Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Trading Aprons for Arms: Feminist Resistance in the North of Ireland

Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Trading Aprons for Arms: Feminist Resistance in the North of Ireland

Article excerpt

This article examines women's feminist resistance under the rubric of nationalism. It challenges the commonly held assumption that participation in nationalist movements is not self-serving for women, that fighting in a national liberation movement is detrimental to women's emancipation. It accounts for the rise of feminist-nationalist organizing in the North of Ireland, and its impact on the most radical element of Irish nationalism - republicanism. It argues that women's participation in the armed struggle empowered republican women to develop and advance a progressive, feminist agenda in conjunction with republicanism. This analysis is primarily based on interviews conducted with former female members of the Irish Republican Army.

Nationalism as Oppressive to Women

Since the early 1980s, when the field of women and nationalism started to gain prominence, feminists have been seeking to determine the extent to which nationalism is an oppressive force in women's lives. Their studies provide an understanding of how violence employed in conflict in the form of mass rape, abuse, torture and murder, is most often directed at women.(1) To a lesser extent, feminist scholars have also surveyed women's participation as combatants in national struggles.(2) What each approach has in common is a desire to understand the implications of nationalism for women. The former has explored how women's bodies become the terrain over which armed struggles are fought. The latter generally emphasizes how women, despite their active participation, are rarely afforded equal status within nationalist movements. Each approach has been critical to our understanding of how women are implicated in (or by) the nationalist project. Not as cogently understood, however, is women's feminist resistance within such nationalist struggles. Feminism still lacks a solid understanding of women's organizing against patriarchy in the context of nationalism.

Despite the fact that nationalist movements are often self-proclaimed liberation movements, much of feminist scholarship has equated nationalism with a retreat from the struggle for women's emancipation. Nationalism, it has been argued, asks women to put "their" emancipation project on hold until the national issue is resolved. Female combatants in nationalist struggles throughout the world are often asked to prioritize their struggles, because the nationalist cause is the most temporally pressing and "other issues" should be dealt with after the revolution is won. As Cynthia Enloe explains:

Repeatedly, male nationalist organizers have elevated unity of the community to such political primacy that any questioning of relations between men and women inside the movement could be labeled as divisive, even traitorous. Women who have called for more genuine equality between the sexes...have been told that now is not the time, the nation is too fragile, the enemy is too near. Women must be patient, they must wait until the nationalist goal is achieved; then relations between women and men can be addressed. Not now, later, is the advice that rings in the ears of many nationalist women.(3)

Furthermore, once the national question is addressed, the argument goes, women are still left out in the cold as it is still patriarchal power that rules the day; there is little evidence to suggest that when "later" actually arrives the concerns of its female membership are ever contemplated. Anne McClintock suggests, "In many nationalist or socialist countries women's concerns are at best paid lip service, at worst greeted with hilarity. If women have come to do men's work [in combat] men have not come to share women's work."(4) Similar evidence has been brought forth in countless studies on this topic.(5)

Another critique levelled against women's participation in nationalist struggles is that it only serves to entrench patriarchy, as women legitimize the male-defined and male-led nationalist agendas. …

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