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"When women join forces, then they can’t be ignored"

The #MeToo revolution has swept the Nordic region in the past half year. An avalanche of testimonies of sexual harassment has put the issue high on the political agenda, yet the impact of the campaign has varied across the countries. In connection with the International Women’s Day, Nordic Information on Gender (NIKK) has discussed the #MeToo movement with some Nordic experts.

Feminists demanding change across national boundaries is hardly a new phenomenon. However, the emergence of social media has made collaboration easier and the potential impact stronger. According to Emma Severinsson, PhD student in history at Lund University, Sweden, the testimonies and calls for action connected with the #MeToo campaign are classic features of how the feminist movement has operated throughout history.
‘It has always been risky to make these types of accusations in public. That’s why women join forces, then they can’t be ignored. But the sheer number of women involved this time hasn’t been seen for a very long time,’ she says.
Sweden is the Nordic country where the #MeToo has had the greatest impact. Well-known TV and radio show hosts, journalists and politicians have been publicly accused and fired. More than 60 000 women have come together and demanded change in their respective sectors. The biggest call for action, #utantystnadsplikt, gathered more than 10 000 female doctors. Severinsson believes that the impact of the campaign has been particularly strong in Sweden because there was already an infrastructure in place.
‘The gender equality work in Sweden has benefitted from broad political support for the last 15 years. We have a feminist political party that has put pressure on all the other parties to increase their focus on feminist issues. In addition, gender research holds a relatively strong position in Sweden, compared with for example Denmark,’ she says.
According to Severinsson, the culture of silence in the feminist movement had already been eliminated. The #MeToo campaign has been about eliminating the culture of silence in the rest of society, too. What she finds most remarkable about the campaign is its magnitude, or the fact that it has become so widespread and has engaged such a large number of women who had never been involved in the past.
‘I think this is because the campaign in Sweden has been so strongly connected to the workplace, as this makes it possible to hold specific individuals and employers accountable,’ says Severinsson.

Iceland: Call for Action by Women with Migrant Backgrounds

In Iceland, the #MeToo campaign is still in full swing. Fourteen calls for actions have been made in various sectors, and more are coming, according to Fríða Rós Valdimarsdóttir, who works at Iceland’s Centre for Gender Equality. First out were more than 400 female politicians who listed violations they had had to endure as active politicians, including rape threats. The cultural workers soon followed suit.
‘The calls for action have made front page news. They have also led to the firing of many perpetrators,’ says Fríða Rós Valdimarsdóttir. She is part of a network for the administrators of calls for actions as the chair of Iceland’s largest women’s rights organisation. The network was created to, help facilitate sharing of experiences and support and to nurture the solitarity that has been enforced with the #metoo movement.
In contrast to other Nordic countries, women with migrant backgrounds have published their own manifesto in Iceland. Testimonies combine both sexism and racism.
‘Their stories make the deepest impression. One woman described being attacked from behind while working as a cleaner. A man stuffed a rag in her mouth and then raped her. Afterward, he left her a envelope with money and a note saying that he had always wanted to have sex with a foreign woman.’

Representatives from the migrant group have also been invited to Iceland’s most popular prime time talk show and participated at Iceland’s feminist forum. Fríða Rós Valdimarsdóttir says that the calls for action have had a dramatic impact on Icelandic society.
‘#MeToo has changed everything. Because of the campaign, sexual harassment is now taken seriously in Iceland.’

She also says that the campaign has had political effects. Because of #MeToo, Iceland’s government has invested money in strengthening the legal security in connection with sex crimes. The minister of health has issued guidelines for how organisations and government agencies should handle cases of sexual harassment.
‘Ministers are also discussing with each other how the system for dealing with sexual harassment can be reinforced.’

Denmark: Vast Media Coverage

In Denmark, the #MeToo campaign really took off in connection with reports of misconduct by film producer Peter Aalback Jensen at Zentropa film company. His treatment of some colleagues has attracted a lot of attention. In a next step, calls for action were published where female classical singers, female academics and women in the film and performing arts sector joined forces and presented testimonies of a culture of violations. In the words of the classical singers, ‘Male star soloists, conductors and instructors are declared geniuses and their unwelcome advances, violations and lude remarks downplayed and whitewashed in Denmark, too.

According to Christian Groes, associate professor at Roskilde University’s Centre for Gender, Power and Diversity, the #MeToo campaign has received an enormous amount of media attention in Denmark, although there have been relatively few concrete calls for action. He says that the campaign has divided Danish men into two camps: those who ridicule and those who support the initiative. For example, three Danish comedians mocked the female classical singers who had come forward by making up what they called their #hetoo campaign and talking on primetime TV about being molested by young women who had wanted their bodies.

‘But the testimonies have been a wakeup call to many men. They’ve been shocked by the women’s stories. The fact that many men are silent may mean that they are listening,’ he says.

In Denmark, there have been discussions about whether or not it is okay to publish the names of alleged perpetrators. According to Groes, there has been a tendency for men to want to protect other men. Personally, he believes that the publication of names fills an important function.
‘It helps transfer the stigma from the victim to the offender. If it doesn’t cost anything to sexually harass somebody, things will never change. Men have to become afraid of the consequences.’

It is important that the discussion continues, says Groes.
‘Now we men need to move on, think and talk about what we can do.’

Finland: Linking to Power Structures

In Finland, the media have unveiled the behaviour of several individuals in high places. There too, some men were quick to ridicule the campaign and testimonies. But according to Katju Aro, chair of Finland’s Feminist Party, the campaign soon regained its momentum and has contributed to substantial change in Finnish society.
‘People in Finland have become more aware of the situation. There is a before and an after #MeToo, and it’s not over yet.’

She says that the #MeToo in Finland has gone through several phases. The first comprised the sharing of personal testimonies, then came the ridiculing and the last phase consisted of the calls for action and the linking to power structures. According to Aro, something happened to the debate when the first call for action was published. In a call titled #dammenbrister, more than 6 000 Finland-Swedes shared experiences of sexual harassment. Several other calls for action soon followed, including a broad Finnish #MeToo that gathered all types of testimonies. This will now be turned into a book.
‘The difference between Finland and Sweden is that we don’t talk much about the workplace. The debate has a stronger focus on sexual harassment in the public space, such as at bars, and within couples.’

In Finland, the #MeToo campaign has contributed to a legislative proposal on a consent law has moved forward. It has also been debated in the Finnish parliament how the systems should be changed in order to prevent sexual harassment. However, Aro is missing a discussion about the consequences that should be imposed on men who sexually harass women. At present, there is a focus on the perpetrator’s perspective, on whether it really is right to make the identity of these individuals public.
‘But when we discuss this issue, we must not forget the damage that the offenders have inflicted on their victims. The victims may have dropped out of their studies or careers because of the harassment. The violations may have lifelong effects on them,’ says Aro.

Norway: Scandals in Politics

In Norway, #MeToo scandals have caused a big stir in politics. Cases of sexual harassment have been revealed in all political parties, with the biggest problems found in the Labour Party. But testimonies of violations have also surfaced in the Conservative Party and the Progress Party.
‘There has been a strong focus on individuals, but also on the handling of cases by the party managements. When it comes to the Labour Party, it has also been discussed how this will affect the party,’ says Helga Eggebø, sociologist and public debater.
The #MeToo campaign has been a big discussion topic, with several calls for action and testimonies that have shaken up various sectors. In late October, women demonstrated in front of the parliament in Oslo. According to a survey by media analysis company Retriever, the #MeToo campaign was the subject of 1 700 newspaper articles published over the course of just over a month, in October–November.

Eggebø is surprised by the impact of the campaign. At the same time, she thinks there is too little talk about what to do next. There has been a lot of engagement from underneath, but the support from above has been lacking, she says. According to Eggebø, this may be because the politicians lack tools, or a structure, for implementing gender equality policy.
‘The willingness to acknowledge #MeToo as a structural problem and talk about revisions of laws and structures hasn’t really been there. One example of this is our Minister of Fisheries, who voiced the opinion that women just need to slap the perpetrator!’

Overall, however, Eggebø is thrilled about the enormous mobilisation that has taken place.
‘Who would have thought that something like this could happen in this day and age?’

Updated 10 December 2019