No Country for Irishwomen?

Image: Hannah Vickers

“Being a woman is a bit like being Irish. Everyone says you’re important and nice, but you take second best all the same,” author Iris Murdoch once said. There has long been the sentiment among Irish people that, while we’re loved for Guinness and the craic, we are not taken ‘seriously’ enough by the world. However, Ireland has come a long way in the last fifty years. The Celtic Tiger helped transform Ireland from a largely agricultural economy to a fast-paced, wealthy nation, which despite the financial crisis of 2008, it has remained ever since. Ireland was once completely dominated by the Roman Catholic Church, which was reflected in socially conservative laws and the beliefs of its people; however, in 2015 it became the first country in the world to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote. Despite modernisation across the island, there are still major issues in Ireland. Namely, as Murdoch captures in her quote, the failure to grant women the respect, autonomy and equality they are entitled to.

Of course, misogyny still afflicts almost all nations to some degree; it is by no means an Irish phenomenon. While Ireland is an example of a nation where there are currently prolific cases which highlight the damage of a patriarchal society, women remain second class citizens globally. For a British audience, it is also worth remembering while the issues that women face unite the north and south of Ireland, a border divides Ireland; one territory being part of the UK and the other being the Republic of Ireland. In Northern Ireland, British citizens face challenges they would not face anywhere else in the UK. Successive British governments have led on the attitude of benevolent neglect towards Northern Ireland, yet this has allowed a devolved government dominated by sectarian parties to restrict their citizens’ (especially their female citizens’) rights.

Despite the prevalence of misogyny everywhere, the example of Ireland presents one where the mistreatment of women, which has been present and ignored for so long in our society, is becoming increasingly visible. There are twin events which have been recently bearing heavy on the collective consciousness of women in Ireland. They are a rape trial and an abortion referendum: two seemingly unconnected events which highlight the fact that Irish women are still seen as second-class citizens throughout the island despite superficial liberalisation.

The rape trial took place in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and concerned two rugby players who have played for Ulster and Ireland. The two players were acquitted of rape, and their two friends, accused of indecent exposure and perverting the cause of justice, also found not guilty. For readers not familiar with Irish sport, to play for Ulster and Ireland bestows a level of prestige and fame that grants the players a celebrity status in the small territory of Northern Ireland. The complainant (19 at the time), had gone out to celebrate the end of her exams in a Belfast nightclub where she then met the men in a VIP area, she had gone back to an afterparty with a group, where what the players insisted was a consensual threesome occurred. She texted a friend the next day saying she was reluctant to bring charges because, in her words, “I’m not going up against Ulster Rugby.”

The case lasted 42 days and had most of Northern Ireland, and indeed the island of Ireland, gripped for its duration. Despite the ‘not guilty’ outcome, many feel outraged about the direction the trial took. The woman making the accusations was subjected to eight days on the stand during which it was insinuated she was “interested” in celebrities, her blood-stained underwear was examined and she was asked why, if she was being raped, she didn’t scream.

The “laddish” behaviour of the men was also exposed in the trial through a series of WhatsApp messages revealed. It was revealed to the court that the rugby players referred to themselves the morning after the alleged incident as “top shaggers” and claimed that there was “a lot of spit roast last night”. One of the players was asked by a friend how the woman was to which he replied, “very very loose”; the other sent a photo of some female partygoers to a groupchat, he captioned the picture “Love Belfast sluts”. Some of the public on social media were quick to point that these messages did not point to anything non-consensual. This is true; yet, the normalisation of deeply misogynistic language as just “lads’ banter” is very worrying. While the men were found ‘not guilty’ of rape, this kind of language demeans women to mere sexual objects and contributes to what is often referred to as ‘ rape culture’.

I could elaborate on the particularities of the trial, but instead I want to discuss what happened afterwards. I have chosen not to name the rugby players because I am not writing about them. Instead, I wish to focus on the Northern-Irish and Irish women who fight against this kind of misogynistic culture.

Following the outcome of the trial, there were some who celebrated the result on social media, others called for the complainant’s legal right to anonymity to be waived, the worst even went as far as to call her a “slut” or a “liar”. Perhaps it was this wave of contempt against the now 21-year old woman that spurred women across the island into action. Within a day of the verdict, solidarity rallies with the complainant had been organised across the island of Ireland; outside the court in Belfast and in the cities of Derry, Galway, Dublin, Cork and Limerick. The hashtag #Ibelieveher was widely shared on social media.

A crowdfunded ad was taken out appealing to Ulster and Irish rugby teams to cancel the contracts of the players involved, on the grounds that their misogynistic messages meant they should no longer represent their country or province and could no longer act as role-models to young people.

One of the most controversial statements throughout the trial came from one of the defence barristers; “Why didn’t she scream the house down?” he asked, “A lot of very middleclass girls were downstairs. They were not going to tolerate a rape or anything like that.” At one of the rallies, a woman held a sign which responded, “She ‘didn’t scream’. So we will for her”; and Irish women did just that refusing to let the issue go. Following protests and campaigning, the two players’ contracts with Ireland and Ulster were terminated. While many feel the legal system let women down in the Belfast rape trial, female solidarity means that the normalisation of chauvinistic “lads’ culture” is finally being challenged.

Image: Vanessa Ifediora

We can celebrate small successes; however, there is still much to be done on the island of Ireland. The ripples of impact created by the Belfast rape trial are still being felt but Irish feminists will have no respite after what was for many a difficult few months mitigating the damage of the result. On 25 May, there will be a referendum on whether to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Irish constitution. The Eighth Amendment grants both the woman and the foetus equal rights in Irish law. In practice, this makes abortion almost completely illegal in the Republic of Ireland, even in cases of rape and fatal foetal abnormality.

For many years Ireland was a deeply socially conservative country. The impact of religion; both north and south of the border is still tangibly restricting people’s lives, whether or not they prescribe to the doctrine. Many will be familiar with the DUP’s religious views due to the heavy volume of coverage they received in the British press following the outcome of the 2017 General Election. In many of the articles about the party in June 2017, the DUP were portrayed as if they were modern-day flat-earthers, an almost laughable bunch of Bible-bashers. Yet, what was forgotten is that the DUP are not simply the laughable allies of Theresa May, but a governing party of Northern Ireland, whose religious fundamentalism heavily impacts the laws of the land. Women in the north of Ireland, like those in the south, are prevented by the law from obtaining abortions. These women are not laughing at the DUP. The Prime Minister’s actions in forming a pact with the DUP legitimises them and their misogynist and homophobic attitudes which have a direct impact on some many British residents in Northern Ireland.

It would be remiss to contribute NI’s abortion policy solely to the DUP. Ironically, a significant proportion of Catholics are united with their traditional Protestant rivals on their determination to prevent women from having choice. It seems that while a border divides Ireland, it is united by the refusal to trust women with their own bodies.

Both the north and south of Ireland have been slow to liberalise socially. In the Republic of Ireland; contraception only became legal in 1980, divorce was relatively recently legalised in 1995, and homosexual activity decriminalised in 1993. In NI; same-sex couples still cannot legally get married, despite legalisation in the rest of Britain and the south of Ireland. The Eighth Amendment, which criminalises abortions, was introduced into the Irish constitution in 1983 following a referendum in which almost 67 per cent of voters approved the move.

Of course, while abortion is illegal in all of Ireland, this does not mean that women are not having terminations. Women desperate to regain agency over their own bodies are making lonely journeys to Great Britain to obtain abortions. An average of 11 women a day board a flight or take a ferry in order to obtain the procedure and shockingly, it is perfectly legal under the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland’s laws to do so. We are not preventing Irish women from having abortions; rather the message that is being sent out is simply “not on my doorstep”.

Abortion is not a pleasant topic; it’s easy to see why many are emotive about it. In an ideal world, no-one would have to have a termination, the same way in an ideal world no-one would need any serious medical procedure. The refusal to grant Northern Irish and Irish women abortions in their home countries is not a moral standpoint, otherwise travel would be made more difficult, it is a decision to defer the uncomfortable topic that amounts to nothing more than cowardice. What many forget is that you can be personally against having an abortion, but also for others having a choice; the two are not mutually exclusive. Until relatively recently abortion was a taboo subject in Irish politics politicians deeming it too controversial to legislate on, perhaps afraid of retaliation from the Catholic Church who still hold much sway over sections of Irish society. This fear of electoral retribution over abortion has cost lives.

Savita Halappanavar was a 31-year-old dentist who found out she was pregnant in August 2012; a very much wanted first pregnancy. Up until 17 weeks, apart from some mild back pain, everything appeared normal with no risk factors to suggest any danger with the pregnancy. Then, on 21 October, she and her husband Praveen arrived at University Hospital Galway with intermittent lower back pain. Savita left the hospital having received a treatment plan for back pain only to return later that day crying as she believing herself to be miscarrying; midwives and doctors at the hospital confirmed that miscarriage was almost inevitable. Savita was in unbearable pain and highly distressed. At this point Savita and her husband asked for a termination, the hospital said they couldn’t: the foetus still had a heartbeat: Naveen Halappanavar said it was explained to them (who was originally from India) by a midwife that Ireland was a “Catholic country”. Seven days after she had begun to miscarry, Savita died from cardiac arrest. Savita’s life could have been saved if she was granted a termination.

The tragedy of Savita’s death rocked the nation and beyond. The headline of the story on the Indian Times website was “Ireland Murders Pregnant Indian Dentist”. Many were deeply moved by the untimely death of a young woman which could have been prevented. The Irish government had not legislated on the X Case, while in 1992 the Supreme Court had found that abortion is permitted in Ireland under the Constitution in circumstances where there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother. It took over two decades and a highly publicised death for any legislation to be made on the matter, with the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act having been introduced into law in 2013.

Savita’s legacy does not end with this one Act, rather, her tragic death mobilised and inspired activism which created the momentum to facilitate the upcoming referendum. For many across Ireland, Savita symbolised all the women who had been affected by abortion law. Savita’s family raised awareness after her death, they contacted pro-choice organisations in Galway who in turn contacted the press however, the tragic truth is, there are countless more Savitas whose stories have not been heard. This was echoed in the placards bearing Savita’s image at vigils and protests following her death, which read “Never again”.

The Irish government was forced into action following the outcry over Savita’s death. Pro-choice individuals made sure abortion could no longer be pushed to the back of the agenda. We are now in a position where the majority of Irish government ministers support the “Yes” position (to repeal the Eighth Amendment), including Irish PM Leo Varadkar. While the outcome of the referendum is still to be determined and the result will no doubt be close, even the fact that there’s going to be a vote is remarkable given the “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” approach of the government just a few short years prior.

Women are entitled to control over their own bodies, it is not just women who have health complications that ought to be allowed terminations. Women have been criminalised for making decisions about their own bodies. Laws in Ireland most keenly affect the vulnerable; for example, those unable to afford the trip to England. In 2016, a woman in Northern Ireland received a suspended prison sentence after she took an abortion pill: a 19 year-old who had desperately purchased the treatment having been unable to raise the money to travel to England. She induced a miscarriage at home alone with no medical supervision and was forced to dispose of the foetus in a bin. Following this potentially dangerous and undignified procedure, she had to endure police interviews and a court date where she received a 13-months suspended sentence. Despite being in the UK she was criminalised for something which is completely legal everywhere else in Britain. Northern Irish and Irish women deserve better than this.

The testimonies of women who have suffered under our abortion laws move us towards action with countless stories of the distress the Eigth Amendment and Northern Ireland’s outdated abortion legislation have caused to women. The referendum did not come about overnight, it is the result of tireless campaigning across Ireland.

The pro-choice side faces an uphill battle to win a “Yes” vote; the Irish Eighth Amendment has attracted international attention from religious individuals who see Ireland as the last bastion of pro-life laws in the Western world. The ‘Save the 8th’ campaign has employed Thomas Borwick, who was chief technology officer of the Vote Leave campaign in the run-up to the Brexit referendum. No matter how deeply pro-choice one is, it is easy to see why abortion stirs up such deep fear in people. Yet, much of this fear could be mitigated if we simply trusted women. One of the most common pro-life arguments is that women will start using terminations as if it were a method of contraception. This argument underestimates and infantilises women by insinuating they cannot make responsible decisions about their own bodies.

The refusal to recognise women’s autonomous selves is what draws the cases of rape culture and the abortion discourse together. Women are objectified either as vessels for pregnancy or as sexual objects, depending on what fits the narrative best.

These are attitudes that have existed in Ireland (and in almost every other country). As far back as history goes, women have been subjugated. The ingrained misogyny of society has been left largely unchallenged by mainstream politicians who are happy to let the status quo stand so long as they don’t lose power. Our society is still male-dominated, stifling progress at all levels. In Northern Ireland the aftermath of “the Troubles” conflict is largely dominated by the stereotypical “old, white men”. I spoke to prominent Northern Irish feminist Dr Sophie Long about this, and she noted that “the gendered nature of war and the equally gendered ‘peace’ which NI has experienced centres forms of politics which can dampen hope and seemingly reduce the possibility of meaningful cooperation. We are confronted with a two-community model, led by men, which is locked into place (the place being the past) and willing to sacrifice itself to hinder the flourishing of the ‘other’.”

Change in Ireland and Northern Ireland is not coming from the establishment. Instead the march towards an island free from misogyny is led by ordinary women. These women are spurred on by the stories of others; tales of women who have been labelled “sluts” after they made rape allegations or who have had to travel to another country to obtain healthcare. We are all these women, and every tale of women’s hardship caused by the ingrained misogyny of our land empowers us to fight against it. Dr Long insists that women are the way forward in Ireland, north and south, “the relationships which have been forged by women from the island of Ireland, who together are applying class and feminist lenses to contemporary problems, are where hope lies for all of us. The potential for alternative ways of thinking about the place we come from and how we might be able to live lies within the feminist movements of Northern Ireland Ireland. Solidarity among sisters is where we should look to; no freedom without women.”

Ireland’s record on misogyny is shameful; a book could be written on the experiences of Irish women as second-class citizens. However, as an Irishwoman from Northern Ireland, I am not ashamed of my country. Misogyny taints societies globally, while in Ireland there are still unusually oppressive legal restrictions on women’s bodily autonomy, the kind of objectification of women that riddled the rape case exists almost everywhere. Instead of being ashamed, I am proud of the women who will no longer allow misogyny on our island to be swept under the carpet. The battle is by no means won. However. The tide is turning in favour of the women across Ireland who have mobilised to fight against their status as second-class citizens.

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