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No council for (some) women: the NWCI and the silencing of sex workers

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Last week, at its AGM, the member groups of the National Women’s Council of Ireland voted down a motion (proposed by the Abortion Rights Campaign and seconded by the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland) calling on the NWCI to “develop a process for a review of its position in relation to prostitution and sex work”. Instead the NWCI reaffirmed its existing position, supporting the Swedish model and defining all prostitution as violence against women.

The committee in charge of these things decided that you could only support one motion or the other, and the latter motion (proposed by Ruhama and seconded by the Irish Nurses & Midwives Organisation) won out by 43-24. Reports from attendees suggest that there would have been more support for the ARC motion if it hadn’t been deemed oppositional to Ruhama’s.

The outcome was disappointing but not surprising, particularly in light of the fact that sex workers themselves were unable to contribute to the debate. This is because the only Irish organisation led by current sex workers, the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland, has been refused membership of the NWCI. The NWCI is therefore taking policy positions about a group of women without allowing those women any say in the position it takes.

The criteria for joining the NWCI are listed on its website. While I don’t have access to the written reasons for refusal, I understand its Board decided that SWAI didn’t agree with the NWCI’s “values”. It should be noted that the Board includes Sarah Benson, CEO of Ruhama, and Sheila Dickson, a past president of the INMO.

Now obviously the NWCI is a private organisation (albeit one that receives a fuckton of public money) and has a right to decide who can join it. But it seems … curious that this issue is one that they’re prepared to exclude a group over. You would think, for example, that repealing the 8th amendment would be regarded as a key NWCI value (especially given the organisation’s effective takeover of the Repeal, sorry the “Yes” campaign) and yet it was fine for member groups to refuse to support it, like Ruhama and the YWCA. Equal rights for same-sex couples might also be thought of as a key NWCI value, yet it has no problem with the membership of an organisation that “continues to hold the view that ‘marriage’ is inherently between a man and a woman”. Not locking young women up in institutions for perceived moral failures, where they would be forced to work as slaves, should pretty definitely be a key NWCI value and yet a group whose founders did exactly that, and which still has board members who are refusing to pay redress to these women, are not only allowed to be members but are effectively allowed to direct the organisation’s policy towards the “fallen women” of today. Their attitude towards groups that don’t share their “values” seems a little bit selective.

But I think it’s important to point out that simply opposing the NWCI stance on sex work isn’t enough to make a group unwelcome in the NWCI. If it was, then ARC and the MRCI and all the others in the 24 would presumably be tearing up their membership cards. So, it’s fine for a women’s group to advocate for the rights of sex workers as long as they aren’t sex workers themselves. It isn’t about values at all, then; going on that vote, SWAI’s values are shared by more than a third of NWCI member groups already. What is it then? Are sex workers the NWCI equivalent of “Unwomen”? Do they have cooties? Or does the Board just not want to have to listen to them?

The most galling thing about the Ruhama motion is that it refers to “support for women and girls affected by prostitution and sex trafficking“. But what constitutes “support” is being decided in a context where the affected girls and women are denied a voice. Supporters of the policy would no doubt argue that the women they’re concerned with are a different class of sex worker to those in SWAI, but they have nothing to support the implicit suggestion that those women want their clients criminalised. It’s notable that GOSHH (Gender, Orientation, Sexual Health, HIV) and the Chrysalis Community Drug Project, the two other Irish organisations that do outreach to the more vulnerable sectors of the sex industry, are both strongly opposed to the Swedish model.

There are, of course, former sex workers (or survivors, to use their preferred terminology) who would share the NWCI’s position. But isn’t it remarkable that practically none of them seem to have actually worked in Sweden – or any other “Nordic model” country – under that law?  We’re nearly 20 years into it now; if it worked as well as its advocates say it does you’d expect there would be dozens if not hundreds of women coming forward to share their accounts of how the Swedish model saved them from the sex trade, but I legitimately cannot think of one. Certainly, all the survivor organisations are led by women who didn’t survive the law that they’re campaigning for. Nor, it seems, are they particularly interested in hearing from women who did: whenever I’ve mentioned them in response to “listen to survivors” comments, the response has been … crickets.

And there’s also research from nearly every country where the law has been introduced, showing that opposition to the law straddles all classes of sex worker. I’m not going to link to it all here because frankly it’s tiring always pointing to research that Swedish model advocates just ignore anyway. Though tellingly, they can’t provide any research that says the opposite.

At the very least, though, a member-based organisation like the NWCI ought to be listening to groups of women before taking policy positions about their lives. This is one of those things that I can’t believe I even have to say. The refusal to do so sends a clear message that it simply isn’t interested in what sex workers think. Its position on this issue is going to be determined by the organisation’s own take on “feminist values”, one of which is apparently not recognition of lived experience. I could dig up loads of NWCI quotes from the Repeal campaign which show the irony of this approach, but I understand Linda Kavanagh from ARC already made that point at the AGM and it clearly didn’t make a difference. The NWCI doesn’t “trust women” who are sex workers, doesn’t want to hear from them, will happily let others speak for them (or purport to), but ultimately will fall back on the conviction that it knows what’s best for them, anyway. Viewed in that light, maybe its embrace of an NGO with roots in the Magdalene laundries shouldn’t be so much of a surprise.

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Let’s talk about sex

Let’s talk about sex

Guest Post by Emma C, Belfast Feminist Network

If this was a fluffy opinion piece for a Sunday supplement, I might make some sideways jokes about 5 minutes of pleasure, or someone’s turn to go ‘downstairs’ as a way of making light about this intimate, messy, universal experience. It’s everywhere, in ads, all of our films, television, books, plays, music. We let our culture mull it over but with little nuance. Yet we never really seem to be able to actually talk about it. For real.

We are in the midst of a wave of reignited feminism and its predicted backlash. We see every day in articles from across the world, the endless tales of rape, violence, maternal deaths, lack of access to safe abortions, persecution of sex workers and LGBTQ+ people. I’m utterly convinced that our inability to properly address sex; what it is, what it’s for, how it feels, when it works, when it doesn’t, what its value is, has kept us behind this hurdle of inequality.

Locally, we have been dealing with our very own Northern Ireland flavoured version of this worldwide phenomenon. A recent rape trial, abuse scandals, the lack of respect for LGBT people sex workers and women, all becomes fomented in policy and has maintained barriers to healthcare, equality and respect.

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Real-talking about sex has to begin. Real sex, not biology-book sex, not biblical sex, not porn sex, but real actual sex that happens between real actual humans. Most of us have an innate drive to seek sexual pleasure and some of us are more successful in that search than others. Sex is one the issues at the crux of gender and sexuality.

Imagine you are a 12-year-old girl walking home from school in your uniform, you have just begun to develop breasts. Your hormones are beginning to go haywire, meaning your emotions are everywhere and the world seems bigger and more confusing, even though adults are beginning to make more sense. Now imagine that as you are walking home, car horns beep at you regularly, when you turn to look to see who they are honking at and realise that it’s you, you see men the same age as your father and you blush a deep red as you’re not quite sure how to react. Then imagine that with every passing few months there are more comments in the street, from young men hanging around in groups, from waiters, from family friends, even from school teachers, about your slowly changing appearance.

This is the beginning of the onslaught. This unwelcome and unwarranted attention is never spoken about to the young people that experience it. This is when men, and the women, trans people and gay men that they objectify begin to learn about consent. We are being taught from a young age that it is okay to be publicly sexualised, by men; older men, younger men, men in positions of power, strangers and there is really nothing we can do about it.

Many of us will have seen the declarations from various pious lampposts around this wee country that, “ THE WAGES OF SIN ARE DEATH”, yet we know from our national stance on abortion, access to contraception, and sex work that actually if the so-called sin is a sexual one between a ‘straight’ man and another person, it’s the other person who has to bear the brunt of that particular exchange.

Consensual sex is categorically not a sin. Well, except if you are a woman (and trans person and gay man and sex worker). Then of course it is a sin. You are a slut, unlike the man, who will probably be a legend (to himself), we all know this, we understand this paradox and yet we all maintain it, despite the harm it causes. Street harassment is the thin end of the wedge of our rape culture. RAPE CULTURE, a description that so many baulk at, yet we live in a society where somehow a woman should automatically be embarrassed about having a threesome and a man can be glorified amongst his mates. According to solicitors, the shame of a threesome could lead a young woman to take a lengthy and unnecessary court case against someone to save face… whereas leaving someone crying hysterically and bleeding internally after a sexual encounter is perfectly acceptable. A top tip for any man planning a threesome: if someone starts bleeding, best to call it a day, at the very least you aren’t doing it right and at the worst you might be raping someone.
We know that what a person wears, drinks, eats, how they get home, and what previous sexual history they have should have absolutely zero to do with whether or not they get raped, yet on and on we see victim blaming from legal experts, from prurient press, from anyone quick to judge with access to a social media account.

Expecting everyone who is not a straight cis man to pay for the sin of sex is why abortion is such a controversial topic as well. It’s got little to do with little cute babies and everything to do with women and pregnant people facing the consequences. “She should have kept her legs shut” “She should have to take responsibility for her mistake” “She should have thought about that before whoring around” – all things that are frequently said in some shape or form – it’s abortion’s own form of blaming, with a human to look after for the rest of your life as punishment. This is despite the overwhelming majority of single parents being women, it’s despite the overwhelming majority of contraception and birth control being aimed at women and it’s despite the fact that sexual assault and rape are so common that they are endemic, and yet we don’t even get off the hook for that one, as apparently our bodies don’t even deserve freedom from someone else’s crime (if they are a man).

Whenever the onslaught of sexualisation begins, it teaches us – women, queer and trans folk, that our boundaries are unimportant. It undermines our trust as to everyone’s intentions, and most importantly it undermines our ability to trust our own instinct. Setting boundaries is an important life skill, yet attempts to develop this skill are thwarted from the start if we can’t even tell strangers on the street not to comment on the shape of our ‘tits’ when we are still children.

Forgotten in all of this is that sex is supposed to be pleasurable, people shouldn’t get internal lacerations from consensual sex, unless it’s something they have specifically requested. Our concept of virginity is outdated as well, why is the only important thing when a penis enters a vagina? There are so many more ways of having sex, and not just for queer people. Sex is better when it is about reciprocal pleasure, you need to be able to say to the person that you’re having sex with, ‘yes that’s working or no that’s not working, can you do it more like this?’ However we are having sex in a society that doesn’t allow space for conversations about that.

We can be on the BBC talking about murderers, about complicated political ideas, about tragedies faced by families dealing with a variety of crises, but we are unable to talk about sex openly. We can’t address it, we are too scundered, even though that embarrassment creates a void that leads to our young people being educated by the internet; by the most popular types of porn which debase women, people of colour and trans people.

Popular porn is what we are offering to our culture instead of real conversations about pleasure. Young people are divided by gender for sex education, which is largely provided for by religious organisations. It’s no coincidence that the same organisations that are against contraception and abortions, are against LGBT people and sex before marriage.

If we let these people misinform our children, our offspring will look somewhere else instead, for something that more closely reflects the real lives they live than the prim fantasies that abstinence-only, anti LGBT sex education provides.

Not only have we no adequate ways to punish and re-educate young men with monstrous ideas about what women are (less than human receptacles for sperm and babies) but we are enabling them from children to become this way.

If we want our future to be safer and happier for the next generations, then we have to make actual changes to our sex education. We have to stigmatise talking about women and others as less than human and not stigmatise women having sex. We have to teach people that there is no pleasure without consent and that consent is the lowest bar. We have to be prepared to call out ‘banter’ if it demeans anyone because of the type of sex they have. We have to stand up to the tiny minority of bigoted bullies that get their voices amplified too often.

Everyone knows someone who has been raped or sexually assaulted, everyone knows someone who has had an abortion or crisis pregnancy, we just need to learn to put on our grown-up pants and talk about these things properly and with respect before any more generations are harmed by our wilful negligence.

– Emma C

Belfast Feminist Network

 

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How can we ask women to report rape after Belfast?

How can we ask women to report rape after Belfast?

Rape is not an ordinary crime. Few people will contemplate whether or not to report being mugged because the police might not believe them. No one sees their car window smashed and thinks “I’m not sure if reporting this is wise. I was drinking last night so the police might think I said it was ok and I consented to them smashing it..”

 

The worst outcome for a rape complainant is that she is not believed. During the Belfast trial, a narrative was created that a the victim had participated in a drunken threesome and then cried rape afterwards because she was worried that “it would be talked about on social media.” The idea that any woman would subject themselves to what is entailed in making a rape complaint, simply because she regretted how she had sex or who it was with, would be laughable if it weren’t so disturbing.

 

When a woman makes a complaint to police she will usually spend hours or a day (or more than a day) literally recounting her story over and over again; following this she may be brought to a sexual assault treatment unit where trained healthcare professionals will collect forensic evidence and do a head to toe exam collecting samples from under her nails and her hair and her mouth. They will examine her genitals and take photographs. She will likely have to tell her story again to the healthcare practitioners so they know which photos to take. She will not be allowed tea or coffee in case it interferes with evidence in her mouth. Depending on where she lives, she might have to travel for 3-4 hours to get to this unit because her local hospital won’t have one. If there’s a risk of head injuries, she’ll be sent to the Beaumont first, but that has implications for evidence collection of course. If the police believe her, they may send her story to the DPP. They also might not believe her. They also might prosecute her for false reporting. They might laugh at her and snigger it was her own fault.

 

Rape myths are very common, and police and gardai are as susceptible to them as any other person you meet in the street. Of course, they are not meant to be, but we know they are. They make rape jokes too. It isn’t that long since the gardai were making rape jokes on tape in relation to Shell to Sea protestors. That wasn’t solely about animosity towards protesters, it was because they found rape funny and unless they’ve retired since 2011, they’re still employed by An Garda Siochana. The transcript of that exchange could be a twitter exchange.  

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^ Garda Rape Tape Exchange

Of course false report convictions are rare much the same way that false reports of rape are rare, but the fear of not being believed and the consequences that follow are a shadow over every victim’s decision on whether or not to report. They are rare, because women do not put themselves through the trauma of reporting because of what it entails, and the glaringly obvious fact that largely, she will not be believed.

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In the best case scenario, if the victim is believed by the Gardaí she must tell her story over and over and over and over again; then if she is believed by the DPP and then after having repeated her story over and over again, a case will be taken. Following this she will listen while her credibility is systematically picked apart by the defence counsel. She will see her knickers passed around the court. Her own credibility will be on trial. They will discuss what she likes and what sex acts she would engage in. The papers will discuss the colour of her labia in print. People on the internet will speculate on where she was in her menstrual cycle and whether the vaginal lacerations she has were from rape or not. Her text messages to friends about being raped will become a matter of public record. A newspaper will write a story in which they wonder whether the blood was from internal bleeding from vaginal injuries or from her period as the defence counsel suggested. In some cases fear of retaliation from the perpetrators will be a worry, whether that retaliation manifests as a physical threat or a threat to make life difficult, or the retaliation might manifest as the forces of privilege in society standing together to paint you as a liar. Anonymous or not, she will be stigmatised and the minutiae of every move she makes will be under scrutiny. Some of the jury will believe that if a woman was drinking, she was asking for it, and other myths, like the style of clothes being an invitation to have grope. Men who barely know the alphabet, let alone the intricacies of criminal law will call for her to be put on trial. They will call for her to be named and shamed. They say this because a lot of society thinks that if you cannot secure a conviction in a rape trial, the victim complainant has been proven to be a liar. Rape trials always mean the victim is on trial as much as the defendants. In the Belfast case, people know who the complainant is, there is no need to name her. Men will share that information. The Belfast verdict in many quarters has been seen as a victory for men. Women will simply return to secret Facebook groups and chats and informal conversations in which the words, “be careful of him” are uttered.

 

The scale of rape and sexual assault is a global health issue. If one in four people were getting mugged, we would likely examine the root cause and the members of the Oireachtas and other parliaments would probably convene a joint special committee. The media has a key role in this. They, whether they like it or not, shape the public discourse on rape and sexual assault issues. When they produce salacious gossipy reports on the case or the colour of a rape victim’s genitalia in their paper, it matters. It matters because those words are taken and repeated on twitter, with a multitude of shitty opinions attached.

 

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Most rape victims do not report to the police. Convictions do not simply require 12 members of a jury to believe you. They require the police who are questioning your demeanor, level of intoxication and consistency of details, to believe you. Your credibility must be sturdy. Impeccable in fact. It helps if you are not a poor or marginalised woman. During the Belfast trial Stuart Olding’s barrister commented, “Why did she not say no? Why did she open her mouth? Why didn’t she scream? A lot of middle class girls were downstairs, they were not going to tolerate a rape or anything like that. Why didn’t she scream the house down.” The implication being that us working class women would hear it and just go back to adjusting the hun buns and acrylic nails and drinking cans I suppose. The clear message to rape victims in this, and every other trial is “Do not report, it isn’t worth it.”

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Reporting to the police means you must be able to withstand victim blaming and questioning and trolling statements and people attempting to hunt your family down on twitter. You must be able to handle that, if you defy traditional gender roles or consume alcohol prior to your attack you are more likely to be attributed a higher rate of blame for your own rape than others. You must be able to overcome whatever obstacles are put in place by privately educated rugby playing people and people who are members of professional associations who have connections and know journalists and other important people.

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When you make a report you must be able to deal with the fact that if you were passed out on the ground unconscious and the gardai happen upon you with a strange man kissing your neck and touching you, they may initially think that it isn’t that serious until they find CCTV footage. If you were a teenager working in a low paid carer job providing care for an elderly client, their adult son might sexually assault you. If your rapist was actually convicted, he might initially walk out of the court with a suspended sentence after drugging and raping you in your sleep. If you are 6 years old and your Uncle convinces you to go to your house for biscuits and he subsequently rapes you, he might also get a suspended sentence. If you are a group of five women abused by the same person, he might get a suspended sentence too. Your rapist might even get a partially suspended sentence for sexually assaulting two women having previously finished three jail terms for rape offences. Your uncle who abused you when he was still a priest might get a suspended sentence too. If your rapist dies, the Council might try and pass a motion of condolence for him.

If the text messages from your attackers reference your crying, and imply the group nature of your attack, as if they had great craic during a drinking game, you will still not be believed. This is what society needs us to know.

 

Screenshot 2018-03-28 22.31.26When your attackers are on trial, it will be you who is made to feel like a criminal. These “talented, promising sportsmen” who all had a different version of events, who deleted text messages and met up when they usually didn’t (but *not* to get their stories straight, remember?) were always going to be found ‘not guilty.’ It didn’t matter that there was a witness testimony confirming the witness’s description. It didn’t matter the taxi driver was concerned and said she was crying. What mattered was that they were privileged men, whose victim was always going to be torn asunder on the stand. Privilege begets privilege. Don’t you always bawl your eyes out and bleed through your jeans in a taxi home after a fun night?

The question that many feminists are asking now is why would any woman who witnessed this trial report a rape? If a friend discloses rape, how do you say to her in good conscience “would you consider reporting?”

 

They don’t want us to. The system is not designed for the victim. It serves an entirely different process. The victim was painted by the barristers involved as a wanton slut who was up for anything. Paddy Jackson, one of the defendants was painted as a poor little boy whose favourite hobbies included “drawing super heroes,” whose only mistake was wanting to have fun.  

The complainant in this case did everything that victims are supposed to do, she kept her clothes, she went and made a statement. Experts confirmed vaginal injuries. She told her friends what had happened. The defence still made out that she simply regretted a consensual experience and was afraid she would be labeled a slut. They labeled her a slut anyway not to mention, does any woman in 2018 under the age of 40 really give a fuck about someone having a threesome?

I know an awful lot of victims of rape. So do you. But I have never known anyone that has seen their rapist prosecuted. There are people who are friends of friends but it is truly remarkable that given the scale of it, convictions are rare.

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We all know, as women, we are routinely not believed, but for whatever it’s worth, I believe her.

 

@stephie08

 

#ibelieveher

#coponcomrades Revisited: The IT Women’s Podcast

Feminist Ire’s Stephanie Lord and Sinéad Redmond, along with Niamh McDonald and her son Tom, join Kathy Sheridan to discuss the origins of Cop On Comrades, how men can support the feminist struggle, and activism in the social media age.

Feminist Ire Podcast – A Conversation on Consent: It’s ok to say no.

Feminist Ire Podcast – A Conversation on Consent: It’s ok to say no.

For the first Feminist Ire podcast, myself, Sinéad Redmond, Sue Jordan, Yaz O’Connor, Lisa Keogh Finnegan, Helen Guinane sat down and talked about the issues of consent issues in sex, tea, alcohol and everyday life in general – and how it’s ok to say no.

Eilís Ní Fhlannagáin performs her spoken word piece “Ruth.” (This starts at 90:00 if you want to skip straight to that). 

If you’ve been affected by any of these issues regarding consent or rape or sexual assault you can contact Dublin Rape Crisis Phone Line on: 1800 77 8888

If you need information on accessing information on abortion services you can contact the Abortion Support Network.

Massive, massive thanks to Oireachtas Retort for editing assistance. We are grateful!

If you would like to share any views with us on this, please email feministire@gmail.com or get in touch with us on twitter @feministire

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Pregnant Child Detained in Mental Institution For Asking For An Abortion

To access a life saving abortion in Ireland requires 3 medical professionals (two psychiatrists and one obstetrician) to agree that the woman is at risk of taking her own life. As the recent case of a young girl  shows it only takes one psychiatrist however to get sectioned for wanting an abortion in Ireland.

The girl was legally classed as a child and her identity has understandably been withheld so we know nothing more about her other than that she had an unwanted pregnancy and that when she sought an abortion from her healthcare professionals she was of the understanding that she was being taken to Dublin for the procedure. However unbeknownst to her the consultant psychiatrist had given evidence at a hearing to detain her under the Mental Health Act.

“The consultant psychiatrist was of the opinion that while the child was at risk of self harm and suicide as a result of the pregnancy, this could be managed by treatment and that termination of the pregnancy was not the solution for all of the child’s problems at that stage.”

How frightening it must have been for her to find herself in a mental hospital after travelling to Dublin expecting an abortion. We are told it was “days” later that another hearing was held that resulted in her discharge from the mental hospital. During this time her court-appointed guardian ad litem (GAL) had employed another consultant psychiatrist to access her and on the basis of their evidence the girl was released from the institution. She spent unnecessary “days” in a mental institution for the “crime” of nothing more than wanting an abortion.

I’ve heard numerous reports of suicidal people trying to access mental health units in Irish hospitals who have been sent away. In future I’ll suggest to those of them who are capable of getting pregnant to say they’re pregnant and want an abortion, as that seems to be a sure way to get sectioned.

This case raises a number of questions. How is it that it only took one psychiatrist to have the girl sectioned? Why was the PLDP act not enacted for this pregnant, suicidal child? How can the public be assured that the personal beliefs of medical professionals won’t interfere with them being able to access the healthcare they need? Did Government Ministers know of the case at the time?

Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC) spokesperson Linda Kavanagh said:

“Looking at the report, it’s hard not to think that the psychiatrist in this case essentially used the Mental Health Act as a tool to force a child into continuing an unwanted pregnancy because of their own personal beliefs. It is clear we need some process which ensures medical professionals with such conscientious objections cannot block timely health care in critical cases.”

This is the latest case in a long line of women and girls who have been failed by the state. Ms X was another suicidal child prevented from accessing an abortion in 1992 and Ms Y a teenage rape victim likewise led to believe she would be given an abortion and instead detained against her will. Ireland has a disgraceful history stretching back to the Magdalene Laundries of locking up pregnant women.

The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act is supposed to “protect” women who are at risk of taking their own lives, not used as a tool to lock women who want abortions up.

The Irish Government are allowing this human rights abuse to happen on their watch, leaving a trail of abused and sometimes dead women, girls and children behind them.

Rally to Repeal is on Saturday 17th in Dublin. If you can’t go please contact your local T.Ds and ask them to urgently implement the findings of the Citizens Assembly.

You can sign an UPLIFT petition here:https://action.uplift.ie/campaigns/187

*I’d like to acknowledge the work of the Child Law Project. We would know nothing of this case if it wasn’t for their work. Since 2012 they have been able to report to the public on child care proceedings in the courts, they aim to report on 10% of cases.

On Comradeship and Copping On

Posted on

(Guest post by Izzy Kamikaze)

This is part of a longer (maybe much longer) work in progress about #coponcomrades – a recent social media kerfuffle here in Ireland, that seems quite instructive and worth spending more time on. I was writing Part One and Part Two at the same time, but Part Two finished itself first and so they are being published out of sequence.

The story so far is basically that a young-to-me (35ish) very effective working class male activist has published a piece in a national newspaper, decrying “identity politics” and the notion that “a straight, white male” can carry any privilege if he is also working class. Amongst other responses, a group of feminist women have signed up to a joint statement, acknowledging the disadvantage of working class men, but otherwise disagreeing.

The usual social media handbags at dawn has ensued. Two days ago, a male left wing poet has weighed in with a poem depicting 350 crazed neoliberal harpies and Part Two is my response to that poem. If you haven’t read the poem, you can find it here (and this contribution may not make much sense without it,) but if you’ve already seen it, meh…why give it any more clicks…

Emma

Part 2: Plutonium Pants Suit

Dear Kevin,

I was pretty surprised yesterday to find myself a target of your satire. I’m Capitalism’s Handmaiden now, part of a chorus of “350 identical voices.” As feminist voices are indistinguishable to your ear and presumed to be the voices of privilege and neoliberalism, I thought I’d write, in a spirit of comradeship, to help you distinguish one voice from what you apparently see as a fem-bot army, raining death and destruction on the world from the weaponised genitals inside our “plutonium pants suits.” An appealing image, perhaps Kevin, but a false one. I’m writing to tell you it ain’t necessarily so.

You don’t know me, but you usually tag me when you share your poems and I like that. Well-aimed political satire is one of the most subversive things we can do. I’ve often shared your poems and commented kindly on them – one about the Jobstown protest is a particular favourite and another about Clare Daly. Thank you for those. The words we handmaidens of capitalism sent out into the world were all about privilege, so that’s what I thought I’d write to you about now.

My granny didn’t have a piano, stolen from a refugee or otherwise, but if she had one, she’d have been able to tune it. Her father tuned pianos for a living and she had learned from him. He also played the organ in the local cathedral, which came with a little social standing, but no cash. My Granny lived in poverty most of her lifetime, but was better educated than her neighbours in the council estate and was acutely aware of this privilege. There was a book on her few shelves called “Law for the Millions” and from this she dispensed legal advice to neighbours who couldn’t afford a solicitor. The “Button A, Button B” payphone in her front room was the only one in the estate and that’s where the neighbours came to keep in touch with their emigrant children, or to call a doctor when somebody had an accident.

My Granny never had money in her whole lifetime. She scraped by on a widow’s pension for 30-odd years. I remember going to the coal merchant with my Granny just before Christmas. She paid for her own delivery, then handed him a few bob to bring coal to somebody who couldn’t afford it. My Granny’s voice is one of 350 voices, entirely distinguishable from each other, that pop into my head on any average day.  My Granny was no intersectional feminist, but she wanted us to remember “there is always somebody worse off than yourself.”

There is no plutonium pants suit in my wardrobe, Kevin. Just my leather jackets, faded jeans and the shirts and ties that still sometimes get me mocked in the streets by people you presumably feel have no privilege worth speaking about. When I was 24, I found myself living in Fatima Mansions. If you haven’t heard of it, it was a notoriously deprived council estate in Dublin’s South Inner City. I stayed more than 15 years and for most of that time, homophobic abuse was a daily part of my life. For a few months in the early 90s, I cared for a friend and former lover who was terminally ill. She died in the front room there, Kevin. She was tired of the hospitals and clinics, so she chose to die at home, but she had to go to the methadone clinic daily, so I used to scrub the piss and shit off the stairs so we could get down to the waiting taxi. I was afraid she might fall there.

We had no money, so our lives were pretty limited, but one night she went out for a drink with a friend. She hadn’t been out for a long time and was very excited and I was pleased too, because I really needed a rest. When she came back that night, I opened the door and she was stood there on the doorstep, with spit running down her face onto her leather jacket. Her voice is another of the entirely distinguishable voices in my head. She left me all her papers to “write the true story of women living with HIV” and I hear that voice quite often because I haven’t kept that promise, but I got out of that place by getting a job and a mortgage that I’m still paying. So time is short and I only manage it in snatches like this one to you.

The young men who did this were amongst the least privileged in our society and I stand squarely by their side whenever justice demands it. But did they enjoy straight white male privilege when they broke all my windows, wrote graffiti on my door or shoved shit through my letterbox? I say they did. And they had privilege too when they spat in the face of a dying woman, 32 years old, on her way home from her last ever night in the pub? I say they did, Kevin.  And did I enjoy white privilege when they eventually bored with me and moved on to harass the black people who had started to move into our neighbourhood? It didn’t feel like much of a privilege, but yes I did.

It was eight years before I had the money to bring her ashes to India as she’d asked me to. I went for six weeks and it’s still the only time I’ve been outside Europe. It’s interesting you should mention Union Carbide in your depiction of us, because I spent one of those six weeks volunteering at a centre for victims of the Bhopal gas disaster. That week was a small thing, Kevin and I’m looking for no medals for it. It was a drop in the ocean, but still, an act of comradeship rather than the unthinking rampage of one of capitalism’s handmaidens, in my entirely discountable opinion.

The left has always had an issue with what it calls “identity politics” but I’m old enough and around both struggles long enough to remember that it used to have another name. When I was young and desperate to be accepted on the left, the term used was bourgeois individualism. The fight for individual human rights as basic as choosing who to live and love with was a manifestation of greed, not need, they told us. Depending on who you talked to, either all our problems would be solved after the revolution, or else we ourselves would cease to exist as our sexuality was nothing more than a symptom of bourgeois decadence. We were an unsightly pimple on capitalism’s arse. Either way, we needed to subsume our struggle to that of the huddled masses, until the glorious revolution came to grant us luxuries like not having to perpetually wipe spit from our faces (or else until it imprisoned us in the gulags, whichever turned out to be the case.)

Identity politics needed to happen, Kevin, and still needs to happen. I was a teenager then and I have a grandchild now. The magical revolution that wipes all problems away is no more assured in her lifetime than it was in mine.  I hope as a comrade you see why we couldn’t just wait. Sure, there were people who were assimilationist, who didn’t care at all if others remained without privilege, as long as they got some themselves. But that was never me, Kevin, and there were plenty more like me. I do try to live in solidarity with others. I know it’s never enough, but I know I try. I don’t know all the other voices you characterise as “identical,” but I do know they’re not identical and I’m pretty sure that they try too.

In your poem, even my poor innocent genitals are reimagined as weapons of war, raining down horror on the Middle East. I feel as helpless as most comrades in the times we live in, but I’ve always been against war and struggled for peace. My enthusiasm for your poem about Jobstown isn’t just to do with that case. I’ve fought for the right to protest all my life. I’ve been arrested twice in my life, both times for anti-war protest – nothing compared to what homeless young working class men now face when they get treated like criminals for just trying to find someplace to sleep or rest or to use the drugs they can’t get through a day without, but still a mark that I’ve not lived my life entirely as a handmaiden to the military industrial complex.

One of those arrests was as specious in its way as the arrest of the Jobstown defendants, as we never did find out under what law it was made. That protest was against American foreign policy, as obnoxious 33 years ago as it is today. The other sought the release of a pregnant woman activist, arrested in the USSR on false charges of assaulting a KGB officer. She was a target because of her involvement in the disarmament movement and her husband was frantic because he couldn’t find out where she was.

Their plight would have meant little to one of the warmongering fem-bots of your imagination, but not being one of those, I did the little bit I could. Myself and four friends left the party celebrating my 21st birthday and we chained ourselves to the gates of the ambassador’s residence. We were there for a number of hours before we were cut off the gate and nobody could get in or out, during that time. No doubt we’d be charged with “false imprisonment” today, but luckily we weren’t and we made the papers. We helped to secure the release of that woman and I’d do it again in a heartbeat, if I happened again to be one of the first people to hear news of an unjust incarceration.

I understand your instinct in writing the poem, Kevin. Word reached you of something you thought an injustice and you sat down to write in the same spirit as I chained myself to that gate. I know you heard our voices as a hate-filled chorus, but I also know you didn’t hear what we actually said. My feminism has nothing to do with Golda Meir or Indira Gandhi, nor the Hillary Clinton implied in the line about plutonium pants suits that must have seemed so very clever at the time. I’m rooting for Jeremy Corbyn, not for Teresa May. I’m no friend of power, but while it exists, may compassionate people hold it regardless of gender, not the clowns and tyrants that give me so many sleepless nights.

I’m rooting for Corbyn, though the slogan “For the Many” gives me the heebie-jeebies. Sometimes the few-in-number are not the oppressors, but the tide turns against them anyway and they end up in the camps. Even the kindest ideology contains within it the seeds of oppression. We have to be watchful of ourselves all the time. There are intolerant versions of feminism and I’m happy to stand against them, but so far there’ve been no feminist gulags, where people are imprisoned for minor irregularities of thought or for having a little more than their neighbour has. Within a year of the much needed revolution in Russia, once the bright hope of working people around the world, the first forced labour camp opened. The dreams of freedom often end up dashed on the rocks below.

The seeds of oppression are in everything that once stood for justice, but as yet no feminist bombs have rained on children in their beds. There are no piles of corpses to shame our talk of equality. It was somebody else’s dream of equality that went very bad. I promise to keep an eye out for injustice, Kevin. I promise to speak out where I see it and I hope you keep doing the same – will you join me in being as willing to listen as to speak out? Will we listen to each other’s voices first, before rushing to condemn?

The focus on the assumed privilege of our 350 voices is something that puzzles me. It might make more sense if we’d claimed we didn’t have any privilege, but we didn’t say that. It definitely would make sense if we’d said “even the most underprivileged working class man on the street has more privilege than we have” but we didn’t say that either. What we tried to say was “everyone has privilege sometimes. That’s OK, it’s what you do with it that counts.” I hope you might hear this more distinctly when it’s one voice saying it, but I’m sure each of the others is on her own journey with the privilege she was born with and the privilege she was born without.

I don’t know the circumstances of all the others. I’m sure some are middle class, but what of it? Eva Gore-Booth, born into the splendour of Lissadell House in Sligo, did more for the female mill workers of Lancashire than most male trade union leaders of less exalted origins. Her better known sister, Constance Markievicz, was the victim of many a sneer about her origins, but was so loved by the slum-dwellers of Dublin that they queued the full length of O’Connell St to file past her coffin. The Rebel Countess’s voice is often in my ear. In her youth, you might recall, she felt so strongly for the poor she “put [her] jewels in the bank and [bought] a revolver.” By the time she died at 59, she had nothing left to give away.

Emma Goldman’s voice is another one that sometimes visits me. Nobody was more committed to class struggle than she was, but if she couldn’t dance, she didn’t want to be part of your revolution. Nobody thinks of her as an intersectional feminist, but she said this: “The history of progress is written in the blood of men and women who have dared to espouse an unpopular cause, as, for instance, the black man’s right to his body, or woman’s right to her soul.”

The right to speak freely on matters of conscience is of vital importance and is not extended equally to everyone. We all have to grab whatever opportunity we can find. I’m glad we live in a country where, all of us in this story have been able to speak up as we see fit, even if we don’t all get the same platform and even if we find the criticism of others hard to take. I’m glad a working class man is free to say he can’t possibly enjoy any privilege, even though he’s saying it in the pages of a national newspaper whilst taking a PhD in Trinity College. I’m glad a bunch of feminists can disagree, singly or together, and share their feelings through a humble Facebook post that nevertheless gets a lot of exposure. I’m glad that people who disagree with us can have conniptions on social media about “search and destroy” missions, as if feminazis were training binoculars on their house prior to dragging them off to break rocks in the re-education camp of their paranoid fantasies.

I’m glad that you are free to write a spectacularly ill-conceived poem about the whole affair and to publish it in an outlet that only a few weeks ago was equally free to share for clicks the footage of the shamefully heavy-handed arrest of a naked woman, the late Dara Quigley, another writer and activist, just like you and me. They ignored for hours the pleas of their contributors and readers to take it down, but I’m still glad there were no official censors kicking their door down (and I’m glad they eventually listened and took it down.)  I see they’ve changed the picture above your poem and I’m betting they made less of a big deal about doing so, but I’m sure that doesn’t reflect any kind of privilege at work…

I’m glad that I can respond to you as I’ve done here, even though my platform’s smaller and I’m glad you’re at liberty to pen further speculation about my alleged neoliberal sympathies and the fantasised misdeeds of my blameless grandparents. None of us is going to be dragged from our beds in the middle of the night for what we’ve said and I’m grateful. The worst that will happen to any of us is that other people might disagree with us and might say so, singly or in groups and I know from sweet experience (I try not to be bitter) that is totally survivable.

It isn’t always that way in the world we live in. There are writers and activists in the world whose heads rest uneasy on their pillows tonight and it befits us all to recall that when we meet with some pretty civilised resistance to what we say. Let’s keep them in mind before accusing each other of censorship and war crimes. Let’s turn our attention together to real threats to our own speech. They are out there, Kevin and it’s not you or me. It would be good also to remember that feminism has always emphasised the importance of the individual’s voice – “the personal is political” – while socialism all too often demanded that the individual’s welfare and small voice be sacrificed for an allegedly greater good.

Everybody has some privilege sometimes, Kevin. I would say that, even if they did come now to kick down my door. None of us is so lacking in privilege that we can be excused the necessity of listening to other people’s voices. None of us.

The voices I’ve shared with you so far have all been women’s voices. I’m concerned that you might find them hard to tell apart. James Connolly is not usually thought of as an intersectional feminist, but perhaps his voice will land more easily on your ear than mine does. He put it this way: “The worker is the slave of capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave.” I’m with Connolly on that one, Kevin. None of us is so lacking in privilege that we have not at some time benefitted from somebody else’s lack of privilege.

Keep sending me your poems, please Kevin. Mostly I enjoy them.

Yours in Comradeship, Izzy.