Published December 7, 2017
“You shouldn’t get any superpowers just because you are a man,” says Heiða Björg Hilmisdóttir, as we sit in a café near Tjörnin Pond, fittingly situated opposite a plaque dedicated to women’s rights in Iceland. Heiða currently serves as the Vice Chairperson of the Social Democratic Alliance and has been a key figure in Iceland’s #MeToo movement, highlighting the sexual abuse and harassment of women. After a private Facebook group created by Heiða was flooded by women’s accounts of discrimination, a petition was signed by 300 Icelandic female politicians from across the political spectrum on November 21st, demanding that “all men take responsibility” for their actions and the actions of their peers. Outing individuals, however, is not on the agenda.
Culture Of Abuse
“We are trying to address the culture of abuse and naming names makes that more difficult, because the focus goes onto individuals,” says Heiða. This approach represents a marked difference to the response of others involved in the #MeToo movement, particularly its de-facto founders Rose McGowan and Ashley Judd, who began a global domino effect when they decided to out their abuser-in-common, Harvey Weinstein. Though Heiða’s approach has been criticised on the grounds that it suggests all men are culpable for the crimes of a few, she says, “If you’re a man and feel badly about it, then challenge others to come out because it is their responsibility, not the victims’.”
She also feels a glass ceiling has been reached, even if Iceland is internationally renowned for its gender equality. “Men have to take the next step. The challenge to them is to take responsibility as a group and say, ‘How can we correct it?’” The eruption of allegations of misconduct is, of course, no coincidence. For many years, the whole western world seems to have been mired in complacency, and as a result, sexual assaults have become normalised. De-normalising this behaviour and believing victims’ testimonies are surely the keys to progress.
Nevertheless, the issue of victim blaming was quick to rear its head after Heiða appeared on RÚV to discuss sexual harassment with fellow politicians Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir of the Independence Party and Hanna María Sigmundsdóttir, formerly of the Progressives. After their appearance, Áslaug came under fire from businessman, Ragnar Önundarson, who insinuated that her Facebook profile picture was provoking sexual harassment.
Naturally, this kind of position shows there is still a long way to go in changing attitudes. “All women should not be forced to wear a suit like Angela Merkel,” says Heiða. “Victim blaming is a huge step that we have to overcome in politics and in society. No one wants to be the victim but you do want to be seen as a strong individual by saying this behaviour is not right.” While prominent men and political parties have largely remained quiet on the issue in Iceland, what has been encouraging for Heiða is the solidarity within the Facebook group to date. The absence of leaking, she notes, has allowed women “to open up more,” countering the previous culture of silence and fear.
Now, with several high-profile cases in the global spotlight, Heiða believes there is a model to follow. “That’s really empowering, because if those men are challenged with their doings, we must be able to challenge the men we are all facing.” The next step, after shifting the culture of fear from victims to perpetrators, is to implement practical measures which serve protect women. “We have to challenge the political parties to take responsibility for their members and to make a code of conduct,” Heiða adds. “You don’t necessarily go the police when someone verbally abuses you. We have to make sure we respect one another.”
Expanding the reach of #MeToo is also critical to the attainment of equality across the board, for Heiða. “It’s important in politics that people can be elected based on their skills and abilities. Gender should not matter in that sense—or if you’re disabled, or if you’re an immigrant—we should still listen. We hope that this movement will open the political parties more to other groups.” By doing this, Heiða wants society to become more balanced and open, and believes that equality would also benefit men. “Most guys want to have time to spend with their families, to cry over movies and tell their feelings,” she says.
If this argument is often lost on older generations, Heiða holds out hope that young people will enforce a culture change. Sadly, she still says young women entering politics now “are shaped to have the Teflon on.” For too long, an expectation has been placed on women to accept unfortunate “realities” if they want to have any future in the arena, rather than the onus being on men to change their behaviour. At the very least, #MeToo has opened Pandora’s box on the transnational issue of sexual harassment and has proven that practical and philosophical change is needed. Eradicating complacency, though, has perhaps been the movement’s most important achievement to date. As Heiða says, “We are not near the end of the journey, because society is not equal yet.”