The weather was beautiful– sunny yet chilly– on October 24, 2005. Women went on a memorable strike on this day in 1975, rounding up 25,000 sisters who refused to work, cook or clean and demanded to be heard.
This year, women in Iceland were encouraged to quit their work at 2:08 pm and rally downtown, where the plan was to gather in front of Hallgrímskirkja church, march down Skólavörðustígur, Laugavegur and Austurstræti to end up on Ingólfstorg square to listen to political speeches and view various acts on a packed agenda. At 2 pm, a few dozen women, seniors and toddlers alike, had gathered in front of the church. A group of bubbly teenage girls carried a banner that read “Women of the Future” and their giggles provided a hopeful soundscape as the crowd grew gradually larger. At 2:08, the bell of Hallgrímskirkja rang. A few men were present, supporting the cause, but they were notably few. A little girl, aged five or six, spoke into a megaphone carried by her mother, announcing that she’d like to become a bank manager when she grows up, adding that all women are fantastic and congratulating them on the occasion.
Margrét Pálmadóttir, leader of the Vox Feminae choir, led a mass singing, encouraging everybody to join in. A song circle soon formed, chanting “Go girls!” in between songs as the crowd grew to several hundred. Interesting signs could soon be spotted in the crowd. Iceland has the largest female workforce (by percentage) in the world, but women in Iceland only make approximately 65% of men’s wages. The signs criticizing the wage gap read: “Is my daughter worth less than my son?” and “Woman = 64.15 man?” In the sexual violence category were signs saying “Is rape not a crime?” and “Rape – so what?!?” General discrimination was also addressed, an example made by a young woman carrying a sign saying: “A 21st century woman asks herself: Would I be better a penis?”
In the next hour, tens of thousands of women joined the crowd, lining the entire Skólavörðustígur and filling up the nearby streets. Those who arrived late described a congestion from downtown Reykjavík to nearby township Garðabær. The authorities later claimed that close to 50,000 people had rallied. This historical number (doubling the protest in 1975,) made it nearly impossible for the march to take place, as the line of people filled up the planned route almost completely. Therefore, the crowd started branching off and smaller marches took place down nearby streets, such as Lokastígur and Spítalastígur, where thousands of women headed towards the square.
Steingrímur J. Sigfússon, party chairman of the Leftist-Greens, made sure his presence was known amongst the crowd, as women’s liberation is the main political agenda for his party. However, as 30% of Iceland’s females (a proportionate rally in the States would’ve been 46 million women) scurried towards the stage at Ingólfstorg, it became apparent that the square was a hopeless venue for a mass of this size. Not only does Ingólfstorg merely accommodate 10% of the people who rallied, it’s also enclosed by tall buildings on all sides, making it impossible for the other 90% of the mass to see a thing. Some, including the Grapevine journalist who has heard about the historical assembly of 1975 since she was a little girl, tried to elbow themselves in the direction of the square, but got nowhere close.
Thirty years ago, this event was held at another, larger venue, Lækjartorg square, only 200 meters up the road from Ingólfstorg. Slightly further up the road from there is Arnarhóll, a grassy hill which hosts tens of thousands of people each June 17th, the Independence Day of Iceland. Arnarhóll is an even larger, more open area, which many argued would’ve served better to accommodate the 50,000 people who rallied. A rumour spread that the smaller venue was decided because the police refused to issue a permit for the larger venue. Popular as it was, the rumour was unfounded.
Edda Jónsdóttir, the project leader of Women’s Day Off, admitted that quite frankly she had not expected a crowd this large. Weatherwise, Ingólfstorg with its tall buildings on all sides is more sheltered from the wind that whips Arnarhóll mercilessly. Moreover, when the people behind the event started suspecting the turnout of women might be greater than they anticipated, it was already too late to re-route the bus system and close roads. Last but not least, there was the question of money, and the organization, based on volunteers, couldn’t afford to rent a bigger sound system and pay the additional cost of a change in venues.
The inability to adequately hold all the protestors will not be remembered, most likely. Jónsdóttir pointed out the successes of the protests: “I think we should focus on the fact that the turnout exceeded everybody’s expectations, and that we should be proud of the fact that so many women protested.”
How much Women’s Day Off 2005 will affect women’s issues in Iceland remains to be seen. The impressive amount of women who stood up for themselves and fought back suggests that things may be changing.