Tuesday 11 December 2018

Everyday sexism is rife, so girls need to have their voices heard

Girls today are smart and articulate and are outperforming boys at both second and third level. But most still struggle to have their voices heard (Stock picture)
Girls today are smart and articulate and are outperforming boys at both second and third level. But most still struggle to have their voices heard (Stock picture)

Barbara Scully

When I arrived to pick her up I knew it hadn't been a great night. "It was meh," she said. Her four friends all agreed as they piled into the car, after a special Transition Year Night (no alcohol) in a club in the city. As we headed out of town into the freezing, foggy night, she filled me in on the night's events.

It started when they were waiting in the queue to enter the club and she needed to use the bathroom. The bouncer was very nice, but said he couldn't admit her. However, he did suggest she try a nearby café which she did, asking one of the two men working there if it was OK to use the bathroom. "Sure," she was told by one of them, who then added "would you like me to come and help you in there?" She was mortified. She is 16.

Later, in the club, she felt a sharp stinging on her legs (she was wearing tights and a skirt) and turned around to find one of the TY boys had taken off his belt and was amusing himself by going around smacking girls on the ass with it. She was furious and shouted at him to "f**k off".

"Good girl," I said on hearing her story. She wondered out loud as to why the hell would he think that was OK and then added that "it was awful that the other girls just laughed it off in front of him even though they hated it too". I think my daughter's height advantage over him gave her courage that other girls didn't have.

Anyway, if proof is still needed, that is why we still need feminism. But the fact that most of the girls who were slapped accepted this degrading and painful treatment as part of what happens on a night out is a clear indication that our girls desperately need feminism too.

The National Women's Council of Ireland recently hosted their second annual FemFest, a day-long event aimed specifically at young women from 16 to 24 years.

Speakers at the event included culture journalist and spoken word artist Clara Rose Thornton, who vividly recounted her own experience of sexual harassment and blatant sexism at a public event. She called it out and urged her young audience to do likewise, each and every time they experience behaviour that demeans them. She urged the delegates not to worry about the glass ceiling but to focus on the plastic ceiling of patriarchy, saying that every time sexual harassment is called out, a hole is punched through the plastic and eventually all the holes will join up.

But it takes courage and confidence to speak up, to be the one to call out sexism, and this was something that became clear during the question-and-answer session. Girls asked how they could discuss feminism without being ridiculed or being labelled as humourless. One girl described trying to begin such a conversation as akin to "playing chess with a pigeon". And although old enough to be their mammy, I could identify with that, I know that feeling.

Patriarchy is so normalised that often even blatant sexist behaviour is invisible until it is pointed out. And you know what, it's often easier not to see it. Because once we become aware of it, life becomes ever more complicated. It's often easier to just write off discomforting behaviour by saying "it's just a bit of craic", "sure, nothing is meant by it."

And we can all relax and calm down. And nothing changes.

Taking the feminist conversation outside the room, be it your own kitchen, bedroom or a conference venue, is vital - and our girls need to be brave and patient and persevere. But they are hobbled in their task because we don't teach them to use their voices in a public way. We don't encourage them to be loud (when necessary), to express their opinions freely, and to demand the space and time to do so. Girls need to be taught the power of their own voice, of their own stories, and that their opinions are valid.

The public space is still dominated by male voices - just turn on your radio where women still account for only about a quarter of the voices on the airwaves. The message is that women's experiences, women's stories and opinions are not as important as those of men.

Girls today are smart and articulate and are outperforming boys at both second and third level. But most still struggle to have their voices heard; they have difficulty finding the confidence to demand that they are treated equally and fairly and with respect. Oh yes, we still need feminism all right.

Irish Independent

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