On October 24, 1975, women in Iceland went on a one day strike and stopped performing all forms of work. On that day, known as “Women’s Day Off,” women refused to cook, clean, wash clothes or care for children. They also refused to perform any paid work.
The country came to a standstill. At first, men thought it was some sort of a joke. But then schools closed because most teachers were on strike, flights were canceled due to a lack of stewardesses, newspapers closed because their typists were on the streets protesting, phone lines were blocked because no one was there to connect the calls and easy-to-cook meals were sold out at the stores, because that was the best most fathers could do in the kitchen.
The effects were enormous and are still felt decades later. A Gender Equality Bill was passed the following year and five years later Iceland elected not just its first woman president, but the first woman president in Europe. President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir stayed in office for 16 years. In a frequently mentioned incident, a little boy in Iceland heard about the election of U.S. President Ronald Reagan and was quoted as crying out “he can’t be president, he is a man.”
The consequential effects of the 1975 strike did not come just from demonstrating women’s economic power in the world of paid work — the societal changes came from women’s refusal to carry out unpaid care work. The strike led to the societal recognition of “care labor” performed by women as fundamental to human and social well-being, as well as for economic development. Today, Iceland is a global leader in gender equality.
Women in Kosovo spend 44% more time performing unpaid care work than men.
Coming 47 years and 1 day after that momentous strike, the Musine Kokalari Institute for Social Policy, where I work, published the first country-wide study on the magnitude and societal perceptions of unpaid care work in Kosovo.
The study shows that women in Kosovo, on average, spend 6.2 hours a day performing unpaid care work, whereas men spend 3.5 hours performing similar work. This means that women spend 44% more time performing this work than men. The value of unpaid care work is estimated to equal roughly 33% of Kosovo’s GDP.
Focus groups conducted as part of the study revealed a deeply-rooted idea about gender roles in Kosovar society: unpaid care work is widely seen as women’s work. Whether it is childcare duties, caring for the elderly or house chores, it is all seen as the woman’s responsibility.
“In our home it’s different,“ one young man from Prishtina explained. “My mother works, so I take care of everything.” Even statements like this that on the surface seem enlightened contain gendered ideas about labor. In his home things are “different” from the assumed norm because a man is doing household chores, and the implication is that if his mother was not employed, those duties would fall on her.
Another respondent, an older man, said: “To wash dishes, it’s a woman’s job, not a man’s. If my wife can’t do it, I will, but if she can, why should I? If I do this for her, she will end up watching movies.”
Why is it a problem for this man if his wife watches movies? I was only an observer so I couldn’t ask him directly, all I could do is speculate. Would she start to get new ideas or inspiration? Would it be a problem for him if she expanded her intellectual horizons?
In relation to this, focus group participants were asked whether women are naturally better at unpaid care work than men. Most said yes. One retired man from Prishtina told the group about his wife. “I helped her out a lot, but she never asks for help because it is in her spirit [to do chores],” he said, “this is just how she is.”
The belief that care work is in the nature of women is at the core of patriarchal conservativism. But many women shared this view as well.
"My eyes can’t take it to see my husband cleaning," one woman said, looking almost disgusted.
“My husband is willing to help […] he is my right hand, he helps me out a lot,” said a woman from Vushtrri. The key word here is “willing.” Contributing to the household is up to the will of the husband, it seems. For him, it is a choice. Generally, husbands who help out around the house were seen almost as heroes.
“My husband helps me out even though he is a policeman, he helps out in any way he can sometimes,” explained a woman in Prishtina. What, I wondered, does being a police officer have to do with household chores? The husband is not only “a man” in this case, but also a figure of authority, hence not obliged to wash his own clothes or shine his own shoes.
One woman said she is categorically against her husband helping out around the house. “My eyes can’t take it to see my husband dusting up or cleaning,” she said, looking almost disgusted. Deeply entrenched gender stereotypes have influenced our attraction towards others as well, it seems.
The “men as breadwinners” and “women as caregivers” model is clearly dominant in Kosovar society. Women are not only unemployed, but highly inactive in the labor market. Studies reveal that childcare duties are the main reason women stay at home and remain inactive.
But one woman in the focus group wasn’t having it when she was referred to as unemployed. “They say women are unemployed because they are not working, not bringing a wage home and thus you are unemployed,” she said. “They call me unemployed, but I am 24 hours at my family’s disposal, doing everything for them.”
Unpaid care work can also be referred to as reproductive work. While labor force produces goods and services, reproductive work produces the labor force and encompasses a vast amount of activities necessary for human and societal development.
We saw in our research that parents are reproducing existing gender norms about distinctions in care activities in the next generation. “My kids are great, they help us out in everything” said a man in Prishtina, representative of these parents, “my girl helps my wife in the kitchen and my boy helps me out in the garden.”
The gendered division of labor and unequal distribution of time spent performing unpaid care work at home are at the root of gender inequality in society and in paid work. Furthermore, the heavy burden of unpaid care work has severe consequences on individuals’ health and well-being, especially for women. But even men can suffer emotionally from this system. One man in the focus group said that after his wife had an accident at work he had to pick up the burden. “Everyone says to me you are not a man because you do women’s work,” he said.
The questions are: what do we do about the intergenerational transmission of traditional gender roles? What can we learn from other societies?
In Iceland, they’ve implemented an approach in kindergartens to try to break the transmission of gender stereotypes. They teach young girls no older than two years old to work outside with hammers and nails and to roll in the mud as well, because why not? It surely sounds like fun.
While girls are encouraged to be self-sufficient, boys are taught to express their feelings. “We hope to enable them to become sensitive and emotional and this way we hope to fight toxic masculinities,” one teacher says in a news piece about the program. “In our boys’ class […] there is a much broader concept of how a boy can be.”
Gender inequality in the labor market mirrors gender inequality at home.
Keeping this in mind, let’s think back to National Teacher’s Day on March 7, 2022 when Kosovo’s Prime Minister said, “If our mother is our first teacher, then our first teacher is our second mother.
“What we are today […] depends on our relation to these two personalities. Our mother and our teacher,” he continued, using the feminine form of teacher in Albanian. This nostalgic idealization of motherhood interwoven with education from our Prime Minister demonstrates our society’s current standpoint on the issue. It is almost ironic how representative he is.
The public debate on gender equality has largely been focused on women’s representation in the public sphere. But inequality emerges from the household and needs to be addressed from a bottom-up approach. Gender inequality in the labor market mirrors gender inequality at home, but it cannot solely be addressed only by advocating for women’s employment, or by introducing policies that only reinforce the existing gender norms, such as the recent government support for maternal leave that assumes only women will stay home with their children.
Every action for women’s rights and economic empowerment need to come from a care-centered policy approach. So, before our representatives in the Assembly meet on the next International Women’s Day, let’s demand they officially recognize unpaid care work as a form of labor on March 8, 2023.
Feature image: K2.0.
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