The women are coming: A profile of the Irish Feminist Network

Tommy Gavin

Deputy Editor

In an Ireland characterised by at least supposed youth apathy, feminism remains one of the few things that can mobilise or polarise people. There has been a surge of feminist activism from groups in recent years, especially in the wake of the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar and issues surrounding women’s reproductive health and rights.

A recent opinion article on The University Times Online titled “Ultra-Feminism is eroding our values” asks whether ‘ultra-feminism’ has given women a mandate to act in a way that is legally and morally unacceptable. Despite the fact that the spectre of ultra-feminism is never defined or that the writer thinks that “the choice [for women] to smash the glass ceiling in their chosen field or stay at home to raise children” are mutually exclusive options; that they think that there is an ‘ultra-feminist’ faction of society is in-itself telling. Even if she thinks they are “hardcore bra-burning ultra-fems.”

One group to emerge from College’s so-called feminist section is the Irish Feminist Network (IFN). It may sound vaguely subversive or paramilitary; conjuring images of radical underground meetings in dingy water-stained abandoned tenements, or smuggling counterfeit identity documents whilst evading Interpol. In reality, “the aim is to be as above ground as possible,” IFN co-ordinator Colette Fahy tells me. It was founded in 2010 by students doing a masters degree in gender studies in College, by women who felt that perhaps more established feminist organisations didn’t cater to younger women, or that for whatever reason, young women weren’t getting involved in them. “Nowadays, that’s not so much the case, for example the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) have The Y Factor which kind of does what we’re trying to do. There would have been a perception before that it wasn’t as accessible though.” Accessibility is the operative word here, and the IFN doesn’t actually have any kind of formal membership or volunteer structure. Instead six co-ordinators including Colette focus on organising around campaigns and advocacy, research and publications, and outreach events. That means organising events and marches, publishing research documents, and having an active facebook page, twitter account, website & blog.

One of the most recent events was the screening of ‘Breaking Ground’; a film about the London Irish Women’s Centre. It was an alternative cultural and political space set up in 1983 by and for Irish women in London, which gave legal and welfare advice to women, organised protests around issues like the X case and the North, and provided services like childcare. This was during a time of anti-Irish racism within the UK, and when there was otherwise less space for women in the mainstream Irish community in London. Colette organised the screening after the director, Michelle Deignan, contacted the IFN with the suggestion of putting it on. Colette explained, “she sent me a dvd of the film, I watched it, and thought it was amazing. So I went to the other co-ordinators who were like, yeah, go ahead. We had done a couple of film screenings in the Sugar Club before; we showed Miss Representation in February and March. That’s a documentary about misrepresentation of women in the media, it’s on Irish Netflix actually. Anyway, for the London Irish Women’s Centre documentary, I just thought it was such an overlooked part of history that there was huge activity of women among the Irish diaspora in London, and what they were able to achieve. They saw that there were these needs: women going over there needed advice on housing, contraception and stuff, and they just organised together themselves to address this stuff. I think that’s very inspiring and a direct example of empowerment, of what can be done when people organise together.”

The IFN also organised its first conference last year, to document the current resurgence in feminist activism in Ireland, titled “Feminist Activism in Ireland: Past, Present and Future,” which sold out 140 tickets. The panels were broadly organised in terms of successive feminist ‘waves’ in Ireland, and sought to be maximally inclusive by trying to have a crèche running during the conference and incorporated a sponsorship scheme to allow people who couldn’t afford a ticket to attend, due to the generosity of anonymous sponsors. They also ran training workshops in Pr, political lobbying and direct action for activists in April, which was sponsored by the Women’s Fund. Any money made from events goes back into the Network for covering future events that may not break even. They’re currently organising a ‘Ladyfest’ for November 8th in the Mercantile that will see Irish bands with women members perform.

In addition to running events and meetings, the IFN is involved in supporting campaigns that may be organised by other groups. One such campaign, Turn Off The Red Light is about criminalising the purchase of sex but decriminalising the selling of sex, in order to combat sex trafficking and the harms of prostitution without criminalising the prostitutes themselves. Indeed that is one of the most pertinent issues for feminist activists because it is one that not everyone agrees on; some disagree that the so called Nordic model works the way it was supposed to and argue for decriminalisation and regulation, but that can make it harder to curb trafficking. The point in this instance though, is that the IFN has a position which it advocates. Then they also have the ‘Equality Budgeting’ campaign; which seeks to put an extra stage in the budgetary process to do an equality audit of the Irish budget under the grounds of discrimination under Irish law. Colette explained that “the idea is that when the budget comes out, you can look at it and say ‘oh single parents are actually being targeted; being hit hardest,’ so it gives the public an opportunity for a bit more engagement.”

The most interesting thing about the IFN though is its flexible and fluid approach to organisation. It almost would seem to defy belief that an organisation that functions like an NGO with no money, can be run in the spare time of six volunteers who don’t solicit membership or recruits. Colette elaborated to me that it is very informal, but a lot of it is done online. “I know it sounds like a really nineties thing to say, it’s all thanks to the information superhighway! But the internet really is great for organising because we’re all doing different things and we’re doing it in our spare time. We do meet up as well, but we just go to the pub every few weeks and sort out whatever we’re doing. We get a lot of help from supporters as well. People write in with great ideas and are willing to help out.”

The work of each co-ordinator is quite autonomous and independent, they support each other when they can and need to, but generally they individually undertake projects themselves on behalf of the IFN, after it has been suggested to, and green lit by, the group. Colette organised the screening of Breaking Ground for example, and generally it is she who liaises with the Turn Off The Red Light Campaign. The other co-ordinators are Clara Fischer who lectures in Trinity and is concerned with policy development, Emer Delaney who founded the Edgeways Project supported by the TCD Equality fund to develop workshops for students on body image & consent, Claire O’Carroll who is interested in gender education and post primary level teaching resources, Jessica Connor who has been involved in activism and manages the website (she organised the screening of Miss Representation), and Amanda who is a Queer Nigerian woman studying Community Development and is interested in intersectionality.

“The individual workload depends if something is coming up. You’d definitely do a couple of things every month. But we divide up the admin work, and if there’s an email or message you’re not sure how to respond to, we discuss it on the facebook group” Colette told me. “Since it’s a fairly loose structure, it means we can adapt as things happen. We try to keep the facebook really active so that if you want to know what news stories about feminism are happening, or what events are going on even if they’re not ours. We have a blog that we accept submissions for as well. It’s just a nice way of getting people’s views or expertise. They don’t have to sign up and be like ‘I’m part of the feminist network and I agree with everything they say.’ They can go on the facebook and see something they’re interested in and go along to that. We have a take action section of the website that lets people know how they can get involved. And we do get a lot of help from supporters. People write in with really good ideas and are willing to help out, like if we’d be trying to find a venue.  But you kind of learn as you go, and you get to meet interesting people that are involved; whether they’re activists or involved in academic research, and you learn so much from them and the other co-ordinators.”

I should mention for the sake of disclosure that I’ve known and been friends with Colette for a long time. So I can say that she’s not and hasn’t ever been some kind of hysterical militant man-hating opportunist. If anything, she genuinely believes that the problems addressed by feminism hurt men as well as women in very real and tangible ways. In her words, “the fact is, men do suffer from gender inequality, but I think that all of that is addressed by feminism. Just because it’s called feminism doesn’t mean it’s exclusionary. Lack of paternity leave, and the fact that the family court can be problematic, those problems are to do with women being seen as care-givers. That works against women as well because they’re expected to look after children. So obviously it would be better for both sexes if that was just childcare, and caring roles were more open. But, the obvious thing for men is that they probably know some women, and they probably would want the world to be better for them and have good opportunities. That should be a good enough reason.”

Tommy Gavin

Journalist of the Year, Student Media Awards 2013, Journalist of the Year, Student Achievement Awards 2013