The inaugural #MeToo: Moving Forward conference was held in Reykjavík from September 17th to 19th. Co-sponsored by the Nordic Council of Ministers, the Government of Iceland, and the Institute for Gender Equality and Difference at the University of Iceland, it provided a platform to discuss structural aspects of gender inequality, which enable sexual violence and other gender-based harassment.
Host Kolbrún Halldórsdóttir outlined the conference’s focus. “We will dig deep into the effect of this social phenomenon—some call it a revolution. We will be focusing on three key issues: #MeToo: why now, #MeToo: what next, and #MeToo in the Nordic countries.”
With 800 registered participants and 80 speakers over the course of three days, the conference was opened with an address from Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir. “It’s been two years since millions of women across the world used the simple but powerful hashtag #MeToo. How can we make sure that collective demands result in enduring structural change?”
The Prime Minister emphasised the revelation that laws are not enough to address sexual harassment. She also commented on how shocked she was in learning about the severity and prevalence of gender violence towards women of foreign origin in Iceland.
“When migrant women spoke out, many of us here in Iceland were devastated,” Katrín revealed. “They described levels of multiple discrimination that most of us had hoped didn’t exist in Iceland. By doing so, they exposed the fact that while we have made massive progress on gender equality, we have not sufficiently confronted the intersections of gender, racial, and class injustices. I believe this holds true for the other Nordic countries as well.”
The Prime Minister’s acknowledgement of the realities faced by immigrant women in Iceland was a touchstone in her speech and a later panel discussion. “The first time she said it, I was quite moved,” recalls Randi Stebbins, conference attendee and human rights activist. “It was quite moving for me as an immigrant woman in this community who has worked on these issues. As an immigrant woman, I didn’t know these conversations were going on here until they got published. It’s the in-group deciding who gets the space.”
Prior to moving to Iceland with her family, Randi worked for several years as a lawyer in the United States with undocumented immigrant populations who were victims of violent crimes. “I volunteer as a peer counselor at W.O.M.E.N. in Iceland,” Randi said of her own contribution to the #MeToo movement. “As a lawyer or a peer counsellor, you never know what story is going to come in. But I’m always humble when somebody does come in and share with me because usually this is not someone I know.”
At the #MeToo conference, the work of W.O.M.E.N. was presented by founding member Tatjana Latinović. She is also the Chair of the Icelandic Women’s Rights Association. Since its inception in 2003, W.O.M.E.N. has provided women of foreign origin with support ranging from financial advice to harassment issues.
“Women have been saying ‘me too’ for a very long time,” Angela Davis began her keynote address. “But it was not until two years ago that these issues started to be taken seriously within the mainstream.”
“When we began to forcefully speak out against the physical and sexual abuse of women, we did not know that it would be 50 years before this ideological structure against gender violence would begin to yield material results,” she said, outlining the larger history leading up to the #MeToo movement. “50 years of anti-rape hotlines, 50 years of battered women’s shelters, 50 years of activist commitment, protests, marches, demonstrations. Solidarity and struggle does eventually yield change. The #MeToo movement is a stunning example.”
Angela noted especially the contribution of Icelandic women to structural changes started in the 20th century. “We’re here in Iceland, Iceland which has a long history of taking the lead in struggles for women’s equality. When the majority of women here went out on strike, they were demonstrating to the world that movements could initiate processes of structural transformation.”
Laws don’t work
Angela’s keynote subsequently addressed the problematics attached to individuated legal strategies. “Gender violence is the most pandemic form of violence in the world. We’re rarely called upon to reflect on the structural and institutional underpinnings of these violences. Remaining at the level of the individual will condemn us to endless repetition of the same punitive solutions. Punitive approaches will not solve the structural problem.”
Angela concluded her address with a complex message of hope, a powerful way to direct the conference’s consideration of gender violence and sexual harassment. “I do wonder whether we can eradicate it,” she said, “but I do believe.”
Everything is all wrong
A rousing address by Danish human rights activist Emma Holten provided the first bolstering moment of the conference. After a personal experience with revenge porn, Emma became a significant voice on social media in the Nordic #MeToo movement. While discussions throughout the conference focused on structural and systematic changes needed, the personal realities of survivors had a felt presence.
“Ministers, I want to address you,” said Emma. “Ask yourself whether you are an hysteric. The hysteric says, if we were living in a well-functioning society, this would not happen. Ever. To the hysteric, the violation and the harassment is proof, is a symbol of the fact that the society is not functioning. What patriarchy does is that anyone who challenges the idea that society is functioning in the right way is immediately termed an irrational person. The only way the marginalized person can succeed is to fastly hold on to the idea that everything is alright.”
This inaugural conference covered perpetrator accountability, disabled women and #MeToo, sexual harassment at work and in higher education, consent, care, and the backlash against #MeToo. Moving forward for the Nordic countries means ending sexual harassment as necessary for gender equality. This is the focus for the Nordic co-operation Programme on Gender Equality 2019-2022.
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