What is it really like to be a woman in Ireland today? Ahead of International Women’s Day, Louise O’Neill delivers her ‘state of the nation’ address.
I don’t think I could ever call myself a feminist,” a friend once told me.
“They all just seem so... angry.”
And of course, women aren’t supposed to be angry. Anger is a masculine trait, fiery and passionate and intense.
Women are supposed to be gentle, to compromise and sacrifice. We’re supposed to stay quiet. We’re supposed to know our place.
Well, I have news for you. I am a woman. I am a feminist. And I am angry.
I am angry that I live in a country that doesn’t allow women access to safe, legal abortion.
I’m angry that despite thousands of people taking to the streets to demand that the Eighth Amendment be repealed, the government said a referendum on the issue is not a priority for them.
I’m angry that I live in a country with one of the lowest rates of conviction for rape cases in Europe.
I’m angry that I live in a country where funding to every Rape Crisis Centre in this country has been cut, year on year, since 2008 despite the exponential increase in women and men needing to use those services.
I’m angry that I live in a country that still doesn’t have a legal definition for sexual consent and that people are allowed to say, on national television, that maybe that’s a good thing because girls sometimes ‘cry rape’.
I’m angry that I live in a country where women are dismally under-represented in the Dáil and where people spew vitriol at you when you dare to suggest that gender quotas might be a good idea.
I’m angry that I live in a country where the role of the mother is so enshrined in our Constitution that the idea of paternity leave is almost treated as a joke, because surely the rearing of the children should be the sole responsibility of the woman.
In some ways, I’m glad that I’m angry because it makes a wonderful change from feeling afraid.
As a woman living in Ireland, I have often felt afraid.
I was only seven when I learned what the words ‘rape’ and ‘abortion’ meant.
The X case, in which the attorney general obtained an injunction to prevent a young girl from leaving the country to obtain an abortion, hit the headlines in 1992.
The girl at the centre of the case was suicidal, the victim of long-term sexual abuse, and had become pregnant after being raped by a family friend. She was 14 years of age.
You couldn’t escape the story. It was all over the news, on television, on the radio, in the papers; people debating the morality of allowing a child to terminate a pregnancy that had been inflicted upon her.
And I learned my lesson. I learned that my body was not really my own. I learned that my body was, in some way, in the control of the State. And I became afraid.
That fear followed me through my adolescence and into my early twenties. Despite using multiple forms of contraception, I was constantly anxious that I would become pregnant.
And what would I do and who would I tell and how could I afford to travel and how could I burden my parents with that?
That same fear tore strips across my heart when Savita Halappanavar died in 2012. She died begging for an abortion, died begging for her life to be valued above that of her unborn child.
Not here, she was told. Not here in Ireland. This is a Catholic country.
There was outrage, tears, and candlelit vigils. And we prayed, because that is what we were taught to do as children.
We were taught to get down on our knees and pray to a God and hope that He was listening. We prayed that he would show mercy on us, unworthy as we were.
Twelve women a day kept leaving these shores, their hands on their bellies, returning as criminals for daring to want autonomy over their own bodies.
Some of them had been raped, some the victims of incest.
Some had been given the news that their baby had fatal foetal abnormality and were forced on the first boat to England, forced to travel at their most vulnerable and heartbroken.
Others still knew it was just the wrong man or the wrong time; they wanted to do what was best for them.
Those 12 women a day, compelled into silence for fear of judgment and recrimination, looking over their shoulders cringing, waiting for someone to yell “baby killer” at them.
And we ignored them. We pretended that they didn’t exist.
More cases. A woman who is clinically dead is kept on life support despite the desperate pleas of her family. (The foetus must be protected above all else.)
An asylum seeker, another victim of rape, is forced to undergo a Caesarean section at 24 weeks’ gestation because she can’t leave the country and she cannot have an abortion here.
Not here. Not in Ireland. (The foetus must be protected above all else.)
And then I knew I wasn’t safe here. I wasn’t safe and neither were my female friends and my female cousins and my aunts.
That we would be left to die as long as the heart of the foetus was still beating and that we would be expected to die happy.
Human life is a beautiful thing, you see. But not if it’s a woman’s life. Oh no. (The foetus must be protected above all else.)
I sometimes wonder if the refusal to allow women to terminate pregnancies in this country is part of the broken remnants of the Catholic Church.
We say we don’t believe anymore, we say that we are free from its shackles of guilt and shame.
But are we?
The churches have fallen, the windows shattering into thousands of pieces, but each of us has been splintered with a shard of glass.
It twists in our gut, reminding us that it was Eve who fell first; it was Eve who gave in to temptation, Eve who was responsible for the downfall.
The Church has always been terrified of female sexuality, seeing it as an overwhelming tide that it needed to dam.
Our history is littered with the casualties of their efforts.
Have we forgotten the women deposited at the Magdalene laundries?
Those who had their babies ripped from their arms minutes after birth to be sold to the highest bidder?
What else can we see it as but a punishment for daring to express their sexuality, for their failure to be a ‘good girl’?
The Church isn’t doing this anymore, of course, but we have taken up its mantle. They have trained us well, have they not?
You can have sex, young woman, but if you get in trouble, you must travel alone, you must tell no one, you must keep your dirty secret to yourself.
A girl is photographed giving oral sex to three men at a music festival and we vilify her, the boys dismiss-ed as innocent bystanders.
Women must be the upholders of moral standards, we must be good, we must be better.
Rape-prevention programmes are focused on teaching women how to avoid sexual violence but when consent workshops are mooted to teach young people about sexual boundaries, an immediate backlash follows for daring to propose that young men might need education around this issue.
People phone in to radio shows to argue that a woman who has been sexually assaulted somehow ‘deserves it’ if she’s wearing revealing clothing or she’s had too much to drink.
Women are criticised for breastfeeding in public, as if breasts only serve for male titillation.
Facebook groups allegedly exist where photos of women are shared and rated and the men who do so are not shunned as sociopaths but are simply met with shrugs and murmurs of ‘boys will be boys’.
Headlines on newspapers ask why ‘intelligent young women’ send naked photos rather than asking why intelligent young men have such disregard for the women who have sent the photos in the first place.
Male sexuality is seen as something normal but female sexuality is the object of ridicule, with masturbation still a taboo.
“Don’t talk about that,” we’re told, “it’s not ladylike.”
Rape jokes flood social media and when a woman objects she is met with cries of ‘censorship’ or just told to ‘calm down, dear’.
Why can’t women take a joke about being violated in the most horrific way, even though it’s statistically likely to happen to one in five of us?
As I write this article I know that the abuse I shall receive online will be immense. I know that I will be laughed at and called hysterical.
There will be complaints that an International Women’s Day exists in the first place.
I will be told that I should be glad that I don’t live in a country where the oppression of women is much more tyrannical, where their lives are constantly in imminent danger, as if I’m incapable of simultaneously being horrified at their plight while still wanting to enact change in Ireland.
Societies are always evolving and, hopefully, improving.
I want to live in an Ireland where women have control over their reproductive destinies.
I want the gender pay gap to become a thing of the past.
I want Irish women to know that sex is not a performative act, that their pleasure is equally as important as their partners and to demand that it be treated as such.
I want to live in a country where a zero-tolerance policy is adopted towards sexist language, that people are called out for saying ‘Don’t be such a girl’.
I want men and women to be equally responsible for childcare and housework and understand that women are not instinctively better parents just by virtue of possessing a womb.
The Ireland that I dream of is a country where women feel safe walking late at night, where they don’t live in constant fear of being attacked but they know that if it does happen that the perpetrator will face severe consequences.
I just want Ireland to be better.
Is that really so wrong?
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