“I think it’s really important that people use that word (feminism) proudly and say ‘Yeah, I am a feminist’, instead of ‘I’m a feminist, but blah blah blah . . .’ “
Being a feminist is not something a person should have to defend, regardless of gender. The term was once synonymous with bra burning and an aversion to razors and the male species. However, Colette Fahy is confident the time is right to reclaim it from this misappropriation.
She acknowledges that “[Feminism] has become an uncool word”, but feels this is set to change. “Irish feminism is really going through a nice kind of Renaissance now,” she says, adding that its true meaning of gender equality is once again coming to the fore.
“I think women and girls and men are realising something has to be done and it can be done,” she states. “You can lobby your government and you can make a difference and it’s really, really exciting to be involved in feminism at the moment.”
Ms Fahy thinks the recent groundswell of support for the Irish Feminist Network (IFN) is, in part, due to the case of Savita Halappanavar bringing women’s rights to the fore. Ensuring the government follow through with implementing legislation for the X Case is one of the organisation’s top priorities this year.
Another issue the IFN is focusing on is the ‘Turn Off The Red Light’ campaign to end prostitution and sex trafficking in Ireland. Ms Fahy maintains that female objectification in the media is doing little to help such problems. “It relegates women to this box of being sexual objects and it’s not a good representation of all the many, various roles they take in life and public life and politics as well,” she says.
“As a society, we need to face up to the fact that [sexual assault] is a big problem. I know people don’t really like talking about it, but it is a big problem and we need to support women who have been survivors of sexual violence.
“Very few women would come forward in cases of sexual assault or rape . . . and there’s a huge stigma around it.” She notes how difficult it is for women to bring their case to the courts due to the very low convictions rates here.
Ms Fahy is extremely worried about Irish attitudes to rape. She cites the culture of “victim blaming” in incidences of sexual assault as an area of particular concern. “If someone is robbed you don’t say, ‘Oh well, you were walking around with your wallet on you’,” she adds.
She feels the use of rape as a “punch line” and throwaway terms such as ‘fraping’ in relation to Facebook are indicative of Ireland’s somewhat blasé attitude to a horrific crime.
Ms Fahy believes complacency has led to many societal problems in this country, one of them being the lack of women in the “boys’ club” that is the Dáil – less than 15 per cent. “We can’t just sit here and hope that it’ll fix itself, so things like quotas and the work of the 50:50 group, who actively encourage women . . . in politics, are really important.”
She says that in order to obliterate the glass ceiling, change has to come “from the top down”. Once this sexist culture has ceased, she feels quotas will no longer be necessary as it will then be second nature for women to become politicians if they so wish.
She muses that both the objectification of women in the media and the lack of female contributors in politics and business can have an extremely detrimental effect on young girls’ confidence.
Mary Robinson echoed these sentiments at NUI Galway last week. The former President of Ireland spoke of her disappointment regarding the relative lack of progress made by women in politics since she left office over fifteen years ago. "In some ways, things have gone well and in other ways, it's surprising that they have not gone better," she told student journalists.
“I thought that we were on a clearer path to women taking their full place [in politics] . . . actually it hasn’t happened. There are struggles now that younger women have to fight.”
Mrs Robinson feels that a lack of confidence may have restricted women from progressing further in politics. "Be confident in your ability, know that your country will be better served by all of you reaching your full potential," she advises.
The champion of women’s rights admitted she was reluctant to describe herself as a feminist during her presidency, for fear of being pigeon-holed. She said being “bracketed” as a feminist may have led to a loss of credibility in certain circles.
Such an admission from one of the world’s most highly respected public figures surely augers well for the future of feminism. Whether Renaissance or reclamation – who cares? Let’s all just fess up to the ‘f’ word.
Further details on the Irish Feminist Network can be found at www.irishfeministnetwork.org.