In 2016, Icelandic Member of Parliament Freyja Haraldsdóttir spoke on a panel to celebrate the one hundred year anniversary of women's suffrage in Iceland and to discuss better methods for engaging women in political life. The transcript of her speech begins below.
Panelist: Welcome Freyja Haraldsdóttir to the spotlight. Freyja has a bachelor’s degree in social pedagogy, a post-graduate diploma in equality studies, and is currently an MA student in gender studies at the University of Iceland. Freyja has been in a leading role as a disability activist for ten years. For the years 2010 to 2014 she was a managing directress in the Independent Living Center in Iceland. Freyja is going to discuss multiple oppression and disabled women’s fight for civil rights. Welcome, Freyja.
Freyja: Thank you. “You must be tired,” he said and stood there with his hair all messed up. His tie was loose, and his shirt was wrinkled. On his face, I could read the mixture of pity and amazement. It was my first week as a wise parliamentarian in 2013, and it was the last day before the closing of parliament over the summertime. We’d been working from 9:00 in the morning, and now the time was 1:30 of the next morning. I hadn’t managed to go to the bathroom the whole day since it takes me a lot of time, and I had many speeches to make, so I always had to be ready to go into chamber. At about 10:00 in the evening, I asked the secretary to move one of my speeches to later so I could go to the bathroom. I didn’t discuss this with anyone because I felt if I did, I would be living the stereotype of the tired, weak disabled woman and because I constantly felt I had to prove myself. I was getting a lot of comments about being a brave hero and felt by what some people said to me that they were truly surprised that I was intelligent enough to be in parliament. Some people also talked to me like I was a child. It either annoyed me or made me laugh each time, but still I seemed to internalize it, internalize this mixture of messages, as well as taking with me a long history of stigma that I have internalized through the years. I didn’t know what to say to him, and I wondered whether he was saying this to me because I was disabled, a woman, or both. This was the third time this week that a male parliamentarian asked me if I wasn’t tired. This job, even though it’s challenging, was not at all as straining as being an activist. It’s also a job I enjoy, when I stop in, working with a lot of people, also something new to learn every day. It is also very fast. A job where I feel I can use my education and personal and political experience to make a difference in our society for the people who put all their trust in us, their representatives in politics. But of course I was tired! Tired from the job and of answering stupid questions like this one. “I feel as tired as you look,” I finally said accidentally. He laughed and looked, walked away embarrassed.
Even through these incidents present ableism and sexism I have experienced as a disabled woman politician, I believe it is imperative to me also to acknowledge my privileges. I was born into a family that from day one fought hard for my rights because they saw me as a human being. I went to regular schools; I was never institutionalized. I’m also white, straight, cisgender woman labeled with physical impairment and have had personal assistance for eight years now. This has given me opportunities to work on the global labor market and to study in universities both here and in England. I participated in activism of some sort for the last ten years, where I have met many other disability activists that are in a leading role globally. I learned about disability studies and gender studies early. I got to know feminism and most recently Black feminism, which has in many ways been my survival kit the last couple of years, as a feminist disability activist. Through activism around independent living for disabled people, I got to work with distinction and stand among other disabled people, starting a political parting, For a Bright Future, which I’m a part of today.
I’m not talking about this to degrade the oppression I experience on the grounds of disability and gender every single day. I’m mentioning this because many disabled people, especially women, have not had these opportunities because of exclusion and lack of opportunities for education, working and so on. I also think that it is important to mention this because Iceland tends to brag a lot about itself. While at least ministers and people in power would like to present ourselves as some kind of paradise when it comes to welfare issues, human rights, gender equality, and celebration of queer people, and then they use a few examples like my political participation to justify that everything is fine. Even though role models are important for everyone, especially unrepresented groups, the problem with them is that they are sometimes the exception, not the norm, and most people don’t realize what they’ve gone through to get there or where they come from. Iceland can of course be proud of many things, and should be, but you can’t look away from the fact that while research is done and data gathered, for example, for the gender gap Jane was talking about earlier, disabled women or other marginalized women are seldom given the opportunity to participate and don’t have a seat at the table.
Though the rankings are biased, men can’t properly tell women’s stories, just like nondisabled women cannot tell the stories of disabled women properly. Going into politics was not an easy step to take. I had learned from many spaces in society that my opinion did not matter, that my demands were unrealistic, and that even my body was something that I should hide, feel ashamed of, and that politics are all about being visible and having opinions. As an activist, I was afraid that politics would affect that role negatively, and I’m still confused sometimes whether I should take the activist to the parliament or leave it at home. But obviously the activist is too pushy to be left at home! It gets really frustrated, right?
I was also very proud to be one of the very few disabled women in a position of power because even though I have brilliant co-members in my political party, and colleagues elsewhere in politics, sometimes it feels very lonely to be there. One of the reasons, I believe, is that my background is so much different from many others there, and my background obviously shapes my opinions and my views. It’s not only my background, per se, but the groups I identify with. Disabled people around the globe have a history of being oppressed, excluded, and stigmatized. Disabled women are exposed to multiple systems of oppression on the grounds of disability and gender, and possibly other factors. Diverse research shows that often, disabled women lack resources, appropriate services, and access and are exposed to a great amount of stigma and violence concerning their bodies, independence, sexuality, and humanity. That easily deprives us of opportunities to control our lives, participate in society, work or study, and be mobile. Various studies have shown that oppression affects disabled women more than nondisabled women and disabled men. Iceland is far behind when it comes to disability rights. We’ve not ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, even though we signed it eight years ago. Only a small portion of disabled people have the use of personal assistance. Most people live in segregated housing or are dependent on their families. This particular issue of course limits opportunities for disabled people to get an education, work, do activism, live independently, participate in politics, and influence society.
A report from 2013 by Andre Lawson, a professor of law at the University of Leeds, titled, “Access to and Accessibility of Citizenship Participation of People with Disabilities in Europe” suggests that Iceland lacks legal framework, policy, laws, and good practices related to political participation of disabled people. You can vote, but half of the material or information is inaccessible. You can choose whom to assist you with voting, but only if you express yourself, as the voting act states, clearly. I’m not sure what “clearly” means. I don’t understand how that changes your political opinions, and I would say choosing your own assistance would be especially important for this group of disabled people. You can run for parliament, but the parliament building is very inaccessible. You can run for elections, but you can’t count on good access everywhere you need, even in the places you think will be safe, like the events for women in politics in your political party. This is clearly something we need to change. We not only need to ratify the Convention but put in practice our obligations. It’s important to focus on women and be aware that to access political rights, you have to have social rights. It’s important to discuss this while we celebrate that hundred years have passed since women got their voting rights. The thing is, only some women got their voting rights. For that reason, many disabled women, including myself, don’t’ relate to the celebration strongly because many of us still don’t have these rights in reality, and it’s not just a disability issue; it’s a gender issue, too. We have to work towards gender equality by intersecting different systems of oppression, of seeing how they influence each other and overlap. That is the responsibility of the international level, the EU level, the Icelandic government, local authorities, academics, and social movements.
A friend of mine told me recently that a women active in the feminist movement had complained about disabled women not understanding that ableism and sexism were separate issues to tackle in different spaces. I was speechless. Disabled women cannot pull themselves apart that sometimes they are only women and sometimes they are only disabled just to fit some structure of disability and feminist movements that somebody else lacking your experience makes. As a feminist disability activist, I realized that I could not only fight for a part of my group and leave someone out, for example people with intellectual impairment, because we are not “we” and “them.” We are “us” together. We are far from being all the same, but we do share the experience of being marginalized and excluded in a way that makes every step towards power over our bodies, our lives, a hard one. As Kimberly Williams Granshaw, an American scholar in the field of critical race theory and a professor, said, “When we don’t pay attention to the margins, when we don’t acknowledge that intersection, when the places of power overlap, we not only fail to see the women who fall between our movements, we sometimes repeat our movements against each other.” I know it’s’ not always going to be easy, and we’re going to have difficult discussions, but it’s not going to be harder than all of us being more or less powerless. It would still be the case if we approached gender equality as a singular struggle. We need each other, not only to demand space and power but to take it. Nobody is going to give it to us. I, like Audre Lorde, a Black, queer feminist activist with a visual impairment, believe that we can pass through that by admitting, respecting and celebrating that women, as she phrased it, don’t live in secrecy lives.
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