Politics, Ethics and a Love of Letters – Reasons to Keep a Research Blog

Four months ago, I started this blog in a fit of combined sleep deprivation and moral agitation. The vague idea was that over time it would be filled with snappy appraisals of ‘big’ political issues, inspired by my research on civil society and women’s organisations in the post-Soviet space. Since then, I’ve written about everything from Eurovision to the Tuam Babies, and some of you may be wondering when I’m actually going to get around to explaining my doctoral work.

For the sake of the insatiably curious, I should point out two pieces of mine that have been published elsewhere over the last few months:

1. Transforming the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh: what can we learn from women’s organizations? appeared in Caucasus Edition last February. The idea is a simple and completely non-Utopian one: women’s grassroots organisations embody better than most both the challenges and the potential of peacebuilding, and should therefore be recognised as important actors in conflict resolution.

2. Young women’s peace activism: tearing apart stereotypes in Armenia and Azerbaijan was written as a guest post for the blog of Kvinna Till Kvinna, a Swedish Foundation that works with women in conflict-affected areas around the world, including the Caucasus. The text was a reflection on a fieldwork experience in May that also sought to highlight the increasingly difficult context for civil society activists in the region.

As innocuous as they now look, I sweated tears over both these pieces – my first attempts to  boil the scope of my unfinished research down to a bare 1,500 words each. It’s getting easier, but it’s still remarkably hard to produce writing that is regular, relevant, and readable, even if I’ve gathered enough material for several PhDs.

It turns out that a research blog is not a public version of field notes, nor is it a tailored version of the bigger analysis. In part, I’ve come to think of it as a siphoning off of excess brain matter. But the key thing about it is that it’s grounded in everyday experience. I don’t wake up in the mornings and decide that I’m going to write about such-and-such a topic…I write in response to whatever it is that triggers my excitement or curiosity or outrage, and that won’t let me sleep until I’ve communicated it to somebody else. For some, that probably sounds like egotism. For me, it’s the definition of politics.

A note to other researchers…

In terms of reflexive practice, keeping a research-related blog is as much about what you don’t write, as what you do. In many universities, ethics is still often treated as a tick-the-box or fill-out-the-form exercise. The first few months of fieldwork felt like taking a crash course in Applied Ethics on top of my degree. I learned, for example, that consent isn’t a one-off thing, it’s something that has to be constantly, if wordlessly, renegotiated – as it is in any relationship. And I also learned more about censorship and silencing and scrupulousness that I would ever have dreamed possible – all against an extremely complex political backdrop.

At the outset of my research, I undertook to preserve the anonymity and confidentiality of those involved, and to minimise the risk for all participants. The more time I’ve spent in the field, the more I’ve felt that these phrases were too abstract and too removed from reality. If anything I write here could be construed as “unethical” by those standards, then obviously I’ve got to reinterpret my ethical framework.

I think that a good starting point for this is examining the crossover from research to activism in more detail – understanding the security challenges that participants face in their daily lives, and weighing up the risks of exposure against the risks of simply doing nothing. All the while bearing in mind that I am the lone carrier of the get-out-of-jail-free card in this situation.

I haven’t got it all figured out yet, but I feel like keeping a blog has given me a head start in dealing with these and other issues that are bound to crop up again and again as I move into the writing up and publishing phases of the doctorate. As a grounded practice, it has revealed insights into my own research process and my relationship with participants, and also given me some clues as to what really motivates me, and what I might want to do above and beyond the PhD.

As a lover of letters…

Not all social researchers see themselves as wordsmiths rather than scientists, but I suspect that a lot of us do. Some of my greatest PhD crises have resulted from the feeling that I had gotten myself mired in data, but forgotten how to do the one thing I was always good at – namely, writing. Blogging has been an indescribably valuable way of reconnecting with writing as a practice that requires love and craftsmanship and ideas – all things I felt I had lost as I moved deeper into the PhD process.

Now I feel like writing is once again something that can keep me centred in the midst of the constant changes and relocations that have been the hallmark of the last few years. It’s a bit like the feeling you get when you play a new sport for the first time, and you end up stretching muscles you never knew you had. At the same time – and maybe this is the wrong way to describe this, but anyway – I’ve discovered a kind of power I didn’t know I had either, when friends or strangers wrote to me or left comments on the blog to say that something I wrote had really touched a chord.

Maybe this is a good time to say thank you to those who have been supportive of the blog from the beginning (you know who you are!), or just following it occasionally – it wouldn’t be anything without readers. Over the summer, I’m hoping that it will become a little more focused, and that some of the more latent themes will come to the fore, but I’m eager to have feedback and incorporate that into the development and potential redesign of the space. I’m also on the lookout for people to form a Dublin-based writing group from September! You have been warned…

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Notes from the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict

I leave Armenia at the crack of dawn on Tuesday, and break up the journey home by stopping off in London for 24 hours. There’s a ritual element to these visits, like passing through a decompression chamber after a deep sea dive. By evening, I find myself in a pub in Dalston, sipping at a nondescript English ale, and mourning the separation from the Caucasus. It’s not a total reverse culture shock, as the friends I meet up with are fellow Russophiles and Eurasia-watchers. We nurse our pints and talk about corruption and journalists and oligarchs and the Who’s Who Index of emerging regional analysts. It strikes me that the entire conversation has an indefatigably masculine air to it, but then I chide myself for the involuntary essentialism.

After a while, I let it slip that I’m planning on taking in some of the Fringe Programme at the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict before my flight on Wednesday. There’s a collective wince around the table – whether at the words “sexual violence” themselves, or the tawdry way they’ve been packaged into an designer format to make them more palatable for international diplomats, or the idea of the William Hague-Angelina Jolie double act, I don’t know.

“Where’s it happening?” ventures one of the friends.

“ExCel,” I answer.

“Ah yes.” His face brightens in familiarity with the venue. “That’s where they hold all the weapons expos.”

Scrolling through the pictures on his phone, he finds what he wants to show me – some of the posters that he saw on display at a recent arms fair. They look like they would be more suited to a retrospective exhibition entitled “Everything That Was Wrong With The 1950s.” Scantily-clad girls posing provocatively on assorted weaponry, hips and chests thrust forward at impossible angles. Most of the big manufacturers have toned down the sexism these days, he says, but there was a group of Floridians that clearly didn’t get the memo. At least they’re just posters, I think to myself. Not that you can’t find the real life version if you go looking for it.

This exchange is still in my head as I head out along the Docklands Light Railway on Wednesday morning. The transient nature of the Summit is one of the many aspects that women’s rights activists find troubling about it. Gather ye rosebuds, feminists, because soon your stalls will be replaced by missiles and rockets, and your global dignitaries will be hanging on the sleeve of the highest bidder (funnily enough, I doubt the arms traders ever worry about the reverse happening). The new International Protocol on the documentation and investigation of sexual violence in conflict will sit on the shelves next to CEDAW, the Beijing Platform for Action, MDG3, UNSC Resolutions 1325, 1820 et al, and you will go back to the daily grind of lobbying local decision-makers/warlords and fighting with a hostile or frightened public and repressing your own secondary post-traumatic stress disorder because you just don’t have time to deal with it.

I feel a bit more cheerful when I get to the convention centre though. The Fringe is set up like a miniature festival, with galleries and pop-up stands and a variety of tents and performance spaces. The crowd seems more diverse than it really is, because of the abundance of patterned dresses and handmade jewellery that distinguish the feminist activist from the academic or policy-maker. I head into Discussion Room Six, which is an inflatable white dome, tinged with purple light. About thirty people are gathered to listen to a presentation from Isis-WICCE (Women’s International Cross-Cultural Exchange), a Kampala-based organisation which has documented women’s experiences of sexual violence in 28 different countries. Men are dotted throughout the audience, but it’s not their gender that makes them stand out, so much as their ties and collars.

Out of habit, I take out a notepad and start to scribble down everything that is being said. “Our research is not just academic, it’s also feminist,” is the first sentence I hear, and it feels like a personal challenge. Isis puts survivors right at the heart of the organisation’s work, raising their voices in order to challenge the dominant peace and security discourse and – ultimately – to change the world. They call their vision “embodied peace”. They emphasise that while reparations and legal justice are important, their mission is to respond to the immediate needs of survivors, which means putting social justice and healing first. The International Protocol is largely about testimony and trials – but to gather the testimonies, you need to be prepared to deal with the trauma.

These speakers are powerful and inspiring. They are passionate and humble. But no one in this tent would have expected anything less. It’s an echo chamber – the ministerial delegates are all next door at the closed sessions. Phrases float around: “continuum of violence…address the root causes…ending stigma…monitoring mechanisms…” Voices are raised in criticism of the UK government. They care about women when they are being raped somewhere in Africa, but they do not seem to care so very much for them when these women come to British shores seeking asylum.* We talk about the need to challenge the established ways of creating and distributing knowledge, and again I feel a stab of guilt, in spite of the inclusive atmosphere, convinced that my research methods fall far short of their ideals.

Then they talk about the security risks for Women’s Human Rights Defenders themselves, both physical and psychological. I listen to their accounts of some of the flashbacks they experience, and it hits me – these women are not here in the vain hope that governments will listen to them. They’re not even here to try to influence people like me who could maybe be convinced to dedicate their careers to this cause. They’re here because they need a safe space – with soft purple lighting and cushy chairs and discreetly-placed coffee carts – to talk about all the terrible things they have seen, the tortured organs and the irreparably damaged souls. There’s an element of catharsis in it. I’ve seen women in the Caucasus undergo the same relief after travelling hundreds of miles to discuss politics, violence and peace together. Suddenly I feel like I’m back on familiar footing.

I spend the rest of the morning wandering around the Summit. I don’t have time for the silent cinema, but I let the event brochure guide me towards the ‘bustling’ Market Place, where one can ‘browse and buy an eclectic and beautiful array of first class products produced by people in conflict countries.’ This description ramps my feelings of the Post-Colonial Gaze up to about a hundred, but I buy some earrings from a Medica Zenica volunteer anyway. I’ll wear them to my next conference, to signify to everyone else that I’m really an activist at heart, and shout about how Irish I am in order to demonstrate non-allegiance to the Empire. I get a pair for my supervisor as well – she’ll appreciate the terrible irony of the sexual violence souvenir industry. I try to explain this to the volunteer at the stand, but I don’t think I do a good job of it. She gives me a postcard bearing the legend ‘We are not “those poor women”, we are strong, active and courageous.’

They’re stronger than I am. I haven’t been working in this sphere long enough to put aside my qualms about cooperating with bellicose governments or dressing feminism up in celebrity garb. I know that all of those women I heard earlier will have wrestled with those demons for a long time. They will have told themselves that it must be done, that there is no other way to get results. Direct nonviolent action might work to resolve some issues, but we just want a stable source of funding and some legitimacy for our activities – not a revolution. For my part, I wonder if I’ve taken another step down the road of being socialised into the comfortable world of governance feminism, with its convention centres and festival atmosphere, where no one will ever question my presence – or my privilege. I wonder if my misgivings will shrink the more of these conferences and summits I attend. Or if they’ll grow to such an extent that I find myself uncomfortably marginalised, maybe even quitting the scene.

I still don’t know. On the one hand, the Summit is a pop-up event, here today and gone tomorrow. On the other hand, the International Campaign to Stop Rape in Conflict will go on. There’s also Women’s Power to Stop War, the global movement initiated by WILPF to mark their 100 year anniversary, to look forward to. And no doubt hundreds of grassroots organisations will take part in the Beijing+20 events next year, in addition to their quotidian labour. In between all of which, there will be new campaigns and newspaper articles (at least some of which won’t be written by Nicholas Kristof**), and feminist submissions in major academic conferences, and who knows – maybe we will bring death to patriarchy through a thousand tiny paper cuts?

It seems to me that the biggest feat of strength required in feminism is learning to suspend your disbelief without silencing your conscience…Maybe it’s just the post-fieldwork blues talking, but sometimes, I feel like this is impossible to achieve.

*On which note, see this piece in the Guardian – note that the opening is somewhat graphic: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/jun/09/margarets-story-congo-rape-yarls-wood
**For some excellent criticism of his work, see here: http://postwhoreamerica.com/nicholas-kristof-half-the-sky-all-the-credit/

“‘Sé do bheatha, a Mhuire…”: The fruits of misogyny from Isla Vista to the west of Ireland

One week ago, a fatal shooting spree in Santa Barbara sent shock waves across the Atlantic. For once, this wasn’t just a conversation about gun control. It was also a conversation about gender. Laura Penny wrote a pitch-perfect article on misogynist extremism in the New Statesman. Rebecca Solnit spoke eloquently about the patterns of sexual entitlement in an interview on Democracy Now. In The Daily Beast, Arthur Chu made a valuable contribution about masculinity. The hashtag YesAllWomen unleashed a flood of female frustration and anxiety, with many users retweeting Margaret Atwood’s chilling aphorism: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

I was surprised to see how many of my Irish friends were sharing these stories and articles, mostly accompanied by poignant silence rather than personal commentary. Most of these women I’ve known since we were teenagers, and most of them I would consider feminist only in the sense of keeping their heads down and trying to run their own lives. And here they were talking about this case, not only in solidarity with one another, but also, I suspect, because they wanted their male friends to understand what it’s like to grow up in the face of constant low-level sexual harassment, and with statistics for extreme violence against women that range from one in three (globally) to one in seven (at the national level).

*

In comparison with the Isla Vista killings, there was barely a ripple when it came to a story that broke a lot closer to home. One of the Sunday papers published a report on a former ‘Mother and Baby Home’ in Tuam, Co. Galway, where the skeletons of 796 children, aged 2 weeks to 9 years, had been found in a disused septic tank. Their bodies had been disposed of between 1925 and 1961, when the Bon Secours nuns had taken in women and girls who – to use the terminology of the time – fell pregnant out of wedlock. The care that they gave these children amounted to nothing more than death by slow starvation and infectious (but curable) diseases. Children were dying at the rate of one per fortnight behind the 8 foot walls that surrounded the former workhouse. The history of the ‘Home’ is being well documented by Limerick1914 on Storify.

This is primarily a children’s tragedy, but it is also part of a bigger story about how the Church and State in Ireland colluded to control women’s sexuality in the twentieth century (and not only then). If you want to talk about people feeling entitled to women’s bodies, then look no further. It’s only fifty years since the ‘Home’ closed its doors. The last of the Magdalene Laundries – a uniquely Irish institution that has been singled out for criticism by the UN Committee Against Torture– continued to operate up to 1996. Religious orders in Ireland, in many cases funded by the state and supported by local councillors, thought that it was perfectly okay to take in these “loose” women and force them to endure unwanted pregnancies, only to allow the children to die and be dumped – you can hardly call it a burial – in unmarked mass graves. It hardly needs to be said that the fathers all disappeared; and the families of the women acquiesced in their incarceration.

And yet – there appears to be widespread resistance to this story, from mainstream media, from political and religious institutions, from the Garda Síochána (though you’d think that surely to God, the death by neglect of 800 children would warrant a police investigation?) and most of all, from people themselves. It took five days for me to become aware of the story, and like Bock the Robber, I’m still struggling to understand why we’re not shouting about this from the rooftops. A mass grave filled with tiny skulls and bones. Does this discovery really fail to touch a chord? Are we so unaware of where we came from that we can disassociate ourselves from 796 child skeletons in a way that we can’t from Elliot Rodger and his victims? Is this story not an integral part of how we in Ireland should understand contemporary issues around misogyny, sexuality, entitlement and consent? Is our culture not deeply affected by the abuses perpetrated against tens of thousands of Irish women and children within living memory? We know that Ireland’s laws on abortion are – literally – like something out of the 19th century, but do we really think that as an ‘enlightened’ society we are somehow insulated from all that history otherwise entails?

**

I’m not an expert on the current state of Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) in Ireland, but I do remember – vividly – my own education. As kids growing up in the countryside, my friends and I went to village schools where we learned about sex somewhere between being taught how to identify potential rapists by their long coats and unmarked vans, and looking up “immaculate conception” in the dictionary. As teenagers, we were sent to a girls-only secondary school in the city. It was Catholic, of course, but more Catholic than most, which earned it the nickname Virgin Express. Interestingly enough, in the years before the Easter Rising the convent was home to the writer Kate O’Brien, whose novels dealing with gender, sexuality and politics were banned for several decades in Ireland and Spain– a strange anomaly, given the education that we received sixty years after our wayward alumnus published Mary Lavelle.

The majority of our teachers began each class with the obligatory recitation of the Hail Mary in Irish, English or French. We received annual talks on chastity and how important our virginity was in our relationship with Jesus. On one memorable occasion our teacher for Social, Personal and Health Education informed us that even masturbation was a sin, albeit a venal one. Our Religion teacher was a conservative woman who brought foetus feet pins into class. In terms of sex education, we were never so much as allowed to handle a condom, though when we turned 16 we were treated to a slideshow with disturbingly graphic images of sexually transmitted infections. Naturally, this served to reinforce the fear of sex, rather than encourage safe (let alone pleasurable) sex. The word clitoris was not one that we heard spoken aloud by anyone in authority.

Outside of school, we had J-17 magazine and Dawson’s Creek and the experiences of our older siblings to give us hope. Many of us also had supportive parents who provided additional literature, and later enabled us to move to bigger cities with college campuses and understanding doctors who cheerfully prescribed contraceptives – though more than one of us ended up living at first under the watchful eyes of relatives or even the Dominican Sisters at Muckross House. Gradually, we shed our inhibitions, accepting that we were free to do whatever we wanted to do. Even if you were too overwhelmed by the sudden thrust into independent living and the reciprocal awkwardness of Irish boys to do very much in the beginning, you always had your Erasmus year or a J1 summer in America to test your boundaries.

One by one, we lost our virginity. And our parents, to our surprise, turned out to be more or less okay with it. In return for our having spared them the stigma of ever having to deal with a teenage pregnancy under their roof (and yes, I know they protected us because they loved us), they finally rewarded us with their trust, or at least decided to withhold judgement. We were free at last, even though in practice most girls seemed to settle with relief into long-term relationships in which the risks – of pregnancy, STIs, gossip, violence, loss of self-esteem, abandonment – appeared to be at their lowest. Many of my friends are still with their first or second (sexual) partner. One-night-stands or casual affairs are considered an aberration, though these conversations can always be steered into familiar waters by uttering the age-old question: “but did you use protection?”

***

Contraception is the common thread in all our stories, because if we’re being honest with ourselves, the one thing we’re all still terrified of is getting pregnant. Even though having an abortion these days is as simple as a cheap flight to the UK to “visit a friend” (and who hasn’t thought about this scenario, planned it out in her head?), you don’t know, in the end of the day, how you would cope with it. You’d never be able to tell your parents. You might not even tell your partner. Maybe you’d confide in a friend or two, but you’d find it hard to share the news at the annual Christmas get-together. You might have made jokes in the past about “taking the boat” (a reference to the days when women would travel by the mail-boat to England for abortions – the only thing that’s changed is the form of transport), but you wouldn’t joke about it afterwards. It takes a very brave woman to talk about her abortion publicly.

In short, you’re pro-choice, but you fervently pray (even if you’re an atheist) that you never have to exercise your right to that choice. You’re probably not a vocal supporter of the Abortion Rights Campaign or even a member of the Irish Feminist Network. When my friends and I get together after a semester or a year apart, we laugh about UTIs and UIDs and the horrors of online dating, but we still talk about pregnancy scares – if we talk about them at all – in the hushed voices of those who have survived a potentially fatal illness or severe trauma. And why is that, if you stop and think about it? Why is something as simple as missing a period a source of genuine terror for so many of us? Now, as we move into our late 20s, we’re starting to take these things in our stride. But why the hell couldn’t we approach them so rationally ten years ago? It’s not a sign of how immature we were as people, but how immature we were as a society.

**

The truth is that male entitlement is only a part of the issue when it comes to female sexuality in Ireland. Yes, I have encountered far too many boys and men who think that it’s perfectly okay to stare, to follow, to grope, to comment, to whistle, to catcall, to keep on texting and calling and harassing because when a woman says no, she means ‘not yet’, and ‘the fun is in the chase’, etc. But an equally big problem in Ireland is that women don’t grow up feeling truly entitled to their own bodies. We don’t know how to act other than to say no, even if we mean yes. I look at the lack of response to the discovery in Tuam, and I wonder, just when are we going to be able to claim our bodies entirely for ourselves? When are we going to move out of the shadow of the Bon Secours, the Magdalenes, Ann Lovett, the X Case, the Ryan Report?

The silence has been broken, but we still talk about all these cases with a “there but for the grace of God…” kind of attitude. We’re haunted by the idea of all those little bones, those tiny dead babies, and they’re mixed up in our heads with the abortion issue. There’s a part of us that’s haunted by the idea that if we do something wrong we’ll get pregnant and someone will come and take us away and lock us up and force us to have the baby and then take away the baby, as well. My friends and I were part of a well-educated country elite, but we weren’t the only ones who were hopelessly uneducated – if not to say miseducated – about sex. And what we learned for ourselves through experience could never quite compensate for the fear that was instilled in us as teenagers.

*

Here’s a conundrum for you: how can you even talk about teaching “consent” to adolescents when it’s considered normal to preach sexual abstinence in schools? How can you talk about undoing a culture of male entitlement unless you trace it back to its roots – which in reality go far beyond masculinity in the media, and into a much darker zone of state-sanctioned misogyny and child abuse? In the end of the day, it’s not just the education system that’s failing us – it’s the entire culture we’ve built around it. It’s not men who are to blame – it’s all of us. 

In an interview with the BBC last week, Catherine Corless, the local historian who uncovered the story of the mass grave in Tuam, said of the local community that they were ashamed of the discovery, and that “people just don’t want to go there.”

Personally, I think that as a society, we desperately need to go there.