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The Power of Forgiveness: Speech at the Reykjavik Global Forum, Nov '23

My name is Thordis, which means Thundergoddess, and after witnessing all the lightning that has taken place on this stage these past two days, I‘m hoping to bring a little bit of thunder to the end – because I‘m here to speak about the power of forgiveness. Not for our enemies, don‘t worry. Patriarchy is just fine, it doesn‘t need our forgiveness.

I‘m here to talk about the power of forgiving yourself.

It so happens that I‘m internationally famous for the worst thing that ever happened to me. I was 16 when I fell in love for the first time with a soft-spoken, charming, honor-student who became my boyfriend. A few weeks into our budding teenage romance, after a drunken school dance, he raped me for two hours leaving me limping for days and shattering my sense of self-worth. Due a wealth of internalized misogyny and very limited life experience to counter it with, I blamed myself. I‘d broken the rules by getting drunk, wearing a short dress and giving my heart to what turned out to be the wrong person.

After a long time of punishing myself with eating disorders, alcohol and self harm, I knew I had to find a way to forgive myself, so I could reassign the blame to the person whom it rightfully belonged to, my perpetrator. I had work to do. And because I can‘t do anything half-heartedly, I and spent years researching it, conducting hundreds of interviews, reading what all major religions in the world preach about it, and writing a book about it. And here‘s what I learned:

The humanity that society is willing to assign us can be measured in how much forgiveness we are perceived worthy of. The higher our humanity is valued, the more we are forgiven for our trespasses. Which would make you a man. If you‘re a woman, you‘re judged more harshly on all fronts of life. It‘s not a forgiving world for us. Don‘t take it from me, take it from science.

Studies show that we‘re are judged harder on our mistakes, starting off in job interviews, if we get the job our work is judged more harshly, and we of course have to look impeccable on the job, but it can‘t be a traditionally male job and we absolutely cannot leave it early. If we speak up for ourselves we‘re judged, not just for doing so but for the very voice in which we speak up for ourselves, which is either too shrill or too mannish. Oh and here‘s my favourite, a study that shows how we are judged on the basis of the stereotype that when we hit middle age, we‘re less nice than we were when we were younger.

I think we‘re going to have give them that one, honestly. They‘re onto us. They‘ve realised that by the time we reach middle age, we have no more fucks to give. That‘s not a stereotype.

Last but not least, women are judged for showing too much emotion – and not enough.

Looking at this, I gotta ask: Are men OK?

It just seems to me that they‘re not sending their best representatives ... to judge us, you know?

One of the biggest lies of patriarchy is that we have to partake in this judgment of other women, because there‘s only room for a few of us at the table. That other women are our competition, our opponents. Let me debunk that myth right now, because studies show that when a man makes a mistake on the job, trust in him drops. When a woman makes a mistake, trust in all women drops.

Men get to be their own human beings, while we merely get to be representatives of human beings. And as fucking unfair as that is, there‘s a gift in it too.

Because look around you. Go ahead, look at the woman sitting next to you.

If you fail, trust in her drops. If she fails, trust in you drops. I can‘t think of a more solid incentive to band together and ensure our mutual success.

As women we need to demand that our humanity is recognized to the point where we don‘t need to ask for forgiveness for being human. We have the same right to learn and grow through failure that our male counterparts have had since forever. While we‘re still being judged twice as hard, we‘re going to have to forgive ourselves twice as often, simple as that – while never forgetting the women who are not invited to rooms like this one, women to whom the world assigns even less humanity. Our trans sisters who aren‘t even safe to use the bathroom, our disabled sisters for whom this very stage would be insurmountable, our sisters who are fleeing the terrors of war.

Because you‘re human, there will come a time in your life when you make a grave error, for which you will have to find a way to forgive yourself if you are to be able to move past it. And when the guilt is staggering, that is hard work. People tend to speak of forgiveness as if it is this noble, delicate thing made of halos and angel‘s breath. It‘s not. Forgiveness has mud smeared across her face. Knees bloody from the grovel. She pops her dislocated joint into place before lifting the blade of her sword, hot from the whetstone, and severing the tie to her past that is holding her back. She has done the work. And so must we. If not for ourselves, then for our daughters who deserve to know that there is no voice that is too shrill to speak up for yourself in.

At the age of 25, I finally used my voice to confront the man who had raped me at 16. He owned up to it and asked for my forgiveness. After years of processing the past together, I forgave him too. Not because he deserved my forgiveness, although he‘d become a better man, but because I deserved peace.

We became the first survivor and perpetrator in the world to collaborate on sharing our story, with the hope that it can help other men understand that they are never entitled to a woman‘s body. The teenager in me, who choked on her own silence for a decade, is still pinching herself that the secret she thought she‘d take to her grave has now been viewed millions of times in our TED talk, and that our book, South of Forgiveness, is about to come out in the 14th country next year.

But back to you, the magnificent women in this room. My parting gift to you is that forgiving herself can be the most empowering, revolutionary thing a woman can do. To take that a step further, when you realise that there is nothing to forgive, that is the day you set yourself free.


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