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Iceland PM Joins Crowd of 100,000 for Full-day Women’s Strike


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The prime minister of Iceland has said she wants to achieve full gender equality in her country by 2030 as she joined an estimated 100,000 women and non-binary people in an all-day strike, the biggest protest the country has ever seen.

Speaking outside her office before the start of a huge gathering in the centre of Reykjavík on Tuesday, Katrín Jakobsdóttir said the world was dragging its feet on gender equality but that Iceland was doing its best to deal with “huge issues” around the gender pay gap, gender-based violence and sexual harassment.

She told the Guardian: “My dream is that we will do that [achieve full gender equality] before 2030, but I know it will take a lot of effort.

“We have been making changes in legislation when it comes to both of these issues and hopefully we will see us continue to move forward.”

Citing UN estimates that at the current pace of progress it will take 300 years to achieve this goal, Jakobsdóttir added: “This is just not acceptable that women around the globe will have to wait for full equality for 300 years.”

Katrín Jakobsdóttir at Tuesday’s strike.
Katrín Jakobsdóttir at Tuesday’s strike. Photograph: Sigga Ella/The Guardian

Organisers of the strike, the first full-day action of its kind in 48 years, said an estimated 100,000 people attended the event in the capital – more than a quarter of the nation’s total population of 376,000, making it the biggest crowd Iceland has ever seen.

They said the action had caused widespread disruption across the country, with schools and kindergartens closed across Iceland and just one bank staying open.

The protesters descended on Reykjavík city centre calling for the country’s wage gap to be closed – women on average earned 21% less than men in 2022, according to Statistics Iceland – and for an end to gender-based and sexual violence, which affects 40% of women in Iceland during their lifetimes.

In towns around the country, including Húsavík, Akureyri and Sauðárkrókur, thousands more women took part in protest events under the slogan Kallarðu þetta jafnrétti? (You call this equality?)

Crowds at Arnarhóll in the centre of Reykjavík.
Crowds at Arnarhóll in the centre of Reykjavík. Photograph: Sigga Ella/The Guardian

But the biggest event was on Arnarhóll, a hill in Reykjavík city centre, held near the site of the first full-day women’s strike in 1975, which had the energy and crowds of a huge music festival.

Crowds attended with friends, family and colleagues, many carrying placards, cheering speakers and singing along to performers.

An anthem of the 1975 strike, Áfram Stelpur (Onward Girls), originally sung by radical women’s movement the Redstockings, was bellowed.

The first women’s strike led to pivotal change in Iceland including the establishment of a women’s political party, the Women’s Alliance, and the election of the world’s first female elected president of a country.

But Jakobsdóttir said that, even though the world saw Iceland as a world leader for gender equality, “Icelandic women are very conscious about the fact that we still have huge issues dealing with the gender pay gap, gender based violence, sexual violence and harassment.”

Her government was committed, she added, to driving through further reforms to tackle these issues. “Our experience is that gender equality is not just the right thing to do – it’s obviously the right thing to do – but it’s also good for the economy and society,” said the prime minister.

“Obviously the world is not doing enough,” she said, adding: “There are very few of us who are female world leaders, [and] we have lost a few in the last few years.”

There was high-level backing for the strike. Along with Jakobsdóttir, the country’s first lady, the author Eliza Reid, shared her out of office message, which said that she would not be responding to emails because she was on strike.

“This is the seventh strike, but the first all-day strike of its kind since 1975, when 90% of Iceland’s women took a day off, with results that resonated for years throughout society,” she wrote.

But, she added: “Almost half a century later, equality is still far from being achieved, hence this reminder.”

Her husband, the president, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, also shared his support, writing on social media: “Their activism for equality has changed Icelandic society for the better and continues to do so today.”

The strike covered paid and unpaid work, leaving fathers to take sole responsibility of domestic duties and childcare. Businesses and services, meanwhile, were forced to make do with male staff or close.

At a Reykjavík convenience store, only men were working. One restaurant tried to make light of the situation by bringing in male celebrities to work as waiters.

There were, however, concerns whether everybody who wanted to strike would be able to do so.

Tatjana Latinovic, president of the Icelandic women’s rights association (IWRA), originally set up in 1907 to fight for the right to vote, said: “What we are concerned about is we hope that everybody who wants to participate will participate – including female foreign workers. We have put pressure on employers not to penalise staff for striking and to encourage women to strike.”

There are 39,000 foreign women living in Iceland, she said, about 18% of the overall female population of Iceland.

People marching in Reykjavík
A striker holding a placard at the women’s strike in Reykjavík that reads: ‘What do I know? I’m just a woman.’ Photograph: Sigga Ella/The Guardian

In Reykjavík, proceedings started at 9am with a brisk morning walk – joined by striking pre-school teachers, students, municipal workers, activists and women who took part in the original women’s strike in 1975 – around Tjörnin lake.

Dressed in a bird-print padded jacket and mittens to stay warm in temperatures just above freezing, Sigridur Björg Tomasdottir, 52, a public relations worker for a municipality near Reykjavík, said most women she knew were striking.

Her teenage children also planned to take part as their schools were closed because most of their teachers are female.

Pre-school teacher Steinunn Sigurgeirsdottir, 42, joined the walk with her colleague and her boss. The pre-school was closed, she said, but the two male employees were at work with tasks to do.

“It’s important for women to stick together,” she said. “We have a saying in Iceland, konur eru konum bestar (women are best for women).”

In her profession, which is dominated by women, she said, wages are low. “I’m fighting for more respect for teachers.”

One woman, a US flight attendant and union rep, was in Iceland especially for the strike to get tips and inspiration for her union’s wage negotiations.

Melissa Osborne, 53, from Arizona, said: “I’m inspired by Icelandic women and their equality. The US has a lot to learn.”

Source: The Guardian

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