From Iceland — Fighting Back With Feminism

Fighting Back With Feminism

Published August 9, 2022

Fighting Back With Feminism
Photo by
Emma Ledbetter

Slagtog empowers participants with verbal and physical skills to combat violence

As participants leave their first feminist self defense workshop, there is a palpable shift in the room as quiet strangers become empowered individuals, united by their autonomy, knowledge, and strength. This is the mission of Slagtog, a women and queer-led feminist self defense organisation dedicated to combating gender-based violence with tools participants can use in any situation.

“When I did my first Slagtog workshop before becoming a member, I remember I was standing so tall and I felt so grounded,” says Meeri Mäkinen, one of the organisation’s newest trainers. “I really wish everyone could experience that.”

Reversing the stigma

Elínborg Hörpu- og Önundarbur, a self-defense trainer and one of Slagtog’s founders, says they had previously tried self defense classes aimed at women that were anti-feminist because they perpetuated the stigmas surrounding gender-based violence. Instructors told women what not to do, such as don’t go to parties alone or get in a car with strangers. While these seem like reasonable suggestions, and Elí encourages people to approach situations with logic, basing self defence training on platitudes like this takes away a women’s agency,

Slagtog instead equips people with tools for any situation they may find themselves in. “Our focus is on empowering the participant in all senses of the word, starting by reinforcing the basic knowledge that our body is ours, and we have the right to bodily integrity and autonomy,” Elí says.

We wouldn’t be surprised if Slagtog dropped a sick new album soon.

Violence does not happen because of something a victim does, but rather because of the person who acts violently toward them. Slagtog teaches participants that they can respond in a number of ways to de-escalate the situation: removing themselves, responding verbally, or fighting back physically.

Self defense is often advertised as martial arts, but physical techniques are only part of what participants learn in feminist self defense, says Mariam Arnedo Moreno, a trainer and one of Slagtog’s founders. “We also talk a lot about how we are socialised in this world as women, so it puts gender-based violence in that context,” Mariam explains. “But the physical parts are very accessible. It’s about defending yourself through any means, not about mastering a technique.”

Starting from “no means no”

The idea to found Slagtog came from a French book called “Non C’est Non,” or “no means no.” The author, Irene Zeilinger, has been teaching feminist self defense for 30 years and now equips trainers.

After being in contact with Irene, Elí says they wanted her to come to Iceland to teach the principles of feminist self defense. The founders of Slagtog, in cooperation with a Romanian youth organisation, received a grant to bring the program to their respective countries.

The process of becoming a trainer is intensive, usually lasting eight hours a day for two weeks with six months in between sessions so trainers can practise what they learned. Trainers not only practice physical manoeuvres, but they also learn theories behind violence, trauma, and feminist pedagogy. Trainers also choose a specialisation, allowing them to work with girls and transgender youth, migrant women, or the LGBTQ+ community.

The emotional toll

Trainers invite participants to share their success stories of using feminist self defense. “Any type of story where people managed to stop the violence or get away from it is a success to us,” Mariam says.

Despite the success stories, training can be emotionally difficult. Most of the trainers were activists before starting on their feminist self defense journey, Elí says. Thus, they have some coping skills to work with vulnerable and marginalised populations, but Slagtog also hopes to provide more formal therapy for their trainers soon.

“Sometimes someone will open up about a difficult situation that they are in, and there’s not much you can do. You can refer them to organisations where they can get help or try to give advice if they want it, but in the end you don’t control what they do and you know they might be going back to a really violent situation,” Elí says. “This is one of the most challenging parts of being a trainer.”

Everything is worth it, the trainers agree, when they see participants leave with their heads held high.

“Every time I’ve been part of a training, the participants have been so happy. There’s a lot of emotions, and sometimes there’s crying and anger, but at the end I feel like everyone walks out feeling quite strong and powerful,” Elí explains. “They really are strong, but they’ve now had the opportunity to explore that and feel it in the unique way feminist self defense has to offer.”

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