective way and deal with obstacles in the new society (Kim, 2001). By having a job or being able to speak Icelandic, the participants felt more appreciated and confident. Increasing the ability to interact with the locals using the host society language is one of the highest achievements for immigrants (Kim, 2001). All the women, except the oldest one, were aware of the importance of learning the language. Most of them were enrolled in Icelandic courses and some had private teachers to help them at home. Learning the language is important for immigrants, not only to build a bridge with the host society, but it is a sign of integration in the host society (Kim, 2001).

The participants introduced themselves as Arab Muslims. They shared a heightened sense of their cultural background. However, because of their immigration experience, the women faced a change in the construction of their identity. These women immigrated from countries where they belonged to a majority (religion and culture), while in Iceland they belong to a minority group. This relocation between the different societies produces new hybrid identities, often with religion as their foundation. Religion plays a significant role in the construction of the new identity for many immigrants especially when they are a minority religious group (Duderija, 2007).

The women’s new hybrid identity is a mix of their ethnic identity and the new values and behaviours that they are adopting in the new culture. The participants selected the Icelandic cultural values which suited their way of thinking as Arab Muslim women. However, the women were caught between the two cultures in some ways. None of the women felt fully integrated into Icelandic society, they chose to balance the two cultures and adapted themselves to the new environment while preserving their own cultural identity and background (Kim, 2010). They had different degrees of acceptance of the new Icelandic cultural values depending on their personal flexibility and the extent they wanted to keep or change their own cultural values. Some women had difficulty incorporating their own Arabic cultural values into Icelandic western cultural values. For example, shaking hands with the opposite gender was a problem for at least three women in this study, whereas others did not mention it at all.

The process of developing the new mixed identity is challenging for immigrants because of the importance of maintaining their religious identity (Berry, 2005; Bereza, 2010; Kim, 2010). The participants insisted on being identified as Muslim women outside the home by wearing their Islamic outfit. The women’s Islamic headscarf confirmed their Muslim identity and is a highly salient aspect of their religious identity (Guðmundsdóttir, 2012; Ólafsdóttir, 2017). Arab Muslim women who wear headscarves agreed that their Islamic headscarf was one of the biggest challenges they faced in Iceland outside the capital area. None of the women mentioned any kind of racism regarding their appearance. However, the women were challenged by the curiosity of people who wanted to know more about it. Identity construction is related to how the host society perceive immigrants and not only the way they introduce themselves (Eriksen, 2002; Ólafsdóttir, 2017). The women hoped that the Icelandic society would not judge them according to their appearance but would appreciate them for their personal qualities and behaviours.


The findings revealed that Arab Muslim immigrant women are generally doing well in Iceland. However, they need more time to integrate fully into Icelandic society. The study found that there are varieties of cultural and social barriers which make Arab Muslim immigrant women’s integration process slow. The different environment, cultural and social differences, the variety of cultural values like gender roles and childrearing values, language, dress code and children’s schooling and future are the main challenging factors faced by the women and cause some struggling to adjust to the Icelandic society.

The participants perceive themselves according to their ethnic identity. On one hand, the women admitted to some adaption to new western values and ways of thinking. They found themselves caught between the two different cultures struggling with different values and norms, which led to mixed identity to help them define accurately who they are and where they fit in. The women were not able to separate their religion from their ethnicity since religion plays a significant role in their lives. Life in the new country was organised around following and respecting Islamic teaching. This influenced the type of clothes worn, their ability to have communication with the opposite gender, to find a job and to control their family life inside and outside their home. On the other hand, the women were able to control and choose the values and behaviours which were not dictated by their Islamic roots and beliefs. In addition, the findings showed that the longer Arab Muslim immigrant women had lived in Iceland, the more they had become open to Icelandic values.

One of the important factors affecting and making the women’s immigration experience more positive is a supportive society. The locals’ positive attitudes towards the women, especially the refugee women, encourage them to integrate more into Icelandic society and to learn the language or find a job. Nevertheless, the lack of language skills limited the women’s social activities and interaction with the locals which caused a feeling of non-belonging. The findings suggest that learning the Icelandic language would lead Arab immigrant Muslim women to a better life and ease adaptation into the new society.



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Pragmatic Universalism – A Basis of Coexistence of Multiple Diversities

“You who live safe

In your warm houses,

You who find, returning in the evening,

Hot food and friendly faces:

Consider if this is a man”

P.Levi, If this is a man (1947)


Despite numerous initiatives to encourage combating discrimination against race/ethnicity and cultural diversity the problem of peaceful coexistence and positive integration surfaces again when new examples of discrimination, mortification of those of different faiths or different ethnic origins arise in Europe.

Continue reading Pragmatic Universalism – A Basis of Coexistence of Multiple Diversities

Ernesto Kiza, Tödliche Grenzen – Die fatalen Auswirkungen europäischer Zuwanderungspolitik (Münster: Lit Verlag, 2008)

The author structured his work in four parts in order to offer a systematic analysis of the victimization of illegal immigrants. The first part gives an introduction to the theme of international migration, by providing an historical and empirical overview. The second part is dedicated to the theoretical explanation of the empirical facts presented in the first part. The third part examines the reason for international migration and the reaction to it in European countries. In the last part of his 410-page tome, Kiza discusses the impact of the European Union’s immigration policy, by emphasizing its effects on the migrants and, in particular, their victimization.

It is a pity that the author is hiding behind the abstruse jargon of much contemporary political science in order to do something very important: to understand the actions of the different actors in the European immigration policy and the very impact that this policy has on the refugees trying to enter Europe.  There is no necessity describing the fact that the nation-state is the actor in the international system with a phrase like: “Zum einen handelt es sich dabei um die Verfasstheit des internationalen Systems, die auf der Westfälischen Ordnung basiert und als zentrale Prämisse die Existenz souveräner Nationalstaaten postuliert. Somit ist der souveräne Nationalstaat der zentrale Akteur im internationalen System und nimmt daher eine zentrale Rolle bei der Beeinflussung und Formung internationaler Migrationsströme ein.” (p. 17) What has the Westfälische Ordnung to do with migration, except sounding very academic?

Neil Postmann pointed out that that “elite trades — physicians, lawyers, teachers, and scientists — protect their special status by creating vocabularies that are incomprehensible to the general public. This process prevents outsiders from understanding what the profession is doing and why.” Postmann himself did not really oppose this; he saw it as a necessity. In this case, unfortunately, does the “technical gobbledegook” (Postmann) prevent the very people who should be interested in reading about it from getting the message.

It is not understandable why the author is hiding behind a technical language that makes the text inaccessible.  It may be a sign of knowledge at the University of Kassel, where the author handed in his work, to be able to describe migration as an “ubiquitäres biologisches Phänomen” (p. 324), but for me as a reader it sounds just ridiculous. I still see the task of political science as to describe complex political phenomena in an understandable way, so as to provide politics with information and notions whereby to develop policy. It is a pity that the author did not make an effort to turn his PhD thesis into a readable text for its publication as a book. The topic and all the hard work invested into the research would have deserved it.