Strike 4 Repeal

Tomorrow, March 8th is International Women’s Day. I like to do something to mark this day each year, usually something small like going to see a female-led play or film. This year I’m doing something bigger. I’m taking the day off work to join Strike 4 Repeal on O’Connell Bridge to protest the 8th Amendment. I know that I’ve written about the 8th Amendment very recently, but I still have more to say and feel like I will continue to have more to say about until it is removed from the Constitution.

Over the weekend when the news was full of the Tuam babies scandal and the Citizen’s Assembly sat again to hear personal stories from people affected by the 8th Amendment and from advocacy groups and representative organisations. All of the presentations are available on the website, including the Q&A sections which I found really interesting because they allowed us to hear from the citizens in the room. They had a long weekend in the hotel in Malahide with two full days of presentations and I am grateful to those citizens who are giving up their time to take part in the Assembly. Even though it seems unnecessary because it’s blindingly obvious to me that we need to hold a referendum on the 8th Amendment. (Minister for Health Simon Harris agrees with me, as he told the World Congress Women’s Mental Health on Monday.) Maybe the Citizens’ Assembly is more suitable to the other, massive and difficult subjects they also have to discuss, such as the problems facing an ageing population and climate change. Those topics do not have the easy, obvious solution.

Legislating for abortion in Ireland will not be easy but we know that what we have now isn’t working. It doesn’t stop Irish women from having abortions, it just makes it more difficult, more expensive and more dangerous for them to do so. I want to see the repeal of the 8th Amendment and the introduction of safe, legal abortion in Ireland. I am pro-abortion. I am happy to live at a time when medicine and science have come up with a way to safely end unwanted pregnancies. There always is and always been a need for abortions by women experiencing unwanted, unexpected, impossible pregnancies. Safe, legal abortion means those women don’t have to throw themselves down the stairs or get into a hot bath with a bottle of gin and “hope for the best”. In this outdated scenario, the “best” is a miscarriage that doesn’t kill them.

But while I am unashamedly pro-abortion, I am also pro-choice. I don’t think abortion is the only solution for every unexpected, “inconvenient” pregnancy. Nobody should be forced to have an abortion. I support women who know that they cannot continue with a pregnancy and I also support women who choose to delay cancer treatment so they can continue their pregnancy, or women who know their child cannot survive outside the womb but want to carry that baby to term so they might get to hold him or her, even for a short time. I support women who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant and surprisingly delighted. I support women who are pregnant as a result of rape and want to have the baby because they see it as a way for something good to come out of a terrible experience. I think our government and our society should support and help those women. But we also have a duty of care to women who don’t want to have a baby. No women should be forced to remain pregnant when she doesn’t want to be. I agree with Amnesty and the United Nations that access to abortion is a human right. I am embarrassed by my country which does not allow it.

To me, abortion is a kindness. Women who have had abortions often describe feeling extremely grateful towards the medical professionals who helped them out, as Lindy’s West’s thank-you letter to an abortion doctor demonstrates. For Irish women, this gratitude is directed as those who looked after them when their own country turned their back. Abortion Support Network, who support women traveling from Ireland to the UK to access abortions are a magnificent organisation. It’s the most grassroots charity you could possibly support because the main thing they do is give money to women who need it. They also offer a confidential helpline, a lift to and from the clinic, sometimes a bed for the night. Such kindness and such generosity. I sometimes feel teary-eyed with gratitude when I think about how the Marie Stopes clinics in the UK offer discounted rates for Irish women, who have the extra cost of travel. I am grateful to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service who last year set up a helpline for Irish women who take abortion pills they got through the post and might need to ask someone what’s normal and to be expected, and what’s dangerous and requiring medical attention. This is important because going to the doctor is a dangerous thing to do in a country where taking these pills is illegal and could led to a 14 year prison sentence. You can see why they might need some non-judgmental medical help in what could be a life and death situation. And suddenly it feels like Ireland really isn’t all that far away from women throwing themselves down the stairs.

Abortion will not be the right choice for everyone but it’s a choice that everyone should have the right to make. It would be wonderful to live in a world where abortion wasn’t necessary, a world where every conception resulted in a healthy, happy child born to parents who had the emotional and financial capacity to love and care for them. A world where every child was wanted and cherished. But that’s not the world we live in. We live in a world with rape and domestic abuse, where contraception is never 100% reliable and where people make mistakes. We live in an imperfect, human world where abortion is necessary and should be free, safe and legal.

Making abortion legal and freely available does not increase the rate of abortions just as making abortion illegal does not stop people from getting abortions. There are better ways to do that. Improving sex education in schools and making contraception more available would probably help. So would building a society that values young women for more than just their sexuality; a society that offers more support to mothers, particularly single parents and parents of children with disabilities.

There are lots of improvements that could be made to Irish society. Repealing the 8th Amendments is one of these improvements. I’ll be on O’Connell Bridge at 12.30 tomorrow calling for it’s repeal.

A society should also be able to house it’s citizens, and the government should be doing more to end the housing crisis so that Irish children don’t have to grow up in hotels and everyone has access to somewhere safe and warm to sleep. In the meantime, to help the homeless this IWD, I will be donating period paraphernalia to the Homeless Period. They have top-off points around Dublin, in DIT student unions, Tropical Popical on South William Street and the Market Pharmacy in Smithfield.

 

 

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What to do when you’re feeling over-whelmed by the state of the world.

Image from a Buzzfeed article on 21 Perfect German Words We Need in English. Check it out, there are some beauties there.

There are so many things to worry about right now. So many things to care about and feel anxious about and powerless to correct.

For a start, in Ireland the number of people being made homeless is going up every week and the government don’t seem to be doing anything about it. There’s the shamefulness that is Direct Provision where the government is paying companies large amounts of money to keep people seeking refuge in intolerable conditions. Ibrahim Halawa will spending a fourth birthday in jail in Egypt as his trial was postponed for the 16th time and we are still forcing women to travel aboard for a basic medical procedure.

Further afield, there’s the uncertainty of Brexit to worry about as well as the hundreds of unaccompanied children that were recently moved out of the Jungle in Calais and sent who-knows-where. France is still under a state of emergency after two brutal terrorist attacks, refugees are drowning in the Mediterranean, bombs are raining down on civilians in Syria, millions who fled the war there are living in refugee camps and Israel cut off the water-supply to Palestine during Ramadan this year, just the latest in a long series on attacks on the Palestinians.

And that’s all before we start worrying about climate change or what will happen under the Trump presidency.

It’s hard. It’s hard to take it all in, to feel all that fury and sorrow. In the face of so much horror it’s easy to run out of feelings. Even when you feel like you want to help, how do you choose which of the heart-breaking issues to focus on? Sometimes it’s easier to throw up your hands up and do nothing, feel nothing and just try to have a good time because it’s becoming increasingly obviously that the whole world is going to shit. It’s a pretty bleak way of seeing the world and it’s hard to sustain because the horrors keep creeping in.

When the bleakness is threatening to overwhelm me, I take solace from this quote.

“Of course individuals can make a difference, but the fact is that evil has had the whip hand in this world since Cain. That doesn’t mean we should stop trying to be good, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves, either. Evil is not going to be vanquished. Our job is to resist it, and to plant the seeds of further resistance so that goodness never entirely vanishes from the universe.”

Chris Cleave, author of The Other Hand/Little Bee.

I like it because it lets me off the hook a little bit. Once I accept that I can’t fix everything, it’s easier to just concentrate on what I can do. I can’t knock evil off it’s perch, but I might be able to balance the scales a bit. It’s helps me feel less useless and more hopeful because it suggests that the little acts of resistance, of goodness, of kindness do make a difference.

Doing something is always better than doing nothing. It chases away the hopeless, useless feeling; at least for a little while. So what can we do? There’s the usual things – donate money, volunteer, get on the streets and protest, write letters to governments at home and aboard. Volunteer.ie have a database of volunteer opportunities. Giving blood is good if you’re short on time and money because it’s costs nothing and you can only do it once every three months.

But if you feel completely overwhelmed and really don’t know where to begin, or feel like you want to do more but don’t know where to start, I suggest getting a few friends together and start a “change the world” group. (Your first order of business may be to give it a better, catchier name.) It can be part support group, part action group. Meet up regularly, talk about the things that are upsetting you about the world and then decide what you’re going to do about it. You also get to hang out with your friends; have coffee and cake, or go for a few drinks. Changing the world has a bang of worthiness off it, like it’s not meant to be enjoyable. It puts people off. But it doesn’t have to be that way! Make sure your group is fun as well. You might decide to organise a big fundraiser, or buddy-up to volunteer together, or everyone might want to do their own thing, but they have the support of the group, and they have to report back so there’s accountability.

This idea comes partly from Malcolm Gladwell’s essay Small Change, about the importance of strong-ties between people involved in social activism, but mostly it’s because I think communities are important. The way we live our lives now makes it difficult to be part of a community so we have to make our own. Real-life social interactions are important, sitting in a room together talking about everything and nothing is good for the soul. But it can be hard to organise time with friends and we end up relying too much on social media instead. Organising a regular meeting means you will see your friends more often. People already do this with book clubs or dining clubs, why not a change the world club? I also believe in collaboration, often the ideas that you come up with in a group are better than the ones you come up with on your own. In a group it’s easier to stay hopeful and not let yourself or others fall into despondency. Hope is important if you want to change the world.

“Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal… To hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.”

Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark (More glorious quotes here)

And because I love Charlie Brooker, here he is singing with the Blockheads. This video also lets you feel nostalgic for the things we were fearful of in 2014.

Them the breaks

[This is long and a little bit rant-y and I still didn’t include half the things that have flitted across my brain over the past week. If you’re short of time, skip to the end where I have included a few suggestions towards action. Also, I am aware that it’s not just women who are discriminated against in the arts, and in the world at large. Theatre is dominated by middle-class, white, able-bodied men. I’m writing about discrimination against women because that’s what I know, and because I want to add to the conversation that’s happening and keep up the momentum that has built over the last week. I expect/hope that getting more women in positions of power will help to open the doors to all, particularly because women have experience being the Other and the Outsider.]
Fiach Mac Conghail ‏@fmacconghail Also, sometimes plays and ideas that we have commissioned by and about women just don't work out. That has happened. Them the breaks.

Because I’m still on my holidays, I haven’t been spending as much time in front of my computer as I usually do. I saw the reactions to the Abbey’s Waking The Nation announcements on Twitter before I read anything from the Abbey. And maybe because I’m in holiday mode (ie had a few glasses of wine), I didn’t pay much attention to it. There’s nothing new about women being ignored by the big arts institutions. The Abbey isn’t even the worst of them – at least they included a few women. You have to go a long way back to find the last time the Gate staged a play written by a women. But then the discussion didn’t go away. There were more comments on Twitter and conversations on Facebook. I realised I needed to take a closer at this before weighing in with an opinion.

I went to the Abbey’s website and looked at the programme and I read the press release and then I got angry. The more I read, the angrier I got. The programme is described as “an exciting roll-call of new Irish voices alongside major revivals of the some of the great plays from the Abbey Theatre repertoire”, but doesn’t include a revival of a great play by a woman and those new Irish voices are almost all masculine. In 2015, that is a disgrace. I am particularly disappointed that all the revivals are by men. This suggests that nothing written by a woman in the last 110 years was deemed worthy of inclusion. Then Fiach’s comments on Twitter just added insult to injury. He said he programmed the things that spoke to him, and they just happened to be all written by men. That’s just not good enough. When you are the Artistic Director of the National Theatre with €8 million of taxpayers money to spend, you should feel obliged to include the voice of half the population, even if it isn’t to your personal taste.

Pointing out sexism is a bit of a hobby of mine. In my experience when you tell people they are being sexist they get defensive. The Abbey was no different. While defending this bit of blatant sexism, a lot of the blame was thrown back at women – there was the suggestion that if they were good enough, they would have been included; that the plays weren’t ready and it would be unfair to the playwright to stage them; that there were just more good male playwrights to choose from. The other thing that surprised sexist-deniers do is point out all the things that they have done for women. In Fiach’s tweets he listed the plays by women that have been programmed since 2008 (all nine of them, three by Marina Carr) and the female to male ratio of the New Playwrights Programme (13 out of the 24 writers were women). It’s always the same – sexists will blame women or deny the sexism is happening. Nobody has ever turned around to me and said “oh, you’re right! I hadn’t noticed. How did we let that happen?”

Because I don’t think it was done on purpose. I don’t think Fiach is intentionally or maliciously keeping women off the Abbey stage but I do wonder if he didn’t notice the lack of female voices or just didn’t think it was important. If I was feeling generous I might say that it’s understandable not to see this lack of women as something unusual or unacceptable. For a long time, leaving women’s voices out of public discourse was the norm. We live in a patriarchal society and those attitudes are ingrained at every level and in every aspect of our society. Patriarchal attitudes are insidious, they are so deep in our brains that we are mostly unaware of them. That’s why we have work against those unconscious attitudes and biases.

This means that, if you think there are no suitable plays by females writers that fit into the big centenary programme at the National Theatre – try harder! Find the one you dislike least or spend more time discovering and working with female writers until you find one you do like – don’t just shrug your shoulders and say “Them the breaks”. That’s not good enough. You need to do more. Some might say that’s not fair – why should they spend more time working with women or cultivating female talent? If it’s all about equality, then shouldn’t the women be treated exactly the same as the men? But the cards have been stacked against women for centuries and because of those insidious patriarchal attitudes women still aren’t regarded the same as men. We need to take the time and effort to balance the scales. And now is the time to do it.

Quotas

The mere mention of quotas tends to makes people uncomfortable. I understand that, I used to feel the same way. But as I saw how how slowly things are changing – sometimes the change is so slow if feels like we are going backwards -I changed by mind. I’m impatient; I would like to see a more equal society within my lifetime and I think quotas are necessary to make that happen. Change is uncomfortable, so the fact that quotas provoke that response means they must be a good thing.

People are against quotas because they are afraid they will allow unworthy women to get things that should have gone to more deserving men. My instinctive response to that is; I don’t care! Again, it’s about balancing the scales. If quotas move us towards gender equality, then the risk of hiring a few under-qualified women is one I’m willing to take.

I also think that the chance of that happening is really small. There are loads of very talented, very capable women out there who are not getting the breaks they deserve because our patricachical society favours men and has done for centuries. There are loads of statistics that prove that this bias against women exists. If you believe that there are less women in politics or running companies or making work for the Abbey stage because they are just not good enough, you are dismissing a long history of sexism and you need to read up on the subject. Or you know, just believe women when they talk about their lived experience of sexism. The #WakingTheFeminists tag on Twitter is a good place to start. And if you think any woman who gets a place at the top table after the introduction of quotas is not going to work incredibly hard to prove that she belongs there, you obviously don’t know that many women.

In order to see make real change in gender equality in the arts, I believe we need quotas and that they should be linked to funding. Either the programme is 50% female, or you don’t get the money. That would speed up the rate of chance! As a kindness to those who can’t cope with the word quotas, we can refer to them as targets instead. This is what the film funders did in Sweden. When Anna Serner became CEO of the Swedish Film Institute in late 2011, she announced that by the end of 2015 Sweden would seek to have equal gender funding in all productions – the first country in the world to do so. At the time of this announcement, 26% of funding went to female directors. That was almost doubled and they reached their target ahead of schedule in a mere two and a half years. Targets work and it would be wonderful to see that sort of commitment from the Arts Council of Ireland. That’s my big pipe-dream plan for change. Here are a few other smaller suggestions.

Actions towards change

1. Go and see work made be women.
I’ve already talked about #FairPlayForWomen here. There’s also a Facebook group and a calender of events with lots of suggested shows.

2. Open Space meeting.
I love the conversations and sharing of personal stories that’s been happening on Facebook and Twitter over the last week. I’ve felt very connected and engaged with the Irish theatre community over the last week. So many voices saying the same thing makes it clear that this is not a small issue and it’s great that those voices have been amplified by Lian Bell. (This article is a good summing up of things that have been said already.)

Now we need to meet in the real world and start making plans. (No doubt this is already in the pipeline.) I think we should do this in an Open Space meeting on the theme of gender equality, something similar to the Devoted & Disgruntled meetings that happen in London each January. Theatre Forum have also hosted Open Space events around the country, though generally without a theme. I’ve been to a couple and I think the form would really suit this discussion. The agenda is set by those in the room, but everything is recorded for those who can’t attend. Actions are agreed on for each topic and a person is chosen to get the ball rolling, and keep it rolling.

3. Riot at the Abbey.
In her piece for the Irish Times, Una Mullally suggested it’s time for another riot at the Abbey. I’m not sure how I’d feel about walking out of or disrupting a theatre performance. It would feel disrespectful to the actors and other artists, as well as the audience. Am I too timid for this revolution? I suggest a picket line outside the theatre on opening night instead.

4. Theatre of Change Symposium
In response to Una Mullally on Twitter, Fiach said that women will be represented in the Theatre of Change Symposium in January. I really enjoyed the Symposiums over the last couple of years and I’m looking forward to the next one. But anyone included in that programme will get at most 90 minutes to speak to a fairly niche audience. (It’s more likely to be a 20 minute presentation, followed by a Q&A.) It’s not the same as a 4-6 week run on the Abbey stage. I think Gender Equality needs to be a topic included in the symposium. At this stage, it feels like the least the Abbey could do.

In the meantime, we will keep shouting about it. We will remind everyone that this is not acceptable behaviour. It’s time to stop feeling unsurprised and start feeling outraged. We have to keep talking until we are listened to. Hopefully nobody will have to throw themselves in front of a horse this time before that to happens.