Why did you go into this line of work, assisting battered women?
It all started three years ago. I am a rape survivor, but I hadn’t dealt with my experience and it started catching up with me. It felt like something was holding me back from living my life. I went through interviews with counselors at one of the shelters for two years and things in my life slowly fell back into place; things that had been broken in me as a result of the rapes. I was offered to partake in a counseling program, and upon completing it, I became an assistant counselor in a self-help group for the next three months, and continue to do so today. These types of groups are very important, because they give the victims a chance to reflect themselves in one another, to compare their experiences and seek strength in one another.
This may just be my own gut feeling, but isn’t violence against women unbelievably common?
Yes, it gives me chills to think that one out of every four women experiences violence at some point in their life.
Does that feel overwhelming in your line of work?
Yes, of course. I wish battered women’s shelters didn’t have to exist, frankly. I find it important to open the eyes of society to how widespread violence against women really is. I find it especially important to make young men more conscious of this problem, since they’re in many cases the offenders.
How about your personal life? Do you find it hard to separate the violence you witness in your daily work from your personal life?
No, not really, I am doing this work based on the fact that I am a survivor of violence myself. There were times when I wanted to flush my past down the toilet and forget about it, but now I realize that it is a precious part of me, and it makes me capable of helping other survivors. At the beginning, going over my past felt like picking at an open wound, but I’ve come further down the path of healing now. There are days when I’m mad at the world, but for the most part, I’m grateful that I get to use my experiences to help others.
Do you ever come home and feel like just burying your head in a pillow?
There have been times when I’ve come home and cried. I’ll never get used to hearing women’s stories of violence, and if I did, I’d start worrying about myself. On the other hand, it is very rewarding to witness women who are determined to take better care of themselves. What makes my job worth it are the small miracles that take place, such as when rape victims gather their strength to press charges against their offender, and when victims of violence start allowing themselves to feel the anger they deserve to feel. I’ve seen cases of overwhelming brutality. At first, I couldn’t believe that this type of thing actually goes on in Iceland. It felt like I was watching some surreal movie, but as I said before, in between are triumphant cases that leave me smiling with my heart.
Speaking of moving on, are there cases in which the victim goes home to the offender and continues the vicious cycle?
It happens. There are so many things to take into consideration in those cases. The offender may be the sole breadwinner of the family, making it harder for the woman to pick up and leave. Also, the abuser has in many cases convinced the victim that she deserves no better. But in my opinion, most of the women I’ve worked with find the strength to get out of these destructive relationships. Often, they just need affirmation that they’re not crazy, and that they have a right to feel violated. The shelters offer that kind of affirmation.
I was surprised to find how much mental violence goes on in relationships. Many women I work with testify to this. The line is often fine and hard to define. I’d like to see more education on this topic, for example in schools, teaching kids and teenagers how to recognize the symptoms. Mental violence is primarily about dominance. Some abusers take complete control over their partner’s bank accounts, phone use, etc. Many of them hide behind the mask of love, convincing the victim that he’s being controlling her life because he loves her. Saying for example, “Oh no, you can’t wear that or you can’t talk to that person because I love you so much.” It’s sick.
If you were prime minister for one day, what would you do to lessen the ongoing violence in today’s society?
First and foremost, I’d like to review the justice system. We recently had a breakfast meeting with ministers including Björn Bjarnason and politician Steingrímur J. Sigfússon, amongst others. We discussed solutions to gender-based violence. It was a very positive meeting, and if the propositions discussed in the meeting go through, the future will be a lot brighter in my line of work.
What were the propositions?
For example, to aid and strengthen the Rape Emergency Reception (neyðarmóttaka fyrir nauðganir), making sure that there’s always an educated social worker on duty. We also seek to resurrect a project called Karlar til ábyrgðar (Responsible Men), which focused on therapy for the offenders, to help them end their violent behaviour. There are many positive things happening now, both in politics and in the women’s movement. I have the feeling it’ll be a good year for all of us, if things work out.
What is the first thing you’d like to see happen?
I’d like to see more resolutions for offenders as well as victims. I’d also like to further educate people within the healthcare business, as well as the police, on domestic violence. What is really going on in violent relationships and how can people in these professions better help the victims, I’d like to focus on that.
How about your private life? You have a boyfriend?
Yes, I do.
Does your work ever complicate things in your relationship?
No, I generally leave my work “at work”, but sometimes, certain cases will bring me down and I become sad. My work is completely confidential, so I can’t tell my boyfriend any specifics, but he understands that there are days when I come home from work feeling really sad. Thankfully, I can discuss the way I feel without violating the trust of the women I work with. But generally, I do a good job of separating work and play, and my boyfriend is wonderful. He’s a feminist himself, and we share the same ideals concerning women’s rights, making it a very solid relationship. He actually had some therapy at one of the shelters himself, as a person whose loved one has experienced violence.
There is a program for the victims’ partners, too?
Absolutely. At first, when we started our relationship, I was still going through some painful things from my past, things I had a hard time talking to him about. That’s when the partner-therapy came in very handy, because it made it easier for me to explain my experiences and my healing to him, as he was getting
outside help too.
So women who have been victims of violence in the past, can now get help to explain the consequences to their new partners?
Yes. A lot of people don’t understand how much violence in the past can affect the victim’s behavior, and how it can complicate relationships when it comes to issues of trust. Many victims experience shame, complicating things even further. When my boyfriend started seeking help to better understand me as a survivor of violence, it gave him more patience, understanding and insight.
I just want to help women. I want to help them feel better about themselves, and when I succeed, it makes me feel better about myself as well. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. I’m constantly learning new things about myself, and I’m sure I’ll keep on making discoveries until the day I die. When I lead a self-help group, I usually break the ice by telling the group my own story. In the discussion that follows my story, someone will point something out to me that I never even thought of before. Helping them helps me.
In a way, I think I’ve put the violence I experienced behind me. The act itself, being raped, is not something that I think about on a daily basis. I don’t walk down a street thinking, “I experienced sexual violence”. However, I try to stay conscious of the consequences of being raped. I constantly ask myself: How is this affecting my relationships with other people? Am I being controlling, am I being submissive, is this something I’d normally do or am I acting like this because I was violated?
When you’ve worked through all the shit inside you and separated it from the rest, you can start molding a new person. I’m constantly trying myself on for size, and finding ways to feel better in my own skin. I realized that I’m OK, and I am allowed to make mistakes and be imperfect. So now, I’m trying to find out who I really am, what kind of clothes I like, what kind of music I like, what kind of person I am. It’s a fitting process, just like life itself.
Before I started this work, I had a very skewed view on feminism. Sure, I supported equal wages and gender equality, but I misunderstood the concepts behind these issues. Modern day society is very sex obsessed, but I never realized that before, I just went with the flow. Then I discovered, “No, this isn’t what I want, I don’t want to be sexy all the time because I feel like I have to.” Don’t get me wrong, I celebrate sexy women, but it shouldn’t feel like an obligation to be sexy just because I’m a woman.
(she adds, with a smile) Being a feminist is sexy too.