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

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.

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?

Don’t Hang the Rapist

A Case Against the Death Penalty for the Perpetrators of the Delhi Gang Rape

The first news story I read this year was about the death of a young Indian woman, whose ashes were being scattered over the Ganges. Two weeks earlier she was imprisoned on a bus, repeatedly raped by six men, brutally beaten and then dumped naked on the side of the road. Though reports suggest there was some hope for her survival, in the end the injuries to her brain and intestines (inflicted when she was violated with a metal bar) were too great to be endured.

Death Penalty Delhi Gang Rape ProtestsI’m sure most people already know the details of that story, but I feel it’s important to dwell on them, horrific as they are. It’s important, as I discussed a few months ago, to recognise the real horrors behind our protective language, to know what rape, gang rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment really mean. The horror of this case prompted the encouraging protests across India, calling for fast-track courts for sexual crimes, harsher and more consistent punishments for sex offenders and better police services for victims of rape or sexual assault. India, despite being the world’s largest democracy and in the top five world economies, is a terrible place to be a woman.

However, it’s intensely worrying to see that public outrage over the brutality of the attack has also prompted many, including the police and the victims father, to call for the six perpetrators (though one may be exempt due to his age) to be hanged.

The death penalty is wrong, I’ve discussed my reasons for believing that before (read them here). However, in cases of rape, the death penalty is also ineffective and perhaps counterproductive. A lawyer who participated in recent protests said the protest’s goal was for “the laws to be amended in such a stringent way that before a person even thinks of touching a girl, he should feel chills down his spine.”

Killing these six men does not achieve that. Men don’t rape because they think they’ll only be mildly punished, they rape because the overriding likelihood is that they won’t be punished at all. In India, where sexual purity is exalted, women are blamed for their own assault, and girls are coerced into marriages with rapists to protect their honour, a woman faces unthinkable barriers to reporting crime and seeking justice. The society is intensely patriarchal and that’s all the protection that most men need. Even if these six men are executed, across India and across the world husbands will continue to rape their wives, women will still be raped by family members and neighbours and politicians, but their cases won’t be in the headlines and the public won’t bay for blood and their lives will again be silently torn apart. As Samar Halamkar put it in a thought-provoking article:

What we do not speak of is the issue that is at the crux of our dysfunction — the Indian family’s moral decline. Deep hypocrisies lie under this family’s mask; terrible secrets hide behind its culture of religiosity and community spirit. Self-loathing, shame and the fear of being blamed and forever stigmatised prevent millions of girls from speaking out against the sexual abuse they face from predators among friends and family. This is India’s real war against women, its dark, silent night, which perpetuates private atrocities and primes men for their public outrages.

What’s more, if these men are hanged, and it seems quite a likely outcome, certain elements of the society will be sated. hang the rapist delhi gang rapeThe ones who want blood, who want primitive, vengeful justice, who want their women’s honour to be defended, will be able to rest easier. But the women won’t. Across the world we see that violent vigilantism towards sex offenders is a common public response, but it doesn’t actually stop sex offenders and it does not provide solace to victims.

Trying to stem the tide of sexual assault  requires steady systemic change across society. It requires adequate, consistent, respectful justice, not a single smash of the iron fist. It requires education, to instill respect for women and understanding of sexual norms and practices among young men and young women. It requires personal, educational and economic empowerment of women and girls so that they are not trapped in situations of dependency on known rapists, so that they can step out of the repressive practices of traditionalist communities and so they can report and speak out about being survivors. It requires sensitive, thorough police investigations into all sexual crimes and provision of carefully tailored physical and emotional care for the victims of trauma.

The protesters have, of course, been calling for many of this measures but I worry that the dramatic call for a lynching will override those more reasonable demands. The perpetrators will be executed and too many people will be content that the ultimate justice has been delivered and close their eyes once again to the epidemic of gender-based violence in India.

Language We Use, Prejudice We Practice

I read a terrific article on Women Under Siege this morning, on the appallingly high levels of sexual crime in Egypt, which are predominantly reported as sexual harassment or street harassment, but should be described as sexual assault or rape. Is the distinction that important?

“Well, yes, actually”, Bates argues.  “It matters because there are such clear links between the language we use and the prejudice we practice.” 

This has been a big issue for me lately. So many of the phrases we thoughtlessly use are deeply patriarchal. I use many of them myself. There are more of these kinds of sexist linguistic ticks than any of us could list or explain, but I’m going to discuss three glaring and particularly bothersome examples here. If there are others that particularly bother you please feel free to discuss them in the comments.

1. Having the balls: 

See also: Grow a pair, grow some balls, ballsy.

People use this phrase all the time. Congratulating Andy Murray for having the balls to win a tennis match, criticising Nick Clegg for lacking the balls to take strong political stances. Horrendously enough, I was recently asked if I’d ever have the balls to commit suicide. The world and its mother is mocking Naomi Wolf this week for bigging up the vagina and its emotional and spiritual significance. But none of us really seem to question that in our language and so in our culture strength, nerve, daring and power depend on having testicles?

There’s no evidence of the veracity of the following Betty White quote, but I’m going to use it anyway. And by the way, I will be reviewing ‘Vagina: A New Biography’ in the next few days.

2. Man up:

See also: Don’t be such a girl, be a man.

I have used this phrase far too much, for far too long. I liked to believe I was using it ironically, but what does that even mean? I used the phrase to tell people that they should be less feminine, less emotional, less childish. More like men. Those tough folk who don’t feel pain. The strong half of humanity.

This one feeds into a social narrative that’s hugely harmful to men and women alike. In Michelle Obama’s DNC speech (which I loved overall) she told a clearly heartfelt story of her father, who struggled through MS to provide a better life for his children than he’d had for himself. Why?

You see, for my Dad, that’s what it meant to be a man.

Not a good parent, not a good American, not even a good man. That’s what it mean to be a man.  Moments later she told an equivalent story about Barack Obama’s grandmother and the adversity she faced, in the form of systemic sexism:

Barack’s grandmother started out as a secretary at a community bank…and she moved quickly up the ranks…but like so many women, she hit a glass ceiling. And for years, men no more qualified than she was – men she had actually trained – were promoted up the ladder ahead of her, earning more and more money while Barack’s family continued to scrape by.

It reminded me of a great story I heard from a friend. Her parents got married in the late sixties (after her Dad came back from Vietnam) and quickly became very comfortable financially. Why? Because her mother earned more than her father, so when they got married his employer significantly boosted his salary to ensure that he was the primary breadwinner in his family.  They recognised that the attitude was wrong, but took the money anyway and as an impoverished young person I can’t blame them. But he got that extra money ahead of someone else, someone like Barack Obama’s grandmother.

Michelle Obama is not sexist. And I’m sure that her speech was exhaustively tested and they factored in that a few feminist bloggers somewhere would take issue with the use of the word man and decided it was worth the hit. But I think it’s really important to recognise that the “being a man” rhetoric reinforces the glass ceiling. Men got promoted above Obama’s grandmother because of what it meant to be a man, because they had to be providers and head households so they needed to be paid more.

It takes a huge amount to actually dissemble that particular prejudice, largely because so many people still believe in the manly ideal. However, I can stop casually using a phrase that encourages it.

3. Suck it:

See also: Suck on that, suck  my balls, suck my dick.

I cannot count the number of times that these phrases have left me close to tears. They are horrific. At best, they make it degrading and a sign of weakness to perform oral sex on a man, which is outrageously sexist and homophobic. At worst, and far more often, they are sexually violent expressions used in angry, threatening contexts. This phrase is used so frequently that I’m sure people will want to tell me to calm down and not make such a big deal of it (or they would if those kind of people read my blog!) In fact, I’ve spent the last few days delighting over Tina Fey’s wonderful memoir Bossypants and she uses the phrase twice in the book. I also heard it used in the final of an all-female, very feminist-orientated debating competition and seemed to be the only person who responded negatively. What that suggests is that we have been frighteningly desensitized to the use of these absolutely horrific expressions.

Let’s look at why they’re so horrific. Someone does something to offend you. You angrily suggest that a fitting punishment for them would be to suck your penis (whether or not you have one) because that would be a demeaning and painful thing for them to have to do. That’s an invocation of sexual assault as deserved punishment. That’s a frightening manifestation of rape culture.

In a previous post about language I quoted Iris Murdoch’s Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals and the quote is so perfect that I’m going to use it again.

“…the limits of my language which are the limits of my world fade away on every side into areas of fighting for concepts, for understanding, for expression, for control, of which the search for the mot juste may serve as an image. Everyone, every moral being, that is every human being is involved in this fight, it is not reserved for philosophers, artists and scientists. Language must not be separated from the individual consciousness and treated as (for the many) a handy, impersonal network and (for the few) an adventure playground. Language, consciousness and world are bound together, the (essential) aspiration of language to truth is an aspect of consciousness as a work of evaluation.”

“There are such clear links between the language we use and the prejudice we practice.” Changing the way we speak in small ways is simple, we can all do it, and it will change our political, social and lived reality.

Votes for Women

I read this article in the Guardian this morning, arguing that despite her virulent intolerance, Michele Bachmann’s candidacy might still be good for women. It got me thinking about today’s Presidential election and the by-election in my constituency, Dublin West. Women are grossly disadvantaged in Irish politics, both in the houses of government and on ballot papers. Fact. That has significant negative impacts on the political system; it facilitates group-think, perpetuates Ireland’s old-boy politics, undermines progress on issues which primarily affect women and harms the body politic overall. Accordingly, I feel a responsibility to support female candidates and, even if only through increasing their vote-share, to tell parties that it’s worth their while to nominate female candidates.

I don’t just vote for women as a symbolic gesture, I think greater female representation will bring a substantive change, even in the big centrist and conservative parties. 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 (that is, in constituencies where any women make it on to the ballot). In the Dublin West by-election, for instance, there are two women Ruth Coppinger (Socialist) and Eithne Loftus (FG). As I’ve said, I want more women in office but I definitely don’t want more Fine Gaelers or Socialists (in the current climate, I’m generally quite socialist-friendly). Yet I have to decide between candidates who don’t represent my ideals, and candidates who don’t fully understand my experience, or certainly haven’t behaved in a manner that suggests they do.

So, what’s the responsible way to vote? Lest I be attacked, I do think that all other things being equal, policy should be the primary decider. So in this election I’d give priority to Labour and the wonderful Green candidate, although they’re both male. That said, in the General Election the order in which I ranked those parties was reversed, because policy and gender happily coalesce in Joan Burton (and as the constituency kindly confirmed, she was clearly the strongest candidate in the field.) If I agree with two candidates gender will tip the balance.

Further down the ballot when there’s a close call I prioritise based on gender. In that middle section of candidates I don’t agree with but don’t despise, a female Socialist comes ahead of a male independent, for instance. And down in the darkness of the double digit preferences where the centre right candidates go to die, a female Fine Gaeler will come ahead of a male Fianna Fáiler. Or, in the presidential race, Dana comes ahead of Gay Mitchell.

Women won’t necessarily get elected that way. But each vote, each transfer, is a statement of belief in the capability of female politicians. Because as I touched on here, in the course of this Presidential campaign Dana has been called stupid an awful lot more than the male candidates, undeservedly as far as I’m concerned. As for Mary Davis, I’ve heard far more about the fact that she wears red clothes than I have about her amazing work for those with intellectual disabilities.

For the last twenty one years two exceptional women have held the office of the President, and I cannot overestimate the impact they have had on me as a woman and an Irish citizen. But they are exceptions to the rule. They prove that to succeed as a woman you can’t simply be good, you have to be exceptional, you have to eclipse the field. The two female candidates in this election don’t have the vision, gravitas or intellectual force of the Marys McAleese and Robinson. That’s why they won’t win. But if you look at Paddy Power this morning they’re both at 300/1. The next candidate, Gay Mitchell, is at 66/1. As the votes are counted tomorrow they will almost certainly be the first two eliminated. Is it exclusively because they’re women? No. Is that a factor? Absolutely.

As I say, one voter giving a slightly higher preference doesn’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 and the insults and the dismissal with which female candidates are so often met. And maybe that’ll change something.