From Iceland — The Consequence of Gender Inequity

The Consequence of Gender Inequity

Published July 22, 2005

The Consequence of Gender Inequity

The dirty secret of the great Icelandic holiday Verslunarmannahelgi (Merchants’ Holiday) is that while many young Icelanders manage to only hurt themselves over a hard weekend of partying, violence against women and rape do play a role in the festivals. This year, Hjálmar Sigmarsson and the Feminist Association of Iceland, with help or sponsorship from the Ministry of Health, the Equal Rights Offices of Reykjavík and Kópavogur, Hvíta Húsið Ad Agency, Stígamót and V-Day, will tour the country during the festival weekend talking to men of all ages about rape.
Mr. Sigmarsson, an easygoing record store employee, stopped by our office loaded down with frisbees, buttons and t-shirts, to talk about his conversation approach to abating violence against women.

Where will you be going with all of these frisbees? I imagine you’ll be popular at the Westmans.

We actually won’t make it to the islands themselves, but we will be talking with young people at every major public transportation stop along the way, including the Reykjavík Airport, BSÍ and Þorlákshöfn.

And you do this every year at festival time?

Last year we did the campaign twice actually. We did it in April to remind the public that rape doesn’t only happen at Verslunarmannahelgi, and to comment on how rape is linked to alcohol. This is our third time campaigning during the festivals.

I would think it would be nice to have you at the Westman Islands. I can’t help thinking that if 5,000 people tried, they could put together a music festival where everybody was allowed to be safe.

Yes, we’re hoping to get out to the festival. Unfortunately, we’re all doing this pro bono, just working with trickles of friends for each campaign. It’s too hard to collect a group that far in advance and get the funds together, but it’s still a dream.

What exactly are you doing to try to change the behaviour at festivals?

Our service is to engage everyone in the discourse of women’s rights. Usually rape campaigns focus on the victim. We put the focus on the rapist. Where is the rapist? Since the numbers show a cold hard fact that this is a male crime: in 98-99% of rape and other sex crimes committed in Iceland the assailants are male. And this is verified in Europe as well. Since we know this, we thought why should we just be telling girls to be careful. Why say “Don’t get too drunk. Don’t wear tantalizing clothing. Stay in groups”? Why not look at the assailants.

We’re not saying all men are rapists, but we know who’s committing the crimes and we say men, let’s be responsible and stand together. Men have the means to prevent rape. There are men who are planning or committing rape, and we think the way to stop this is through discourse.

A male-focused rape campaign.

This has been treated like it is a female problem. Rape is a woman issue, and women should be working on it, people suggest. But that’s all after the fact. Why not work on changing the culture that allows these rapes to occur?

And to some extent you seem to have succeeded. Many in the office here point out that rapes at the Westman Islands weren’t reported at last year’s festival.

We started two years ago, and on the Monday after, the media said there were no reported cases of rape, or maybe one or two cases. But we said that’s not something we can count on. In the year end report from Stígamót and from the police, we always find reports that come days, weeks, months and even years after the events.
And then the actual cases that go to court—from the initial complaint to those that go to court to those that get a conviction, the conviction rate is really scary and really low.
So we’re not going to celebrate one or two or no reported rape cases. We’re not that optimistic to believe that one campaign can change this.

Holy crap is that depressing.

One of the hopes is that we’ve been talking to young men and getting great responses. They’ve been especially open and supportive.

I’ve noticed this in Iceland and when I was a teacher in America. As much as they talk about Pornification, many of the kids in their late teens and early twenties seem to have a new wave of role models and a little more progressive attitudes.
Yes, actually in many cases we’ve been hoping to communicate with older generations through the younger ones. The three generations under 40 seem to have a different understanding of what it means to be a man. They have reconsidered the stereotype.

Beyond the macho man thing, how do you prevent rape? Just cut off the drinking?

Unfortunately, a lot of these rapes have something to do with alcohol. The assailant looks for areas where alcohol consumption makes people an easy target. In most cases, we’re not talking about sudden mad primitive urges. These things are planned, decisions are made. These aren’t moments of madness. What you have to realize is these are men, not monsters.

It’s not just a case of people losing control, as recent legal rulings in Iceland might suggest?

In the last 12 months, there have been some outrageous cases. The courts saying things where the assailant is suddenly victimized. ‘He was old and she made him mad’ and crazy things like that.

Is Iceland in a worse position than other European countries for these festivals?

Around Eldborg, [in 2001], rape at Icelandic festivals got a lot of attention not only here but abroad. I remember German reporters came and said why is rape such a problem in Iceland. The problem is, these things aren’t being handled. We know that all these rock festivals all over Europe… we know that you don’t even hear mention of the word rape. 150,000 people in one place and you hear of drugs and assault and destruction of property but you don’t hear about rape. I have a very hard time accepting the idea that Western Europe is that much ahead of us.

For English-language information about the Feminist Association’s campaign, you can visit To help with the campaign, email Hjálmar Sigmarsson at

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