What the F is happening to women on the island of Ireland?

Disclaimer: I’ve chosen to write about the island of Ireland, as supposed to Northern or the Republic of Ireland because whether we care to admit it or not, there are cultural norms and inherited traumas that have been passed down to the people of Ireland — all of Ireland — through generations. And the crucial thing to remember about trauma is that it’s colourblind, it doesn’t know green from orange and it certainly doesn’t care what religious denomination or political persuasion you are. I’m Irish and Northern Irish, British and born in Ulster, all at once. I can choose to identify differently to my neighbour, born in the same town, attending the same school but ultimately we’re all cut from the same traumatised, hurt, confused, angry, scared, oppressed, lonely, patriarchal cloth.

We live on a tiny island, beside another not quite so tiny island that has for centuries been considered the ‘mainland’ but that's cultural norms and social discourse are very far removed from our own. Anyone who’s spent any amount of time across the water, or has even had a cooked breakfast made by someone from ‘over there’, will know that politics and patriotism aside, somethings similarities just can’t be denied even if we wish they could (‘potato wedges do not go in a fry up’ could perhaps be the new slogan of Northern Irish unity.) And unfortunately for the women of the island of Ireland, constant and continuous letdowns by the state, whichever state that may be, the legal system and the men in power around us, are woven into the fabric of these similarities; factors of life that cannot be denied, whether your flower is a poppy or a lily, your instrument a flute or a whistle. With that said, what the F is happening to women on the island of Ireland?

This week thousands of sexual images of women were ‘leaked’ online. The perpetrators, 500 men across the island of Ireland, North and South, Republic and Union put aside their political difference to unite in the execution of mass sexual abuse. Some of the images shared were of children, some of sexually explicit material, all of them shared without consent through the chatroom and file sharing platform, Discord. The story barely made the news in the media channels of the UK — where most people in Northern Ireland access their news from — and when it did the abuse was referred to as ‘revenge porn.’ Not only does the term ‘revenge porn’ suggest both that the women involved had acted in some way the resulted in the abusers needing to see ‘revenge’ but it also suggests that the images are in fact porn. That they are in some way made for sharing and consumption by the public and that it is simply that in this case, there was a problem with the way they are consumed. Let’s be clear, as if it needs to be established, sexual images that have been sent between consenting partners in a relationship are not intended for public viewing, least of all, shared without consent to hundred’s of men on the internet. The use of the word ‘porn’ when referring specifically to images of a child detracts from the paedophilic crimes being committed. ‘Child porn’ isn’t ‘porn’ — it’s sexual abuse. The images being shared between men online is not a ‘leak’. It’s not like someone’s broken into Ryanair’s servers and now the internet knows your phone number and your holiday plans; the deliberate and intentional rejection of consent by these men is sexual abuse. A ‘leak’ is inconvenient and maybe you have to get a new credit card, but it doesn’t cause you to suffer from suicidal thoughts, or in some cases, suicide.

This widespread instance of sexual abuse happened in the same week that female pupils in a school in Carlow were asked to dress ‘respectfully’ so as not to ‘distract’ their male teachers. Some of the girls in the school were as young as 12, and those ‘distracting’ clothes they were wearing? Leggings. Once again, the paedophilia of the adult men, in this case, men in a position of care and power over young women, is being protected whilst the young women and children are blamed. A similar blame-shifting occurred when I was in school, when a female in my year sent her boyfriend a sexual image and he shared it around the school. The teachers called an all-female assembly meeting during which we — the girls aged 14 — were chastised for our sexuality, warned, by the PSNI who were in attendance, about the dangers of sharing intimate photos, whilst the boys continued with their classes. No one was telling them off for sharing images without consent or scolding them for breaking the law.

The island of Ireland has a legacy of female oppression as ancient as the land. Through north and south, east to west, the trauma of the state/church, which historically includes Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes run by both Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland and the Republic — the records for which the Irish government voted to seal last month in order to protect those responsible for the abuse — and more recently draconian abortion laws and a current lack of stalking or image-based sexual abuse laws, has been an omnipresent dark cloud hanging over the lives of women across the island. There is an apathy that comes from living in a place in which the culture dictates that your experiences, your rights, your trauma, your hurt, are meaningless. It seeps into the very fibre of your being whether you want it to or not. To know and fight and be exhausted or to continue with how it’s always been, head down, trudging through the swap, hoping to avoid the monsters that lurk beneath all the while dealing with the anxiety their presence causes?

The events of this week are nothing new for women who have already suffered and continue to suffer so much in a place that refuses to reconcile it’s past with it’s present, that cannot move forward until it looks back. But the ability of women to come together in force, to share their stories, to refuse to watch as yet another violation of their rights is cast aside as a nasty unavoidable mistake and not something that’s representative of a land built upon their oppression, is. Generations of women before us have fought and lost and fought and won as I’m sure too will generations of the future. However now, the sense of community amongst women both on and offline who are coming together to petition and protest, to hold up a mirror to a land so entrenched in patriarchy that it’s been blinded to the potential of alternative, is momentous. No longer limited to localised groups, paper petitions and political canvassing, women from this island, it’s diaspora and beyond are able to unite and take on cultural ‘norms’ in a way we’ve never before had access to.

In the words of Arundhati Roy, political activist and writer, ““Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” The women of Ireland are tired of holding our breath, of living in fear, we’re expelling the silence from our lungs, declaring our truths to the world; the ripples of which will be felt for years to come.

Writer, feminist, big tall hippy Irish person. I write about gender, rights, culture and society. LLM Human Rights Law - University of York

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