In Focus: The 2023 Women’s Strike

women's strike 2023

On October 24, 2023, thousands of people swarmed Arnarhóll hill in downtown Reykjavík, holding protesting signs, babies, and each other’s hands, turning the city centre into a historic spectacle. Iceland’s seventh Women’s Strike (Kvennaverkfall) had a much larger turnout than expected, with the crowd spilling out across Hverfisgata and Lækjargata streets. An estimated 70,000 to […]

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Deep North Episode 49: Women Look to the Future

Arnarhóll hill women's strike 2023

It’s not an exaggeration to call the most recent Women’s Strike historic. With some 70-100,000 women participating, including Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, the strike attracted international media attention and injected fresh energy into feminist activism in Iceland. We take a look at our 1986 coverage of Women’s Day Off and consider how far we’ve come, and where we have yet to go.

Tens of Thousands Participate in Women’s Strike

women's strike iceland 2023

The Women’s Strike taking place today across Iceland is seeing widespread participation. Exact numbers are not yet known, but forecasts indicate that tens of thousands of women and non-binary individuals are participating.

At the forefront of the strike is the gender pay gap, in addition to gender-based violence. The so-called “third shift,” in which women perform unpaid domestic labour such as childcare and household chores, has also been increasingly discussed by activists.

This marks the sixth women’s strike since Women’s Day Off in 1975, the first such labour action in Iceland.

Disruption to services

As reported yesterday, the strike has had an outsized impact on fields such as healthcare and education, where women form a majority of the workforce.

Vísir also reports that all pools in the Reykjavík area except one, Klébergslaug on the Kjalarnes peninsula, are closed today. Klébergslaug will, however, have shortened hours, open only between 4:00 and 10:00 pm.

Almost all bank branches will be closed. All branches of Landsbankinn and Arion bank will be closed, except for the location in Smáralind shopping centre.

Many municipal services will also be reduced today, either due to shortened hours or outright closures.

Air travel is not expected to be significantly affected today. Though a majority of employees in the sector are women, airline executives have stated that other employees are filling in for those participating in the strike.

Large protests in Reykjavík

One of the main events of the day is a protest organised on Arnarhóll hill, in downtown Reykjavík. Thousands were in attendance and a live stream can be viewed from RÚV here.

Highlights of the programme include talks by activists and live musical performances.

Women and non-binary persons outside Reykjavík are also taking part. RÚV reports that a group of women working in Akranes, for example, staged a “knit-in,” when their employer made clear that they wouldn’t be paid if they were to go on strike.

International media attention

The Women’s Strike has also drawn considerable attention from the international press, with outlets from the New York Times to the BBC and the Guardian covering the strike.

According to the World Economic Forum, Iceland has done the most to reduce the gender gap in the world. According to the WEF, the gap is 91.2% closed in Iceland.

 

 

Healthcare and Education Services Especially Impacted by Women’s Strike

women's day off iceland 2018

The Women’s Strike scheduled for tomorrow, October 24, is expected to have a significant impact on services offered throughout Iceland.

Women and non-binary persons all over the country will put down their paid and unpaid work for an entire day and thousands are expected to participate in the strike to show solidarity.

Companies and institutions have made plans to deal with the temporary labour shortage, but some services may be disrupted.

Healthcare and education affected

Fields in which women form the majority are expected to be especially affected, such as healthcare and education.

RÚV reports that 5,493 of the total 6,856 employees at Landspítali, the National University Hospital, are women. This represents 80% of the entire workforce.

Runólfur Pálsson, director of Landspítali, stated to RÚV that operations tomorrow will be scheduled in such a way as to allow as many as possible to participate in the strike.

“Of course, we will continue to provide all emergency services, urgent tasks, and necessary surgeries,” he stated. However, he stressed that the nature of healthcare work means that not all can be absent from work. He instead encouraged those who do not or cannot participate in the strike to take pictures of themselves at work so that others can express solidarity with them.

Schools throughout Iceland are also expected to be affected by the strike. According to the Icelandic Teachers’ Union, women make up 94% of preschool teachers, 82% of primary school teachers, and 62% of secondary school teachers.

Katrín goes on strike

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir has also expressed her solidarity with the Women’s Strike, stating that she will be laying down her duties tomorrow, October 24.

She stated to Vísir: “I will be putting down my work to show solidarity with women. It is an incredible situation in the year 2023 that we still have gender pay gaps, that we haven’t achieved full equality, and that we are still dealing with gender-based violence.”

Stating that these issues have long been a priority for her government, she continued: “We are seeing the gender pay gap decrease, and we have also taken significant actions to address gender-based violence.”

Katrín also called for others to take part in the strike as well.

Publish a list

Organizers of the Women’s Strike will also be publishing a list of employers who obstruct women’s participation in the strike tomorrow.

Sonja Ýr Þorbergsdóttir, chairperson of BSRB, a federation of public labour unions, is one of the organizers of the Women’s Strike. She stated that they hope to ensure that as many people are able to participate as possible. To that end, they have created a document that allows workers to report workplaces discouraging participation in the strike.

Sonja stated to Vísir: “We hope to establish initial contact with these employers and encourage them to support women and women’s participation in this important fight for gender equality.” She continued:  “Many of the submissions also come with accounts of injustices within workplaces, so we thought that we might even take it a step further and publish the names of those employers who do not intend to support this struggle for equality.”

Workplaces and institutions can be reported anonymously here.

Women in Iceland first went on strike in 1975. Some 90% of Icelandic women took place in what was called Women’s Day Off and equal pay legislation was passed in parliament the following year. Other labour actions have occurred in 1985, 2005, 2010, 2016, and 2018. Tomorrow will be the seventh Women’s Strike.

Read our archival coverage of the 1985 Women’s Day Off.

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From the Archive: President Vigdís

vigdís finnbogadóttir president of iceland

From the archive: This article was published in Iceland Review magazine in 1982. Archival content may not necessarily reflect the current editorial standards of Iceland Review.

President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir got to know her countrymen intimately during the presidential campaign in early 1980 — the first such campaign in Iceland where the candidates actively electioneered. It pleased her immensely to find out how much people in general knew about their country and its history. She came to the conclusion that common people in Iceland talk together much more than is usual in other countries — rather a novel discovery. She maintains that her experience in the theatre has been very useful in her present job. She is a firm believer in the future of small nations, provided they learn to stick together and utilize their potentials in a rational manner.

I was expected to do one better than the men.

Informality is a hallmark of Icelandic society, so there were no uniformed guards standing inside or out, as I walked into the office of the President, located in an old one-story building facing the central square of Reykjavik. The building, one of the very oldest in town, dating from the mid-eighteenth century, was at one time a Danish prison. President Vigdi’s is a tall, handsome, vital and quick-witted woman in her early fifties. Prior to her elections, she was for eight years manager of the Reykjavik Theatre Company. She is single and has one adopted child, and claims it would be difficult for a man of her generation to be the President’s husband. The pace she set during the campaign, when she travelled throughout the country speaking and meeting people, has continued. She has also made official visits to three of the Nordic countries: Denmark, Norway and Sweden, as well as to Great Britain.

Warm and friendly

“Surely you did not envision some two years ago that you would be sitting here today,” I said to President Vigdís after we sat down in her modest office. What made you run for president?

“As soon as it became known that President Kristjan Eldjarn would decline renomination, some of my friends and a number of strangers started coaxing me, pressing me to step forward. Out of the blue, they started enumerating various qualities which would stand me in good stead in this high office. I was supposed to know my country and its people well through my previous occupations. They said I was eloquent in Icelandic as well as in some foreign languages. When the campaign got underway, I was said to be quick to get out of a tight spot and to make a good impression, to be warm and friendly. Not so few also maintained that I never made distinctions among people. This was not only said by my friends, but also by people who did not know me personally. Now as then, I am always equally surprised when people tell me how they see me.”

vigdís finnbogadóttir president of iceland
President Vigdís with Crown Prince Harald and King Olav V of Norway.

I am always equally surprised when people tell me how they see me.

“I think that my teaching in secondary-school and on television has a lot to do with it. I am essentially modest and never believe I can do things as well as they ought to be done, but my upbringing made me ambitious to do my very best in any job. Actually, the idea that I should run for President first came to my attention more than three years ago. I had given a speech to a gathering of intellectuals, and later I was told that, after I left, the idea that I would make a good candidate was aired. At the time I thought the idea was preposterous.”

But you changed your mind?

“Well, when the first candidate came forward, the idea was revived. After Dr. Eldjarn had officially announced his intention of retiring from public life, there was not a moment’s respite. At first I did not really take it seriously, pushed the idea aside, wanted the closing date for announcing candidacies to pass. The other candidates stepped forward, but I hedged despite telegrams and delegations. I even stayed away from the Theatre. Then one night at the home of my friend and colleague, Tomas Zoega, who was the business manager of the Theatre, I decided to run. Several of my friends were present, and their main argument was that it was fitting, in view of the great success of Women’s Day in Reykjavik in 1975, that a woman should stand for election to the highest office of the land. As soon as I had made up my mind, my friends said, We all stand behind you! It never entered my mind that I would get elected, but I also felt sure that my candidacy would not be a total fiasco. I merely wanted to prove that a woman could take part in a presidential campaign on an equal footing with men.”

Obviously a gain for the liberation movement

Did you look upon your candidacy as somehow part of the women’s liberation movement? Or were other considerations more important?

“Not as part of the women’s liberation movement, no. But to me it seemed natural that some woman should run—that she should seek the office as an equal. At the time I happened to be at a crossroads in my life. I had just resigned from my job at the Theatre. I had no ties. I knew I would be exposed to a good deal of criticism during the campaign. But my mother and other close relatives were so old that they would not be told what might be said about me, and my little girl was too young to understand. This appraisal proved correct. I am quite convinced that I would not have run, had I been married.

I now appear so often at meetings all over the country that I could not expect a husband my age to be ready to follow me wherever I go on official business—and people would find it strange for me to be travelling alone most of the time. We live in an era when women still more or less live their lives through their husbands, not the other way around. Women my age very often see their surroundings through the eyes of their husbands, which of course can be excellent binoculars to look through at the world.”

Do you nevertheless look upon your election as a gain for the women’s liberation movement?

“The election was obviously a gain for the liberation movement. But I was not elected as a result of that struggle. If women had joined forces I should have won at least 50 percent of the votes. A very considerable proportion of my votes came from men, particularly old and young ones. The older generation really wanted to elect a woman. It is in truth hard to believe how many of the older generation supported me—especially elderly men. I suppose they were thinking of the future—the future of their daughters. I think men become women’s liberation champions for their daughters, not for their mothers or wives.”

Did you feel that you benefited or suffered for being a woman during the campaign?

The King of Sweden and President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir

“Mostly I was treated with respect, even though political fanaticism sometimes raised its ugly head. I have never belonged to a political party, but I have had and still have strong opinions, especially regarding the struggle for the national and cultural independence of our people. This seems to have confused some people. I was supposed to be a communist sympathizer and to be opposed to church and religion. A strange conclusion indeed! This loose use of political labels is not only irritating but downright dangerous. I suppose we are all idealists and sympathize with the ideal of equality. Does that make one a communist? For one thing, how can an Icelandic nationalist possibly accept the subjugation of other nations or condone what has happened and is happening in various parts of the world? I stand for equality, cultural growth, national independence, world peace, and the hope that humanity may avoid a third and final holocaust.”

What was most surprising to you during the presidential campaign?

“My greatest pleasure was meeting this nation of ours. I had never imagined what fun it would be to travel around the country, visit farms and factories, talk to people from all walks of life and discover that they were articulate in a way that is becoming rarer in the big urban centres — to meet people who know their country and its history inside out. It was a revelation. I had mostly seen the country Irom a car window, driving along the highways, but not come into direct contact with the people themselves. It was a great experience, particularly in the sparsely populated areas. I had never expected the impressive qualities of those people. They were so wide awake and well informed. I think the common people in this country talk together much more than is usual in other countries I know.”

Wider powers not the goal

Then, on 1 August 1980, you took office. Was it hard to assume the new role? Were you nervous? Were you apprehensive about replacing your predecessor? Have your experiences in teaching and the theatre been of use to you?

“That’s a big bunch of questions. No, I was not nervous. I don’t think I am the nervous type. I had no idea of what I was in for. Nobody knows beforehand what he or she is in for. My predecessor guided and helped me in every way possible. We were in the peculiar situation of having no trade union to help us. My predecessor performed his duties with such excellence—for years, I had admired his performance—that I felt apprehensive about not being able to do equally well. I have tried my best. But obviously, each of us does the job in accordance with his or her character. It is impossible to imitate others. Each of us creates a different image of the office. But at the same time, we try to preserve established traditions. I don’t want this office to gain wider powers; it should not aim at monarchy. My experience in the theatre has been valuable. Whoever deals with drama gets to know human nature in the most diverse circumstances. I entered this office with the experience that nothing in human nature or conduct is entirely unexpected. Of course, you never know how much you actually do know, but I have learned so much about human beings in the theatre so I don’t judge harshly. I have learned to be tolerant of everything except prejudice.”

president of iceland vigdís

Do you find it hard to be your own real self when you appear in public? Can you say what is on your mind and do what you like in a world where for instance flirting lends a certain colour to life?

“It is hard to change a 51-year-old person even if every opinion should be changed whenever valid reasons suggest that. I don’t find it difficult to appear in public. I always enjoy being with other people and think I am my old self all the time. I hope I’ll never lose the joy of life nor the human touch. Whether you flirt with a child or a man, mutual understanding is always a pleasure, and the moment’s delight from one day to another is what actually counts.”

During your official visit to Denmark last year, the Danes found you more open and outspoken than is common for heads of state. Do you think they were right? If so, do you consider this an asset?

The President should be as close to the people as possible.

“There is no doubt that as a popularly elected, non-political head of state I can allow myself to say more than royalty can. It is obvious that those brought up in a certain manner to fulfill prescribed duties have a different attitude. I never make a political statement and take no stand on political questions – unless we agree that the whole of life is in a certain sense politics. I am very discreet and try not to change that strand in my nature. I would never dream of revealing secrets, and find myself to be one of the most reticent Icelanders now alive — like a doctor who has taken his Hippocratic oath. That’s why I could follow my intuition and say what I wanted to have in the headlines of next day’s papers in Denmark.”

Nationality and culture

How do you look at the role of the President beyond the traditional one?

“The traditional role is trying to be alert to everything concerning Icelandic nationality and culture. The President should engender, among the people at large, a feeling of genuine mutual friendship. I try to talk personally to everybody when I meet groups. The President should be as close to the people as possible, for the office is first and foremost a symbol of national unity.”

What is it in Icelandic culture that, in your opinion, should be especially cultivated and stressed?

Vigdís Alongside Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

“The preservation of our language and a steady stimulation of all creative efforts. In many ways we are unique in our creativity. If we look after our culture as well as our children, we consciously strive for what all humanity yearns for: peace. Nobody can believe in the future without working for peace. Wishful thinking is not enough. We have to follow closely what is happening in the world and state categorically: This we want but that we do not want. We have to demand that all the money now squandered on armaments and international power politics should be channelled to make use of the marvellous scientific discoveries of modern times in the service of the hungry and the needy. We have found the means to halt the population explosion. I refuse to believe that we cannot find the means to halt the greed for power. I am an idealist on behalf of children. Those jockeying for power around the world have only ten or twenty years to go. They must not leave the coming generations with a world threatened by annihilation.”

The small nations of the world have a future.

“Youth should protest instead of losing hope and taking refuge in drugs to dull the senses. Only a lack of will to live can make a person try to dull the senses in order to survive.” Do you think the small nations of the world have a future, considering the so-called brain drain, which deprives them of their ablest minds and best-educated citizens?

“I feel convinced that the small nations of the world have a future once they realize that by sticking together they are a major power. It may not be possible to stop brain drain entirely, but it can be diminished if the small nations co-operate and exchange talents for certain tasks, just as farmers share tractors. Nordic co-operation is a case in point. The Nordic countries are a cultural superpower, no doubt about it. They have produced a culture which reaches the masses, and publish newspapers and weeklies which enhance sensibilities and rational thinking.”

You have been asked to open the Scandinavia Today exposition in Washington D.C. next September on behalf of the Nordic heads of state?

“Yes, I am proud to have been asked to do that and am very much looking forward to the occasion. This is a dream I have long known would come true. I am proud of being a spokeswoman for all the Nordic countries on that occasion, and it is a great compliment to us that they have this confidence in me, underlining the fact that Icelanders were the first Europeans to write in the vernacular, nearly 900 years ago.”

In Focus: Hate Speech in Iceland

hate speech iceland

When an offensive effigy of Icelandic journalist, athlete, and influencer Edda Falak surfaced at a recent parade in the Westman Islands, it reignited a conversation about misogyny and racism in Iceland. Taking place against the background of a public discourse that seems to be deteriorating, the incident was only one of a series of high-profile […]

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First Female Pilot in Iceland Retires After 38 Years of Flight

female pilots icelandair

Sigríður Einarsdóttir landed today for the last time at Keflavík International Airport.

Sigríður Einarsdóttir was the first female commercial airline pilot in Iceland. Her 38-year career paved the way for many other women in Icelandic aviation.

Her Boeing 757, designated Vatnajökull, her favourite plane to pilot according to Vísir, touched down early in the morning yesterday. Passengers reported an “exceptionally smooth” landing.

She was greeted by a reception of other female Icelandair pilots who celebrated her long, pioneering career in aviation.

Not Ready to Stop Flying

Sigríður’s career began in 1984 aboard a Fokker F27 turboprop, and three years later, on the airline’s new jets. In 1996, she became a full captain.

At her reception, Sigríður stated: “I don’t think that it’s really sunk in yet that this was the final landing. It was only on the final approach that I really realized that this had been my last flight, on a jet at least.”

Although she’s retiring, she has no intention to stop flying: “I don’t think I’m done. It’s just so much fun to fly. Now I just need to go renew my private license and get back into smaller planes.”

After her 1984 start, Sigríður recalls that she was the only female pilot for the first five years of her career. “After ten years, there were three of us,” she said. “After twenty years, the tenth woman was hired.” Now, she says, there are some 77 altogether.

Despite the progress made by Sigríður, aviation is still largely a male industry in Iceland, with 13% of Icelandic pilots being women.

“This isn’t a man’s job anymore,” she said in her farewell address. “We’ve shown and proved this.”

 

Women, Life, Freedom: Candlelight March in Solidarity with Activists in Iran and Afghanistan

UN Women in Iceland hosted a candlelight march against gender-based violence on Friday night. RÚV reports that this is the first time the march has been held since the COVID-19 pandemic began and took place under the slogan “Women, Life, Freedom,” echoing the rallying cry that has taken up by feminist activists and protestors in Iran and beyond.

The march began at Arnarhóll and ended at Bríetartorg, a small square in downtown Reykjavík that commemorates activist and suffragette Bríet Bjarnhéðinsdóttir (1856 – 1940). Harpa concert hall was illuminated in orange during the event, as orange has come to symbolize a better, violence-free future for women and girls around the world.

First Lady Eliza Reid and Minister of Foreign Affairs Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir

According to a Facebook post about the event, the candlelight march marks the beginning of 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence, “an international campaign that commences on 25 November—the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women—and ends on 10 December, Human Rights Day.” This year, the 16 Days of Activism campaign continues with its ongoing mission to end femicide, “the murder of women  because they are women.” Event organizers say that 81,000 women and girls were killed globally in 2020, around 47,000 or 58% of whom died at the hands of an intimate partner or a family member. This equates to a woman or girl being killed every 11 minutes in their home.

“By taking part in UN Women Iceland’s Candlelight March,” concluded UN Women in Iceland, “we show solidarity with the brave women and girls of Afghanistan and Iran who are leading the fight against their countries’ regimes’ repressive treatment of women and girls, while being met with brutal and often lethal force.”

‘There’s no going back because there’s nothing to go back to’

Zarah Mesbah speaks at the 2022 Candlelight March

Friday’s march was led by activist Zahra Mesbah, an Afghan woman who was born in Iran, Iranian Zoreh Aria, and UN Women in Iceland director Stella Samúelsdóttir. Individuals from both Afghanistan and Iran were invited to walk in front. In her speech, Zahra emphasized unity, saying: “The only thing that matters is that I am a person, and all people deserve freedom and to live with dignity.”

For her part, Zoreh urged attendees to show their support for the Iranian women who are risking their lives every time they protest. “In their minds, there’s only one way forward and there’s no going back because there’s nothing to go back to,” she said. “They are fighting for freedom and dignity. We ask people to stand with peace, freedom, and the Iranian nation and to ask the government to take action.”

All photos taken by Heiðrún Fivelstad on behalf of UN Women in Iceland.

Pussy Riot to Perform at National Theatre

The Russian protest and performance art group Pussy Riot will perform at Iceland’s National Theatre in November, RÚV reports.

Theatre director Magnús Geir Þórðarson said the piece will be part play, part art exhibition, and part concert, and is being staged in conjunction with the group’s first retrospective, which will also open in November at Reykjavík’s Kling & Bang exhibition space.

“This is, of course, a remarkable group that we all know and have followed in the media in recent years. This is a band and a performance art group, a political force, that came here in the spring and worked at the National Theatre to prepare a show that they’ve been touring around Europe this summer and which has been very well-received, with great reviews,” said Magnús Geir.

Co-founder disguised herself as a food courier to escape house arrest

Staunch critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin and feminists who have called for the liberation and equality of women and the LGBTQIA+ community, the members of Pussy Riot have endured significant political persecution. Three of the founding members served jail time for performing their “Punk Prayer” in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, in protest of the Russian Orthodox Church’s close ties to Putin.

Placed under house arrest, co-founder Maria (Masha) Alyokhina disguised herself as a food courier and fled both her home and the country in May of this year. Having had her passport confiscated and been placed on Russia’s “Wanted” list, Alyokhina initially had trouble crossing the Russian border, but Deutsche Welle reports that with the help of Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson, she was “able to obtain European documents, allowing her to enter Lithuania.”

Ragnar has been an effusive supporter of the group and their work. “Pussy Riot’s performances are, without a doubt, some of the most important political art works of the 21st century,” he said. “If ever there were artists who gave everything for their art, it’s these badasses. The exhibition is centered around Masha’s story and her description of the hell that is Putin’s Russia.”

Political Parties Host MeToo Meeting

#MeToo Meeting

Political Parties hosted an open meeting this morning in Reykjavík to discuss the MeToo movement and its effect on politics. The event was streamed live on the Left Green Movement’s Facebook page.

The meeting opened with an address from Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir. Katrín encouraged the parties present to approach the issue as a systemic one, rather than divide along party lines, as has “happened in many countries around us. That way we destroy the opportunity to examine ourselves and our own culture and system. No party can maintain they are free of the danger of gender harassment, gender-based violence, or gender-based discourse.”

Following Katrín’s address, special guest Martin Chungong, Secretary General of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, presented the results of a study conducted by the organisation titled “Sexism, harassment, and violence against women in parliaments in Europe.” The findings of the Europe-wide study showed that 85.2% of women MPs who responded had experienced psychological violence as part of their job in politics. While 46.9% had received death threats or threats of rape or beating, 67.9% had been the target of sexist comments and 58.2% had been the target of online sexist attacks on social networks.
A panel discussion followed the addresses featuring representatives from all sitting parties in the Icelandic parliament. Panel members addressed questions from the audience at the end of the meeting. Pirate Party MP Þórhildur Sunna Ævarsdóttir criticised the Icelandic parliament for its reaction to the Klaustur Scandal. Minister and Progressive Party MP Lilja Alfreðsdóttir agreed with Þórhildur, adding that society had sent a clear message to parliament that such behaviour would no longer be tolerated.