“Is this equality?”: Iceland is experiencing a day of historic feminist strike

Iceland came to a standstill this Tuesday in a historic feminist strike in the Nordic country, the most important since 1975, 48 years ago. Under the slogan “Is that what you call equality?”, Icelandic women were called upon not to go to work or do any other unpaid domestic work in protest at the persistence of the wage gap and gender violence in Iceland, despite to be considered a benchmark country in terms of equality.

The strike, called by the main unions and 40 feminist associations, has been widely followed. Women and also non-binary people were called to the protest and, since early in the morning, it has had an impact on schools, hospitals, businesses (where mostly only men were seen working), and on municipal services, which were have been reduced.

The strike has also been noted in the broadcasts of the public radio and television network RÚV, and has caused several cancellations of flights by the airline company IcelandAir, in which more than half of its workers are women. According to the newspaper Morgunblaðið, morning traffic in Reykjavík has decreased by 28% compared to a normal Tuesday, in a day that concluded with a demonstration with thousands of people walking the streets of the capital.

The country’s Prime Minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, has also joined the protest, postponing the Government Council for the next day and asking the other ministers of the Executive not to come to work either. The day before the strike, Jakobsdóttir told the Icelandic media that she was joining the strike with the desire to “show solidarity with Icelandic women. “As you know, we have not yet achieved our goals of full gender equality and we are still addressing the gender pay gap, which is unacceptable in 2023.”

Far from the “paradise of gender equality”

According to the World Economic Forum, Iceland has topped the list of countries in the world with the greatest gender equality for 14 years in a row. However, Icelandic government data shows that leading the equality rankings does not mean that differences do not exist: “Iceland is talked about as if it were a paradise of equality,” said Freyja Steingrímsdóttir, director of communications at the Icelandic Federation of Public Workers (BSRB), one of the unions calling the strike.

But for Steingrímsdóttir “a paradise of equality should not have a wage gap of 21% and 40% of women suffering sexual or gender violence throughout their lives. That is not what women around the world are fighting for,” stated the union spokesperson. Steingrímsdóttir also wanted to point out that Iceland has a global reputation for gender equality, and therefore she “has a responsibility to make sure we live up to those expectations.”

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Since 2018, Iceland became the first country to require companies to demonstrate that they pay their employees fairly for performing the same functions. However, unions denounce that companies are still trailing legislation and feminist demands.

Furthermore, for Tatjana Latinovic, president of the Icelandic Women’s Rights Association, another aspect to take into account to understand wage inequality is that “the so-called female jobs (cleaners, caregivers for the elderly, daycare workers) are now occupied by foreign women, because it is difficult to find people who work with the low salaries they offer.” Immigrant women currently represent 22% of the Icelandic female labor market, but, according to unions, their contribution to society is not reflected in the salaries these women receive.

According to the Government, it is studying how jobs that are mostly held by women are economically valued on average compared to jobs that are mostly held by men, as it believes that this factor clearly contributes to the current wage disparity.

Equality does not advance

The other great demand of the strike has been to end gender violence, which the mayor of Reykjavík, Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, described on television as a “real Pandemic that we must face with the same seriousness with which we face COVID ”. In the program broadcast on the public channel RÚV, an example of this was a study carried out by the University of Iceland in 2018, which revealed that one in four women has experienced sexual violence throughout their lives.

The unions organizing the strike have also pointed out that, during the day of protest, “husbands, fathers, brothers and uncles were expected to assume the responsibilities of the family and home, for example, preparing breakfast and lunch, remembering family birthdays, buying gifts for the mother-in-law or scheduling the children’s dentist appointment” among the many other tasks and responsibilities that are normally carried out by women.

This feminist strike represents a historical repetition of the protest that paralyzed the country on the same day, October 24, 1975. On that occasion, 90% of Icelandic women joined the protest demanding kvennafri (women’s day off), and which served to significantly advance equality in the Nordic country. Since then, in 1980, Iceland became the first country in the world to democratically elect a woman as head of state, President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir.

More recently, movements such as #MeToo have had a great impact in the country, however, union leader Freyja Steingrímsdóttir admitted that “we have the collective feeling that we are standing still and levels of gender equality are not advancing. In general, in the Nordic countries there is a tendency to think that, since we are the best, there may be no reason to demand more, but we believe that it is necessary to continue shaking up the debate to move forward,” she concluded.

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