Slut-Shaming And State-Sponsored Persecution In “Situation” Era Iceland - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Slut-Shaming And State-Sponsored Persecution In “Situation” Era Iceland

Slut-Shaming And State-Sponsored Persecution In “Situation” Era Iceland

Gabríel Benjamin
Photos by
Stúlkurnar á Kleppjárnsreyki

Published March 4, 2016

Starting in 1940, Iceland’s occupation by Allied forces during WWII was for the most part a peaceful one, at least compared to what went on in the rest of Europe at the time. The period was nonetheless a tumultuous one for the fledgling island nation, which underwent some of the most radical changes in its recorded history within the span of a few short years. Spurred by the sudden influx of global military powers, Iceland’s transformation from a rural farming and fishing society to a modern state happened almost overnight, leading to mass migration to the capital.

At the time there were only 120,000 Icelanders, a third of which lived in the greater Reykjavík area. On top of the influx of rural Icelanders who relocated to the capital en masse lured by the promise of high-paying jobs serving the Allies, the city also served as a temporary home to tens of thousands of young soldiers, violently upsetting the status quo. At the peak of the UK’s occupation of Iceland, some 25,000 soldiers were stationed in the country—later replaced by 50,000 US servicemen once the US assumed control of the island.

For a nation that had been isolated for so long, the overabundance of so many young, eligible and well-mannered foreigners challenged all existing Icelandic courting traditions, and many local women took a fancy to these newcomers. The resulting atmosphere, which saw hundreds of Icelandic women court or wed soldiers—and an untold many bear them children—is commonly referred to as “Ástandið” (“The Situation”).

Treasonous trysts

Predictably, this “Situation” proved a great source of conflict over the course of the occupation. The court of public opinion firmly branded any woman that consorted with soldiers as a “Situation Girl,” not so subtly suggesting that they were at best promiscuous, or even prostitutes. Local newspapers published op-eds suggesting that they were committing treason, and should be paraded through town with shaved heads. Many of those women would carry that shame to their grave.

Soon enough, local authorities and government introduced measures meant to counter what they saw as an alarming trend. As many of the women were teenagers, the government passed legislation barring them from consorting with soldiers. The implementation and repercussions of that legislation was the subject of Iceland’s most viewed documentary of 2015, ‘Stúlkurnar á kleppjárnsreykjum’ (“The Girls at Kleppjárnsreykir”). The film shows how Jóhanna Knudsen—a former nurse and the first female Icelandic police officer—circumvented these laws to follow her own agenda, and was given free reign to do so, with often disastrous consequences.

Kleppjárnsreykir film

Per the legislation, police were to follow up on any leads about children and teenagers consorting with soldiers and pass them onto child protection services. In spite of this, Jóhanna refrained from passing on any of the information she gleaned, opting to investigate and interrogate suspects on her own. She would then take the girls to court, and push for maximum sentences, while the laws, as they were written, plainly suggested that the first step was to be a warning to the young women and their families.

In just two months in 1941, Jóhanna had gathered the names of some 500 girls that were under suspicion. By the end of her tenure, she had recorded some 800 names in her journals, spearheading the most pervasive espionage operations on Icelandic citizens’ private lives to date.

kleppjarnsreykir vetur

These young girls, often only twelve to fifteen years old, were tried by the courts and sent out to the countryside, even though many of them said the soldiers had coerced them. Out of 62 girls that were sentenced, some fourteen offenders were sent to an institute in Kleppjárnsreykir, West Iceland, where the adolescents were made to endure inhumane conditions, including solitary confinement.

Jóhanna’s unit was eventually disbanded in 1944, following protests and changing leadership within child protection services and the government. While all outstanding charges were dropped and the girls already serving sentences were freed, neither Jóhanna nor the authorities that empowered her issued any sort of apology.

Straight from the source

To learn more about the story, we met with director Alma Ómarsdóttir for some coffee. Currently a reporter for Iceland’s national broadcasting service, RÚV, Alma was introduced to her film’s subject through her studies in journalism, where “The Situation” was the topic of her thesis.

“I made short film about it,” she says, “but I felt the material was important, so I took it to the next step and turned it into a documentary with a lot of interviews.” Clearly a passion project, the film was made on a shoestring budget, with most of the crew donating their work.

“If they denied any wrongdoing, Jóhanna would often send them to a doctor to determine whether their hymen was intact, even though that wouldn’t prove that they had slept with a soldier.”

Alma reveals that Jóhanna’s journals—that her surviving family handed in upon her death—had only been released to academics in 2012. During the research phase, she would pore through boxes filled with densely handwritten books, in which Jóhanna documented her sleuthing. “Her notes say stuff like ‘drinks a lot’ or ‘went into a car with X… Her interview reports are very detailed, and she called the girls in day after day, keeping them locked up while they were suspects without notifying their parents or child protection services. If they denied any wrongdoing, Jóhanna would often send them to a doctor to determine whether their hymen was intact, even though that wouldn’t prove that they had slept with a soldier.”

Kleppjárnsreykir film

Reading between the lines, Alma says, it was clear that the girls who ratted out their friends out were treated with leniency, while those who maintained their innocence and refused to cooperate were sent to Kleppjárnsreykir.

After reading through countless police, medical and court reports from the time, Alma is convinced that Jóhanna had a lot of support for her actions. “She was acting on behalf of a powerful group of people,” Alma says. “We are talking about politicians, the Director General of Public Health, and more.”

When asked if soldiers who were accused of coercing girls into sexual acts had been investigated, Alma says that for the most part, they weren’t. “There were a few examples of reported rapes being investigated, like one where a group of soldiers came upon a couple out in the fields and held the man down as they raped the woman,” she recollects. “There was another when a soldier abused a ten-year-old girl, and they came down hard on him, but if the girls had put themselves into a precarious situation, like going to a dance where there were soldiers, then there was no investigation.”

Seeking closure

Alma reveals that her motivation for making the film was to raise awareness of what really happened, and exonerate the people involved who have carried the shame for so long. “It’s predominantly been the older generation that has attended the film,” she says, “and the reactions I’ve gotten have been that of people’s eyes being opened.”

Already, the film has garnered a lot of attention, with the chair of the Left-Green Party calling for an investigation into the state’s conduct.

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