Seeing casual sexism in Ireland with a returned emigrant’s eye
Serena Williams has shown Irish women how to stand up to casual sexism
Serena Williams with referee Brian Earley during the US Open Women’s Singles final against Naomi Osaka of Japan on Saturday. Photograph: AP Photo/Adam Hunger
It’s been six weeks since I moved home to Ireland from New York. Six weeks is long enough for me to feel like I’m not on holiday anymore, or home for a visit. It’s long enough to watch the summer light slip gently towards autumn hours. It’s long enough for me to watch Lidl’s weekly bargains come and go. It’s long enough for me to learn that swimming in the sea is a wonderful madness.
Six weeks is also, painfully, a long enough time for me to see that sexism is still rampant in my beloved country.
I was under no illusions moving home. No country in the world has a monopoly on misogyny. They’re all really, really good at it. Treating women as less than or not equal to men is a worldwide phenomenon that’s been super popular for millennia. I knew that my repatriation would mean reckoning with the particular brand and distinct flavour of Irish sexism. Anything else would have been delusion.
Sexism in Ireland shares common ground globally. It has that diminishing glare, that undermining scent, that dehumanising touch. But ours is a small country and that makes us feel it more acutely. America, where I’ve just moved from, is a vast continent, with an abundance of sexism, an embarrassment of chauvinist riches. But its size gives misogyny a different feel. Not better, not worse, but different.
About a week after I got home, still dazed and jet-lagged, I found myself in the company of a man who declared that he wanted to start a movement called #WilliesToo. Maybe he thought sexual violence is funny. Maybe he was bored of hearing stories about women being raped or assaulted or harassed. Or maybe he doesn’t like women talking too much. He is not the first Irish man I’ve heard make a joke about #MeToo or sexual violence.
In that same week, as I attempted to manoeuver a shopping trolley heaving with groceries and children, two men looked at me, disdainfully, and declared, “watch out, woman driver”. Both incidents were casual and off the cuff. These men wanted me to play along and allow myself to be laughed at. What happens in these seemingly small moments is an erosion of dignity. Cumulatively, over time, they gather in our bodies, and they become toxic.
There is a disturbing normalisation of casual sexism in Ireland. A remark is made and women follow their training and laugh it off. We make a joke out of it to lessen how much it diminishes us. It’s the Irish way. Laugh it off, love, sure I was only joking.
The laughing stops the second a woman challenges sexism. We are expected to be a good sport, not to make a fuss, and generally shrink ourselves to suit male egos. Above all, we must never get angry. We are not allowed to express anger when misogyny hurts and violates us. A woman who shows rage is punished.
On Saturday, Serena Williams dared to challenge an umpire in the US Open Final. She dared to get angry and she was punished. Ultimately, so was her opponent, Naomi Osaka. Serena expressed her anger sharply, she pointed a finger at the man in the high chair, and he did not take it well.
The aftermath is dividing opinion into two camps. One is that Serena broke the rules of tennis and deserves to be penalised. The other is that this was blatant bias, sexism in full swing. And this is how it always goes. If a woman challenges authority, it’s called an outburst, a fit of rage. Any digression from the social norm that women must fall in line is met with tremendous aggression.
(2/2) When a woman is emotional, she’s “hysterical” and she’s penalized for it. When a man does the same, he’s “outspoken” & and there are no repercussions. Thank you, @serenawilliams, for calling out this double standard. More voices are needed to do the same.— Billie Jean King (@BillieJeanKing) September 9, 2018
If a man makes a challenge, he is usually lauded, praised for his strength. If a woman does it, she’s branded as crazy, hot headed, or hysterical. And when we point out this difference, these double standards, women are met with fury.
It happened with #WakingTheFeminists. It happened with #MeToo. It happens every day of the week. Male anger at female anger happens on a tennis court in Queens. It happens in a supermarket in Dublin. It happens on every street in every country across the world.
Ireland needs to reckon with how it is treating women. We are fast becoming one of the most progressive countries in the world and yet we had young men saying they’d spoil their vote in the recent referendum as a backlash to #MeToo.
During and after the Belfast trial, a despicable amount of commentary pertained to what treatment women should expect if they behave a certain way sexually.
Irish people need to look at what has been done to women, historically and currently, and ask themselves, “is this who we want to be?”
There’s a real privilege to being the one who went away and came back again. The reward for years of homesickness and heartbroken loneliness is getting fresh eyes on your old place. Ireland is a special country, like no other. Our culture and our spirit are indomitable. It is what drew me home. Now that I am here, I see old things anew. This second-class citizenry of women has got to go.
Not every woman in Ireland is safe to challenge male authority, like Serena Williams did. It’s up to those of us who are to speak up and speak sharply. There are rules to this game. But they were made by men. And now, they must be broken by women.
Lisa Tierney-Keogh is a playwright. She tweets @lisatk