Most consider this Scandinavian spot as a feminist utopia, but scratch below the surface and things aren’t quite as they appear
It may come as a surprise to learn that the women behind Iceland’s radical feminist group Öfgar, once did not consider themselves to be feminists at all. Five of the founding members – social worker Thórhildur Gyða Arnarsdóttir, actress Hulda Hrund Guðrúnar Sigmundsdóttir, make-up artist Ninna Karla Katrínardóttir, personal trainer Ólöf Tara Harðardóttir and psychology graduate Tanja M Ísfjörð – one by one, detail to me how they were raised to believe feminist was a dirty word. "I wasn't born a feminist. I became a feminist because I'm a survivor," says Sigmundsdóttir.
Every one of them has a story to tell me and all of this happening in the so-called feminist utopia of Iceland, which has been dubbed one of the safest places in the world to be a woman.
“That’s utter crap,” Sigmundsdóttir says. “Our justice system is broken. 1 in every 4 women are sexually assaulted here. Saying it's safe… it's just a silencing tactic. Whenever we complain they like constantly saying, ‘but so many have it worse than you.’ We shouldn't be putting Iceland on a pedestal. Trust me, this is not a euphoria for other countries to emulate.”
The women initially met a few years ago on a Facebook group called Activism Against Rape Culture on Facebook and decided to take things further. “The women there were calling out for a social media platform that was educational and feminist,” says Ísfjörð. “We decided to take to TikTok and see what we could do.” The women joke about wanting to be “TikTok famous” but behind the joviality is a real desire to make a change in a world where they felt unheard.
“We have a culture of silence here, one that is made so much worse by the fact Iceland is such a small island and it feels like everyone knows everyone,” says Ísfjörð. Öfgar have been battling this deafening silence from the beginning. Individuals who have been held to account by the group have been working across different industries including politics, media and football. Some of which have come out and apologised but others have denied the allegations.
Their most successful to date has been against the Icelandic Football Association, which eventually resulted in the entire IFA board resigning in September 2021 after it was reported they had covered up sexual abuse allegations. ‘They helped me through a really difficult time. Now I am proudest of the work we do with survivors; making sure they know we support them. I know that when you step forward as a survivor of violence, knowing you are not alone can be crucial.”
The group work on several different fronts; battling what Ólöf Tara Harðardóttir calls ‘the villainization of activists’ in the press through media workshops, speaking with parliament and attending UN meetings and mounting challenges to Iceland’s justice system, which so many survivors view as failing women. “We have so much work to do and it can sometimes feel like, what we in Iceland like to say ‘shovelling s**t in a snowstorm,’” laughs Ninna Karla Katrínardóttir. “But it is work we are happy to do.”
Since becoming a force to be reckoned with, the women of Öfgar have received their fair share of hate – in the media and online. Their name, which translates into English as ‘radical’ derives from some of these received messages. “We're taking the power from the name and using it against them,” says Harðardóttir. “They say that this is too radical, so we’ll just become more so.” For five women who were once afraid to brand themselves as feminists, they’re now proud to be angry. “I think we are all sick of being told ‘Don't say too much. Don't be too loud, too noisy. Don't take space." says Ísfjörð.
Harðardóttir agrees: “You can't be too radical when it comes to feminism. We didn't get our chance to vote because we were just sitting quietly in a corner, did we?”