Nara Walker: the Australian woman suing Iceland

·12-min read

On a winter’s evening in January 2020 two women stood talking in the foyer of a cinema in Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík. One of them, dressed smartly for the occasion in a red blazer, was Eliza Reid, the wife of Iceland’s president. The other, listening intently, was Nara Walker, an Australian artist who’d cofounded the event that both women were there to celebrate – the Reykjavik Feminist film festival.

At first glance, it wasn’t a remarkable scene. Unless you knew that Walker was still on probation for a serious assault conviction, having been released from a Reykjavík prison less than a year earlier. Or if you’d read the breathless coverage of her story in the tabloid media, where she’d been branded “the Australian tongue-biter” – the woman who bit off her husband’s tongue during a fight. In Iceland, and beyond, she was infamous.

“Even on the Sunshine Coast [in Queensland], where I went to high school, where I am supposed to feel the safety of home, the headline was in capital letters, ‘Why I bit my husband’s tongue off’,” Walker recalls. “I’ve never used that language to describe what happened to me, or what I did.”

Since she was arrested by Reykjavík police on 1 November 2017, Walker has maintained that she acted in self-defence against the man who was then her husband. She has accused the Icelandic authorities of viewing the tongue-biting in a vacuum and failing to properly investigate her claims of domestic violence. Essentially, of dismissing her story from the start. For women who report abuse, she reflects, this is a common experience: “We say, ‘He says, she says’, but really, a lot of the time, it’s just ‘he says’.”

Alone in a foreign country, Walker managed to push her case all the way to Iceland’s supreme court, where her final appeal was dismissed on 4 February 2019. When she entered Hólmsheiði maximum security prison soon after, on 20 February, she was surrounded by supporters from Iceland’s close-knit feminist community. Still, few could have imagined that within the year she would have founded a film festival.

But even as Walker chatted casually with Iceland’s first lady on the opening night of the festival, she had already turned her mind to her next project – the long and difficult process of suing Iceland over its treatment of her at the European court of human rights (ECHR).

The Australian is now one of nine women suing Iceland at the human rights court, accusing the country that has topped the World Economic Forum’s gender parity index for 12 years straight of failing to protect them from gendered violence. Each case will be decided separately, as the court doesn’t accept class actions, but the women are linked by common experience: they made allegations of rape, domestic violence or sexual harassment to authorities in Iceland, only to have the police or prosecutors drop their case.

Related: Women still have to worry speaking up about their abusers will cost them their lives | Arwa Mahdawi

Walker’s application to the ECHR was made in two parts: the first, filed in mid-2019, regarded her treatment by Icelandic police and prosecutors; the second, from January 2020, concerned how her allegations of abuse against her former husband were handled.

With both Walker and Iceland declining to settle, her case has entered what the ECHR calls the “contentious phase”. The court is currently awaiting Iceland’s response to the merits of Walker’s complaints under three articles of the European convention on human rights – the prohibitions of torture and discrimination, and the right to respect for private and family life.

Iceland has until mid-February to come back to the ECHR with its position after which the court will make a ruling about whether the Australian’s human rights were violated under the convention. If she wins, the court will issue a binding judgement and may award damages.

A chaotic scene

Having spent most of her 20s in Europe, travelling and exhibiting her painting and performance art across the continent and in Asia, Walker’s Australian accent has softened at the edges, its vowels rounded out. She speaks methodically, carefully, and yet, more than four years on, her retelling of her arrest in Iceland and what transpired in its wake, still has a sort of nightmarish quality.

In the early hours of 1 November 2017, police arrived at a residence in Reykjavík to discover a chaotic scene. Inside they found three people: a woman sitting, sobbing, on the stairs that led to the upper floor of the apartment, as well as an Icelandic woman and a man with blood around his mouth. The man showed police the source of the bleeding – his tongue had been bitten off by the woman on the stairs, his wife Nara Walker.

There were a few agreed facts: Walker and her husband, who’d married in 2016 when they were living in the United Kingdom, had spent the evening out with friends – the Icelandic woman and an American man – and the four had returned to the apartment to continue drinking. An argument had broken out and escalated to violence. The American man had left the apartment. At some point, Walker had bitten down on her husband’s tongue, severing the tip.

Here, though, the stories diverged dramatically.

The Icelandic woman named Walker as the aggressor. Walker was adamant that she was the victim. “When they were handcuffing me, I began repeating myself that I was the victim and that he had assaulted me,” Walker tells the Guardian. “I couldn’t understand why they were handcuffing me.”

The road to the human rights court

It took nearly a month for Walker to realise the police were only investigating her, and not her husband, over the incident. In her application to the ECHR, her lawyers argue this was due to the language barrier – Walker doesn’t speak Icelandic – and say their client didn’t receive sufficient information about the investigation. They add: “It was therefore not until 30 November 2017 that she could press charges.”

Walker alleged that her former partner had been physically violent with her before the 1 November incident, both in the UK and Iceland. In her application to the ECHR, she claims the violence began to escalate after the pair married in 2016. How the Icelandic police handled these allegations is the focus of the second part of Walker’s application to the human rights court.

The Australian’s lawyers argue that she was treated solely as an offender by Icelandic police and that there was not an effective criminal investigation conducted into her accusations against her then-husband. Her complaint also states that the Icelandic courts failed to consider her allegations of abuse in the “broader context” of the tongue-biting incident – they argue Walker bit down out of instinct when her husband pressed his tongue into her mouth.

Walker’s lawyers had raised her allegations of domestic violence during her criminal trial in the Reykjavík district court, where she pleaded self-defence to the assault charges stemming from 1 November 2017. They laid out evidence to support her claims – including a corroborating statement from the American man and medical notes about her injuries, notably a fractured rib. There was also correspondence with her husband, which Walker said related to previous alleged abuses, including one incident in which she claimed he had put LSD in her tea without her knowledge.

Walker’s husband has always denied he was violent with her on 1 November 2017. He has also denied her allegations of abuse in the UK and Iceland, claiming, with regard to one allegation, that Walker was attempting to avoid liability for the charges against herself. In regards to the LSD, he told police he warned Walker the tea contained drugs before she drank it.

During her criminal trial, Walker was living in a women’s shelter in Reykjavík. She was essentially homeless, her passport seized by Icelandic authorities. Many of the women there, she came to realise, had fled their homes trying to break the cycle of domestic violence.

She met a woman at the shelter, a domestic violence survivor. “She’s a real fighter herself in the sense of going through the system with her ex-partner,” Walker says. The pair discussed the Australian’s trial, and her intention to appeal if the court found against her. “And she said, ‘Yes, and then you appeal again, and then you go to the European court of human rights’,” Walker recalls.

Related: Australia has been forced to face the truth about the gender-based violence lurking behind its ‘safe and happy’ facade | Chanel Contos

This was the moment the human rights court became, for her, a sort of north star.

It was something to fix her mind on through the district court trial, where she was found guilty on 18 March 2018 of serious assault against her then-husband and minor assault against the Icelandic woman. The court accepted the evidence of her former husband and the other woman over Walker’s testimony. She was sentenced to 12 months, with nine suspended pending good behaviour, and fined substantially. While the court accepted Walker had been injured in the incident, it did not accept her claim of self-defence. According to Icelandic law, the act of defence must not be disproportionate to the original or threatened attack. When she appealed, her sentence was increased to 18 months and the fine raised.

“At one point, I felt, after the appeal, just really distraught … because of how the verdict came in, but also how the police were treating me coming up to the appeal,” Walker says.

She feared any mistake would undermine her entirely. “I had to remember photographically everything that happened that night. Everything.”

And in the background, as her trial wound its way to Iceland’s highest court, the Icelandic police’s investigation into her allegations against her husband stretched on for almost 17 months.

In prison

Prison was a lonely experience for Walker. Art tumbled out of her. “I painted, I think, 70 paintings. Little ones, watercolours,” she says. “And I drew a lot and I wrote a lot.” But for the most part she passed her days imagining she was anywhere else.

“I would pretend to be a sunflower in the window. I would stand by the window and move with the sun, very slowly,” she recalls. “The prison guards would come in and be surprised, asking me, ‘Are you suntanning?’”

On 23 April 2019, while Walker was still serving her sentence, the chief of the Reykjavík police wrote to her, telling her they were dropping the investigation into her allegations of violence against her ex-husband. In August that year, the director of public prosecutions upheld this decision, saying one of the alleged incidents didn’t occur within Iceland’s jurisdiction and there was insufficient evidence regarding others to continue investigating.

For Walker, the other eight women suing Iceland at the ECHR and the coalition of 13 Icelandic women’s and equality organisations backing them this is the key issue at hand: the country lauded as the best place in the world to be a woman, they claim, isn’t properly investigating and prosecuting violence against women.

There is a term, the Nordic Paradox, sometimes used to describe the discord between the region’s reputation for gender equality and its high rates of gendered violence.

Guðrún Jónsdóttir, a social worker who helped found Stígamót, one of the organisations backing the women’s ECHR bids, says these figures are only the tip of the iceberg. Women in Iceland under-report, she says, and “between 70 and 85% of violent cases against women are dropped” by police or prosecutors before they even get to trial.

“If we in this so-called paradise have to live through this … how is the situation in other countries?” Jónsdóttir asks.

Walker hopes a win at the ECHR could have a significant impact in Iceland and across Europe, given the supranational nature of the court. Icelandic authorities told the Guardian it would not comment before presenting its position to the ECHR later this month.

Back home

A thread runs through Walker’s art practice, a drive to transform her trauma into something expressive, something that makes sense to her.

On probation after leaving prison in Iceland, she poured her idle time into creating the film festival, turning “a very dark moment in my life” into a community of support.

Her case at the ECHR similarly presents the opportunity for a hopeful coda to a traumatic time. “It’s something so bad that could become something good,” she says.

The case is one of the final things tying her to life in Europe. Late last year, she was finally able to secure a seat on an Australian government repatriation flight, though it was a bittersweet return. She was too late to say goodbye to her stepfather, who passed away in September 2021.

Yet when she caught sight of the red-brown landscape of Australia as her flight came to land in Darwin, she knew she was home.

The trauma of the past few years lives with her still – closer to the surface on the bad days, further from her mind on the good. “I have moments where I feel great … and then I have these moments where it’s catastrophic and I feel as if there’s no meaning,” she says. “But even in those moments, I remind myself that this will finish, this will end.”

With the ECHR’s final decision looming, Walker is focused on spending time with her mum in Queensland, rebuilding her life and making art. She is beginning, she says, to feel like herself. “I have definitely started to regain that person, that part of me again. And I think that, in a way, that part of me is what also enabled me to survive.”

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