Sexism, Racism and the Irish Family Court: Women’s Studies as a Space of Resistance
After many years of living in Ireland, it was the two traumatic years I spent in the Irish Family Court that propelled me towards academic feminism and the Women’s Studies MA degree at University College Cork. As bell hooks said, Black Feminists are not born, but made. Born in Sri Lanka, my family migrated to Australia when I was 12 years old, just after the official end of the White Australia Policy. I had no idea about Black women’s writing growing up in the small country town of Shepparton, where my parents taught. I moved to Melbourne to study Occupational Therapy, the only woman of colour in my year. I was introduced to feminism by the women I shared student housing with and Virginia Woolf, Marguerite Duras, Germaine Greer and Simone de Beauvoir forged my understanding of how “women” were constructed. But not until I came across June Jordan, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison did I find a home for my black womanity. Their words leapt off the page and settled in my bones, breathed life into my fragmented, underwater identity, gave flesh to my hollow black body immersed in White Australia. My focus shifted form having to prove myself, to learning to define and celebrate myself.
I traveled, moved to London, then Ireland, a free, liberated, educated woman. Or so I thought, until I became a mother. Suddenly, powerfully, irreversibly, I found myself exhausted, enslaved, exploited. Isolated with no family support, when the relationship with my Irish partner ended badly, I came face to face with the White Irish patriarchy in the Family Court.
POINT 1: You think you are free until you try to cross the invisible borders that hold you in place. You think you have rights until you try to claim them.
The rights of fathers have moved up the agenda in the family courts, as have the rights of the child, but the rights of the mother have regressed through the myths and propaganda surrounding custody and access and the vilification of mothers by father’s rights groups. Justice for fathers, it seemed, relies on the devaluation of motherhood in order to “recognize” fathers, rather than upgrading the quality of fathering. The domestic and emotional labour of women who mother are never factored in, but taken for granted.
Dealing with the “experts” was traumatic. The white female court psychologist who called me “sweetie” required me to attend assessments two hours away with my child, scrutinized my medical records and psychological state, but assessed the father’s parenting based on a telephone conversation as he refused to attend. Her references to the psychological literature in the court report were taken from thirty-year old state-sponsored US research, produced at a time when the joint custody was emerging as an easier option that trying to enforce maintenance orders. My concerns about my child’s care, his exposure to alcohol and drugs on weekends, my need to access paid work were all minimized. My legal aid lawyer regularly shouted at me on the telephone, and when I asked for a psychologist who was familiar with the effects of race and culture, his reply was: “If you mention race, you have lost this case”. He implied that racism was similar to that of being a redhead or wearing glasses. If I insist on a culturally competent assessor, that would be seen by the court as being “racist” against an Irish counterpart. I was strictly advised not to complain that my son was called “nigger” or “black cun*” and told to “go back where he came from”, even though he was born in Ireland. That would be “playing the race card”. Incredibly, at one of the hearings, the Judge himself casually used an expression containing the word “nigger”. When I later raised this with my lawyer, he brushed it off as a “old-fashioned expression” that was common but didn’t mean anything anymore.
POINT 2: Denial of racism, and charges of “reverse-racism” against white people are tricky distortions, rhetorical strategies that make the person who talks about it the problem, rather than the racism and sexism being the problem. This framing is what Ailbhe Smyth has called “genderspeak”. Fighting for women’s autonomy, authority and freedom is not the same as “gender equality”, which is meaningless unless we are brought to a level playing field. Equal with whom? With what? Children (supposedly) have “rights”, father have “rights”, but do mothers have rights? Gender equality is not a solution for women’s oppression. Women are said to have “rights”, but are crushed by systemic racism and sexism when we try to enact them.
I was the primary breadwinner, and my need to relocate to find work was dismissed. Would this have happened is the man made this case? My subsequent request for a change of solicitor enraged my lawyer, who wrote a six page letter to the Legal Aid board, recommending my aid be withdrawn because I had been “scathing” in my criticism of the court and complained that the court process was racist and sexist.
POINT 3: Being black, female and speaking back incurs the wrath of white patriarchy on the counts of race and gender. Being smart, strong and articulate works against us, not only if we are socially vulnerable.
White males, red-faced, ignorant, arrogant, rude and punitive held the ultimate power in my case, as happens for many other women in Ireland where the reproductive female body has been, and still remains, the site of horrendous Medico-Legal assault and control.
Determined to find out what the hell was going on here, I applied for the MA Women’s Studies Programme at UCC, which a friend had just completed.
As a child I cried with frustration and anger at being treated differently. As a mother, I cried as the bond with my child was brutally severed, my authority and autonomy removed, my physical and emotional labour disavowed. Everybody mattered except me. I spoke back, as an educated woman, rational, fair and loving, demonstrated with solid evidence the possibility of balancing my child’s, mine and his father’s needs. No matter what evidence I provided, what good ideas I come up with, how far I was willing to go to facilitate everybody’s needs, I was repeatedly caged into the narrow frame that constructed me “angry, bitter woman, out to deny father access”. Even though I was considered “a devoted, brilliant mother” and a “highly intelligent woman”, when I used that love and intelligence to fight for my rights and freedoms, the words did not translate into material recognition, respect, authority, or power.
POINT 4: Until Black Feminist knowledge is engaged with deeply and becomes integral to mainstream feminism, we will not see the whiteness of mainstream feminism. Until we can then more fully engage with anti-racism, anti-capitalism and anti-sexism, the crie de coeur of black feminists since slavery and colonialism, we will not see how the ideologies of sexism and racism are co-constructions that uphold white capitalist patriarchy in the present.
Over the past four years, my doctoral research has focused on women of colour in asylum. I have seen more clearly how the intersection of Legal and Medical control of the maternal body is a deeply racialized space, operating at different levels of oppression for black women, who enter the space where Irish women’s reproductive bodies are already strictly controlled. Three repressive white patriarchial elite class institutions (MEDICAL, IMMIGRATION/BORDER CONTROL, and LAW) converge on the black pregnant female body, with deathly outcomes for some, as was the case for Bimbo Onanuga and Savita Halpannaver. It is true that This is No Country for Pregnant Women, as the Association for the Improvement of Maternity Services (AIMS) states. You can read the summary of the case by Salome Mbugua from AkiDawA on their site.
In my studies and personal experience, the very presence of the black female body arouses among other responses, fear and rage- and for those in positions of powerlessness, this is enacted through bodily punishment. Our black bodies threaten White Patriarchy, the smarter we are, the greater the threat to its unraveling. The more vulnerable we are made, the greater the possibility of domination over us. The physical and psychic punishment meted out intends to scar, wound and degrade black femaleness to preserve the power of white maleness. We need to tackle how black women are made vulebarble- through systemic racism and sexism, taken together. That, for me, is the point of intersectional theory for Irish feminism.
The most recent atrocity enacted on a migrant woman’s pregnant body shows clearly that Irish feminists are increasingly aware of how race and gender intersect to create tragic outcomes form women of colour, which adds to the well known Irish cases like the Kerry Babies, the X Case, and the Y case. Yes, we must engage and form solidarity across the right to abortion, but we must not limit solidarity to this issue alone. Our work will not succeed unless we work actively against racism and sexism together, because one constructs the other. We cannot look solely at gender and sexuality, and see black feminism as a kind of white feminism for black women. No. It is a completely different paradigm and engaging with it can effect a different kind of feminist solidarity and praxis.
I was irritated enough by the growing backlash to academic feminism and the “women against feminism” lobby to post this blog. If we want to LASH BACK, we need Women’s Studies, we need feminist scholars, students and activists. Mostly, the women who are racialized need spaces to educate themselves, speak for themselves, which is how I used my privileged position as a feminist researcher. However problematic or racist or professionalized feminism seems to be getting, we must protect it, fight for it, defend it, re-define it. And to understand the genocidal atrocities meted out to third world women and their children the world over, we have to engage with the links between race, gender and class that postcolonial and black feminist theorists make. Controlling black women’s reproduction is an essential condition of neocolonial capitalism. Do White feminists agree with these policies? I think not. It all comes down to how we understand what is going on.
I may not have a posh job at the end of my PhD, or even a job at all! But I will have my heart and mind aligned, in tact and blazing, my critical faculties razor sharp to make cracks in the walls that obstruct my freedom, I can teach, love and write, not only weep and fight.
SOME FABULOUS READING MATTER
June Jordan Where is the love?
“A black woman and feminist, I must look about me, with trembling and with shocked anger, at the endless waste, the endless suffocation of my sisters; the bitter sufferings of hundreds of thousands of children, the desolation of women trapped by futile, demeaning, low-paying occupations, the unemployed, the bullied, the beaten, the battered, the ridiculed, the slandered the trivialized, the raped and the sterilized; the lost millions of beautiful, creative and momentous lives turned to ashes on the pyre of fender identity. I must look about me and, as a black feminist, I must ask myself: Where is the love? How is my own life work serving these tyrannies, these corrosions of sacred possibility? How am I earning my membership in our worldwide movement for self-determination and self-respect?”
In Gloria Anzaldua ((ed)1990. Making Face, Making Soul: Haciendo Caras. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Foundation, pp.174-176)
Hazel Carby: White Women, Listen!
It is very important that white women in the women’s movement examine the ways in which racism excludes many black women and prevents them from unconditionally aligning themselves with white women. Instead of taking
black women as the objects of their research, white feminist researchers should try to uncover the gender-specific mechanisms of racism among white women. This more than any other factor disrupts the recognition of common interests of sisterhood”
Carby, H. (1982). White Women Listen! Black Feminism and the Boundaries of Sisterhood. In: Heidi Safra Mirza, (ed.) 1997. Black British Feminism: A Reader. London, New York: Routledge.