Last weekend, landmark events in women’s history were celebrated in Iceland.
On October 24, we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Women’s Day Off, an event organzed by the Icelandic feminist movement, the Rauðsokkur, or Women in Red Socks.
On that day, thousands of women gathered in the center of Reykjavík city on a workday to protest the inequality women faced in the work place, and in particular in regard to salary and the general demand for respect in the work force.
On October 24th, I didn’t attend a celebration of a kind but I did go to see Stúlkurnar á Kleppjárnsreykjum or The Situation Girls, a documentary about women and girls convicted in a court of law for indecent association with soldiers based in Iceland during the Second World War.
And if you were thinking you misread the last paragraph, I repeat, women and young working class girls in particular, were convicted in court for associating with soldiers lacking the oh-so-important Icelandic bloodline.
I invited my dad to come with me and after the documentary, he remarked that he certainly heard the deregotary terms used for women –evendecades after the event – who associated with the soldiers based here during the war.
What was strange to learn is that the state persecution - and there is no denying that’s the very nature of this nationalistic campaign against females associating with soldiers –was lead by Jóhanna Knudsen, a registered nurse who became the first female police officer in Iceland.
She was appointed by Hermann Jónasson the prime minister who was also the Minister of Justice. Alongside Jóhanna, he and other prominent members of society evoked a nationalistic antipathy against girls and women seen in suspicious interaction with soldiers of a foreign bloodline.
Jóhanna was appointed April 7, 1942, a day that was to become my birthday some 38 years later, and her track record as the first female police officer is in my opinion stained with grotesque abuse of power that led to lifetime condemnation of the women and girls she persecuted.
These women wore the scarlet letter for decades after the war, and many struggled throughout their life with the identity society gave them. The girls mentioned in the documentary were aged 13 to 16 at the time, innocent children and youths.
The number of women aged 12 to 61 investigated and even convicted for what the authorities viewed as prostitution of a kind, were sent to the countryside to work on farms and eventually to a home in Kleppjárnsreykir in Borgarfjörður.
Following the making of the documentary, there is a loud call for an official apology from Icelandic authorities. Whether that call will be heard or not, depends, in my opinion, on how much attention the call for justice for these women and their families is given in the media.
In this day and age, it should be a priority to acknowledge the injustice these women suffered, and to focus on the source of the persecution. The persecution, in my opinion and that of many others, is that the source was nationalism and the preservation of purity in the bloodline.
An argument too familiar in wartimes.
This particular period in Icelandic history is in part of interest to me because had I been born late in the 19th century or in the early decades of the 20th century, my younger sister and I might very well have been among them.
We both have partners of foreign descent, both of whom have been welcomed bythe family. And we’re not the only ones, that’s for sure.
It goes without saying that the men who were employed by the military and were therefore by association “involved” with the military, were met with no judgment by society.
On Friday, I proudly participated in a feminist performance called Birta, or Light, this past Friday at noon. This was a performance that took place at a conference that was held in Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavík.
One hundred women took the stage before the Women’s Civil Rights in the Past, Present and Future conference continued, each one lighting a light that represented the importance of keeping the light of our cause lit.
The point was to vocalize some of the stories of violence against women in recent months, stories told by the women themselves to unburden the shame cast upon them, and while doing so, commemorate the centennial anniversary of women’s right to vote in Iceland.
It was a beautiful moment I will remember forever.
Júlíana Björnsdóttir – [email protected]