Written by Yassmin Abdel-Magied.
Art by Kristel Brinshot.
Thordis Elva is an internationally acclaimed writer, speaker, journalist, and playwright. A firm believer in the healing potential of dialogue to end the silence that shrouds sexual violence, she won Woman of the Year in 2015 in her native Iceland for her work campaigning for gender equality, and was at the forefront of the country’s #MeToo movement in 2017. Her passion for equality extends to online rights, and she has toured extensively, giving lectures about online bullying, non-consensual pornography, and digital human rights to audiences including the United Nations and the Nordic Council of Ministers.
Elva is an award-winning writer, with her 2017 book, South of Forgiveness, having been published in 11 countries. Its accompanying TED talk, “Our Story of Rape and Reconciliation,” has garnered over 5.5 million views. During the extraordinary talk, Elva shares the stage with Tom Stranger, the person who raped her when she was a teenager. Together, they explore the assault, the impact it had on them both, and how they have moved through the shame and silence.
Elva’s work is always open, courageous, vulnerable and her efforts invite us all to discuss the omnipresent global issue of sexual violence in a new, honest way.
In addition to being an author, you’re an award-winning playwright. How do you use theatre and art to engage in conversations about challenging topics?
I realised when I was studying to become an actress that my real passion wasn’t being the person on the stage, but the person bringing forth a message, which led me to playwriting. I see the theatre as a fantastic tool to comment on the times we’re living, and I’ve made it a point to use my writing for social change. As a result, I’ve highlighted issues I’ve felt have needed more awareness — such as eating disorders, sexual violence, mental health issues, and teen pregnancy — to foster a debate and challenge taboos surrounding them. Theatre brings an immediacy and an intimacy, because you’re sharing a space with the actors and the story is unfolding this very moment, in front of your eyes. It can be a very powerful way to turn people’s attention to certain topics.
Acting selflessly is the purest form of rebellion, in a way.
What led to you writing South of Forgiveness and bringing your story to the world? How difficult was that journey?
Nothing related to South of Forgiveness has been effortless or easy. It’s been everything from deeply healing to bloody challenging. It was actually my co-author, Tom Stranger, who suggested that we go public with our story, in the hope that doing so might prevent other people from the suffering that our story entails. I thought to myself, Well, if he’s ready to face up to the worst thing he’s ever done and take responsibility for it in public — all in the hope that it could do some good — then I’m ready to take that chance, too. One of the most healing things in life is finding a way to turn the destructive things you’ve been through into something constructive, for the greater good. It gives you the feeling that it wasn’t all in vain, and that something good came out of it after all.
You’ve also been involved in shaping Iceland’s national policy on gender-based violence. What have been the policies or programs you’re most proud of? What has been most difficult to change?
One of my proudest achievements is when I was commissioned to reshape Iceland’s approach to sex education and violence prevention with a short film that is used in schools throughout the country. It’s called Get Consent, and emphasises how consent is crucial in all sexual situations, because if you don’t have the other person’s consent, it’s no longer sex but abuse. After the film came out, nearly 70 percent of 15-year-olds in Iceland said they better understood the concept of sexual consent, and that they also had a better grasp of the difference between porn and sex. The notion that I had a part in teaching an entire generation such vital life lessons means more to me than any award I’ve received.
You’ve also harnessed the power of social media — specifically Instagram — in an incredibly positive way by creating what you call your “#armyoflight.” Tell us about how this happened, and the significance of the #armyoflight in your world.
I was expecting twins back in 2018, when my water suddenly broke in week 17. The doctors said that the twins’ chance at survival was incredibly slim, as there was a 99 percent risk they’d be born within two weeks and they were still months away from being strong enough to survive outside of my womb. I told the doctors, “Well SOMEONE has to be that one percent, and I’ll make sure it’ll be us!” Thus began operation bedrest, where I lay still for almost three months, fighting for my babies’ lives. I updated my story on Instagram every day, not because I wanted to (being that vulnerable in public is scary stuff), but because my friends and family in other countries were going nuts with worry and I simply couldn’t answer all their phone calls and messages. The word started spreading and soon I had a following of perfect strangers around the world who were praying for me and my unborn children.
It’s all too easy to make activists seem hysterical or unreasonable in their demands, which feeds into the very stereotypes they’re working to dismantle.
It was truly magnificent to see how the belief in miracles can unite people across borders, race, religion, cultures and background. The light they sent our way lit up the darkness left by the doctors’ grim prognosis, which is why I started calling them our #armyoflight. Their support and kindness gave me strength when I felt like giving up. When my entire body was throbbing with pain, I received a photo from someone who climbed Mount Everest and left a flag up there for us. I thought that if they could endure the pain and discomfort of climbing the world’s tallest mountain, I can endure this to save my children. When I hadn’t felt sunlight on my skin for months and all I wanted to do was to get out among trees, I received 3,000 photographs of trees from people all over the world, so I was able to form a forest in my own bedroom.
It was incredible to feel so held, so supported. Apart from my husband and my mother, whose help was crucial, the twins owe their lives to thousands of strangers around the world. It’s a truly remarkable story of survival. Since then, I’ve often been asked to pay the light forward to other people who are going through some sort of crisis. Every time I’ve told my followers about these people in need, they’ve responded by sending words of kindness and support to the person in question, sometimes even money and gifts, depending on the situation. It’s been deeply humbling and I think it speaks to a core element in humanity, the willingness to take care of one another and to be there for your fellow human beings. In fact, I’ve found it so fascinating that I’m currently conducting interviews with volunteers to try to better understand the phenomenon of kindness between strangers. It’s deeply inspiring, not least with regard to how social media is essentially a narcissistic venue. Acting selflessly is the purest form of rebellion, in a way.
Your work has often led you to face the harsh reality of being a woman in the spotlight. What have you learnt from this? What has given you strength through it?
I’ve been on both sides when it comes to the media: I’ve been the subject of news but I’ve also worked as a reporter and journalist. I am worried about the development of modern media, and how many news outlets deliberately use sensationalism to polarise the debate in order to create clickbait. Activists are particularly vulnerable to this treatment because there’s widespread prejudice against what they stand for (whether it be feminism, racism, ableism, homophobia, climate change, et cetera), which they are trying to uproot. It’s all too easy to make activists seem hysterical or unreasonable in their demands, which feeds into the very stereotypes they’re working to dismantle. I’ve seen it happen all too often in the media and, all too often, it’s simply done to generate more traffic. Alternative facts is another worrying trend.
I try to steer clear of all news about myself. I never google myself and I stay the hell away from the comments section. That has been an essential part of my self-care as a woman activist in the public eye.
What do you want to say to others who are afraid of challenging rape culture and gender based violence for fear of repercussion?
You’re not alone, and you don’t have to be brave at all times. We’re all allowed days where everything is too much and we just have to log off. That’s why there’s strength in numbers. Everyone has a role to play and some of the most important changes take place on an individual level, with yourself. It really does start with you. When the going gets tough, remember that no important change in history was made without resistance. That’s a sign that we’re making progress.
What brings you joy?
My children, a good IPA, and Alpacas of Instagram. Preferably in that order.
About the Author
Yassmin Abdel-Magied is a Sudanese-Australian writer, broadcaster and award-winning social advocate.
Yassmin trained as a mechanical engineer and worked on oil and gas rigs around Australia for years before becoming a writer and broadcaster in 2016. She published her debut memoir, Yassmin’s Story, with Penguin Random House at age 24, and followed up with her first fiction book for younger readers, You Must Be Layla, in 2019. Yassmin’s critically acclaimed essays have been published in numerous anthologies, including theGriffith Review, the best-selling It’s Not About The Burqaand The New Daughters of Africa.
Yassmin founded her first organisation, Youth Without Borders, at the age of 16, leading it for nine years. Since, Yassmin has co-founded two other organisations and now shares her learnings through keynotes and workshops. Yassmin has spoken in over 20 countries on unconscious bias and inclusive leadership. Her TED talk, What does my headscarf mean to you, has been viewed over two million times and was one of TED’s top 10 ideas of 2015.