In Iceland you can get sued for talking about rape

In Iceland men can rape and sexually harass women with near-impunity but that’s not enough - some women who report assault to the police are promptly reported to the police themselves. And other women who just talk about it are sued for huge sums of cash. Award-winning Icelandic writer Thordis Elva writes for the Swedish feminist platform Gardets, our first story in English.

November 9, 2015 began like any other day. As I’d recently moved to Sweden from my native Iceland, I was two hours ahead when I sat down with my cup of morning coffee and proceeded to read the online editions of Icelandic newspapers.

As a result, I was probably one of the first Icelanders to be taken aback by the headline of Fréttablaðið newspaper, but far from the last. It stated ”The apartment was equipped for rapes” and told the story of two men, who were suspected of having committed two rapes, including a gang-rape of a woman in an apartment in Hlíðar, a residential area in downtown Reykjavík. The descriptions of said apartment included hooks in the ceiling to hang victims from, and chains as well as whips that the police had confiscated. After finishing the article, I’d lost my appetite and wrestled with the disbelief brought on by the last sentence, about how the suspects had not been placed in custody. Welcome to the patriarchy.

Are women not a part of the public?

I went onto the Facebook profile for the metropolitan police of Reykjavik and asked why the two men, who were suspected of these horrendous crimes, had not been placed in custody on the basis of public interest, so women wouldn’t have to fear for their safety? Did this mean that women aren’t considered part of the public? At the end of the day, nearly 10.000 people had liked my comment, as I was far from being the only person who questioned how this case was being handled. Another feminist activist, Hildur Lilliendahl, wrote a critical status on her social media profile where she talked about the ”incredibly serious attack on women’s safety by the Reykjavik police, when they refuse to place men in custody after they rape women TOGETHER in such an exceedingly systemic way that they have an apartment that’s specially equipped for it.”

At this point in time, some netizens decided to take matters into their own hands, publishing the names and photos of the suspects in order to warn other women, since the authorities had decided to let them walk free.

Rapes and murders that could’ve been avoided

Our worries were not unfounded, because in the years before the Hlíðar case, there were examples of suspected rapists committing more rapes and even murder as a direct result of not being placed in police custody. We’re a small nation and our wounds were still fresh. As the story about the Hlíðar case unfolded, more unsettling news were published and around noon, the news outlet Hringbraut stated that ”the third rape had just barely been avoided.”At this point in time, some netizens decided to take matters into their own hands, publishing the names and photos of the suspects in order to warn other women, since the authorities had decided to let them walk free. Other people started planning a solidarity gathering in front of the police headquarters, to rally behind the victims. One of the organisers, Oddný Arnarsdóttir, gave an interview where she quoted some of the news coverage and added her own interpretation, stating that: ”Men, who have committed rape at least twice, are not placed in custody. From what I understand, a third rape was prevented.”

​That night, she stood in front of a thousand-people gathering by the police headquarters and reaped a standing ovation when she announced that enough was enough. The moment felt historical, proven by dozens of inspired speeches and the attendees tear-streaked cheeks. The core message was that silence and inaction were no longer acceptable reactions to sexual violence. That era was over.

Turning suspects into victims

For the attendees who had felt hopeful and inspired, the next day was a sobering contrast. The suspects had hired a lawyer, who one week prior had been in a television interview where he complained that sexual violence was ”talked about way too much”. He based this opinion on the feeling that he could no longer open a newspaper without reading about a sex crime. He didn’t seem to think that the problem was rooted in there being way too much sexual violence in general, only that it was being talked about. I can only imagine how intolerable we must be in the eyes of someone who thinks sexual violence is ”talked about way too much”.

Survivors of sexual assault everywhere got a clear message that they could be reported right back, if they chose to seek justice after being raped. 

The first thing this lawyer did was to announce that the two women, who had reported the rapes in question, would now be reported themselves – for falsely reporting rape. In this unprecedented move, survivors of sexual assault everywhere got a clear message that they could be reported right back, if they chose to seek justice after being raped. But he didn’t stop, there. A few days later, the lawyer reported one of the two women for raping one of the men she had reported for rape, herself. Had they been playing defense, it was clear that the new strategy was full-blown offense. However, the reports against the women didn’t seem to be taken very seriously by the police, as they’d been dismissed three weeks later.

From Icelandic site Visir. ”22 will be sued if they don’t take their words back”

Pay and apologise – or be sued

The original rape cases against the two men were similarly dismissed six months later due to a lack of evidence, like a majority of Icelandic rape cases. It’s worth keeping in mind that a dismissal doesn’t prove anyone’s guilt, but it doesn’t prove their innocence either. This spurred the lawyer on, who started sending out letters on behalf of his clients to selected people who had expressed opinions on the Hlíðar case. The recepients were threatened with a libel suit if they didn’t pay large sums of money in a matter of days, and apologised. The lawyer announced all of this in the media, which made it clear that everyone was meant to take this message to heart, not just the recepients of the letters. I was among the people he said would receive a letter, along with Hildur and Oddný. As outspoken feminists, I can only imagine how intolerable we must be in the eyes of someone who thinks sexual violence is ”talked about way too much”.

Victims of sensationalism?

​I didn’t end up being in the group of people who were sued for libel (despite not paying nor apologising for anything I said that fateful day.) The first people who were convicted of slandering the suspects in the Hlíðar case were media professionals. Journalists of Hringbraut were convicted for saying that ”the third rape had just barely been avoided”, among other things. Oddný would later be convicted for repeating and interpreting the same sentiment. The harshest sentence was given to the journalists of Fréttablaðið, after nearly all of the shocking descriptions in the cover story were deemed to be slanderous, including that the apartment was equipped for rapes. Hildur would later be convicted for repeating and interpreting the same sentiment. In other words, there wasn’t enough evidence to back up the descriptions that garnered the strongest reactions among the public, according to the court. The journalists had simply gone too far.

​But that also brings us to the core of the issue. Without these shocking descriptions, people would not have been fed up. Had we not been fed up, we wouldn’t have raised our voices. The two thousand people who shared the names and photos of the suspects would not have felt the need to warn other women about them. Neither Hildur or Oddný had quoted Fréttablaðið or Hringbraut, thereby avoiding slandering the two men, whose identities were still unknown to them.

From Icelandic site Visir. ”Four reporters of 365 Media convicted of libel.”

The crime of believing women

What crime did people like Hildur and Oddný commit, then? In my mind, the answer is that they believed the two women, whose police reports were the subject of sensational press coverage. If they hadn’t believed them, they wouldn’t have expressed their opinions on the suspects’ guilt ”without reservation”, as the judge put it. If Hildur and Oddný had doubted the women’s truthfulness, they might have used cautious language like ”allegedly” and ”if the charges turn out to be true”, thereby abiding by the objectivity that the rule of law demands, until the guilt of a suspect has been legally proven. Until then, it’s flat out illegal to believe survivors. 

It’s victims fearing that they will not be believed, which is one of the main reasons why they don’t report their assaults

​The winner of the Nobel Peace Prize Desmond Tutu once said that if you’re neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. Neutrality is always in favour of the status quo. What is the status quo, you may ask? It’s reflected in the fact that one in three women is subject to physical or sexual violence in her lifetime. It’s less than 10% of sexual assaults being reported to the police, and a fraction of the cases resulting in a conviction. It’s victims fearing that they will not be believed, which is one of the main reasons why they don’t report their assaults. It’s reservations like ”alleged” and ”if the charges turn out to be true”, who many survivors interpret as signs of disbelief, further repelling them from seeking justice. To make the playing field even more uneven, suspects and their supporters are free to mainain their innocence as loudly and as often as they see fit. I understand how people’s reputation is one of their most valuable posessions, and how it deserves legal protection. But what the Hlíðar case did was to reveal that it’s unclear where a woman’s freedom of speech ends and a man’s reputationbegins. 

Hildur and Oddný were found guilty of libel and were sentenced to a fine of nearly 15000 Euros. 

​Hildur and Oddný were found guilty of libel and were sentenced to a fine of nearly 15000 Euros. Consequently, about 27000 Euros was crowd-funded in less than a month, in a project called the Free Speech Fund. It turns out that many people are of the opinion that we must be free to talk about sexual violence, interpret press coverage of such cases and last but not least – believe survivors. Despite these violent death throes, the era of silence and inaction is indeed over.

THORDIS ELVA

Thordis Elva is an award-winning writer, public speaker, journalist and activist. Her books, films and campaigns against gender-based violence earned her the title Woman of the Year 2015 in her native Iceland. In 2017, she wrote the book South of Forgiveness with a man who sexually assaulted her, which has been published in 14 countries. Their TED talk has been viewed 5,3 million times. Thordis Elva became one of the frontrunners of the #metoo revolution in Iceland, accepting the Person of the Year Award 2017 on behalf of the movement

Thordis Elva currently resides in Stockholm, Sweden with her partner and their three sons.

Dela artikeln

Gillar du GARDET? Vi gillar att kunna betala alla våra medarbetare. Och för att kunna göra det behöver vi din hjälp. Stötta oss via Swish – 1234368940 eller Patreon, så vårt oberoende journalistiska och opinionsbildande arbete kan fortsätta. Tack för ditt stöd.

till toppen

Vi använder cookies för att ge dig en bättre upplevelse av Gardets webb. Läs mer om Gardets integritetspolicy