Q&A with Freyja Haraldsdóttir, Icelandic Disability and Women’s Rights Advocate

Updated: November 2018
Headshot photo of Freyja Haraldsdóttir

Freyja Haraldsdóttir has had a leading role in Iceland’s political life as an activist, political party member and temporary member of parliament. As a woman with a disability, Freyja has advocated for solutions to the intersectional barriers faced by persons with multiple social identities in Iceland. The interview with Freyja is lightly edited below.


You previously worked as a temporary member of parliament. What motivated you to accept this position? What can you tell us about your experience as a woman with a disability who served as a temporary member of parliament? 


I was offered [the opportunity] to run for parliament for a new liberal democratic political party, Bright Future, in Iceland in 2013 and I accepted the challenge. My work in disability activism and my passion for change was the main motivation. I was tired of non-disabled people being the ones making big decisions on the behalf of disabled people in powerful positions and I wanted a seat at the table. I also wanted to see if party politics was a platform that could be used to push things forward for disability justice.


Also, I had been [collaborating] with a parliamentarian, Guðmundur Steingrímsson, who was leading Bright Future, in our fight for independent living and personal assistance in Iceland. He was one of the very few politicians that truly and authentically supported our struggle and was willing to work with us and involve us every step of the way. Our developing collaboration and friendship therefore gave me a new perspective on politics and impacted my decision to run.


I was not elected full time, but became a substitute parliamentarian and took a seat in parliament three times during the next three years, or until we had elections again, and I decided not to run. Overall, my experience in parliament was positive.


The Icelandic Parliament is very inaccessible and I found it hard to get around. I could not access the [podium] so I had to make speeches from my seat. This situation did not change until I had finished my time there. I sensed that some people were quite ableist which became apparent as people expressed surprise about me being there, asking whether this job was hard for me and whether I was tired. In a way, this [created] a double standard for me in which I felt I needed to prove myself more than others and be absolutely perfect.


On the other hand, I enjoyed this work and found that my knowledge, expertise and experience was important and impactful, and that I had many opportunities to use my power and privilege as a parliamentarian to affect change. Also, the parliamentary party I belonged to was very supportive and trusting, and showed great solidarity, which was really important to me.


I eventually withdrew myself from politics, mostly because belonging to a political party was difficult for me as a feminist disability activist, and chose to devote myself to activism and now academic work. For me, this was the right thing to do and this decision gave me the freedom I needed to be more true to myself.


This does not change the fact that I believe political participation of disabled people is essential for disability justice. I would not rule out getting back into party politics in the future. There is no real democracy without diverse representation from people across the margins. We need disabled people’s political voices and action on all political levels all the time.


How have you addressed the intersection of rights of women and rights of persons with disabilities in your advocacy?


I am both a scholar and an activist, and I emphasize intersectionality in my teaching, research and activism at all levels. I have researched the experiences of disabled women and explored the intersections of class, gender, sexuality and race. I also run, alongside Embla Guðrúnar Ágústsdóttir, an intersectional feminist disability movement called Tabú which focuses on social justice work with and for disabled people who experience multiple oppressions. When I was a member of parliament, I worked hard to approach every topic—whether it was a disability issue or not—from an intersectional perspective.


What challenges have you encountered while advocating for the rights of women and persons with disabilities?


I think the main problem we face is the tendency to see disability as a single-issue struggle, which it is not. Disabled people are a diverse group of individuals with different backgrounds and identities and they are a part of every single aspect of each society. Yes, our struggles are in many ways collective, and we share a story, but it is so important to acknowledge dimensions of multiple oppression and intersectionality. Social justice work needs to be inclusive and overlap, which means that social movements need to be willing to work together with respect to our differences, but also in solidarity through those differences. In Iceland, one of our biggest problems is that most disability organizations are not run by disabled people themselves, but mostly parents of disabled people or non-disabled professionals. The very few organizations run by disabled people themselves lack resources to become sustainable. This worries me deeply. We cannot afford to lose disability activists from our disability justice spaces due to burn-out or total exhaustion--not a single one.


Through your experiences, what is the biggest barrier to gaining access to political participation for women with disabilities? What steps would you consider necessary to address this barrier?


I think we need to look both at the big picture and then basic ‘technical’ solutions. Disabled women in Iceland are violated against on almost every level. They are often institutionalized or rely solely on family members due to the lack of community support and personal assistance. They either don’t have access to or have very limited access to sign language interpretation or other communication support when they need it. This leads to a lack of opportunities to [access] higher education, discrimination within the labor market and barriers to participating in politics. Then there are the barriers around having the opportunity to vote, to access events hosted by political parties, and being able to read and understand the information political parties base their policies and work on.


I think also accessibility in terms of mobility and mental health is lacking in politics because often the environment is very inaccessible and [society] holds conservative views around working hours, work speed and ways to work. In this case, like any other, I think we cannot look at specific rights in isolation. For me, for example, the right to participate in politics is interlinked with my rights to wheelchair access, accessible transportation and personal assistance.


What message might you share with future leaders about participation or representation of women with disabilities?


Disability is a feminist issue and feminist issues are disability issues. We need to secure accessibility, support and freedom from violence and stigma for disabled people of all genders. But we also need to take disabled women’s accounts seriously and create spaces of solidarity and empowerment where we have the power to define our lives and ourselves.