Tens of thousands of women and non-binary people across Iceland, including the prime minister, are expected to stop work – both paid and unpaid – on Tuesday in the first strike of its kind in nearly half a century.
Organisers hope the women’s strike – whose confirmed participants include fishing industry workers, teachers, nurses and the PM, Katrín Jakobsdóttir – will bring society to a standstill to draw attention to the country’s ongoing gender pay gap and widespread gender-based and sexual violence.
The event will mark the first full-day women’s strike since 1975, when 90% of Icelandic women refused to work as part of “kvennafrí” (women’s day off), leading to pivotal change including the world’s first female elected president of a country.
But organisers of the latest strike, some of whom took part in the 1975 strike, say the core demand for women’s work to be valued remains unmet 48 years on.
Despite being considered a global leader on gender equality, topping the 2023 World Economic Forum’s global gender gap rankings for the 14th consecutive year, in some professions Icelandic women still earn 21% less than men, and more than 40% of women have experienced gender-based or sexual violence.
Strike organisers also say jobs traditionally associated with women, such as cleaning and caregiving, continue to be undervalued and underpaid.
“We’re talked about, Iceland is talked about, like it’s an equality paradise,” said Freyja Steingrímsdóttir, one of the strike organisers and communications director for BSRB, the Icelandic Federation for Public Workers. “But an equality paradise should not have a 21% wage gap and 40% of women experiencing gender-based or sexual violence in their lifetime. That’s not what women around the world are striving for.”
Having the global reputation that it does, Iceland has a responsibility to “make sure we live up to those expectations”, said Steingrímsdóttir.
While there have been other women’s strikes since the first in 1975, Tuesday’s marks the first full-day event. Operating under the slogan “Kallarðu þetta jafnrétti?” (You call this equality?), it is the outcome of a grassroots movement and is being planned by about 40 different organisations.
Women and non-binary people across the country are urged not to do any paid or unpaid work on Tuesday, including domestic tasks at home, “to demonstrate the importance of their contribution to society”. But some have already started preparing ahead of time to make life easier for men during their absence.
“The third shift is real, women are going on strike but ‘let’s make sure that everything will work smoothly’ is the mentality we’re stuck in and we need to get out of,” said Steingrímsdóttir. “For one day it’s not our problem, so let’s not try to make it easier for them.”
At least 25,000 people are expected to attend an event in Reykjavík city centre and many more will take part in 10 other events around the country – making it likely to be Iceland’s biggest ever women’s strike.
Announcing her participation, Jakobsdóttir said she expected the prime minister’s office to stop working. “First and foremost, I am showing solidarity with Icelandic women with this,” she told mbl.is.
Unlike the 1975 strike, Tuesday’s event is for women and non-binary people. “We do this because we are all fighting the same system, we are all under the influence of the patriarchy, so we thought we should combine our fight,” said Steingrímsdóttir.
The strike is calling for the gender pay gap to be closed by publishing the wages of workers in female-dominant professions, and for action against gender-based and sexual violence, with more focus on the perpetrators.
Drífa Snædal, who is on the executive committee of the women’s strike and is a spokesperson for Stígamót, a counselling and education centre for sexual violence, said increased access to pornography among children had contributed to violence against women.
Women’s status in society and their monetary value in the workplace was also linked to sexual violence, she said.
“We are now trying to connect the dots, saying that violence against women and undervalued work of women in the labour market are two sides of the same coin and have an effect on each other,” she said.
Despite the #MeToo movement and various others demanding equality in Iceland over recent years, she said women could not count on the justice system when it came to sexually violent crimes. “The patience of women has run out,” she said.