‘You must be tired!’: multiple oppression and disabled women’s fight for civil rights

‘You must be tired!’: multiple oppression and disabled women’s fight for civil rights

‘You must be tired’ – he said as he stood there with his hair all messed up, his tie loose and his shirt wrinkled. In his face I could read a mixture of pity and amazement. It was my first week as a vice parliamentarian in 2013 and it was the last day before the closing of parliament over the summertime. We had been working from 9’o clock in the morning and now the time was 1:30 the next morning. I hadn’t managed to go 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 in to the chamber. At about 10 o’ clock in the evening I asked a 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 women and because I constantly felt I had to proof 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 surprised that I was intelligent enough to be in parliament. Some people also talked to me like I was a child. It ether annoyed me or made me laugh each time but still I seemed to 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 is challenging, was not at all as straining as being an activist. It is also a job I enjoy when I step in, working with a lot of people, offers something new to learn everyday and can be very fast. A job where I really 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 on us as their representatives in politics. But off course I was tired. I was tired from the job and of answering stupid questions like his. ‘I feel just as tired as you look,’ – I finally said. He laughed and walked of embarrassed.

My privileges

Even though these incidence present the ableism and sexism I have experienced as a disabled woman politician I believe it is important for me also 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 inclusive neighbourhood schools and was never institutionalized. I’m also a white, straight, cis-gendered woman labelled with physical impairment and have had personal assistance for eight years now. This has given me opportunities to work on the open labour market and to study in universities both here in Iceland and England. I have participated in activism of some sort for the last ten years where I have meet many of the disability activists that are in a leading role globally. I learned about disability studies and gender studies early and 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 know Guðmundur Steingrímsson, who was then among other people, starting a new political party called Bright Future, which I am 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 it is important to mention this because Iceland tends to brag a lot about it self, well at least ministers and people in power. We like to present ourselves as some kind of paradise when it becomes to welfare issues, human rights, gender equality and celebration of queer people. And then they use the few examples, like my political participation, to justify that everything is fine. Even though role models are important for everyone, especially underrepresented groups, the problem with them is that they are sometimes the exception, not the norm, and most people don’t realize what they have gone through to get there or where they come from. Iceland can off course be proud of many things and should be – but we cant look away from the fact that when research is done and data is gathered, e.g. for the gender gap, disabled women and other marginalized women are seldom given an opportunity to participate and don’t have a seat at the table. So the rankings are biased. Men can not properly tell women’s stories just like none disabled white straight cis gendered women cant tell the stories of marginalized women.

Activism, disability, gender and party politics

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 where unrealistic and even terrorist, that my body was something I should hide and feel ashamed of. And politics are all about being visible and having opinions. As an activist I was afraid that politics would impact 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 to bossy to be left at home and gets really frustrated when I try. I was also afraid 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 then many others in politics and my background obviously shapes my opinions and views. It’s not only my background per say 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 we often lack resources, appropriate services, and access and are exposed to a great amount of stigma concerning our 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 research has shown that oppression affects disabled women more then nondisabled women and disabled men.

Iceland is far behind when it comes to disability rights. We have not ratified the convention of the rights of persons with disabilities even though we signed it 8 years ago. Only a small portion of disabled people have user-led personal assistance, most disabled people live in segregated housing or are dependent on their families. This particular issue of course limits opportunities for disabled people to gain education, work on the open labor market, do activism, live independently, participate in politics and influence it’s society. A report from 2013 by Anna Lawson, a professor of law in the University of Leeds titled ‘Access to and Accessibility of Citizenship and Political Participation of People with Disabilities in Europe suggests that Iceland lacks legal framework, policy, knowledge and good practice related to political participation of disabled people. You can vote but often the material or information is inaccessible. You can choose who assists 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 think 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 cant count on good access everywhere you need to go, even in places you think you would be save, like in events for women in politics or in your own political party. This clearly needs to change. We not only need to ratify the convention but also 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.

We need each other

It’s important to discuss this while we celebrate that 100 years have past 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 this celebration strongly, because many of us still don’t have this right in reality. That’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 and seeing how they influence each other and overlap. That is the responsibility of the international level, the EU level, the Icelandic government, local authorities, academia and social movements. A friend of mine told me recently that a woman 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 and pretend that sometimes they are only women and sometimes they are only disabled – just to fit some structure of disability or feminist movements that somebody else, lacking our experience, made.

As a feminist disability activist I soon realized that I could not only fight for a part of my group and leave out e.g. women with intellectual impairments. Because we are not ‘we’ and ‘them’, we are ‘us’ together. We are far from being all the same but we share this experience of being marginalized and excluded in a way that makes every step towards power over our bodies and lives a hard one. As Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, 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 the intersection, where the places of power overlap, we not only fail to see the women who fall between our movements, sometimes we pit our movements against each other.’ I know it is not always going to be easy and we are going to have difficult discussions. But it’s not going to be harder then all of us being more or less powerless – which will be the case if we approach gender equality as a single issue struggle. We need each other to not only demand space and power but to take it. I, like Audre Lorde, a black queer feminist activist with a visual impairment, believe that we can best do that by admitting, respecting and celebrating that women, as she phrased it; ‘don’t live single issue lives.’

A speech held by Freyja Haraldsdóttir 23.10.2015 at an International Conference Celebrating the Centenary of Women’s Suffrage in Iceland titled ‘100 years of Women’s Civil Rights’.