World News

Iceland in Uproar Over Secret Recording of Politicians’ Sexist Remarks

Posted December 6, 2018 1:40 p.m. EST

Many Icelanders are calling for the resignations of a group of politicians who were secretly recorded in a bar using sexist and obscene language about female colleagues, including making disparaging remarks about a disabled former member of Parliament.

The politicians — including former Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, former Foreign Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson and a female minister, Anna Kolbrun Arnadottir — met at a bar called Klaustur two weeks ago in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, ordered beers and spent more than three hours talking.

A man sitting nearby overheard the conversation, made a recording with his cellphone and sent it to the news media.

The recording went viral after it was posted online last week, spurring nationwide outrage in a country that has a female prime minister, Katrin Jakobsdottir, and that prides itself on its gender equality record after topping the World Economic Forum’s gender gap index for several years. This year, a law was passed that requires companies and government agencies to prove they are paying men and women equally.

Some of the politicians who were recorded have apologized.

Sveinsson, the former foreign minister, who has a reputation for being a champion of women’s rights, is heard on the recording mocking a female lawmaker for coming forward as part of the “Me Too” movement and laughing at domestic violence accusations made against a former member of Parliament.

Some in the group expressed a desire to sleep with particular female colleagues. One person warned that one such woman could not be trusted because she “plays on men like women know best.” The political career of another woman is questioned because she is “not as hot this year” and her beauty is “fading fast.”

Arnadottir, the only female politician at the table, is heard at one point responding, “Can I ask you to imagine if this was a male politician you are speaking of?” On the recording, the men erupt in laughter.

Icelanders took to social media to express disgust. “My burning question is yet this,” one user tweeted. “Where on the Centrist Party hot-or-not scale do I stand?” An entertainment website, Nutiminn, created a quiz asking users to guess whether a certain quote came from a rap song or the tapes.

Many people were especially disturbed by the way some in the group referred to Freyja Haraldsdottir, a disabled former member of Parliament. One person called her “an island,” a possible reference to that fact that she uses a wheelchair that lets her lie flat.

Haraldsdottir, who received a personal apology from Gunnlaugsson, said that without any form of action such apologies were empty.

“The MPs don’t consider what they did a violation,” she said by telephone Wednesday. “That is the message they send by not resigning. And it hurts as much as the actual act.”

She added, “My body has been on everyone’s lips in the past days, and I find it very uncomfortable. I wonder what impact this will have on me and other disabled people, like disabled children.”

Four of the lawmakers, including Gunnlaugsson, a former chairman of the Progressive Party, apologized for their “insensitive remarks” but said the comments had been made in a private conversation.

“It was not our intention to hurt anyone, and it’s clear that our manner of speaking at that time is inexcusable,” they said in a joint statement published last week. “We are determined to learn from this and will try our utmost to be polite and respectful to our colleagues.”

Two of the lawmakers were removed from the People’s Party but continue to serve in Parliament. Two others have taken leave.

A survey published Monday by the pollster Maskina found that 80 percent of Icelanders thought the men on the recording should resign, and that 74 percent believed Arnadottir should do so.

Arnadottir, a member of the Centrist Party, said Wednesday that she would not resign.

The bar patron who made the recording has spoken only anonymously to the news media, saying that he was appalled by what he heard and decided to stay until the end.

When the group was leaving, he told the newspaper DV, one lawmaker asked if the man had been sitting there the entire time. Another dismissed him as a tourist, he said.

Halldora Mogensen, a lawmaker with Iceland’s Pirate Party, described the mood in Parliament after the tapes were released as “toxic” and expressed concern about how colleagues would move past the scandal.

“The targets of this awful talk, will they just have to continue to work with them like nothing happened?” she said.

Some details of the recording have been the subject of considerable speculation in the news media. One theory held that squeaky noises heard at one point could have been one of the politicians imitating a seal when talking about Haraldsdottir. But because those noises did not prompt a reaction at the table, others thought it was likelier to be the sound of a squeaky chair.

In a tweet, Haraldsdottir tried to make light of the speculation: “This was not a chair. This was not a bicycle. This was most likely my wheelchair power-sliding outside Klaustur bar.”