More than a decade since the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland’s peace has failed to address women’s demands for inclusion and equality, and the peace remains incomplete. On the one hand, women express dissatisfaction with an essentially male-dominated peacebuilding process that continues to silence their experiences and places great constraint on their agency. On the other, local feminist and trade unions activists have drawn attention to the pernicious intersection between Northern Ireland’s transition to peace and the logic of neoliberal reforms which, having disproportionally affected women’s economic position, works to further entrench gender inequalities.
Despite persistent constraints, women’s grassroots organisations continue the pattern of active involvement in the voluntary sector that traces back to their crucial role in community development during the decades of conflict. This has been well documented in reports such as Women’s Centres and the local communities, and Women and Conflict. Local feminists also strive to tackle the failed promises of inclusion and prosperity embedded in Northern Ireland’s incomplete peace, for instance through the creation of a collective such as Reclaim the Agenda.
At a first sight the picture emerging from Northern Ireland is one of a concerted effort to radically improve the position of women and re-shape society through the principle of gender equality. However a closer look suggests that important differences exist between instances of “front-line feminism”, as defined by Cynthia Cockburn to identify the array of activities developed throughout the conflict by the formalised women’s sector, and emerging practices of feminist activism developed by a younger generation of women.
The activities undertaken by the Belfast Feminist Network (BFN) are indicative of the new trajectories of feminist activism underway. The views presented here draw on our own experiences both as researchers in the field of gender and peacebuilding, and as active BFN members. We believe that highlighting these practices, which perhaps are less visible and on a much smaller scale than the more institutionalised women’s sector, is crucial in order to discuss how feminists from different generations can work together to radically transform society in Northern Ireland and beyond.
An anti-rape poster created by Belfast Feminist Network, 2012. Credit: Claire Pierson
The resurgence of feminist politics: between local and global moment
Concerns are often expressed about the extent of younger women’s inclusion and visibility within feminist movements globally, and Northern Ireland is no different in this regard. Addressing this issue suggests that we need to engage more broadly with generational differences among feminists and with the evolving nature of feminist theory and practice.
There is a general agreement that feminist movement(s) have historically and transnationally seen tensions and misunderstandings among differently positioned feminists, moments of abeyance and upheaval, the evolution of new theoretical concepts and new tools for activism, as well as the return of issues that appeared to be resolved- e.g. reproductive rights, the gender pay-gap. We believe that continuities and ruptures among different generations are nothing but a strength which equips feminism(s) with the ability to develop, adapt and respond to the evolving challenges that sexism, patriarchy, and exclusions around the axis of class, ethnicity, sexuality and ability present at specific times.
In response to the recent upsurge of feminism activism in the UK and globally, The Guardian journalist Kyra Cochrane’s recent book “All the Rebel Women” sets out to investigate the motives, experiences and strategies of emerging feminist activists. As we hear about the creators of different campaigns from Everyday Sexism to No More Page 3, a guiding question runs throughout the book : “Is this a fourth wave of feminism?”. The answer emerging from the book is not so clear-cut: some of the issues addressed are certainly not new, however there are some specific traits that make current feminist interventions different, new, and certainly attuned to the current political moment.
Most younger feminists have managed to use the immediacy of internet and social media to their benefit, developing online campaigns connecting with other activists and reaching out to specific targets - government, companies, retailers, the media etc. Campaigners often rely on the power of humour and wit - see for example Confused Cats against Feminism and Knickers for Choice - to develop strategies reaching broader audiences. While not necessarily something new, this is certainly a growing strategy and one which is often related to the fact that most campaigns are self-funded and often need to compensate for limited resources with creativity.
Current feminist activism appears to be less rooted in academic debates and more focused on hands-on activism, such as the transnational Hollaback movement, Daughters of Eve and Feminist Fightback in the UK , who organise actions as diverse as petitions, flash-mobs, online campaigns, blogs, and activist training days. At the same time, most feminists are familiar with key concepts and theoretical debates which are more and more accessible through social media and blogs. One key issue in particular seems to bring together most feminist activists: the idea that feminism must look beyond gender and address the multiple ways in which the power structures of society create exclusions and inequalities also on the grounds of sexual orientation, class, ethnicity and ability.
Cochrane argues that we are certainly witnessing a new wave of feminist activism: technological; creative; rooted in a wider political shift that questions the false promise of an achieved gender equality and is concerned with the growing breadth of inequalities. While it might not be a political movement as we know it, she concludes, this broad, nascent and diverse series of feminist interventions is certainly creating an alternative space of grassroots mobilisation.
The Belfast Feminist Network (BFN) is situated within the contemporary wave of feminist activism aptly portrayed by Cochrane. However, the network is also firmly rooted in the feminist challenges and broader pockets of activism such as those revolving around the Realta Civic Space, and in the specific context of “post-conflict/post-Agreement” Northern Ireland. BFN has a clear feminist political agenda, broadly conceived in order to give space to diverse and multiple feminist perspectives. It began organising in 2010 with a series of informal meetings and has now reached over 1000 online members. Social media clearly engages a wider network of individuals, yet the extent to which online activism translates and integrates with on the ground activism is often a topic of discussion. At a recent BFN activist training day, several participants said that they had been online members for several years before deciding to make the leap and engage for the first time face to face.
BFN is an informal network which includes women and men from a variety of backgrounds and life experiences. This diversity enables the creation of a space where those who have critically engaged with gender inequalities in Northern Ireland for a number of years can support others who are only just beginning to challenge gender inequality. Broad membership also allows the network to make connections - and integrate with - more established feminist movement groups such as Alliance for Choice and the women’s sector, whilst developing its own unique voice.
This younger generation of feminists with a wide demographic of membership is particularly interested in the links between gender and other intersects of identity and inequality. BFN has been at the forefront of providing space for women to engage with feminism and intersecting identities, hosting events in conjunction with Outburst Queer Arts Festival , a series of discussions on the issues that women who live on Belfast interfaces currently face, and seminars on women’s position and exclusion within a capitalist economy.
Young women have been identified as a particularly ‘invisible’ group in Northern Ireland with regard to being able to express and have their views heard. In order to provide a younger, feminist voice within the consultation process, the network has produced a series of policy responses to consultations on particularly divisive feminist issues locally and internationally, such as increased access to abortion and the criminalisation of the purchase of sex. It has also begun to organise more strategically branching off into smaller hubs of communication, peer support, activism and lobbying. Members are using their expertise to take charge of particular areas of activism, and engage more actively and collectively on a wider range of issues. Organising around a belief in feminism’s ability to generate social change is a heartening reaction, and a challenge to the traditional immobility and rigidity of Northern Irish politics.
It is vital that in the lead up to the UK general election in May we increase our "political" profile and ensure that the voices and views of young feminists are heard in the formal political sphere - through submission of policy consultations on topics that range from women’s full participation in politics to amendments to abortion legislation.
The next few months represent a crucial opportunity to articulate and represent the visions of peace (and politics) that younger women, who were children when the Good Friday Agreement was negotiated, have for the future of Northern Ireland. The struggle to re-shape Northern Irish society and achieve real peace, in addition to encompassing issues of dealing with the past and the impact of increased austerity, must prioritise wider issues of social and reproductive justice and the inclusion and equality of people of all genders and sexes as full-fledged citizens.
Read more articles in 50.50's series on Women and Peacebuilding in Northern Ireland