Iceland women tackle rape and ‘pornification’

As Iceland celebrates 100 years of women’s suffrage, some women launch social media campaigns to demand more progress.

Iceland women
Icelandic women demanded more progress in women's rights [Lowana Veal/Al Jazeera]

Reykjavik, Iceland – Women in Iceland walked the streets of Reykjavik on Saturday, June 25 during the annual Slut Walk to demand an end to attitudes that condone sexual violence and demand a judicial system that effectively deals with such crimes in the largest ever such gathering in the country.

Women’s issues have come to the forefront in Iceland this year as the country celebrates 100 years of women’s suffrage .

On June 19,  Icelanders flocked to the centre of Reykjavik and other town centres for events linked to the centenary of women winning the right to vote. Outside the parliament building, a statue was unveiled of Ingibjorg Bjarnason, the first woman to be elected as an MP in 1923.

The world’s first democratically elected female president, Vigdis Finnbogadottir – who served from 1980 to 1996 – spoke to the crowd from the parliament building. And a women’s choir sung the rousing political song “Afram Stelpur” (Onwards, Women).

 Vigdis Finnbogadottir, the world's first female president   [Lowana Veal/Al Jazeera]
Vigdis Finnbogadottir, the world’s first female president  [Lowana Veal/Al Jazeera]

But in addition to the official activities, young Icelandic women have used social media networks to spark debate on issues such as sexual violence and pornification – the increasing acceptance and occurrence of sexual themes in mainstream culture. 

This started with #FreeTheNipple, which began when 17-year-old high school student Adda Smaradottir decided to make a statement regarding an artistic picture of a woman’s breast that had been edited out of her school magazine.

“The feminist association at school called for Free the Nipple Day,” she said, in which girls were invited to go to school without wearing a bra.

“That was supposed to happen on March 26. But on March 24, I was a bit angry and irritated about not being able to behave and dress myself like a man. I posted a picture of myself [on Twitter] bare-breasted, which started the ball rolling,” explained Smaradottir.

“Some of the comments were vicious, but then more and more pictures appeared and the issue started to get attention,” Smaradottir said.

This social media campaign only lasted a few days in March, but the issue remained hotly discussed into April.

Another one-day event was held in June, in which bare-breasted women sat on the grass outside the Althingi, Iceland’s parliament.

Naming the perpetrators

Meanwhile, a closed Facebook group called Beauty Tips began to take on the issue of sexual violence in Iceland.

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Group discussions took a U-turn when 20-year-old make-up artist Gudrun Helga Gudbjartsdottir asked whether anyone had been preyed on by a certain lawyer who was known for his womanising.


She said that for the next several days after her post, many women shared their stories of sexual abuse, both by the lawyer and by others. Women then started recounting their own personal experiences of sexual abuse on Twitter and Facebook.

Edda Yr Gardarsdottir, a member of the Beauty Tips group, worked with a graphic designer to initiate a Facebook action in which women removed their profile photos and exchanged them for coloured facial symbols to demonstrate whether they had been subjected to sexual violence (orange) or knew someone who had been sexually abused (yellow).

Gardarsdottir got the idea from the play Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler.

“At the end of the play, people in the audience were asked to stand up if they had been raped, then if a close friend or relative had been raped, then if it had happened to a friend or acquaintance,” she told.

“Eventually everyone in the theatre stood up, which was heartbreaking but amazing at the same time,” she told Al Jazeera.

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A 2013 study by Hildur Antonsdottir and Thorbjorg Gunnlaugsdottir, who at the time were both affiliated with the University of Iceland, found that of the 189 cases of rape that were reported to police in 2008 and 2009, only 21 cases ended with a conviction for rape.

Furthermore, Antonsdottir pointed out that “based on reports and research from victim support services, the number of rapes in total was much higher”.

Gudrun Jonsdottir of Sigamot, one of the main organisations in Iceland that deals with incest, rape and sexual assault, said the Beauty Tips action shows that women are breaking away from the women-are-to-blame attitude:

“They are not just describing what happened: They are naming the perpetrators, which is also very important,” Jonsdottir said. At least one perpetrator has publicly apologised in a newspaper.

A different perspective

Amid the official centenary celebrations last month, some of those present had a more critical take.

A group of silent protesters stood: some holding placards, others with their faces painted yellow or orange. They were members of a Facebook group called Activism against Rape Culture (ARC), which had arisen out of Beauty Tips.

Saga Kjartansdottir, one of the women who initiated the action, told Al Jazeera that several women from ARC were concerned that discussion surrounding the centenary on women’s issues would fizzle out before any substantial changes had taken place.

“The day before we met, the government had said that they intended to legislate against the nurses’ strike,” Kjartansdottir said.

“Nurses were resigning in droves and now a law was going to be set to deprive them – this women’s profession – of the right to strike,” said Kjartansdottir.

Kjartansdottir said her planning group was appalled that the Icelandic government was celebrating the centenary with hardly any mention of the battles women still face, such as lower wages: According to a report written for Iceland’s welfare ministry and published this May, men’s wages are 17.4 percent higher than women’s.

“Gender-based pay differences and sexual violence against women have the same roots: Both result from power differences between the genders,” she argued.

“So I, and a few others, turned up at City Hall with yellow and orange paint and said that anyone could use it,” Kjartansdottir said.

“The idea was the same as that of the profile campaign – to make sexual violence visible, so it cannot be ignored… Rapes and sexual harassment appear to be almost part of daily reality for women, Kjartansdottir said.

Society must remember that, when celebrating how much has been achieved in the women’s rights campaign.”

Source: Al Jazeera