Iceland: is it really a ‘feminist utopia’?

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*Warning: article contains a statistic of sexual assault

For the last fourteen consecutive years, Iceland has been ranked the top country in the world for closing the gender gap and is regarded as one of the best places to live as a woman. On the 24th of October, I joined over 100,000 Icelandic citizens on a national strike in support of protesting gender pay gaps, the rights of women and non-binary people and eliminating gender-based violence. With the country coming to a standstill for a day to protest issues that resulted in Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir participating in the strike, I was questioning Iceland’s branding as a ‘feminist utopia’. 

The ‘Kvennaverkfall’, or ‘Women’s Strike’ has an almost 50-year-long history in Iceland, beginning in 1975. Roughly 90% of Iceland’s female population refused to do paid work or unacknowledged labour, including housework or childcare for the day, to “demonstrate the indispensable work of women for Iceland’s economy and society” and to “protest wage discrepancy and unfair employment practices”. From then on, it became known as the ‘Kvennafrí’, ‘Women’s Day Off’. The strike had a significant impact on the rights of Icelandic women, including the Icelandic parliament passing a gender equality act in 1976. It also paved the way for Vigdís Finnbogadóttir’s election as President of Iceland in 1980, making her the first woman in history to be democratically elected as a head of state. Ms Finnbogadóttir held the position for 16 years, establishing the foundation for Iceland’s label as a feminist country. 

The 2023 Kvennafrí marked the seventh major women’s strike since 1975, with this year’s strike achieving record-breaking numbers of participants. The focus of this year’s Kvennafrí was “That gender-based violence will be eliminated and that the contribution of women and non-binary people will be acknowledged and rewarded.” Repeating some of the strike actions of 1975, women nationwide refused to go to work and were ‘striking at home’, again declining unpaid labour tasks.

Iceland still has a way to go to fix its gender inequality issues

We gathered on Arnarhóll, central Reykjavík, in front of a large stage. For an hour and a half, we listened to a series of presentations, from passionate performance poetry and speeches to rock renditions of ‘Barbie Girl’. While the atmosphere felt optimistic, filled with the support of hundreds of thousands of women, there was one statistic which truly disturbed me. In an impassioned speech, Urður Bartels claimed that in Iceland “15% of girls in Tenth Grade (15–16-year-olds) have been raped by a peer”, according to research. And this horrifyingly high number does not even include the number of victims who have not reported sexual abuse or assault. For a country that is globally recognised as the safest place in the world for women, this statistic exposed an ugly reality of women’s safety in Iceland.

In a series of short speeches from reputable Icelandic figures, including Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, former Minister for Foreign Affairs and Mayor of Reykjavík, further statistics about the reality of gender discrimination were revealed. ‘Statistics Iceland’ shows that amongst technicians and associate professionals, the gender pay gap for 2022 was almost 21% and ‘proportionally more women [are] in lower paying jobs than men’.

For a country that is globally recognised as the safest place in the world for women, this statistic exposed an ugly reality of women’s safety in Iceland

In this supposed ‘haven’ for women and non-binary people, there is no denying the horrifying statistics of gender-based violence and discrimination. The protest revealed to me that Iceland still has a way to go to fix its gender inequality issues; and whilst this is not to dispute Iceland’s position as the leading nation for gender equality, it is to be cognizant of the inequality that persists. 

Freyja Steingrímsdóttir, Communications Directors for the Icelandic Federation for Public Workers, said in an interview concerning the 2023 strike, “We’re seeking to bring attention to the fact that we’re called an equality paradise, but there are still gender disparities and urgent need for action.” Perhaps it is through such a large-scale strike and transparency of the dark realities of gender-based discrimination that Iceland seeks to live up to its name as an ‘equality paradise’. Where Iceland is succeeding is how it is demonstrating to other countries what action they should be taking to create societal and governmental change. For the conversation is in the air, mobilized instead of static, and with it comes the unalterable course of social progress.

Image: Magnus Fröderberg via Wikimedia Commons

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