Female MPs sexually harassed

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Female Members of Parliament (MPs) are frequent targets of  anonymous sexual harassment from the public, often of a nature so obscene and graphic that they dread having to turn the e-mails and text messages they receive over to the police. They’re being encouraged, though, to go public with the problem.

The opening of Parliament (Storting) is a gala affair, but many female members quickly become targets of sexual harassment. PHOTO: Stortinget

Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported Friday that the harassment has become common over the past several years, in line with the explosion of electronic communication. New female MPs are routinely warned by those with more experience in politics to be prepared for hostile and sexually oriented messages from the general public.

Some of the harassment is simply mean, insulting and degrading, like the message one politician received recently on her mobile phone: “Fant du ingen kjole som passet, tjukka?” (Couldn’t you find a dress that fit, fatso?”)

Other messages are pornographic and clearly aimed at upsetting or frightening their female recipients, including photos of erect penises and text messages so obscene that most media wouldn’t publish them.

NRK spoke with a wide range of female MPs, and the situation they describe is grave: If you choose to get involved in the public debate, as a woman, you’ll be met with harassment and abuse sooner or later.

Inga Marte Torkildsen, a high-profile MP and spokesperson for the Socialist Left party (SV) on financial issues, told NRK that she has forwarded some of the most threatening and “uncomfortable” messages she’s received to Norway’s police intelligence unit PST. “Others have been of such a character that it has been difficult to forward them, even to the police,” Torkildsen said.

Mette Hanekamhaug, an MP on the other side of the political spectrum for the conservative Progress Party, told NRK she was warned by female colleagues when she first was elected to Parliament as its youngest MP ever. “They warned me that this type of harassment would come, and that most women in the public arena get this sort of attention,” Hanekamhaug told NRK.

She was also advised to immediately report the harassment, both to the administration of the Parliament (Stortinget) and to PST.

Some of the messages are veiled or direct threats. “You don’t know who’s behind this, who sent the message,” Hanekamphaug told NRK. “That’s what’s threatening, and frightening.”

Thorkildsen said the extent of the problem “worries me, because women shouldn’t have to learn to live with this sort of harassment.” Local blogger Heidi Nordby Lunde calls it a “serious problem for democracy.”

The worst result, Lunde told NRK, is if female researchers, business leaders or politicians feel harassed or threatened away from the public debate. “Then it will be white men who set the public agenda and political priorities,” she said. Lunde knows of women researchers and business leaders who have withdrawn from public debate because of harassment. “They don’t think it’s worth it, because of the feedback,” Lunde said.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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