Fighting for a New Culture. How Activism is Needed to Gain Peace in the Fight Against Sexual Violence
Author: Kolfinna Tómasdóttir
Translated into Spanish by Ana Elena Acon
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change
the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead
In May 2011, a Canadian police officer gave women the ill-judged advice to avoid dressing like sluts to avoid being sexually assaulted. It is obviously a very serious matter that someone, who is supposed to ensure the safety of all citizens, puts this responsibility and shame on victims, and the world did not let it slide. This led to a new protest movement, the SlutWalk, where about 2.000 people, some dressed casually and others more provocatively, took part in the marches in Toronto.
In wake of the march, protests erupted all around the world with groups of women dressed as “sluts” to draw attention to the absurdity of the police officer’s comments. The protests soon developed into an organized and regular SlutWalks to call for an end to rape culture, victim blaming and slut shaming of the victims of sexual assault. The SlutWalk movement has generated extensive media coverage and sparked social discussion and debates worldwide.
The SlutWalk is a grassroot movement that started with young women but has gained broader support within different societies. A part of the message has been an expression through the clothing and appearance of participants to communicate that they are tired of being oppressed by slut-shaming, being judged by their sexuality and feeling unsafe. Being in charge of one’s own sexual life should not mean that one is opening oneself to an expectation of violence. The protestors have been challenging the societal conception that the way women dress can be a reason for men’s rape of women.
Iceland as the most Gender Equal Country in the World
Activists in Iceland were quick to show solidarity with the protestors in Canada and marched the first SlutWalk in Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland, in July 2011. Activism by definition is “the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to initiate change” and can play a major role in situations where change is needed (Abdalla and Sender, 2019, p.85).
In regard to the SlutWalk in Canada, the aim was to eradicate the prejudices that are reflected in the emphasis on dress code and the condition of victims in discussions about sexual violence. Thus, the organizers of the march wanted to draw attention to the fact that the perpetrators are the ones who are responsible for sexual violence, not the victims. The SlutWalk in Iceland grew fast and has protested a wide range of issues, from prejudices towards victims’ dress code, to demanding changes to the criminal code and that the Courts of Iceland take sexual abuse more seriously.
In Iceland, injustice is not met quietly. An example of this is when a group of protestors cleaned the outside walls and stairs of the Supreme Court of Iceland after a ruling in a serious sexual assault case in 2013. The aim was to clean the dirt of the Supreme Court’s view towards sexual violence for the future of the nation. In that particular case, a group of people assaulted a woman in her home; one of the perpetrators put a finger in the victim’s vagina, and another in her anus and pinched hard between (Prosecutor v. Andrea Kristín Unnarsdóttir, X, Elías Valdimar Jónsson, Y and Jón Ólafsson). Even though the victim felt sexually assaulted, the Court saw this as only a physical assault, not a sexual one. At this point, something changed. Society could not stay silent anymore and the only way forward was change.
Iceland is the frontrunner in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index for the 11th year in a row. Despite ranking at the top, there is still contempt for discrimination of women and rape culture within the society. Those problems are often taken out of context or underestimated, but they are extremely serious and need to be eradicated (Steinþórsdóttir and Pétursdóttir, 2019, p. 16). I find it incomprehensible that gender-based violence is missing from the measurements of the Global Gender Gap Index, since the unequal power relations between men and women manifests through rape.
An Icelandic research article from 2019 by Finnborg Salome Steinþórsdóttir, Postdoctoral Appointee, and Gyða Margrét Pétursdóttir, Professor in Gender Studies at the University of Iceland, states that sexual violence is a norm in Iceland. Furthermore, the article states that the frequency of sexual offenses, as well as the inaction of the government, sheds light on how rape is normalized. Society is aware that this problem exists, but at the same time little is being done to combat it. Rape is considered almost inevitable, something that can be avoided if you just watch out for yourself. It is important to keep in mind that this is a gendered problem, as women are the majority of victims and men the majority of perpetrators (Steinþórsdóttir and Pétursdóttir, 2019, p. 16). After being successful in getting closer towards complete gender equality, one might wonder if backlash towards the feminist movement is taking Iceland backwards and what will happen from this point onward.
Women worldwide are subject to diverse types of violence. Violence against women represents a deep-rooted social problem that limits their ability in every aspect of life. Feminists have explained it to be a part of the hierarchical world order, but sexual and emotional abuse of women is a deep-rooted issue in many parts of the world (Jeong, 2000, p.75). In a perfect world, the SlutWalk would not be needed. But until gender-based violence is eliminated, the fight for change will continue. The ultimate goal of change is to build a world where each individual’s self-determination regarding sexual relations is respected. It is a world where we can all feel safe and where justice is served. A world where unwanted attention and unwanted touch is not taken lightly.
As mentioned earlier in the article, Iceland has truly had great success when it comes to gender equality. We are not at the end of the road yet, but after powerful protests and the demand for change through the SlutWalk in Iceland, those who are in charge started listening. Politicians woke up, the police wanted to do better, and the view of the courts even started to shift. Slowly but surely, something was moving in another direction.
In 2017, a bill was proposed to Parliament. The bill suggested that Article 194 of the Criminal Code would be amended in such a way that consent would be at the forefront of the definition of rape. In that way, the main emphasis on the method of rape, such as physical force, would be abandoned. Instead, more emphasis would be placed on sexual freedom and the individual’s right to self-determination by defining rape based on whether or not consent has been obtained (Parliamentary record: Þskj. 552 on amendments to the Criminal Code no. 19/1940, 146. lögþ. 2016-2017).
In 2018 the bill was approved unanimously, but one member of Parliament abstained. In February 2021, Parliament approved a change to the Criminal Code that anyone who distributes sexual images, or images involving nudity, without consent, can now face up to four years in prison. The bill was approved unanimously and is intended to address digital sexual violence by strengthening the legal protection of those who have been violated (Parliamentary record: Þskj. 296 on amendments to the Criminal Code no. 19/1940, 151. lögþ. 2020-2021).
Furthermore, it is now a criminal offense to threaten, follow, contact, or somehow stalk another person if the behavior is repeated and likely to cause fear or anxiety (Parliamentary record: Þskj. 864 on amendments to the Criminal Code no. 19/1940, 151. lögþ. 2020-2021). I believe that these changes would not be happening without the awareness that activist movements such as the SlutWalk and #MeToo have created.
These changes to the Criminal Code are a great example of how the Parliament reacted correctly to demands on change, demands that could have turned into a much larger and more difficult conflict. In this case, all political parties in Parliament chose to pursue this constructively while sharing the goal for a more just society. According to Ramsbotham, Woodhouse and Miall, this is the first element of the capacity to prevent conflict, that’s to say in the degree to which the goal was coordinated (Ramsbotham, Woodhouse and Miall, 2016, p. 146).
Even though it has been debated by professionals that the change regarding consent within the Icelandic Criminal Code will not change a lot regarding indictments and rulings in sexual assault cases, it will, nevertheless, state clearly that consent is needed. With that, one might hope that the message is clear and that the culture will change. Only time will tell how society will react to this change. In my opinion, the system needs to take more steps like this one. It cannot be that if the law does not spur change, a change is not needed. The message that the law gives and the tone it sets is, from my perspective, almost as important as the power it has. We need to feel that the law is protecting us and ensuring our rights. If the law does not reflect the views and actions of the average citizen, what is the end goal?
Paradise for Women?
Iceland is the most gender-equal country in the world, but there is still a mountain ahead. As mentioned, gender-based violence is not a part of the measurements for the Global Gender Gap Index, and through recent examples there is work that needs to be done.
A former Minister of Foreign Affairs, ambassador and a member of Parliament in Iceland has been accused of sexual violence, including against his own daughter. Recently, the Icelandic State agreed to pay his daughter 1,2 million ISK (app. 9.300 USD) in damages and 400.000 ISK (app. 2.600 USD) in legal fees regarding a decision of the Data Protection Authority, which came to the conclusion that the office of the Chief of Police in the capital area had violated the law by passing information about her to her father. Currently, a case where he is accused of sexual harassment towards an Icelandic woman in Spain, has been sent back to the District Court of Reykjavík from the Court of Appeal. The District Court previously dismissed the case on the grounds that the violation did not fit under the Spanish article on sexual harassment, but the Court of Appeal believes it does. Multiple women have accused this man of sexual violence, and the accusations date back to 1992, when he was an ambassador.
Another former Minister of Foreign Affairs took an active part in the UN HeForShe campaign by hosting a conference in 2015 aimed at involving men in gender equality and to eliminate violence against women. He was seen as an advocate for women’s rights, but a shadow was quickly cast on his work after he was recorded at a local bar in Reykjavík with other MPs, openly demeaning and dismissing their female colleagues in a misogynist way. That evening discredited his work towards gender equality, the work that shaped the Icelandic “paradise”.
On International Women’s Day, March 8th 2021, it was announced that nine Icelandic women had filed lawsuits against the Icelandic state before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). According to Steinunn Gyðu- og Guðjónsdóttir, a spokesperson of Stígamót, an Education and Counseling Center for Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Violence, the women had all previously reported their cases to the police. The cases include sexual violence, domestic violence, or sexual harassment, but the cases were dropped after a police investigation and that decision was confirmed by the public prosecutor. About 70-85% of these types of cases are even dismissed before they can enter the courtroom.
Stígamót regards this as systematic inequality and will first send in one case and then the next, on the same legal grounds, to show the ECtHR that this is not about one individual case that was screwed up, but that this is a continuous pattern. Even though the process can take years, this is a moment in history. This is the moment where enough is enough, and we will not accept that the victories we have achieved so far are enough. Iceland being the most Gender Equal country in the world is bad news for the whole world, because we need more.
Caring, compassion and nurturing are all feminine values that have enriched the conceptions of peace. The application of feminine values has, most importantly, to the radical transformation of an oppressive social order, served as an important principle in the struggle for achieving peace (Jeong, 2000, p.75). We need to continue the application of these values. Not only is the ultimate goal to make society safer for victims of sexual abuse, but we also need to have proper resources for perpetrators. They do need to come back to society as better individuals with deeper respect and understanding of each person’s self-determination, ready to take responsibility for their actions and to be a part of the solution. Without proper resources, we are not tackling the root of the problem and therefore going with the odds for the crime to be committed again.
In a perfect world, gender-based violence would not exist and the SlutWalk would be redundant. But until we get there, rather than telling women how to dress, how to not give the wrong signals or put themselves in dangerous situations, shouldn’t we be teaching men how to behave?
Past, Current, and Future Challenges
As many other countries, Iceland has come far in reaching gender equality – but no country has yet reached the end goal. The road to where we are today has been steep and not without setbacks, but there is still a mountain ahead of us.
As the topic of sources of conflicts has been long debated, we have heard statements to the direction that the cause of all conflict is caused by, for example, religion or money (Abdalla and Sender, 2019, p. 35). That is not always the case, since conflicts can be caused by multiple reasons.
In my opinion, the biggest challenge to overcome when changing rape culture, and the conflict that arises in those cases, is the view of not only possible perpetrators, but the societal views on sexual abuse as a whole.
Susan Brownmiller had a theory that violence against women was the basis of male domination of women. Not all men rape, but the fact that some do is enough for women to feel threatened. That is why the concept of rape affects all women (Brownmiller, 1975, p. 15) and society as a whole. The victims of violence, their family and friends who might experience various versions of stress, family and friends of perpetrators who experience shame and anger with the members of the local community that feels less secure (Koss, 2014, p. 1624). Threat leads to fear, and the fear of rape is an important part of rape culture. The fear of rape can hinder women and impair their freedom and therefore, it contributes to maintaining the subordinate position of women in society (Steinþórsdóttir and Pétursdóttir, 2014, p. 7-8).
Even though we believe that most people would say they are against sexual abuse, it is not that simple. The problem often lies with how seriously we take it. At this point it is not only about changing the view on how women dress, how drunk they are or if they were walking home alone in the middle of the night, but rather on how much responsibility society is ready to put on the perpetrators. Way too often the future of the perpetrator is considered too valuable to be ruined by what is said to be one small mistake. A lack of judgement. A drunken misunderstanding.
The worldwide known Stanford Rape Case (The People of the State of California v. Brock Allen Turner) proved just that. A young man who was a student at Stanford had sexually assaulted an unconscious intoxicated woman. When the perpetrator was convicted, he was facing up to 14 years in state prison. The prosecutors had asked for six years, but the judge ordered much less. The perpetrator received six months in county jail and three years of probation, since a harsher sentence would have a “severe impact” on him, a star swimmer, who could make it to the Olympics. Not all cases gain worldwide media attention and a heated debate like this case, but his case is the manifestation of the view that needs to change. This case is only a drop in the ocean that is filled with short sentences, dismissed cases or victims not even informing authorities about what has happened. One might wonder if the judicial system took sexual abuse cases as seriously as larceny, would we as a society be somewhere else today?
We cannot change the system without realizing that “an individual bases his values and beliefs on the moral code of his social context and culture. The group that a person belongs to shapes his values, truths and behaviors, and helps the person to develop his identity.” (Abdalla and Sender, 2019, p. 51). This statement truly touches on the problem and explains the difficulties societies face when trying to change the deep-rooted problem of rape culture.
When individuals grow up, their surroundings matter. If the culture is to sweep sexual harassment under the rug and look at unwanted attention as a compliment, it is no wonder that people find it difficult to hold perpetrators accountable to their actions since it could, as some would say, have awful consequences on their future. In these situations, the consequences on the victims may not be forgotten.
Sexual abuse can have numerous potential consequences that can last a lifetime. It can have serious effects on the victim’s physical and psychological health and taking care of victims cannot come second to taking care of the perpetrators. I find it vital that perpetrators get necessary help to deal with their actions and come back to society as better persons, but that will not be done by giving them the easy way out so it will not affect their future. Will perpetrators ever repent for their actions if they are not taken seriously?
To be able to continue the fight to end rape culture with permanent results, I find it crucial for the community to truly understand what sexual abuse is. We all need to understand how it affects victims, and why we should put more focus and resources to teaching people to not hurt each other rather than focusing on how one should be careful. And, maybe most importantly, we need men and boys to participate in the conversation and be a part of the solution.
It is safe to say that activism has played a vital role through the road that has been paved, to bring us closer to a better and safer world for all. Unfortunately, it is not a given that all citizens of the world live in societies where they can speak as freely as others, as well as being able to openly criticize their Parliament, their Government, the Courts, and others that play a role in holding back both justice and change.
The situation is different between nations, but we all must do what we can. Without the people there will be no change. We all need to provoke this world in which social climate where sexual violence is tolerated, and the victims are blamed and shamed. The responsibility needs to transfer completely from the victim and on to the perpetrator, who cannot be excused for their “stupid” or “thoughtless” behavior any longer.
If we do live in a world where a man is happy to be the only man in a room full of women, but a woman is scared to be the only woman in a room full of men – where are we heading and how do we turn back from that? We all need to look within ourselves and be honest, if there is anything in our view that we need to change, before helping the next person understand how and why we all are the change. The people are the change, and we need to find the activists within our hearts. This is our fight for a new culture.
 In her article All That Glitters is Not Gold: Shrinking and Bending Gender Equality in Rankings and Nation Branding, Þorgerður J. Einarsdóttir goes thoroughly through how the definition of gender equality in the Global Gender Gap Index is a narrow and one based on selective data and sophisticated calculations incorrectly giving the impression of scientific accuracy.
 The Icelandic justice system is a three-tier system, with eight District Courts, Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. The conclusion of a District Court can be appealed to the Court of Appeal, if specific conditions for appeal are satisfied. In special cases, with the permission of the Supreme Court, it is possible to refer the conclusion of the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court.
List of references
Table of cases
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The People of the State of California v. Brock Allen Turner, 2015
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Author’s Short Bio
Kolfinna Tómasdóttir is a master’s student at the University for Peace studying International Law and the Settlement of Disputes. She holds a bachelor’s degree in law from the University of Iceland and is finishing a master’s degree in law and a diploma in Middle-Eastern Studies from the same university in the forthcoming months. She also took part in an ELSA Summer Law School on Air Law & Terrorism at Aix-Marseille University. Kolfinna has various experiences in the field of gender equality. She was a board member of Young Professional Women and the UN Women Youth Council as well as being an organizing member of the SlutWalk in Iceland. She was also the first youth representative for the Icelandic Women’s Right Association on a European Women’s Lobby Strategy meeting. Kolfinna’s work through gender equality has allowed her to attend meetings with Parliament and many different organizations in Iceland, Brussels, and USA, to discuss the current situation in the world and the future on gender equality. Furthermore, Kolfinna served as the President of the Nordic Law Students Association, re-established the Icelandic department of ELSA (European Law Students Association), and served as a President for the first term, as well as founding a new International Law review under the association. Alongside her studies, Kolfinna has gained diverse working experience, most recently as a legal intern at the Iceland Chamber of Commerce and the Icelandic Association of Local Authorities.