TW: Discussions of rape and sexual violence.
Counting from 1 to 1,600 would take you 26 minutes and 40 seconds. That’s about the length of a TV sitcom or half as long as a basketball game. But in Iceland, the number has a graver, more painful relevance. It’s the amount of rape cases dropped by the Icelandic Judicial System over the last two decades—the amount of cases that prosecutors or police officers deemed to be unfit to be examined or go to trial.
But the number will soon take on a more physical form as part of the 1600 Niðurfelld Nauðgunarmál project, which aims to create a ceramic sculpture for each individual case lost, highlighting the plight of survivors, the failures of the justice system and what we as a society can do better.
Bringing numbers to life
“It’s a criticism of the justice system as well as a project to point out how many cases of rape don’t ever get to be examined or go to court. That’s what we are trying to represent,” organiser Eva Huld Ívarsdóttir explains. She’s created the project in collaboration with financial director Anna Lára Friðfinnsdóttir and Antonía Berg, the founder of Flæði, where the workshops to make the ceramics will take place. “We can always read numbers and talk about numbers but it’s a different experience to actually witness them.”
The Justice System’s statistics actually do not officially record how many rape cases are dropped. Therefore, the number 1,600 is based on work by Icelandic scholars who painstakingly determined the number of dropped cases in 2008 and 2009, which Eva then extrapolated to fill two decades. That said, the number could easily be more—this is not a high estimate.
Why was this dropped?
The idea arose in Eva’s head last December. By profession, Eva is a lawyer who specialises in sexual offences, and particularly rape.
“I always had in the back of my mind how phenomenally many cases don’t get treated at all,” she explained. After publishing her master’s thesis, which explored 20 specific rape cases from 2013-2017, a survivor reached out to her to look at her case, which had been dropped by the Judicial System. Immediately, Eva was blown away by how much evidence there was supporting the crime. “I could not believe that it was dropped,” she says incredulously. “I know that the saying is always that these things are word-against-word, and you can’t work with that, but there was so much more in this case. There was a lot of evidence that could have been used and tried and examined further, but it wasn’t.”
Eva then began thinking about the fallout such a result could have on a woman. “I have witnessed how devastating this is,” she says. “Imagine, you went through all this and then someone just says ‘Well, it’s just not believable.’”
As Eva was devastated by the story behind that specific case, she quickly realised that that was only one story—there must be many more. At the same time, she saw a TEDTalk about a woman who had made origami sculptures of whales to underscore how many had died in a certain timescale. She therefore thought of the idea to bring these dropped rape cases to the public consciousness via art—and via art where each piece would represent a case. And while she’s not a ceramic artist, the medium just felt right to her.
The fallout of rape culture
The 1600 Niðurfelld nauðgunarmál project will be hosting workshops at Flæði—the first in April—where sign-ups can make their own ceramic statues for the series. Being a survivor—or revealing yourself as a survivor—is not required for participation in the project, Eva emphasises. “Each and every one of us women, we all know rape culture. Whether you are actually a survivor or not, you are familiar with the feeling of being afraid and the way rape is always a threat,” she says.
Men are often shocked when they realise how persuasive violence is in women’s daily lives, Eva explains. It’s true—all women remember the first time that they got scared of men or when their Mom sat them down to talk about rape. Over their lives, women just innately know how to carry keys in a parking lot or pretend to talk on the phone on a dark street.
“There are reasons for us doing that,” Eva declares. “We take it in just as a language and a societal view. And that’s what I call rape culture. We can’t define our culture without acknowledging that.”
“We all have a friend, we all have a sister, or someone we care for. Each and every woman, we are so aware of this,” Eva continues, resolutely. “It’s just part of our lives whether we have experienced assault or not. You can’t get around it.”
Do girls lie?
But what is it about the Icelandic justice system that is so failing survivors?
“It would be rape culture,” Eva explains. “I think it’s much easier to live in a society where we believe that girls lie. It’s so much easier to believe that women are vindictive or too sensitive or reading into something that wasn’t meant that way.”
It’s a bone-chilling statement and one that, for most women, will probably hit close to home. It’s also a thought that leads into another portion of rape culture—the lack of education men get on boundaries, consent and coercion.
“I have great hopes for the younger boys. There’s so much more conversation now than there was so they are not exposed to as much toxic masculinity,” Eva says. “I hope they are beginning to call each other out on the culture of locker room talk and such.”
For Eva, the way forward is conversation. “It has to be an educational process,” she explains. Children and adults, she emphasises, need to have frank discussions about the normalisation of rape culture in our every day lives. At the same time, the judicial system needs to better accommodate survivors—both during and after their case.
A project for Iceland
In the future, Eva plans on exhibiting all the ceramic statues together somewhere public. Her biggest dream is to see the series travel Iceland, as the number 1,600 represents the amount of cases dropped all over the country. “It’s not just for Reykjavík, it’s for the whole country,” she states simply.
“It’s very weird for me to take on this project. It’s not typical lawyer work,” she concludes. “It’s a project that touches so many of us and I believe a project that we would like to see happen as a collective culture.”
The upcoming 1600 Niðurfelld nauðgunarmál workshops will be on April 7th at 17:00, April 9th at 17:00, April 10th at 12:00, April 11th at 12:00, and April 12th at 17:00 at Flæði. More workshops will be announced on the Flæði Facebook page. The workshops will be filled on a sign-up basis and interested parties can join and message this Facebook group to get involved.
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