From Iceland — #MeToo, And Then What? Iceland Explores The Tough Questions Of A Legal Grey Area

#MeToo, And Then What? Iceland Explores The Tough Questions Of A Legal Grey Area

Published March 1, 2019

#MeToo, And Then What? Iceland Explores The Tough Questions Of A Legal Grey Area

At 13:21 on October 15th, 2017, the worldwide dialogue surrounding rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment abruptly and irrevocably changed. With one 86 character tweet, sent out by actress Alyssa Milano, a firestorm erupted that has left in its wake careers, reputations, lives, and, for some, prison convictions. The tweet simply read, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.

The term ‘Me Too’ was first coined by activist Tarana Burke in 2006, and she deserves credit as the originator of the movement. Milano’s tweet, coming on the wake of the New York Times’ explosive report on Harvey Weinstein, resonated on an unprecedented level. Within months, the names piled up—from Kevin Spacey to Louis C.K.—and the campaign became international. In Spain, it was #YoTambien, in Italy, #QuellaVotlaChe, and from South Korea to Sweden, voice after voice was raised until the collective volume was too loud to dismiss. Powerful men—and some women—lost their jobs. Some even went to prison.   

“This is people moving the system.”

From being something unspoken, unacknowledged, private, and shameful, personal experiences of sexual abuse became a rallying cry. Some, such as Christine Blasey Ford, have had their lives uprooted by a maelstrom of harassment and even death threats just by speaking up. The ubiquity of social media and the interest of journalists allowed individuals to claim power over their trauma and to tell their stories publicly in a movement of solidarity. Through this process, it became disturbingly clear to all how pervasive the occurrences of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment really are.

Public grievances

The #MeToo movement also planted deep roots in Iceland. The first day after Milano’s tweet saw an outpouring of social media posts with the hashtag, accompanied by personal experiences. It also saw Björk post a Facebook status detailing her experiences being sexually harassed by director Lars von Trier when filming ‘Dancer In The Dark.’ Her remarks gained international media attention and resulted in many others sharing their own experiences with the director.

One month later, 136 stories of sexual harassment were published in the media, taken from a closed Facebook group for women in politics called ‘Í skugga valdsins.’ The accounts varied from those of women having their drinks drugged to being publicly humiliated by the sexual comments of co-workers. Soon after, similar reports came to light. One presented 62 stories detailing sexual harassment in the performing arts industry. Another had 97 accounts from women of foreign origin. Then, in January 2018, all of Iceland’s political parties met to discuss the issues raised by #MeToo and to formulate a plan to combat the systemic problem.

I think the most positive effect of #MeToo is that many women maybe now dare to step forward right away.”

In the year since, the public has seen many powerful men come under public scrutiny by media outlets through the public airing of their alleged crimes. Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson, Robert Downey, Bjarni Már Júlíusson, and the list goes on.

The #MeToo movement, above all else, revealed a disturbing underlying viewpoint surrounding the prosecution of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment. The hashtag was founded on the assumption that the victims of these crimes could not have found justice through traditional means; that, were a survivor to pursue a judicial option, they would be failed by the system; that law enforcement wouldn’t care; that prosecutors wouldn’t be able to build a case.

This belief was just as prevalent in the Icelandic response to #MeToo as it was anywhere else. Now, a year and a half since the movement came to life, the question remains: has anything actually changed? Have we done right by the people brave enough to speak up, and have we shone a light on abuses of power?

Who is she talking about?

“It was not very common,” says Justice Minister Sigríður Á. Andersen when asked about the attitudes regarding pursuing legal action against rape, sexual assault, or sexual harassment only five to ten years back. “In terms of making issues a police matter, that was probably not very frequent.”

Sigríður first became aware of #MeToo through Facebook, when she was added to groups for Icelandic women in the legal profession, among others, and saw the initial posts relating to the hashtag. “I think that the general perception is these [Facebook groups] were eye-opening to everyone,” she says. “Of course, as with everything that appears on Facebook, you take it with a grain of salt, but this was so prevalent that it wasn’t possible to discard it all together.”

Iceland’s status as a small community gave #MeToo a unique edge within the country. “In a small community, people thrive on stories,” she says, explaining that in other places, while one might just read a story about a woman’s experience with a man, here in Iceland, “It’s very common that people go, ‘who exactly is this guy?’ This prolongs the story and gives it a longer life than it would have in a bigger community. There are pros and cons with that,” she says, shaking her head.

The importance of time

Above all else, Sigríður’s beliefs speak to the idea that a crime is a crime, and that legal processes exist and work for a reason. This, however, complicates the prosecution of the types of accusations brought up by #MeToo.

For Sigríður, it’s primarily an issue of time. “Victims of sexual assault should not wait with their accusation, but step forward and go to the police,” she strongly advises. “If you go to the police five or ten years after, then yes, that can be problematic in a judicial system. It is logical that it becomes problematic.”

It’s clear that Sigríður has empathy for survivors, but sees how—as days, weeks and years pass by—the rigid requirements of the burden of proof becomes complicated and evidence, from DNA to memories, gets hazy. “Time is the worst enemy in this,” she explains. “I think the most positive effect of #MeToo is that many women maybe now dare to step forward right away. If that is the one thing that comes out of #MeToo, then it is very positive.”

Judicial changes and challenges

Over the past year, Sigríður, along with the whole Ministry of Justice, put forward a formal agenda focused on tackling sexual offences within the judicial system. This included, first and foremost, widespread changes to how police officers respond to those reporting a crime. 

While the Ministry initially only increased the number of police officers on duty, they later found out it was more helpful to create specialised roles for officers. “It used to be that they had a case on their desk and one officer was appointed to take that over and he followed it all through the system,” Sigríður explains. “But now someone is specialising in interviewing the victim, someone in interviewing the suspect, someone in going to court with the case, et cetera.” According to the officers, this has made the process much more efficient.

“Time is the worst enemy in this.”

One of the most difficult questions for the Ministry of Justice has been just how active the survivor should be within the court process. “When we were preparing this agenda, there was a suggestion that the victim should have a formal status in the criminal proceedings before the court,” she says. “People are thinking of the possibility of keeping the victim up to date on the matter.” She contends, though, that this violates the fundamental principle of the Icelandic judicial system. “In Iceland, criminal cases are tried by the police and the prosecutor, not by individuals.”

On the other hand, Sigríður recognises that victims want and need to be kept apprised of their cases. She points to a new idea being practised by the Northern Icelandic police as a solution to this. The law in Iceland requires that if the police have a case and investigate it, but see no chance of getting a conviction, then by law they must drop it. Oftentimes, this is done via letter. But, knowing the emotional toll this takes on survivors, the police are taking a different tack.

“They call the victims when they are dropping the case and explain why they are dropping it,” she explains, before giving a paraphrased rundown of what an officer might say. “That does not mean that this did not happen. It just means that by law it is difficult to get a conviction and that’s why we are dropping it. It can help some victims deal with the fact that their case will not be tried before the court.”

The public sector responds

While the Ministry of Justice has been tackling sexual abuse through the legal system, many other organisations within Iceland have formed their own private committees to deal with complaints internally. The Bishop’s Office of the National Church of Iceland, for example, has a special “professional committee” for registering and investigating complaints of sexual harassment and abuse. The Social Democrats have their own “sensitive affairs” committee (“trúnaðarnefnd”) wherein they investigate and respond to sexual misconduct within their ranks, as they did when they asked MP Ágúst Ólafur Ágústsson to go on extended leave after his sexual harassment of a journalist was brought to light last December.

If a Parliamentarian cannot step forward and report a crime, where are we then?”

Sigríður is skeptical about these committees. She sees the good of having them deal with minor incidences, but also points out that committee investigations take time.

Parliament does not currently have one of these committees, and Sigríður feels no need for one, pointing to the ethics committee as a potential vehicle for complaints. That said, she doesn’t foresee Parliament ever establishing one. “If a Parliamentarian cannot step forward and report a crime,” she says, emphasising the word “Parliamentarian” with a small laugh. “Where are we then?”

Failing accountability

While Sigríður ascribes unshaking faith in the justice system to address most of the problems brought to light by the #MeToo movement, not everyone feels the same. Helga Vala Helgadóttir, member of parliament for the Social Democrats, says the recent Klausturgate controversy has exposed the impotence of the current parliamentary framework for holding elected officials accountable.

“When we tried to get [Centre Party] MPs to appear before the committee they simply refused to appear.

“The problem, when you are dealing with elected officials of any kind, is that in the end no one can show them the red card,” says Helga Vala. “The parliamentary ethics committee is meant to handle a wide variety of cases that range from unethical behaviour all the way to potentially criminal behaviour.”

“When we tried to get [Centre Party] MPs Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson and Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson to appear before the committee to answer for the things they said on the Klaustur tapes about trading favours for ambassadorial positions, they simply refused to appear. That was a potentially criminal matter and yet there is basically no other recourse when an MP refuses to speak to the committee. That’s just the end of the story, really.”

The private sector

When it comes to non-criminal matters and grey areas, Helga Vala believes parliament lags behind both the private sector and her own Social Democratic party, with its temporary suspension of the aforementioned MP.

“People who work for private companies, civil servants and other administrative officials can all be fired for conduct that is deemed inappropriate,” she says. “And we have seen improvements in how this is handled as procedures are developed that kicked into action in cases like the harassment claims in Orkuveitan and Águst Ólafur’s case. I actually think we could make this kind of framework more universal by slightly amending current laws about shop stewards that already represent union workers.”

Helga Vala envisions adding a clause to the law that the size of the committee should depend on the size of the workplace. “That committee could then receive and process complaints about unseemly behaviour or other non-criminal matters,” she continues. “The sports and athletics authorities have set up their own framework and channels for reporting inappropriate behaviour and that is important because these cases so often hinge on a inherent power imbalance that makes reporting difficult. If it’s not something that rises to the level of criminality, but does create a hostile working environment, you don’t really know where to turn.”

A counselor’s perspective

But, as Sigríður fights in the judicial system against the sexual crimes brought up by #MeToo, there is a whole other group feeling the brunt of the hashtag in a different way. Stígamót is a grassroots organisation that offers free counselling for those suffering in the aftermath of sexual abuse. While they’ve been around for 28 years, #MeToo has precipitated a noticeable leap in its user numbers.

“People are more aware. People are seeking help,” says Karen Linda Eiríksdóttir, a counsellor at Stígamót who has been working with the organisation for seven years. “There are a lot of people coming and saying ‘this happened to me and I hadn’t really realised how it’s affected me until today.’”

Karen, like Sigríður, says that in the years before #MeToo, pursuing legal action against a perpetrator was uncommon. “People were afraid to go to the police. They had to go to a big building downtown and often felt like they were being treated as guilty,” she explains. “By the time they had worked up the guts to go, there was no evidence. It was word against word and that wasn’t enough.”

But only last month, Karen along with the rest of Stígamót met with the sex crimes department to see how they react to survivors. It was nothing like the old days. “They have streamlined everything over there and it’s more inviting,” she explains. It’s clear Sigríður’s agenda has done some good. 

“People were afraid to go to the police.”

But one of the most helpful changes in facilities for sexual abuse survivors, Karen finds, has been in the development of Bjarkarhlíð. The centre, located near Elliðaárdalur, is a refuge for survivors of violence, and provides counselling, an on-site detective, and also weekly talks from legal teams and the women’s shelter. “They immediately feel like they are in a place that isn’t an institution and that has changed a lot of the experience for survivors,” she says. Sigríður agrees with her on the importance of the centre, simply stating, “It’s a one stop shop.”

Now what?

Karen attributes the rise of the #MeToo movement to the fact that the law simply wasn’t working for survivors. “People will take things into their own hands and just do what they have to do. #MeToo has moved people there,” she says. “This is people moving the system.”

She explains that, from her experience, people have begun to pursue justice through the police in a way they never did before #MeToo. The campaign, it seems, has moved the system itself, enabling people to start using it once more.

A comprehensive shift

For Sigríður, though, the way forward involves a much more comprehensive shift—one that the system can’t change. “There has to be an awakening [at] the root of it,” she says. “Why are people behaving in a way that leads to someone feeling uncomfortable in their natural environment? In their workplace? The way forward is prevention and education.”

Helga Vala says the unaccountability of MPs themselves sends the wrong message to wider society. “Elected officials refusing to be held accountable for their behaviour, ignoring established norms and challenging even obvious truths as being part of some conspiracy? Well, we have seen that in other places recently, haven’t we? The United States and parts of Eastern Europe come to mind.

“I think it’s part of a dangerous and worrying trend where people have become,” she continues. “What is the word? Too tolerant? Complacent? I mean, this kind of behaviour still shocks people when they read the headlines, but it’s just one thing after another where it comes so thick and fast that you just move on with your life and it all becomes background noise. Elected officials and other public representatives around the world lie constantly and openly to the public and it has been normalised. Then, looking back over the cacophony, people are just like: ‘Wow, did all that really happen?’”

While there’s no single answer to what steps we should take to prevent sexual abuse and harassment, maybe that’s the entire point—that different environments call for different preventative and responsive measures. Just as each case is examined on its own merits, the way in which we handle each case might be dependent upon the environment in which it occurs.

This is perhaps why everyone the Grapevine spoke to for this piece emphasised the importance of education as prevention; that we teach our children the meaning of consent, body autonomy and mutual respect. With time, there may come a day when the #MeToo movement is looked upon as a turning point in gender relations, in Iceland and elsewhere.

What does accountability look like? A sample of attempts thus far.

People we spoke with on the subject of what tools are, or can be, used in the wake of sexual abuse claims brought up numerous ideas on what we could or ought to do. But what tools already exist? Some private and government actors have already taken steps.

The Parliamentary Ethics Committee
This body is designed to examine any claims of unethical behaviour of parliamentarians, and sexual abuse and harassment would be under that purview. It does, however, have its limits, as the Klausturgate scandal has demonstrated, given that some MPs involved have simply refused to appear before the Committee.

A loose translation of this would be a “confidential affairs committee.” The Social Democrats have one, which they use to investigate misbehaviour within their ranks and act accordingly. As stated in this feature, when allegations of sexual misconduct were levied against one of their own, Ágúst Ólafur Ágústsson, this committee convened and requested he take a leave of absence.

This could be translated as a “professional committee”, and exists within the National Church. This body receives complaints about sexual misconduct within their ranks, and seeks reconciliation between the two parties involved. As the National Church has itself been at the centre of sexual abuse controversies, the existence of this body is understandable, but it is not just for government offices. Æskulýðsvettvangurinn, a youth activities organisation, also has a fagráð for sexual misconduct cases.

Any decent workplace should have a human resources department, where employees can air their grievances with a trusted colleague. Even the smallest workplace should have at least one “trúnaðarmaður,” who can be a union shop steward or the sole HR representative. This is a satisfactory measure in many respects, but becomes more complicated if the HR representative is themselves an employer engaging in sexual misconduct.

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