Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Missing “Missing” Women of the Faroe Islands

Faroese Population: 48,228

Of Which Male: 24,937

Of Which Female: 23,291

Difference: 1,646

A quick look at current Fareose demographics reveals an oddity — the country is short on women. Though the gender imbalance has fallen from a 2012 high (when there were over 2,000 more men than women in the country), there’s still a striking and problematic discrepancy, especially when you consider that the missing women are mostly in their twenties and thirties, prime ages for dating and having children.

Media coverage and common sense would have you believe that the Faroe Islands is facing an enormous problem in the near future, as fewer women means fewer babies. Population growth could stagnate or reverse if no incentives are made for the women to come home, or if new women aren’t found elsewhere, such as from Thailand or the Philippines. In other places, gender imbalances are also known for leading to all sorts of sociological ills, such as increased violence against women.

A young Thai-Faroese woman attends the Joansøka festival in Vágur, Suðuroy, with her boyfriend and another friend.

A young Thai-Faroese woman attends the Joansøka festival in Vágur, Suðuroy, with her boyfriend and another friend.

But since coming to the Faroes a month ago, I’ve seen none of that. Okay, so I’ve seen a few ethnically Asian women here and there. Mostly beautiful, with very cute children. And maybe they’re the reason that I can buy coconut milk and curry paste in even the smallest Faroese grocery store. If that’s the case, I’m grateful to them. I have a hard time living on meat and potatoes alone, even smothered in tasty Faroese gravy.

Otherwise, though, the country seems to be missing its ‘missing’ women. Everyone knows where they women have gone — Denmark, mostly — but where are the holes they’ve left behind?

I’m just not seeing many schools shuttering for lack of children, restless single men, women left behind by all their friends and desperate to get away. Yes, everyone knows someone who has “gone down” to Denmark to study or work, and most families have at least one member away across the water, but it’s young men they’re missing, too. And most are hoping to come home to the Faroes in due time.

Graduates of the Studentaskúlin (junior college) in Eysturoy gather on the beach in Gøtu as part of their graduation ceremony. This year's graduating class was more than two-thirds female.

Graduates of the Studentaskúlin (junior college) in Eysturoy gather on the beach in Gøtu as part of their graduation ceremony. This year’s graduating class was more than two-thirds female.

Most people I’ve asked about the lack of women know that the issue exists, but in an almost abstract sense. They all know women who have gone abroad, and they understand why — to get certain types of educations, pursue certain careers, to marry foreign men with whom they’ve fallen in love —  but they’re not seeing dramatic effects, and they don’t seem too worried about the future. They don’t believe they’re in a society on the verge of collapse, instead they are optimistic that, despite some problems, things are moving in the right direction.

Take this all “with a grain of salt,” because I still need to do some actual background reporting on this issue, gather statistics and hard facts and talk to the experts. So far, I just have my own observations and those of the many women who have so far made time to talk to me.

“No, no, I don’t see it,” says Bára Joensen, a mother of three who lives in Norðragøta. “The only thing is that some are getting foreign women. But I haven’t really noticed that there are more men.”

Jóna Venned walks with a friend outside of the SMS shopping center in Tórshavn. Jóna has been abroad to work in Switzerland and travel and visit friends in several other countries. She will leave next year to study in Denmark, but plans to move back home to the Faroe Islands afterward.

Jóna Venned walks with a friend outside of the SMS shopping center in Tórshavn. Jóna has been abroad to work in Switzerland and travel and visit friends in several other countries. She will leave next year to study in Denmark, but plans to move back home to the Faroe Islands afterward.

“I think the circumstances have changed and it is a lot easier to be a woman in the Faroe Islands compared to what it has been. It is kind of conservative, it has always been conservative,” says Jóna Venned, a 24-year-old from Tórshavn. She says the society is continuing to move towards greater equality in homes and workplaces, and that there is also an effort underway to make it easier for single parents to live in the Faroes.

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Tórshavn on a Sunny Day

The weather was gorgeous on a recent trip to Tórshavn, and between the blue skies and the huge cruise ship docked in the harbor, the city was full of lively activity… and one man taking a nap in the sunshine!

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The Halfway Point / By the Numbers

Time for just a quick update:

I’m about halfway through my Faroese summer, and nowhere near ready to leave. Right now, I’m wandering around in a bit of a midsummer haze. My days and nights are flipped almost completely upside down. I can’t remember the last time I went to bed before 4 am or got up before noon… I think it’s been a week. Mostly to break the cycle, I’ve planned a trip to Tórshavn and Nólsoy tomorrow, so I have to get up in time to take the 8 am bus.

I think it’s time to say I’ve learned what I’ve needed to learn and met the people I’ve needed to meet in order to really do the bulk of my work here. Of course I could still keep learning and practicing and preparing forever, but the halfway point is a good time to wake up and realize that I need to really get started on serious formal interviews, writing, and such.

In three weeks, things are going to start getting really crazy here. My last few weeks in the Faroe Islands are going to see the G! Festival in my home village, the Ólavsøka national day and festival in Tórshavn, and my best friend here taking off work for a few weeks so that we can travel around and see as much of the country as possible. So I’m going to try to get some of the work done now, before the summer really lights on fire…

Foggy Sunrise

Here’s what my halfway point looks like, by the numbers:

Days spent in the Faroes: 34
Days left in the Faroes: 39

Photos taken: 8,814

Faroese words I know: 2,000+ (ability to speak badly, unlocked!)
Manual gears acquainted with: 5 (ability to drive badly, unlocked!)

Faroe Islands Visited: 9
Vágar, Streymoy, Eysturoy, Borðoy, Viðoy, Kunoy, Kalsoy, Suðuroy, Koltur

Faroe Islands Unvisited: 9
Nólsoy, Hestur, Sandoy, Svínoy, Fugloy, Mykines (plan to visit)
Skúvoy, Stóra og Lítla Dímun (maybe not this time)

Blog posts published: 12
Blog drafts sitting in the edit queue: 8 (!)

Formal interviews conducted and recorded: 4
Formal interviews planned for the coming week: 4

Cups of tea consumed: 69+
Containers of garlic cheese consumed: 7
Bags of “chokoflager” cookies consumed: 4

Potatoes peeled in the correct Faroese style: < 2
Potatoes peeled in Miranda’s roughshod redneck style:  > 15
Potatoes eaten unpeeled: > 15

Hours spent watching Dagur og Vika, reading Portal.fo and listening to Útvarp Føroya: 20+
Words in the “Comprehensive Faroese Vocabulary” Memrise course I’m helping create: 1,107

Faroese (and fellow Faroe-phile) Facebook friends: 58
Times mistaken for a Sea Shepherd Spy: 3+

New Definition of “Good Weather”: 10°C/50°F (and not rainy or foggy)
New Definition of “Hot Summer Weather”: 15.5°C/60°F (and maybe some sun)
New Definition of “Grass Green”: #00FF00
New Definition of “Large”: 500-inhabitant villages
New Definition of “Busy”: 8 cars in a parking lot

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“We are not anti-Faroese” — GrindStop Logo Changed

Sea Shepherd has officially changed its Operation GrindStop 2014 logo.

Original Grindstop Logo

Original Grindstop Logo

The former logo, which bore the image of the Faroese flag, or Merkið, was criticized by Faroese for desecrating the image of their flag. Using Merkið in this manner is also illegal under Faroese law.

The new GrindStop logo

New GrindStop logo

The new logo represents a significant change. It now features bloody seas under the islet of Tindhólmur. References to the Faroese flag have been removed.

In an update to their Facebook page, Sea Shepherd writes, “The new campaign logo shows that we are not anti-Faroese, but we are opposed to and will remain present in the Faroe Islands to prevent the brutal slaughter of cetaceans.”

At a press conference in the Faroe Islands, they said that they made the decision to redesign the logo based on conversations with their supporters in the Faroe Islands. No mention was made of any legal concerns.

An article on the Faroese website aktuelt.fo quoted Sea Shepherd leader Scott West as saying, “We have listened to the Faroese people — we understand, that the flag is sacred for the Faroese, so we made a mistake using it in this year’s campaign logo.” (Vit hava lurtað eftir, hvat føroyingar siga – vit skilja, at flaggið er heilagt fyri føroyingar, tí var tað eitt mistak av okkum at brúka Merkið í búmerkinum fyri kampanjuna í ár.)

The Sea Shepherd Grindstop 2014 Invasion

Faroese social media is exploding with commentary about Sea Shepherd's Grindstop 2014 anti-whaling campaign.

Faroese social media is exploding with commentary about Sea Shepherd’s Grindstop 2014 anti-whaling campaign.

The Faroe Islands is being invaded this summer by The Sea Shepherd Conversation Society, which is coming with more than 500 volunteers in an attempt to stop the Grindadráp, or Faroese whale hunt, by “monitoring the 23 grind bays, deterring the dolphins from shore, and taking direct action to intervene against a grind if necessary.” Operation Grindstop 2014 will be the largest land- and sea-based campaign in the organization’s history.

The Grindadráp and Sea Shepherd are both controversial in their own way.

The Grindadráp / Faroese Killing of Pilot Whales

Photo: FaroeIslandsPhoto.com / Kasper Solberg

Photo: FaroeIslandsPhoto.com / Kasper Solberg

The Faroese have hunted pilot whales for hundreds of years, and their meat and blubber formed an invaluable part of their diet in the past, when food was scarce in this remote part of the world. Even today, whale meat and blubber is the Faroese national dish, and the hunt is considered one of the cornerstones of Faroese culture. The main threat to the consumption of pilot whale, as the Faroese see it, are the health effects of the high mercury content in whale meat today.

The pilot whale is not listed as an endangered species (as some anti-whaling activists claim) and the hunt is not considered to be a threat by organizations such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the American Cetacean Society, and the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission to pose a threat to the species. The IUCN’s Red List listing of the pilot whale says that “the Faroese catch is probably sustainable.”

While some argue that the tradition is outdated and unnecessarily cruel, especially since it involves the killing of such intelligent or otherwise special animals, many Faroese argue that killing whales for food in the grindadráp is as humane, if not more so, than the slaughter of factory-raised animals, which merely has the public relations advantage of taking place behind closed doors so the blood doesn’t disturb the grocery-shopping, meat-eating public.

For more on the grindadráp controversy, please feel free to read Faroe Islander Elin Brimheim Heinesen’s blog post, Why Most Arguments Against Grindadráp Fail, the official Faroese whaling website, this PBS documentary or information directly from highly regarded conservationist groups.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

Image: seashepherd.org

Image: seashepherd.org

Sea Shepherd is an environmental activist group whose founder, Paul Watson, split off from Greenpeace due to his confrontational tactics. Many people around the world see Sea Shepherd’s members and volunteers as heroes protecting the whales, and they have a large media presence including, in the past, a reality TV show called Whale Wars. Others, however, decry the organization’s disregard for facts and their vigilante actions (they have been called eco-terrorists and faced charges for assault and sabotage, among others).

For more on the Sea Shepherd controversy, you can find many news articles about Paul Watson and the organization, such as this one from The Telegraph.

Grindstop 2014: The Beginning

The Sea Shepherd Grindstop volunteers started arriving in the Faroes last week, provoking a wide range of reactions from Faroe Islanders. Many wish the protestors would not be allowed into the country. Others say that it is important to treat them with respect as visitors, and that, on the bright side, they will be forced to spend money in the islands. There is also a small group of Faroe Islanders who are themselves against the grindadráp, despite the inherent difficulty of going against the established culture in a small community. A Facebook group called “Faroe Islanders against the Grind” counts 104 members.

Faroe Islanders Against the Grind

Faroe Islanders Against the Grind

In comparison, another Facebook group was created about three hours ago to call for banning Sea Shepherd from the Faroe Islands. The group currently has 712 members.

Ban Sea Shepherd

Ban Sea Shepherd

Whatever the attitude, the presence of such a large group is bound to have an impact on the islands this summer. With fewer than 50,000 people living in the Faroe Islands, 500 protestors can be considered the equivalent of 3 million foreign Muslims, Jews and vegetarians invading the United States to demand that Americans stop slaughtering pigs and consuming pork products.

#GrindStop2014, #HotdogStop2015, anyone?

In the first week, not much of note has happened on either side. The Faroese are waging their own anti-SS social media campaign, sharing such critical news stories as photographic evidence of Sea Shepherd volunteers stealing food from a ferry buffet or mocking Sea Shepherd operatives for calling the police when a group of rowdy Faroese came towards one of their boats calling them names one night in the capital.

One satirical Faroese website even went to far as to announce a fake grindadráp, which it said would be held at Vatnsoyrar — the only village that is not on the coastline, but rather on the shores of the largest Faroese lake! The explanation was that in order to avoid Sea Shepherd, they would shoot the whales through a waterfall. I don’t know whether any Sea Shepherd people showed up in Vatnsoyrar, but I did find the link posted to their Grindstop Facebook page by concerned readers.

Fake Grindadráp in Vatnsoyrar

Fake Grindadráp in Vatnsoyrar

Faroese people have also taken to defending themselves and asking questions back at the activists through social media. Oddur Á Lakjuni wrote, “I’m wondering here: The Faroese kill more sheep than they do whales… But there’s not a word of criticism from anywhere. Both are killed for food – although neither is absolutely necessary for survival (and to be honest: which item of food is, when you take it in isolation?)”

The volunteers have been scouting out beaches and appear to be rather bored, if social media updates consisting almost exclusively of volunteers looking out onto the empty sea and videos such as this one are anything to go by:

Mimmy Vágsheyg, a Faroese woman who opened a new cafe in Klaksvík this year, says that anti-whaling advocates have been harassing her online for months, sending her messages filled with graphic images and leaving phony bad reviews on her business listings. Vágsheyg does not serve whale meat at her cafe, but thinks that the group must be indiscriminately targeting Faroese businesses. “I’m just getting started here, I don’t need this!” she said.

Since Sea Shepherd started arriving en masse last week, Vágsheyg says they have come into her cafe to repeatedly check her menus for incriminating items. “I don’t understand why they come every day. Do they think I am hiding the whale?”

Imagining the Faroes, Part I

Now that I have been in the Faroe Islands for a few weeks, I have gotten started with my research interviews. I plan to talk to several Faroe Islanders of varying ages, genders, and places of residence about how the Faroe Islands are represented to foreigners through various media channels, and how they feel about those representations.

So far, I have conducted three formal interviews and more than a dozen informal conversations on this topic. One trend that has started to suggest itself is that the older interviewees have been more positive about representations of the Faroe Islands than the younger interviewees, even suggesting that the tourism imagery shows the islands in an unrealistically good light, while the younger interviewees seemed more bitter about anti-whaling sentiment and outdated representations.

A two-page spread from Visit Faroe Islands' new tourism booklets. This is one of the images I ask respondents to consider during the last part of the interview.

A two-page spread from Visit Faroe Islands’ new tourism booklets. This is one of the images I ask respondents to consider in the final part of the interview.

One amusing wrinkle in the interviews has been that many respondents have recognized people they know in the example media I’m presenting to them. In my very first interview, I showed part of a video, and my interviewee asked me if I would like him to introduce me to the people speaking in the video. In another interview, when I showed the above photo of the Faroese ring dance, the interviewee told me that she recognized “almost everyone” in the photograph, as they were all from Klaksvík!

When I was planning the interviews, the possible frames I felt that I had seen in representations of the Faroe Islands were exotification (through emphasis on the traditional ways of life or the remote, wild natural conditions), trivialization (due to the nation’s small size), and conflict (presenting the Faroe Islands as backwards, especially in regards to the controversial grindadráp).

So far, no one has mentioned the trivialization frame, except to say that many people are not aware of the Faroe Islands at all. One man told me an anecdote in which he was travelling and tried to explain where he was from to some people who had never heard of the Faroes. He said that it was in between Scotland and Iceland, and they insisted that no such country existed. He looked around for a map of Europe, and when he found one, the map itself was missing the Faroe Islands! He had to find a second map to prove that he was, indeed, from a real place.

Here are the main points I’ve heard so far about depictions of the Faroe Islands:

A screenshot and description of the Danish tv documentary, "Kvindeflugt fra Færoerne," which is about the gender disparity in the Faroe Islands.

A screenshot and description of the Danish tv documentary, “Kvindeflugt fra Færoerne,” which is about the gender disparity in the Faroe Islands. This is one of the images I ask respondents to consider in the final part of the interview.

– They focus more on old traditions, such as the ring dance, and less on growing, current trends like modern music and cuisine.
– They are antiquated, and haven’t caught up with the changes of the last 10-30 years.
– They imply that everyone in the Faroes is a sheep farmer or a fisherman.
– They play down or ignore the existence of modern institutions like hospitals, shops, and the University.

– Information about the Grindadráp is filled with inaccurate claims, such as that the pilot whales are endangered or killed for fun.

– They have beautiful photos and descriptions of the unique Faroese nature.
– However, they could be painting an unrealistic picture of good weather and endlessly clear skies, conditions which are rare in the Faroes though they do occur.
– They ignore the winter almost completely in favor of coverage of the brief tourism season (June-August).

– They are concerned that tourists might not understand that the Faroese weather is uncertain and changeable, and that everything in the Faroes is expensive.

A sheep walking on the road leading to the village of Múli.

A sheep walking on the road leading to the village of Múli. This is one of the images I ask respondents to consider in the final part of the interview.

So far, one of the most intriguing things to come up in an interview was one woman’s suggestion that many of the problems she saw in representations of the Faroe Islands had the same problematic root — that foreigners almost never travel to the islands in the winter. Not only does that ignore more than half of the year in the Faroes, she thinks the long, dark, stormy winter has a huge effect on the Faroese culture, and that, without understanding that, it’s impossible to explain the Faroese mentality or perspective on a wide range of issues.

Faroese Montage

Montage Comic

Critical Skills Status Update:

My Faroese skills have improved to the point where I can explain my project, however badly and haltingly. This in and of itself feels like cause for celebration! I am also actually driving around, between villages, through tunnels, on mountain roads. Haven’t gone by myself yet, but I feel like I’m improving every time and no longer feel like I’m going to die — just potentially annoy every other driver on the road and maybe stall out the engine (sorry, little white car).

I’ve made a lot of contacts in the last week and feel much more prepared to get started with all the interviews and that sort of work now. Am I totally ready? Of course not. But I never will be. Still, I think things are going pretty well. And even if every day brings new challenges, that’s half the fun — so bring it on, Føroyar!