Long-time readers of the Grapevine may have noticed a series of stories over the past few years on prominent, often powerful, Icelandic men being revealed to have crossed boundaries of consent with women, in particular, women who are younger and often of foreign origin. Each time this happens, the stories grab headlines for some days or weeks, sometimes prompting other survivors to come forward, either about the men in question or about other men and their transgressions.
Each time this happens, numerous media outlets (and the Grapevine is, admittedly, not an exception here) frame this as “another” wave of the #MeToo movement. The problem with this is it treats a systemic, ongoing problem of sexual violence–more often than not perpetrated by powerful men against younger, marginalised women–as an anomaly. The sad truth is, these events are not the exception; they are the norm.
One person who knows this all too well is Edda Falak, an Icelandic woman who has found herself at the forefront of what is a continuous movement of marginalised people pushing back against patriarchal violence. She is the host of a popular podcast called Eigin Konur (a play on the Icelandic word for “wives”, i.e., “eiginkonur”, which literally means “owned women”), and the interviews she has conducted have broken news, brought down CEOs, and sparked a long-overdue discussion on why sexual violence persists in the “feminist paradise” of Iceland, as well as what can be done to change it.
Making use of a platform
“Before I started the podcast, I had newly finished coursework in Finance and Strategic Management in Copenhagen, and was competing in crossfit at this time,” Edda recalls. “At the same time, I was very active on social media on specific matters where I was talking about things, usually about how women and female bodies are hypersexualised, how violence is connected to that. I was sharing photos and comments on my Instagram story showing how men usually talk to me, and how it is to be a woman in masculine worlds like finance and sports, talking about these things on social media. That ended up transforming into the podcast.”
Rather than centering her own opinions, from the very beginning Edda sought to pass the mic to those whose voices often go unheard.
“I had built up a good group of followers and a platform, and a lot of people had opinions on these matters and how they were covered, so I just decided that instead of all this revolving around me all the time, to hear from others,” she says. “[Eigin Konur] started in connection with people who were working in production, and wanted to do this properly. I wanted to have a real influence in exacting change. Today, there’s an advertising office helping me with all the graphics, video and sound and such.”
The backlash, followed by listening
The beginnings of Eigin Konur were marked by a storm of responses–many of them positive, some of them negative, but all of them engaging with the content.
“I sort of jumped into the deep end talking about things that were causing a real buzz in society, like porn, OnlyFans, fatphobia and other things that people had strong opinions about and found uncomfortable to listen to,” Edda says. “So the first responses were very negative, but everyone was listening, everyone was watching, and everyone had an opinion. I worked on the things that I wanted to; I don’t want to put forward a one-sided opinion. I want to bring certain subjects to the surface, for society to talk about. So while the response was at first negative, that changed rather quickly.”
Edda makes no claims of being an objective reporter on the subjects she covers, but at the same time, hearing from many different sides of an issue is deeply important to her.
“I definitely don’t want to put forward a one-sided opinion, and be telling people what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’,” she emphasises. “It’s built on the idea to discuss these subjects from the point of view of many different sides. That’s the way it should be. That said, with every subject that I’m reporting on, I am obviously not neutral, rather I think these are things that matter to society. I also feel there is a social responsibility to listen to people who are speaking from their lived experience. That’s what I think matters.”
Edda has observed with some frustration how each revealed instance of powerful men abusing their positions is framed as a new wave in what she sees as a continuous, ongoing movement. This movement, she says, has material goals in mind.
“We’re always talking about a new ‘revolution’ [in the #MeToo movement], that now there’s ‘another revolution’, but what I’m trying to point out is that this is a continuous movement, going on week after week, all year long,” she says. “This is a problem. It shouldn’t have to be some kind of revolution. There are some people saying ‘this isn’t political’ but it most certainly is political. Because we need social changes to go into effect more than the discussions about the need for these changes. That’s something else I’m trying to draw attention to.”
Fighting back, for her, must involve numerous sectors of society, from the private to the public.
“We need to see changes such as large companies taking a public stance, such as what happened with Ísey,” she says, referring to how shortly after an interview she took with Vítalía Lazareva, who recounted harrowing details of being sexually abused by a group of men, Ísey’s CEO, Ari Edwald, was fired swfitly. “Ari was fired in the wake of the interview. It’s also a social change for these companies to publicly condemn violence, but at the same time, we do need political changes.
“We really need to improve how sexual assault cases are handled. We know it’s illegal to sexually assault someone, but there will always be people who do it anyway. Education needs to be prioritised—education in schools. The courts system isn’t good enough, and we don’t have recourse for survivors.The government isn’t subsidising psychiatric services for survivors. We’re lacking funding in recourse, both regarding perpetrators and survivors.”
Trans women and foreign women
Edda is also, thankfully, very much aware of how some women—namely trans women, foreign women, and young women—are particularly vulnerable, experiencing intersections of oppression that also make coming forward and recounting being abused all the more daunting.
“Out of prejudice against trans people, there’s this pervasive attitude that trans people subjected to sexual violence deserve it somehow” she says. “You see this kind of shame associated with being with a trans person, which can lead to this violence. And trans people are often scared to seek justice in the wake of it. It’s not talked about very much here, but you see it abroad that the numbers are remarkably high, and while those numbers might not be officially as high in Iceland, they are; it’s just kept quiet. There is clearly not enough education going on in grade school. This is a specific prejudice against trans people.”
She adds: “When it comes to women of foreign origin, Icelandic men see themselves as above these women. Prejudice against women of foreign origin is based on them not being Icelandic; they don’t have as much respect for those women. These are women who don’t have as many connections in Icelandic society, don’t know as many people, that no one will believe them because they’re not Icelandic. All this. Add to this being young. There’s this outlook among young women that no one will believe you, you won’t dare to talk about what happened to you, and if you do, no one will believe you. It’s as if you don’t matter as much.”
The courts and the cops
Edda is encouraged to see the grassroots organising, making their voices heard, and having an impact on private companies.
“We’re seeing more and more that women are standing together,” she says. “If there’s a group of people standing together, it’s a lot more difficult to oppose them. You’re seeing the younger generation isn’t letting the older generation get away with their shit. People aren’t as afraid. If someone says you’re lying, you know there will be people who stand with you, which matters a lot. There are people encouraging others not to do business with a particular company or other because they’re not taking a stand, which exerts financial pressure on these companies.”
At the same time, she also believes that there needs to be fundamental, sweeping changes made to Iceland’s courts and police.
“The problems with the court system are all built on top of this prejudice which exists within the system,” she says. “It’s often as if the court system is primarily dominated by white men who have maybe already made up their minds, and have already decided not to believe survivors. You can have a case that has texts, screenshots, witnesses, all that, but the case is still dropped. We’re talking about powerful people making decisions based on their own prejudices.”
Much the same issue is present in the police, she says. “When one is questioned, the questions that are being asked; we need to examine that. What is being asked? Why aren’t they following up on these cases? What’s in the interests of the police that prompts them to not examine this case, or that case? There’s corruption and prejudice within the system, and we need to kick these people out.”
The state bears responsibility
Particularly frustrating to Edda is to see members of Parliament and Reykjavík City Council—the very people with the power to make the necessary changes—not back up their rhetoric or the campaign promises with real action.
“It is incredibly frustrating to see all these members of Parliament on social media saying ‘we support survivors, go you,’” she says. “But it isn’t our problem; it’s their problem. So we clearly need to put the pressure on. It shows who’s really supporting survivors and who isn’t.
“I see, of course, that things are happening, but we still need changes amongst these powerful people who are in government. These are people who could make real changes. You’re seeing MPs saying things like ‘Wow, go you, you’re doing so well, we support you’ but this person maybe represents a party that’s in the government.”
For one example, she refers again to her interview with Vítalía, who had named famed media personality Logi Bergmann as amongst the men who crossed a line with her, and who later took to Facebook to deny the allegations against him.
“At the same time, we see for example Katrín Atladóttir, who is the Independence Party representative in Reykjavík City Council, ‘supports the fight’ but still standing by a Facebook post from an alleged abuser,” she says. “Meanwhile, Reykjavík City has a direct line to allocating resources in the fight against sexual violence. So yeah, it’s a bit annoying to see people cheerleading ‘good for you’ but she’s someone who could actually make changes and yet obviously supports an accused abuser.
“This is worrying. So what does it mean to be cheerleading? They could actually do something, but they shift the responsibility onto us. I had to sit with Vítalía in an hour-long interview where she describes these disgusting events in painful detail before anything was said. She had already talked about this before but no one listened. I have yet to see any changes that would be good for survivors.”
Stop voting for these people!
The cynical opportunism of politicians has used up all its charm, in Edda’s mind. The time for talk and hashtags is over; the time for action is long overdue.
“We also see political parties using #MeToo and all that in their campaigns to get themselves voted into government, and promise to pay down psychiatric services and speed up processing of sexual assault cases in the judicial system, and such,” she points out. “But when they’re voted into government, suddenly there’s no money to pay down psychiatric services, nothing is done. This is just performative. We’re seeing judges who are in these parties that have power, writing columns in newspapers that say ‘we don’t always need to believe survivors’. These are people who are still in government, and that’s cause for worry.”
She adds: “It’s performative to see a party that has [making these changes] as part of its platform, yet they have shown that they have no regard for minority groups. So why should this be on their platforms now?”
These parties are so entrenched in society that Edda is not especially optimistic that things will change any time soon, as that would require a large section of the population to actually vote them out.
“People need to stop voting for parties that are focusing on all kinds of things other than the people in this country,” she says. “We’ve never seen them putting any reforms into how sexual assault cases are handled. That has never happened, we haven’t seen it, and that’s why I don’t have any hope that this will ever change. We need to see loads of parties talking about this daily; not just the week before election day.”
A matter of life and death
At our interview’s close, Edda offered some thoughts for men reading this; what they could take away, and how they can help make the changes much needed in Icelandic society.
“It matters a lot to listen to people who are talking,” she says. “It’s sad to say, but this could be your mother, your cousin, your sister, or whoever. This is a matter of life and death for some people, to be listened to.”
For survivors, she emphasised that no one is under any obligation to go public with some of the most traumatic events of their lives. As always, since well before Eigin Konur was launched, Edda Falak wants them to know that she stands with them.
“I want them to know that they are believed,” she says. “There’s a whole bunch of people out there who stand together. It’s not like it was. I so look up to people who are still with us today despite everything that’s happened to them. It’s so admirable, and it’s not a given. I think it’s also important to emphasise that no one is obligated to change their experience into some kind of ’empowering story’ to help others. Sometimes it’s really just a matter of living, eating, sleeping, surviving. Not everyone needs to go public. It can be really difficult. But it’s important to me that they know that they, too, are believed.”
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