Published September 11, 2014
Like young people the world over, Icelandic youths like to humiliate younger kids for fun. This behaviour takes many forms, but the one that has been in the news lately is secondary school hazing. In Iceland, primary school ends at sixteen and almost everyone starts secondary school the following autumn, although a secondary education is not compulsory. Traditionally, new students are hazed by students in the fourth and final year, with each school having their own set of rituals.
Yes, if humiliation and endangerment is a tradition, then it’s okay.
These hazing rituals are generally harmless. New students are made to wear silly clothing and get soiled with skyr and other food, and/or doused in water. Sometimes, however, these rituals border on sexual harassment, for instance when new students are auctioned off to older students to be slaves for a day—and in a few cases, they turn out to be outright sexual harassment, such as when new students are made to place their heads on the clothed crotches of older students.
Kids today are just the worst, with their loud music and long hair!
This is not a new phenomenon in Iceland. The most venerable tradition is practised in the downtown Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík, where students in the oldest class toss first year students in the air. This form of hazing goes back at least to the nineteenth century at the school, but is probably older still.
Being tossed in the air? That sounds like clean, wholesome fun!
That particular hazing is so ingrained in the school’s culture that it is hard to imagine it stopping, but it has been controversial. Around the middle of the last century, female students protested against it because creepy older male students were using it as an opportunity to feel them up.
Why is it that these kinds of traditions always turn out to be crime scenes?
Since it is such an ingrained tradition, people mostly accept its existence. In schools that were founded later than the nearly 170-year old Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík, hazing rituals are frowned upon by school authorities, with most schools banning the practice. The Association of Icelandic Secondary Schools has recommended to its members that hazing be banned.
That sounds like the set-up for a wacky high school movie.
Hopefully, no band of rebellious teenagers will organize their own underground hazing ritual in defiance of the killjoy school authorities. But many secondary school students are against the ban on hazing. Much like how people who open a bag to find something foul-smelling feel the need to ask other people to smell just how foul the odour is, people who have been hazed often want to have their turn as the aggressors.
Just like how people who’ve bought rotten apples at the supermarket put them back on the pile of fresh apples on their next grocery trip?
I am pretty sure you’re the only one that does this. This autumn, eleven secondary schools have banned hazing, leaving only four schools in the country that still allow it. Jón Reynir Sigurvinsson, principal of Menntaskólinn á Ísafirði, Ísafjörður’s secondary school, spoke for many when he said that hazing was violence and that “we do not allow people to commit violent acts for three days each year.”
In that movie ‘The Purge: Anarchy,’ people only get one day to commit violence without legal consequences, so I guess school hazing’s three times worse.
Some schools have a whole week of hazing. There is another way of looking at these traditions. Ethnographers Terry Gunnell and Cilia Marianne Úlfsdóttir have studied hazing rituals in Icelandic educational institutions. They point out that secondary schools are isolated communities on the edge of the mainstream. Like with all peripheral societies, new members have to be accepted symbolically, and these rituals serve to introduce the first year students into the larger social body.
When a group of people throw skyr at me, I also usually want to be their friend.
Cilia Marianne Úlfsdóttir pointed out in an article that was published last year in the newspaper Fréttablaðið that the unpleasantness of the ritual is its point. Since every new batch of students is made to undergo the same humiliation as older students, this creates a shared, common experience.
No matter how you present it, twenty-year-olds humiliating sixteen-year-olds is a recipe for skyr and apple cake. I meant recipe for disaster.
Older students often take things too far, but if the hazing is structured properly, it can be made into a safe environment with clear boundaries. These rituals can be designed to be like horror films: scary but not dangerous. However that would require school authorities to educate the older students on how to behave, and set defined rules. But since that takes a lot of work, it is a lot simpler to just ban hazing rituals altogether.