The safest place in the world to be a woman? Try telling that to these Icelandic activists | Sexual harassment
Iceland is often called the best place in the world to be a woman, as well as the safest country in the world. But many Icelandic women roll their eyes in frustration at such claims.
“It’s shit,” says Hulda Hrund Guðrúnar Sigmundsdóttir, 35. “It has been shoved down our throats since we were little. We are told we are so safe, while at the same time our mothers warn us not to talk to men.
Sigmundsdóttir is a member of Öfgar, a new feminist group made up of nine Icelandic women who have collected and shared anonymous stories of sexual violence by powerful men. Their recent actions have taken the small country by storm and sparked a resurgence in the #MeToo movement.
Over the past year, several Icelandic men in positions of power have resigned or been fired over allegations of harassment, misconduct or sexual offenses. The list includes men who have worked in media, politics, business and football, as well as others in positions of power. Some apologized but most denied the allegations against them.
Sigmundsdóttir says Iceland’s longstanding reputation as a feminist paradise has prevented women like her from speaking out about abuse. “It’s a tactic of silence,” she said. “We are told we should be grateful because other countries have it worse than us.”
One in four women in the country have been raped or sexually assaulted, according to a study by the University of Iceland, which included more than 20,000 participants. This is more than the estimates for the EU and UK.
In addition to this, many women feel that the justice system is working against them when it comes to allegations of gender-based violence, with the vast majority of cases reported to the police not going to trial and few resulting in a conviction. A number of women even went so far as to sue Iceland in the human rights court, accusing it of failing to protect them from gender-based violence.
That’s why Öfgar – which means “radical” or “extreme” in English – decided to take matters into his own hands during his training last summer.
Öfgar started when the women, who are all survivors of sexual assault, started talking on a feminist Facebook group and decided to create a TikTok account together. At first, they released educational videos on consent and sex education. But when they say they received 32 assault allegations against the same Icelandic musician, they decided to publish the women’s stories. He denied the allegations.
“Overnight, the ball started rolling very fast,” said Helga Ben, 28, one of the group’s members. Since then, hundreds of survivors have shared their stories.
They also attacked Icelandic football, promoting a sexual abuse allegation against a men’s national team striker. After their campaign, the entire Icelandic Football Association board resigned over the alleged cover-up.
Öfgar says he verifies that the women who write to them are real by looking up their names in the “Book of Icelanders,” a database that contains genealogical information for most of the Icelandic population. He says he also verifies the claims by going through old social media posts.
In addition to sharing allegations, Öfgar met with members of the media in Iceland and tried to persuade them to change the way they write about survivors of sexual violence. “We had a meeting with one of the biggest media in Iceland [DV] and we organized a masterclass,” says Sigmundsdóttir. “They promised to do better – and they did.”
In Iceland, women who report abuse are often “slutshamed”, says Ólöf Tara Harðardóttir. So people find it easier to speak anonymously with Öfgar as a buffer. “Survivors feel they can trust us,” says Ben.
In a small country where everyone knows each other, women have encountered a backlash. “The media portrayed us as angry women and money-hungry attention whores,” says Harðardóttir. “They use the ugliest images they can get from us.”
Öfgar’s women also say they have received death threats, as well as calls begging them to stop. “I received phone calls saying they knew where I lived,” says Harðardóttir. “I also got messages on Instagram saying I should kill myself. We got an email saying someone will eventually die if you don’t stop.
Þórhildur Gyða Arnarsdóttir, 26, says she was also abused. “When you step forward with your name, you get these vicious attacks. The comment sections are horrible. You’re ashamed of the bitch,” she says.
In public forums, people wrote that they should be shot, raped or sent to Afghanistan. Ben says some posts also involve people following them and taking pictures.
Sigmundsdóttir says some of the abuse scares him. “Loved the time that Covid [rules] made us wear masks,” she says. “Because we were hidden.”
However, the group insists that it will not stop them. “For me, it’s not a choice,” says Tanja M Ísfjörð, 27, another member. “We have to do this.” “We’ve had enough,” says Harðardóttir. “We have to stand up and say, ‘it’s going to stop here, we’re not going to be afraid of you’.”