Iceland's Parliament was still in session on a Tuesday evening last November when six of its members ducked out to grab a beer at Klaustur, a nearby bar in downtown Reykjavík. While their colleagues were busy publicly discussing commodity and supplemental taxes, these MPs—four from the populist Centre Party and two from the disability rights-centered People's Party—sat down in the far corner of the bar to discuss another agenda, one not fit for public consumption.
Their conversation was, however, not as private as they'd thought. For whatever reason, this merry band of colleagues didn't notice a woman with a bright pink mohawk who was also there that evening, drinking coffee at the uncrowded hotel bar. This woman, who later revealed herself to be Bára Halldórsdóttir, recognized MP and former Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, listened in on what he and his cohorts were saying, and could not believe her ears.
Sigmundur Davíð was elected prime minister of Iceland in 2013, after promising debt relief to his countrymen; the island nation was hit hard by the global financial crisis in 2008, and it was still feeling the rippling effects of that bust. Yet, just two years after coming into power, Sigmundur Davíð's Progressive Party had become the least popular party in parliament. And, this man, who famously met then-president Barack Obama wearing one dress shoe and one Nike trainer, was ousted in 2016 when it came to light, in the Panama Papers scandal, that his family secretly stowed away millions in an offshore account.
Not everything about Sigmundur Davíð's time as prime minister was marked by scandal though; during his tenure in office, the Financial Times listed him as one of the world's top 10 feminist men for his work on the United Nations' HeForShe campaign. And his colleague Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson—also at Klaustur that evening—was, as minister for foreign affairs, the face of Iceland's HeForShe efforts and the co-architect of the Barbershop Conference, a male-only meeting inspired by actress Emma Watson's call for men to make gender equality their issue, too.
But the things they were discussing on this particular night had little to do with promoting gender equality. As the sounds of their conversation drifted across the room to where Bára sat, her jaw dropped. "At first I didn't think much about them, but then I heard that Sigmundur and the men who were with him were talking about some 'old lady' in parliament who 'was never going to shut up,' something about an 'old lady who wouldn't leave the podium,' and I was surprised," Bára said in an interview with the local media. "Then I heard something ruder..." And so she pulled out her old Samsung Galaxy A5 and hit the record button. Fortunately, she had her phone charger with her, because the conversation between the MPs continued for more than three hours, and it only grew darker.
The recording that Bára made and subsequently leaked to the media promptly unleashed a fury, embroiling Sigmundur Davíð in yet another scandal, this one accompanied by the hashtag #klausturfuck. But it wasn't just Sigmundur Davíð who would face a reckoning. In what is considered one of the most progressive and gender-equal countries in the world—the country with the smallest gender gap for nine straight years, according to the World Economic Forum—Icelanders continue, months later, to grapple with the worldview expressed by their elected officials when they thought nobody was listening. What did it mean about their leaders? What did it mean about them?
"Your Chair Is a Raving Mad Cunt"
On that fateful evening in Klaustur, it had been the agenda of Sigmundur Davíð and his colleagues in the Centre Party—Gunnar Bragi, Bergþór Ólafsson, and Anna Kolbrún Árnadóttir—to convince Karl Gauti Hjaltason and Ólafur Ísleifsson to defect from the People's Party, whose platform is largely centered on the personal struggles of its chair, Inga Sæland, who is visually impaired.
"You're more likely to continue to be MPs if you join the Centre Party because your chair is a raving mad cunt, who you have no control over … She is fucking crazy. Come to us," Bergþór Ólafsson can be heard saying to Karl Gauti and Ólafur Ísleifsson.
She's a "batshit insane lady," Sigmundur Davíð said. "She's the type of woman who is [he mimicked her in a shrill voice] 'I am fighting for…'"
"[She] can't do it. She can talk about it. She can cry about it. But she can't do it herself, any more than Guðmundur Ingi [a People's Party MP, who went on disability after suffering injuries in a car crash] can," Karl Gauti concurred.
"To quote Arnold Schwarzenegger… in True Lies, 'What a team!'" Sigmundur Davíð said.
"Do you remember what Schwarzenegger said, Óli [a nickname for Ólafur]?" Bergþór asked.
"'I'll be back!'" Ólafur replied.
"Talk to the hand," Karl Gauti said.
"Don't be a 'girly man.' Don't be an economic girly man," Bergþór said.
"She Is Far Less Hot This Year"
At the bar, unbound by parliamentary rules, the Schwarzenegger buffs digressed. They turned their attention away from the People's Party chair and to other members of parliament, most notably their female colleagues, who they called "cunts," "fucking bitches," "useless copy cats," and "fat old bags."
At one point in the conversation, they mocked an MP for the Bright Future party, Freyja Haraldsdóttir, who is restricted to lying flat in a wheelchair due to osteogenesis imperfecta. Whenever the men said her name, Freyja, Anna Kolbrún could be heard insisting that they call her "Eyja," which rhymes with her name and means "island," presumably in reference to her physical appearance.
In fact, the premium that these MPs put on the physical appearance of their female colleagues was reiterated throughout the conversation.
When Sigmundur Davíð brought up "that girl in the Westman Islands [referring to the mayor of a fishing town off the southern coast of Iceland]," Gunnar Bragi said, "I think [she] could be really strong. She's a damn fine girl."
"But is she hot enough?" Anna Kolbrún asked.
"She could be elected in Keflavík [a town close to the international airport] just for being a woman," Gunnar Bragi said.
"Now I'm going to say something that is naturally very, very rude," Bergþór said. "She's aging fast. She is far less hot this year than she was just four years ago."
"Really?" Gunnar Bragi asked.
"Yes, there's an incredible difference," Bergþór said.
"And on those grounds I say she should be pushed down the party list [from which members of parliament are elected]," Sigmundur Davíð said.
When Anna Kolbrún interjected, "If she were a man..." one of the men cut her off. "Oh come on, let us enjoy this moment together," he said.
Although Anna Kolbrún on occasion stood up for women, she herself said, "I'll tell you, the honest to god truth is, boys are dyslexic, or 'slexydic,' if you will; the majority of girls have dyscalculia. Keep that in mind."
"Is that why they don't know how many people they're sleeping with?" Gunnar Bragi replied.
"There we have the explanation," Bergþór said.
"It's obvious. That's the way it is," Anna Kolbrún said.
"I think that's absolutely right," Sigmundur Davíð concluded.
"Let's Take This Fucking Bitch Down"
When the discussion turned to Lilja Alfreðsdóttir, the Minister of Education, Science and Culture—and a member of the Progressive Party, which Sigmundur Davíð and Gunnar Bragi previously belonged to—the men became noticeably agitated.
"She doesn't fucking care what we're doing. Let's take that fucking bitch down. That's what we should do. Why are we protecting her? This is making me crazy! Why are we protecting her?!" Gunnar Bragi shouted.
"I understand that very well and I can totally blame myself…" said Sigmundur Davíð who, as chair of the Progressive Party, appointed her to a minister position. "I've allowed this woman to, you know, talk to me, again and again."
"What I wanted to say is that no girl who I have not gotten to fuck has strung me along more than she has," Bergþór said, eliciting laughter from Sigmundur Davíð.
"And she's strung you guys along for much longer. I'll admit that I only recently got to know her. When I met her at a fermented skate party [a gathering in which Icelanders eat this national delicacy] a few years ago, I didn't know she existed," Bergþór said.
"Beggi [a nickname for Bergþór], I hope my wife never hears about this. I would have been up for it, but ... you're right, she can't be trusted. She plays us men like only women can," Sigmundur Davíð said.
"You can fuck her, you know," one them said.
"Finally, there's a body worthy of my dick," Bergþór said about the minister, who is evidently not on his blacklist, which he discussed at another point.
"I've come to realize that some of our colleagues have #MeToo danger," Bergþór said, after telling a story about how a female MP for the Social Democrats who made a #MeToo speech in parliament came onto him. "I've calculated which ones carry the most #MeToo danger, and this individual is on that list, which means that our interaction is zero."
After Gunnar Bragi shared a story about the same MP, who he said attempted to rape him, the men turned their attention to the #MeToo movement.
"These men will never recover unless they open up, that is, in a centerfold interview," Sigmundur Davíð said, jokingly. "As you can see, these men need support, support and understanding."
"But, first and foremost, alcohol," said Gunnar Bragi, who later claimed that he lost his clothes that evening in a 36-hour blackout, which began the minute he walked into the bar.
"I mean, that's often the best way to deal with something like this," Sigmundur Davíð said.
What a Klausturfuck
At the end of the night, the three last-standing MPs shuffled out of the bar. One of them noticed Bára and wondered whether she had been there the whole time. There's nothing to worry about, another one of them said, she's a tourist.
When Bára revealed her identity to the public, describing herself as "a 42-year-old, gay, disabled woman," the four members of the Centre Party decided to pursue legal action, claiming that she had disguised herself as a tourist and recorded them, in a violation of privacy and as part of a political plot.
Sigmundur Davíð called Freyja, the disabled MP, to apologize and at once explain away the name-calling and the wailing bark of a seal that could be heard while they discussed her. It was not an MP likening her to a blubbery animal; it was, he said, the sound of a chair being moved. When that theory was disproved by journalists, he suggested that the sound had been produced by a motorcycle braking outside the bar.
Freyja did not accept his apology. "It wasn't a chair. It wasn't a motorcycle. It was probably my wheelchair screeching to a stop outside of Klaustur," Freyja tweeted in response to Sigmundur Davíð's attempt to talk his way out of it.
Despite protests in front of parliament and a poll revealing that a large majority of Icelanders would like the MPs to resign, not a single one of them has done so.
The People's Party voted to kick Ólafur and Karl Gauti out of the party; they were, after all, at the bar that evening to discuss leaving their party and did not object when the others questioned their chair's ability and sanity. Yet, they continued to serve the public as nonaffiliated MPs before eventually joining the Centre Party, making it the largest opposition party in parliament.
"I think most people find it uncomfortable how small this workplace is," said Inga Sæland, the People's Party chair, who doesn't so much as say hello to her former party members. "You have to actually look at these individuals who have totally betrayed and mistreated you and showed the same behavior and disrespect to others—and that goes for all of our colleagues who were burned by their ugly words."
Gunnar Bragi and Bergþór, who took temporary leave, returned to parliament, much to the chagrin of the Minister of Education, Science and Culture. "I experience this as violence," Lilja said in an interview after reading what the men said about her. "These are abusive men, and I'm just going to say, it's clear in my mind, abusive men do not get the power to set the agenda in Icelandic society."
Watching the news, Þórdís Elva, a prominent writer, activist, and author of South of Forgiveness, said she recognized the look on Lilja's face when she realized that these men who she felt abused by had suddenly returned to parliament and she would be forced to sit in the same room and work beside them.
"She had a familiar expression that I've seen on women before when they've been outpowered by patriarchal structures, for example, when they've been trapped with their abusive boss with wandering hands and can't get away. It's extremely frustrating that this is someone's fate today, in 2019, in the most gender-equal country in the world, and it's even more frustrating that it is one of the most powerful women in the country who is in this situation, because what hope does that leave for the rest of us?" Þórdís Elva said.
"I was thinking about that as I watched her with that closed expression of frustration and hopelessness on her face, but then she did something that I think was significant and symbolic. She got up from her seat and walked straight over to Gunnar Bragi, who was the most abusive, and she gave him a piece of her mind," Þórdís Elva said. "That move on her part is what restored my hope. Women who experience abuse no longer sit in silence in the post-#MeToo world."