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Atlantic Cowboy

Since the financial crisis in the 1990s, many young women have left the Faroe Islands, a small nation in the North Atlantic Ocean which is nominally part of Denmark, but governs its own affairs. Most leave to study in Copenhagen or other European cities. More than half of those who leave never return. As a result, there is a gender imbalance of some 2,000 in a population of just under 50,000. Among women of marriageable age, the deficit is 10 %.

How does this demographic trend influence and challenge Faroese society and the men who choose to stay?

This question was my starting point when I first travelled to the Faroe Islands. Rather than focusing on the women, I was curious about the lives of unmarried men in small communities where the lack of women is particularly noticeable. I also wanted to explore the cultural and social structures that underlie this pattern.

The Faroe Islands are a modern fishing nation, with a large fleet of trawlers and longline fishing vessels, smaller fishing boats, fish factories and aquaculture, primarily for Atlantic salmon farming. Fishing is the mainstay of the economy but it is still an industry bound by tradition and mainly run by men.

'Fishing dominates both the economy and social life which women increasingly detach and disengage from,' says Firouz Gaini. He is a professor of anthropology and a gender researcher at the University of Torshavn, the capital and largest city on the Faroes. From his studies of masculinity on the islands, the notion of the 'Atlantic cowboy' has emerged: a fairly traditional and pragmatic man who stays in the village after finishing school to become a fisherman, just like his father and his father's father before him. He earns good money, is religious and can build a house for his wife and children. This type of man used to be sought after. Now his time is running out. According to Gaini, the image of the fisherman has changed.

'The type of masculinity that used to dominate here doesn't convey the same status and privileges in today's society,' he explains.

Women, on the other hand, are in a majority in the country's secondary schools. While only one third of men between the ages of 20 and 30 have completed education beyond the 9th grade, women tend to seek higher education. Yet professional opportunities in rural areas are few. Women are also more open-minded and attracted to modern life in urban environments, according to the country's Minister of Social Affairs, Eydgunn Samuelsen. They often see few opportunities or future in small villages where traditionally male-dominated activities such as hunting, fishing and sheep farming are needed and deemed to be valuable.

With an average of 2.6 children, Faroese women are the most fertile in the Nordic countries. If the rate were to drop to European standards, with 1.6 births per woman, the consequences would be dramatic due to the massive exodus of women.

Atlantic Cowboy attempts to highlight the demographic challenges that are found in peripheral rural areas in Europe and across the world. While there is an acute awareness of the loss of young people in rural areas, the challenges of gender imbalance are highlighted much less. Against this backdrop, the project provides an intimate insight into traditional male roles and identity which is being challenged by modern society.

Andrea Gjestvang
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