Foster departure highlights misogyny in North’s public life

Progress on women’s equality hindered by NI sectarian divisions and politics of crisis

Former first minister Arlene Foster: Her treatment has brought gender abuse into the open and given it a name. It has also brought about a unity rarely seen in politics. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

Former first minister Arlene Foster: Her treatment has brought gender abuse into the open and given it a name. It has also brought about a unity rarely seen in politics. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

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The departure of Arlene Foster as Northern Ireland’s first minister last week generated a political storm. Media attention has been focused on the political implications for the DUP and for power sharing. However Foster’s parting shot to her former party colleagues has been to shine a light on the role that sexism and misogyny played in her experience of politics and public life in Northern Ireland.

Foster’s experiences are not unique. Speaking at a conference at Queen’s University Belfast recently, Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill also highlighted the misogyny that characterises politics in Northern Ireland, including threats of sexual violence and death threats. Indeed, women from all walks of public life share a common experience of harassment and abuse. Twenty years after the Belfast Agreement, everyday-sexism mingles with enduring conflict-related sectarianism to present particular risks of violence and abuse for women.

In the years since the agreement, women have had their professional work and their personal lives disrupted by threats. While bombs and bullets are no longer a daily feature of life in Northern Ireland, women from community to political levels still receive death threats, attacks on their offices and threats to their homes and families. In addition to these direct threats, women experience more subtle forms of intimidation. Their addresses have been sprayed on walls in an apparent invitation to attack their homes. They have been warned explicitly and implicitly not to disrupt the sectarian status quo. Paramilitary organisations that have benefited financially from significant public funding to ensure a smooth transition into community development and leadership continue to exert a menacing influence both in communities and, increasingly openly, in politics.

Foster and O’Neill have both commented on how ‘derogatory comments’ have characterised their professional lives

However the most visible manifestation of harassment of women in public life has been the online abuse suffered by women – from young community activists to the First and Deputy First Ministers. Social media magnifies the dark undercurrents of sectarianism and misogyny that combine in Northern Irish politics and society. Foster and O’Neill have both commented on how constant “derogatory comments” have characterised their professional lives. Women regularly experience sexist behaviour in their working lives, including the use of sexualised images, sexual innuendo, comments on their bodies and choice of clothing, and “jokes” aimed at undermining their authority and credibility. Social media is used to create platforms from which to intimidate and abuse women – leaving them in a constant state of insecurity. Shockingly, these experiences are so normalised they become part and parcel of women’s lives – simply part of the job.

Failure to tackle deep-seated stereotypes about women and their contribution to public life creates the conditions in which this type of abuse is rife. Unchallenged misogynistic attitudes make it possible to undermine both men and women on the basis of their gender or sexuality. Progress on women’s equality in law and policy in Northern Ireland has been hindered by sectarian political divisions and the politics of crisis that engulfs the Northern Ireland Assembly. A strictly gender-neutral approach to policymaking has prevented deeper engagement with the specific risks faced by both women and men. While men, and particularly young men, experience specific forms of violence and insecurity, misogyny is an additional challenge for women.

The climate of abuse that women face creates a strong disincentive to them to raise their voices

That women in political life continue to experience this type of abuse more than 20 years after the Belfast Agreement is disappointing to say the least. Northern Ireland is celebrated globally for the role of the Women’s Coalition and the inclusion of equality provisions in the agreement. These have clearly not been fulfilled. Promoting women’s participation in peace processes is a core aspect of the implementation of the UN Security Council’s women, peace and security agenda and, as such, significant to both Ireland’s and the UK’s foreign policy. Yet the climate of abuse that women face creates a strong disincentive to them to raise their voices. The overall numbers of women in leadership in politics and in the justice and security sectors in particular is too low. And so women are left to deal with this abuse individually, or with informal support from other women.

The treatment of Arlene Foster has brought this abuse into the open and given it a name. It has also brought about a unity rarely seen in politics. The women of Northern Ireland have had enough. The genie of misogyny has been released from the bottle and it unlikely to go back. It is time to take seriously the abuse that women face and to tackle the systemic barriers to enable more women to offer leadership in a time when Northern Ireland needs it most.

Catherine Turner is associate professor in law at Durham University. Aisling Swaine is professor of gender studies at University College Dublin. “At the Nexus of Participation and Protection: Protection-Related Barriers to Women’s Participation in Northern Ireland” can be found here: ipinst.org/2021/06/protection-related-barriers-to-womens-participation-in-northern-ireland-paper

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