A Bring Back Our Girls Reading List

Ifemelu wanted, suddenly and desperately, to be from the country of people who gave and not those who received, to be one of those who had and could therefore bask in the grace of having given, to be among those who could afford copious pity and empathy.

–          Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

(Note: see comments for an insightful critique of the tweet above)

In the evolution of mass social media campaigns, particularly those relevant to Africa, the point inevitably comes when Twitter is divided into those fervently hashtagging for justice and those criticising the shallow, callous, white privileged, neo-colonial nature of the campaign.

When it comes to the #BringBackOurGirls movement, I am squarely in the latter camp. But the discussion won’t be meaningfully forwarded by the opinions of another indignant white woman, so instead of writing myself I’ve compiled the analysis and opinions of some people who are far better-placed than me to illustrate the true dynamics at play here.

If you have additional reading suggestions, please pass them on and I’ll add them to the list.

From Africa is a Country, 4 May:

I reiterate, I am glad that the world is finally taking notice of the Chibok girls. On the other hand, I do grow nervous when overly sensationalized coverage of children in African conflicts in the West go the way of #kony2012. While the language we use to talk about these girls must do the utmost the horror of their plight, but that in our eagerness to “say something” we do not marginalize them further.

–          Karen Attiah, #BringBackOurGirls: What took the world so long?

From Foreign Affairs, 5 May:

Boko Haram is sneering at a world that has shown time and again that girls are expendable and easily weaponized. It is targeting society’s most defenseless and fetishized. This act in essence is not dissimilar to how the Syrian government has used women as targets of punishment in that war, allegedly perpetrating rape on women and girls in front of their husbands or sending videotapes of rape to families as a means of humiliating them. Both are showing they can take what “belongs” to other men and use them as they please.

–          Lauren Wolfe, director of Women Under Siege, Why women are the “spoils of war” in Nigeria and around the world — and nobody cares.

From Foreign Affairs, September 2011:

Instead of associating itself with Abuja’s heavy-handed military response, the Obama administration should urge Jonathan to address what are essentially political problems: poverty and the corruption-driven alienation felt by the population of northern Nigeria, factors that contribute to Boko Haram’s popular support. . . . Even if Boko Haram expand its operations and establish significant contacts with international terrorist organizations, the Obama administration should not let counterterrorism considerations trump these public diplomacy strategies. Too heavy a hand would risk alienating Nigeria’s 75 million Muslims, who already have legitimate grievances in the north. This, in turn, could undermine the very unity of Nigeria — something neither Washington nor Abuja can afford.

–          John Campbell, To Battle Nigeria’s Boko Haram, Put Down Your Guns

Instead, Obama has highlighted this as an opportunity “to mobilise the entire international community to finally do something against this horrendous organisation that’s perpetrated such a terrible crime.” Worth remembering that the U.S. already has a drone base in Niger, established a little over a year ago.

From The Scoop, May 4:

We are experiencing what is, apart from the Biafran war, the most violent period in our nation’s existence. Like many Nigerians, I am distressed about the students murdered in their school, about the people whose bodies were spattered in Nyanya, about the girls abducted in Chibok. I am furious that politicians are politicizing what should be a collective Nigerian mourning, a shared Nigerian sadness. And I find our president’s actions and non-actions unbelievably surreal. I do not want a president who, weeks after girls are abducted from a school and days after brave Nigerians have taken to the streets to protest the abductions, merely announces a fact-finding committee to find the girls.

–          Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The President I Want

From The Atlantic, March 2012 (soon after the release of Kony 2012):

There is an internal ethical urge that demands that each of us serve justice as much as he or she can. But beyond the immediate attention that he rightly pays hungry mouths, child soldiers, or raped civilians, there are more complex and more widespread problems. There are serious problems of governance, of infrastructure, of democracy, and of law and order. These problems are neither simple in themselves nor are they reducible to slogans. Such problems are both intricate and intensely local.

–          Teju Cole, The White-Saviour Industrial Complex

As privileged observers, we must acknowledge that this is not about us, by which I mean the privileged whites of the West. That no matter how much pain, outrage or need to act this situation inspires in us, we are bystanders. This is about hundreds of young women somewhere in West Africa and, to return to Teju Cole:

They are not thinking of Twitter, where the captivity is the cause of the day, nor of the campaigns on the streets of Lagos for a more competent and less callous government, nor of the rallies in front of Nigeria’s embassies worldwide, nor of the suddenly ramped-up coverage by international media, nor of how this war will engulf even those who are only just beginning to hear about it, nor of those who, free for now, will someday become captives.

They are perhaps thinking only that night is falling again, and that the men will come to each of them again, an unending horror.

–          Teju Cole, Captivity


The Experience of Women in Competitive Debating

I wrote a paper with Muireann O’ Dwyer and Clara Spera for the Monash Debate Review. You can read it here.

And here is a gratuitous photo of me, a woman, speaking in a debate.

Irish Times Niamh Ni Mhaoileoin Debating

Transphobia Wins Tropfest

As a card-carrying member of the PC Police, I’m bemused and, frankly, disgusted by the film that has won Tropfest (apparently the world’s largest short film festival). If you take a moment to watch it, you’ll notice that ‘Bamboozled’ is blatantly transphobic and homophobic. As though that wasn’t enough, its punchline involves broadcasting the victim of non-consensual sex on live TV.

Basically, a guy called Peter meets his ex-girlfriend who has transitioned and is now a man called Harry. He’s initially a bit bemused, but they go drinking together, have a romantic evening with lots of booze and kebabs, and end up in bed. So far so humourless, stereotyped and generic. But THEN, when they wake up in the morning, Harry reveals that he’s not actually trans at all and a camera crew bursts into the room with the actual ex, still definitely a woman, and they all yell and laugh at Peter, pull off the sheets and film him naked. It turns out Harry has been the victim of a Candid Camera-type show and his vengeful ex-girlfriend has orchestrated the whole thing. It’s funny, see. Do you get it? It’s funny. You know, like Helen says:


Yes, because a man sleeping with another man is the worst thing that could ever happen.

The director, Matt Hardie, has refused to acknowledge that his film is offensive and plays on intensely dangerous stereotyping, explaining that “if we’re always worried about who we’re offending, we’re never going to make anything decent… ” You know what, Matt? You haven’t made anything decent. This film has no comedic value. The “you’ve been bamboozled” trope is incredibly tired and wasn’t really that funny to begin with. All you’ve done is add a twist that plays on incredibly harmful perceptions of trans and gay people. Incidentally, the Tropfest judges should also have to answer for this.

What you’re telling us, Matt, is that the LGBT community is a joke, a punchline, to be used at will by cheap filmmakers like you. Your film is a big in-joke for all the cis, heterosexual homophobes and transphobes out there who get to laugh together at how terrible it would be to have sex with people of the same gender and, by extension, to mock those who do. If there’s an extra layer of comedic subtlety that I’m missing, please do let me know.

If you want to produce something hilarious and thought-provoking exploring the reality of LGBT experience, I look forward to it. For now, your jokes are bad, they’re harmful, and I’m offended by them. 

Pope washes lady feet. Causes alarm.

Pope washes lady feet. Causes alarm.

This article was originally published in the very wonderful Siren. Illustration by Mice Hell

“Pope alarms traditionalists by washing women’s feet”

I laughed when I read this headline and tweeted “Have they nothing better to be alarmed about?.” I often try to copy the cool responses of real atheists to daft religious prejudice. If I was indifferent to the Catholic Church then I wouldn’t be hurt by it. Sadly, even though I’m not a Catholic anymore, I’m not not a Catholic either.

I find the foot-washing idea bizarre. While walking the Camino de Santiago I stayed in a hostel where every evening a local man washed the feet of the pilgrims. I  was so uncomfortable that I put both my feet in the basin when it was meant to be just one, the washer violently grabbed the offending foot and pulled it back out of the bowl, everyone else laughed and I got (very unfairly) scolded for not respecting the ritual.

All the same, the symbol of the washing of feet is powerful – recalling how Christ washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper, showing that he came to serve and not to be served. What the Catholic Church tells us is that  Jesus (yes, friend to sex workers – that Jesus) came not to be served by men, but to serve men.

This Holy Thursday, the ceremony took place in a juvenile detention centre on the outskirts of Rome, where the Pope washed and kissed the feet of twelve young offenders, including Muslims and two women. As the Papa himself put it:

“This is what Jesus teaches us. This is what I do and I do it with my heart. I do this with my heart because it is my duty. As a priest and bishop I must be at your service.”

And the response of Church traditionalists is to express outrage and horror that the Pope has shown himself to be at the service of women. Washing the feet of priests, homeless men or male criminals displays humility and compassion. But washing the feet of any woman in the world sets a worrying precedent. It suggests that the world’s most powerful religious and moral leader might believe that women are equally deserving of Christian love and must be served equally by his Church.

The justification for only allowing men to participate in the ritual is the same as the justification for disallowing female ordination; only men were apostles and only the apostles had their feet washed at the last supper. Other true things: all the apostles were Jewish, all the apostles were middle-eastern, most of them were fishermen and probably had beards.

The Church doesn’t preclude beardless men from having their feet washed, yet it does women. Why? Because it’s an institution riven with the most appalling structural misogyny imaginable and isn’t even bothered coming up with non-ridiculous excuses for it.

A conservative Catholic commentator, Chris Gillibrand, wrote on his blog that “we will see if it is a particular case as Lombardi [Vatican spokesperson] suggests…one can only be concerned that he could be prepared to ordain women.”

I think the traditionalists are blowing this out of proportion. Francis, as bishop and cardinal, has explicitly stated his opposition to female ordination and he remains extremely conservative, despite his unusual eschewing of luxury and conspicuous status indicators. Indeed, his spokesperson has come out saying that they don’t want a theological debate about this issue, that this ceremony was “a specific situation in which excluding the girls would have been inopportune in light of the simple aim of communicating a message of love to all.” Ambivalent, at best.

However, despite all of its failings the Church has the loyalty of hundreds of millions of women and through its teaching influences the lives, health and wellbeing of those women. So, for their sake, I’m with the conservative Catholic commentators on this. As a new Church year begins, one can only hope that the Pope could be prepared to ordain women.

Nobody likes gender quotas

This piece was originally published in Siren. It’s somewhat out of date, but with the debate about gender quotas swirling in Ireland again I thought I’d give it another run out. 

Women are grossly disadvantaged in Irish politics, both in the houses of government and on ballot
papers. Fact. Although we can observe a surge in the strength and popularity of grassroots feminism,
as evidenced by the rise of activist and lobbying groups and publications, the change has not extended
to the Houses of Government. 15% of public representatives are female and the absence of progress on
certain issues reflects that shortfall. A social change has occured, but a political change has not.

Mary O' Rourke is one of the most prominent anti-quotas voices in Ireland. A few years ago, in a debate on the issue, I asked her a question about the entrenched sexism in the constitution. Her response: "The constitution?? Sure, no one heeds that!"

Mary O’ Rourke is one of the most prominent anti-quotas voices in Ireland. A few years ago, in a debate on the issue, I asked her a question about the entrenched sexism in the constitution. Her response: “The constitution?? Sure, no one heeds that!”

Finally, with the Labour-backed quotas legislation, this issue is getting some attention in the Oireachtas.
However, the proposal for a gender quota of 30% has been received critically by both men and women.
Some are, to put in bluntly, disgusting sexists. However, many are on the side of the angels; they agree
with the end but have doubts about the means. They believe that introducing a quota demeans the
achievement of women who succeed to political office. Furthermore, they hold the reasonable view
that representation shouldn’t be dependent on sameness. Women shouldn’t only represent women, men
shouldn’t only represent men, gays shouldn’t only represent gays, black people shouldn’t only represent
black people.

This method of representation, by someone like yourself, is known as “descriptive representation” and is
key to the positive discrimination debate. Is it a good thing? All other things being equal, probably not. In
a gender, race, sexuality, age, and class blind world we would vote purely based on policy, be represented
by those who held our views and trust in their ability to understand our experience. We’re all opposed to
quotas on a universal level, in that we wish they were redundant.

However, equality has not been achieved, and we shouldn’t let our discussion of representation be
derailed by an unrealistic vision of a gender-blind world.Women do not have the same opportunities as
men in Irish politics. They are less likely to get nominated, they are less likely to get elected, they are
less likely to rise to high ministries once they are elected. Those are demeaning and offensive truths, but
they are truths nonetheless. While it wounds my pride as a woman to acknowledge them, my pride is
less important than meaningful change in our political system and so, like many feminists, I grudgingly
support the quotas legislation.

How significant is the change to the political system? Voting for women is not just symbolic gestures
and quotas do far more than enhance opportunity for a small proportion of women. Greater female
representation will transform the nature of our political system. The overwhelming masculine bias
facilitates group-think, it perpetuates old-boy politics, it undermines progress on issues which primarily
affect women and it harms the body politic overall.

This magazine will be published on the twenty-year anniversary of the infamous X-Case. Twenty years
on, we are still waiting for legislation on the court’s ruling that a threat of suicide is justification for
abortion. This is an affront to the woman we know only as X who was attacked by the Irish state in
1992, and continues to be betrayed by the same state. It’s an affront to all of us. Whatever our stances
on abortion, we must agree that an issue of such vast moral and social importance deserves discussion.
Furthermore, when our courts establish something as a right, in a functioning state the legislature would

accept the accruing responsibilty. Instead, for twenty years we have seen overwhelming legislative apathy
and reliance on Irish solutions to Irish problems. The cost to twenty years worth of vulnerable women is

It’s also been twenty years since legislation was introduced on human trafficking and prostitution.
The current legislation is intended to protect the plain people of Ireland from the evils of iniquity, so
it prohibits the solicitation or sale of sex outdoors. Of course, in 1992 there was no popular use of the
internet. In twenty years we have seen a vast growth in the sex industry. Women are trafficked, coerced
into prostitution and horrifically abused. They are kept in apartments while their bodies are sold online. In
the unlikely event of a garda raid, the women are arrested while the buyers are sent quietly on their way.
New legislation is vital, as has been highlighted by the Turn off the Red Light movement. Why hasn’t it
been introduced? Once again, apathy, ignorance and the absence of strong female voices.

Despite the horrifying proportion of women affected by sexual assault, we have yet to introduce
meaningful and effective processes to reduce its occurrence – providing better sexual education to young
men, reducing the stigma surrounding rape so that victims can come forward and, crucially, facilitating
greater prosecution and conviction rates in the courts. In the DPP’s annual report this year it was found
that in the vast majority of rape allegations brought forward, a decision was made not to prosecute. This
systemic failing essentially grants impunity to rapists, and negates the ability of the law to deter sexual
assault. Instead, women pay a tax to try to avoid rape. We shouldn’t wear short skirts, we shouldn’t drink
too much, we shouldn’t walk alone at night. These restrictions of freedom are acts of oppression against
the female population, and it’s time that legislators recognised them as such.

Descriptive representation is important because these are lived experiences. Nominal equality has, more
or less, been achieved in the West. The inequality that persists is insidious, it’s invisible unless you look
closely, and you can only fully know it when you live with it day in day out, and are worn down by it
over time. The majority of the Dáil is white, male and middle-class and can’t reasonably be expected to
look outside that bracket without a diversity of voices and experiences to promote more sensitive and
innovative thought.

Voting for women puts people in the Dáil who know the experience of pregnancy, who know the fear
that comes with walking alone at night, who have experienced the petty exclusions – not being invited
for pints or a golf game – and the severe exclusions – not having their family lives facilitated by their
employers and not being paid as much as their male counterparts. If you’ve experienced these things it’s
very difficult to shut them out of your consciousness, or to allow discussion of those issues to be shut out
of the political system. A critical mass of female voices will change our political culture.

However, we’re currently faced with the infuriating dilemma of voting for women or policy. In the
U.S., a liberal woman can’t reasonably be expected to vote for the virulent intolerance of a Bachmann
or Palin just because they’re women. Closer to home, we’re lucky to get more than one woman on
a constituency’s ballot paper and so many Irish women must choose between candidates who don’t
represent their ideals and ones who don’t understand their experience, or at least haven’t done anything to
suggest that they do.

Ultimately, policy has to decide our votes, identity politics can’t overwhelm general representation. I
can’t bring myself to give first preference to a right-wing, homophobic, non-secular woman. Quotas
will give women the option of voting for both the party they want and for a woman, which is a dramatic
increase in democratic choice.

There is a collective responsibility for change through quotas, but also an individual responsibility to
support female candidates as legitimate, whatever their political beliefs. To resist our cruel inclination to
undermine female candidates not through reasonable debate, but through attacks on their hair, clothes,
and voices. Dana and Mary Davis weren’t less intelligent than all the other presidential candidates,
they were just treated like they were. When women and men consistently slur and undervalue female
candidates, when we allow female candidates to consistently hover around the bottom of polls we give
parties an incentive to maintain their patriarchal nomination practices.

The voting method I try to uphold is that when their policies are of equal value, I prioritise female
candidates over male. Essentially, a Labour woman comes ahead of a Labour man, a Fine Gael woman
comes ahead of a Fianna Fail man, Dana comes ahead of Gay Mitchell.

One voter giving a slightly higher preference won’t change the course of a national election. But each
additional vote, each additional transfer is a statement of belief in female candidates. When we back the
woman rather than the winner it strikes at the mockery, the insults and the dismissal with which female
candidates are so often met. And maybe that will change something.

To crack the glass ceiling you don’t need a sharp stick, you need a sharp suit

Yesterday I had drinks and dinner with a group of remarkable feminists. Came away feeling really energised, with plans for a radical feminist book club and a new world order.

Minutes later I saw this add in Charing Cross tube station.

Sharp suitText:

To crack the glass ceiling you don’t need a sharp stick , you need a sharp suit

But can the right threads really help you stitch up the competition? Without a doubt. Looking confident, successful and ahead of the game – while every inch a woman – really is half the battle. And it’s the half where Wardrobe can help. 

Wardrobe is a time saving one stop store where you’ll find nothing but the cream of Italian designer suits, dresses, coats, knitwear, shoes, bags, belts and jewellery. 

Everything in Wardrobe is hand-picked by founder Susie Faux on trips to the dozen Italian houses that have earned her respect. 

You’ll find the edgy chic pieces Wardrobe is famous for in fabrics such as you have never laid hands on before. 

You’ll find a degree of tailoring excellence rarely found in women’s clothes. You’ll find outfits not only the right size (8-18) but the right proportions. Plus, if needed, the attention of two in-house tailors to go the extra centimetre.

So take a long look in the mirror and ask yourself: could the wrong packaging be limiting your potential?

Even a reluctant ‘maybe’ suggests it’s time to browse in Wardrobe.

While there, why not engage one of Wardrobe’s warm and perceptive stylists in conversation?

Once she has a feel for your likes, dislikes and lifestyle needs, she’ll short-cut you to several real possibilities.

In no time at all you’ll be in a fitting room with an armful of pieces that will change not only how other people see you, but how you see yourself.

Observing a client go through this process for the first time is like watching the sun come out. And the glass ceiling dissolves.  

You know what? I think I will drop into Wardrobe and speak to one of their warm and perceptive stylists. I’ll tell her the following:

My likes: court shoes, distinctive colours, well-cut blazers .

My dislikes: synthetic materials, blocky shoulders, navy.

My lifestyle needs: to be treated as equal to men, socially and economically,  to be judged on my work and not on my clothing or appearance, to be paid as much as a men for the same work as men, to have the same opportunity for promotion as men even if I have the temerity to have children, to go to work confident that I won’t be subjected to sexism or sexual harassment, to have female role models in any industry in which I work, to maintain my self-esteem in a society that consistently tries to take it from me by telling me that my body, my “wrong packaging” is limiting my potential. A society fuelled by corporate greed which tells me that I should take a long hard look at myself in the mirror, recognise my inadequacy and then spend hundreds of pounds trying to buy my way back to a level playing field. What silly women we’ve been, spending all these year’s campaigning for the vote and equal pay and political representation and places in boardrooms. All along we’ve been blind to the fact that the glass ceiling is SOLUBLE. And all it takes is the cream of Italian design.

Now, where’s my armful of magic suits?