From Iceland — The Route To The Westman Islands Is Paved With Good Intentions

The Route To The Westman Islands Is Paved With Good Intentions

Published August 31, 2015

The Route To The Westman Islands Is Paved With Good Intentions
Gabríel Benjamin
Photo by
Hörður Sveins

Icelanders have by and large turned their back on the once prevalent notion that women are responsible for ensuring that they do not get raped (such as by refraining from dressing a certain way, or drinking too much). Activist and civic feminist movements, like those that spurred on various social media outbursts and protest marches such as the annual SlutWalk, have played a large part in achieving this, making terms like “slut shaming,” “victim blaming,” and “rape culture”—formerly only heard in activist circles—a firm part of the modern mainstream vocabulary.

Þjóðhátíð í Eyjum

The Merchants’ Weekend is celebrated during the first weekend of August, and its largest outing, Þjóðhátíð í Eyjum, takes place in the Westman Islands’ Herjólfsdalur valley. The bash was first thrown in 1874, and has been held annually (with a few breaks) since 1920. Festival officials tell us that 10-14,000 people have attended each year since 2010.

Þjóðhátíð is the pride of the community, with much of the local population involved in setting it up, manning booths, and selling fried puffin and hot dogs—even the children join in, helping clean the site after each day. White tents pop up all around the valley, and a massive stage is erected on which Iceland’s most popular bands perform. The fest concludes with the lighting of flares, a communal brekkusöngur (“slope singalong”), a bonfire, and fireworks.

In recent years, Þjóðhátíð has gained a reputation as being a hotbed of debauchery, violence and sexual assaults. Concurrently, the festival’s organisers and town officials have been criticised for being reportedly unreceptive and defensive towards any kind of criticism and attempt to mend the situation

However, such changes do not come easily. This was demonstrated late last month, when grassroots forces clashed with the proud denizens of the Westman Islands in a fierce debate. A few days before the commencement of the islanders’ beloved Merchant’s Weekend festival, Þjóðhátíð í Eyjum (which annually attracts thousands of party hearty Icelanders), local police commissioner Páley Borgþórsdóttir sent a memo to the festival’s responders, ordering a media embargo on all instances of sexual assault. She reminded the responders that they were bound to secrecy on matters concerning criminal investigations, noting that the media had in the past focused overly on incidents of sexual violence at Þjóðhátíð.

Páley further reasoned that the police would not be informing the media about reported instances of sexual assault over the weekend for the sake of victims—who were particularly vulnerable so soon after the trauma—and to protect investigative interests.

They would, however, continue disclosing on a daily basis the number of narcotic and violent crime arrests at the festival.

Sexual assault crisis centre Stígamót’s annual reports showed that from 2004- 2014, 87 people came to the organisation seeking counselling after being assaulted at the festival. The centre’s spokesperson, Guðrún Jónsdóttir, told us over the phone that while she didn’t think Páley’s intentions were bad, her approach was wrong. “I agree that media attention can be difficult for victims,” Guðrún said, “but it is also difficult and disrespectful when there’s no coverage—reporting on the matter is saying that what happens to them is so serious that it is newsworthy.”

Opinions split by postcode

Páley’s memo was inevitably leaked to the media, spurring a heated discussion that begat numerous articles and op-eds. Many stepped forth to condemn the embargo, including both of Iceland’s journalist unions (who said it was anti-democratic and only served the interests of abusers), and numerous SlutWalk organisers (who said, amongst other things, that it was a step in the wrong direction for rape survivors),

Two rape survivors from previous Þjóðhátíð festivals came forward during the debate. Brynhildur Yrsa Guðmundsdóttir, who was gang raped at Þjóðhátíð eighteen years ago, told newspaper DV that Páley wasn’t doing rape victims any favours, that she was in effect silencing and shaming them. Counter to that, Marta Möller, who was raped at Þjóðhátíð in 2006, stated in a Facebook post that she had found all the media attention her case received overwhelming—she felt Páley was doing the right thing, protecting victims from further harm.

Social Control

We reached out to Guðbjörg Linda Rafnsdóttir, a professor of sociology at the University of Iceland. When asked, Guðbjörg said that she had indeed noticed a devout loyalty among Westman Islanders, who all seem to want to defend Páley’s actions. “It looks like a case of social control,” she said, “which is a form of enforced conformity that’s not uncommon in a small town environment.”

Guðbjörg said that judging by the recent debate, the festival is obviously very important to the islanders’ identity, which resulted in their attempts to disassociate it from discussion of sexual violence, and taking any form of critique as an attack. “I’m sure everyone meant to do the right thing,” she said, “but they all ended up reaching the same conclusion because their society formed a policy in response to the criticism—and the individuals all conformed to it.”

Others that came to Páley’s defence are all either former or current residents of the Westman Islands. This includes mayor Elliði Vignisson (who blamed sensationalist media for purposefully misleading the debate); Hjalti Jónsson, head of Þjóðhátíð’s response team (who said that untimely reports on some cases had caused undue harm to rape survivors); and former National Broadcasting Director Páll Magnússon (who condemned the “media circus” that ensued from the leaked memo, calling it the worst he’d ever witnessed). “Calling [the memo] an attempt to silence the debate,” Páll wrote, “is sophistry, and an abuse of the term.”

Straight from the commissioner

Despite the controversy (and no shortage of attacks on her character), Páley did not reverse her orders, and it wasn’t until August 4—two days after the festival concluded—that the sexual assault ward of Landspítalinn hospital in Reykjavík broke the news that they had tended to three female Þjóðhátíð attendees that weekend. Soon thereafter, the Westman Islands police issued a press release about the festival, including details about two sexual assault charges. The statement contained information about when the alleged rapes took place, and how in one case a suspect had been hunted down and apprehended on the festival grounds.

We reached out to Páley, who has a history representing sexual assault victims as a lawyer. When asked, she told us that she was a feminist. “I’m not in Iceland’s Feminist Association, but I believe women should enjoy the same liberties as men,” she said.

She said the point of the gag order had been to give victims the space to heal, instead of plastering their stories onto the front pages of newspapers. “You have to give people space to deal with things one day at a time,” she said, “and then give them the opportunity to decide for themselves whether to publicise their trauma or not.”

When we pointed out how police press releases generally don’t include identifying information about victims of crimes, Páley responded that it didn’t matter, because in such a small society it’s easy to find out who’s in the emergency room or locked up in a cell. When asked if her post-festival press release had been too specific and difficult for the victims so soon after their trauma, she agreed it had been released sooner than she would have liked, but argued that her hand had been forced by Landspítalinn’s untimely announcement.

Elephants are never forgotten

Jóhanna Ýr Jónsdóttir, who was born in the Westman Islands, founded Bleiki Fíllinn (“The Pink Elephant”), a prevention group, in 2013. She explained over the phone that she felt the festival had grown too big. “When you have that many people in one place, they become difficult to police,” she said. Jóhanna emphasised how much Þjóðhátíð means to the Westman Islanders, and how sensitive they are to any kind of criticism of it. Having moved to the mainland, she said she now understands some of the criticism levied against the festival, which she believes is in some ways deserved, while noting that she feels Páley’s memo was taken out of context.

Bleiki Fíllinn focuses on promoting consent education, which Jóhanna says is absolutely vital when so many people get together and so much alcohol is consumed. Due to logistical difficulties, the group wasn’t at Þjóðhátíð in full force this year, Jóhanna said, adding that the recent debate underlines the need for their presence. “We have to be present in 2016,” she continues. “I feel like the locals want us to there to show we’re not just hiding our heads in the sand. Nobody wants rapes to accompany festivities and drinking.”

It is worth noting that at present, the different police precincts have complete autonomy over whether they publish details about sexual assaults in their daily reports or not. Páley’s superior, the Minister of the Interior, has remained quiet about the whole affair, and there has been no indication of policy change.

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