Culture 25 May 2018
Update: In a landslide election, Ireland voted to remove the eighth amendment on May 25th. Below are my views from the days before the historic election.
I was 18 when I discovered I meant less to the Republic of Ireland than the boys I grew up with.
A lecturer stood at the front of the auditorium in Dublin’s Trinity College, pontificating about literary theory, of which I had little interest, and understood even less.
That was until she reached feminism, and in a worming speech, decided to list the perils women still faced throughout the world in 2012, despite the feminist movement beginning over a century ago. There was a litany of female African revolts in recent decades to study; the subjugation of Arab women at the hands of extremists; the rampant rape culture in India; and of course, let us not forget, Ireland’s strangling abortion laws.
I was so confused. What strangling abortion laws? How had we been lumped in with these countries notorious for the subjugation of women?
As she went on to explain the eighth amendment of Ireland’s constitution, which deems that women who receive illegal abortions could receive up to a 14-year prison sentence, it became clear how utterly out of touch my 18-year-old self was. There had evidently been a gaping hole in my public education of 14 years, that had entirely omitted the subject of my bodily autonomy, or lack thereof, and that hole had lead to a false sense of security, and nationalism. My naive delusion of an equal, fair Ireland was at once obliterated, and my understanding of gender wholly altered. I was living in a country where my body was indeed a second class citizen, one where, if I ever came to pass with an unwanted or crisis pregnancy, I would be facing some major and potentially life-threatening obstacles. And all for what? Because I was born with a uterus in Catholic Ireland.
Ireland's first openly gay Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, smiles at the launch of his leadership campaign for the Fine Gael Party in Dublin, Ireland, 20 May 2017. Leo Varadkar is the favourite to win and become leader of the governing party in Ireland an EPA/Aidan Crawley
My comprehension of the situation dawned ironically at a time when Ireland’s Catholic church was being investigated by our health services for its treatment of women from the 1920s to the 1960s, at the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Galway.
During this time, the church ran what are locally referred to as ‘laundries’ but which were in fact sweatshops, in which pregnant mothers worked in dastardly conditions. It emerged that these workhouses, that were publicly perceived as “homes” for prospective mothers to give their babies up for legal and safe adoptions, had sent over 1,000 babies to the U.S, without their mothers’ consent.
Tomorrow the day will finally arrive. And when you go out and vote,please remember the generations of people with uteruses who cannot vote.Please think of the type of future you are voting on for them.Think of how this is not just a moral debate, this is our lives. #repealth8th pic.twitter.com/j0FVqBq4Lq — Leah Kavanagh (@Leah_Kavanaghxx) May 24, 2018
And if that wasn’t bad enough, it was a mere two years later before it was discovered that not only was the church complicit in illegal foreign adoption, but had also facilitated and covered up the deaths of nearly 800 children (the bones of some found in a mass grave just last year) that had come through or been born in that very same home, in Tuam. When religion and the court of public opinion govern, I suppose this is preferable to education or public policy.
Tuam residents, AKA unwed pregnant women, often had to suffer through excruciating work days, while facing inhuman work conditions, including inhaling toxic fumes.
The message was very clear, that the country would rather pretend things don’t exist at the cost of prevention or care of those involved. And yet fifty years after these atrocities, as a young idealistic English literature student unaware of the sad history that once faced the entirety of my gender, I would come to realize that things weren’t all that different even today.
As someone who grew up in a more moderate Ireland, while it might not be under the governance of the laundries, I too faced a governing body that would use morality as reasoning for restricting a woman’s right over her own body. I too was under the thumb of the Catholic church, and decision makers who cared more about perception than reality.
In my innocence, I would happily arrive into school on a Monday and form a comprehensive argument as to why Manchester Utd’s weekend match would win us that year’s Premier League title, regardless of the performance. On the days the weather allowed, I would not-so-gracefully parade around the football pitch for a lunchtime game of World Cup.
I didn’t know, and they certainly didn’t know, that during our time there, on that little shell of land, if an unwanted pregnancy befell me and Ireland had its way, by God, by decree of our (old, white, male) Prime Minister and by the might of the eighth amendment, I’d have that baby. No matter my age or innocence, no matter the circumstance, no matter the father.
As I rose through primary school in the Dublin suburbs, in the era of Bebo (Ireland’s equivalent of Myspace), to the tune of Ireland’s miraculous economic explosion, never once did I consider the boys in my class were anything other than my intellectual and bodily equals. And even thereafter, when it was time to go to an all-girls secondary(high) school, where gossip was rife and one would hear tales of girls who ‘got knocked up’ in fifth or sixth year, I still remained innocent, ignorant. As their bellies grew bigger walking the school halls, they would wear trousers instead of our tartan skirt to school, and yet even then, watching as 16 year olds became mothers, I never once questioned there might be an alternative. In my high school, we were absolved of the perils and nuances of our gender, the secondary school curriculum doesn’t go so far as to mention 1983, or the X case, or 2002. Instead, we were celebrated as the talented ladies of the future, all the while unknowing that so-called promising future was so utterly compromised, our bodies not, in fact, our own.
And even thereafter, when it was time to go to an all-girls secondary(high) school, where gossip was rife and one would hear tales of girls who ‘got knocked up’ in fifth or sixth year, I still remained innocent, ignorant. As their bellies grew bigger walking the school halls, they would wear trousers instead of our tartan skirt to school, and yet even then, watching as 16 year olds became mothers, I never once questioned there might be an alternative. In my high school, we were absolved of the perils and nuances of our gender, the secondary school curriculum doesn’t go so far as to mention 1983, or the X case, or 2002. Instead, we were celebrated as the talented ladies of the future, all the while unknowing that so-called promising future was so utterly compromised, our bodies not, in fact, our own.
The day before a day that is going to affect countless women across this country. It’s not your story - it’s her’s. Please let her make her own choice. VOTE YES tomorrow. Make it a day for compassion. Every woman’s circumstances are unique. I stand beside her. #repealthe8th ❤❤
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Here in my New York present, a city so ludicrously liberal, so forward-thinking, so aware, that upon telling a New Yorker about Ireland’s eighth amendment, they simply sit in shock and awe. Ireland? A country so liberal as to be the first in the world to legalize gay marriage, a country so envied for its outspoken creatives, a country so admired for its frivolity, that they forgot their women might deserve the right to choose?
“Oh yeah, that’s Ireland,” I say.
In New York, liberal issues go hand in hand. If you support gay marriage, you probably support women’s rights. If you support women’s rights, you’re probably pro-choice, because you trust women to make their own decisions, and not need a man’s, or anyone else’s approval, before making them. In New York, I have the right to myself, and this is something I’ll never take for granted.
As I watch from afar the raging debate that consumes both the yes and no sides, knowing I can’t come home to have my say on May 25th, it’s torment. I believe, beyond a shadow of a doubt that there won’t be a more important referendum in my lifetime, and I’m missing it. In a cruel twist of fate, circumstances are out of my hands, and I have no choice on the matter, but to stay here and hope the country makes the right decision.
And it pains me, not that I won’t be able to cast a vote, (while it is a considerable sore spot), but that there’s a possibility my 16-year-old sister will grow up in an Ireland who continues to place her needs, her life, and her future, at the bottom of the totem pole. That she, unlike I, who was a mere 8 years old in 2002, will be keenly aware of how little her life is valued. And that she will discover, years earlier than myself, there is little to no sense staying somewhere when your very existence is worth less than those around you.
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.