Reese Erlich, Editor
Women in Action ’85
The men and women of Ireland have long fought for the end to British occupation of the north and for a unified Ireland. Sine the 1960’s women have come to play a more active role in the Irish Republican movement.
I interviewed Breige-Ann McCaughley, 25, who served four years at Armagh Prison and is now chairperson of the Belfast Strip Search Committee; and Briege Brownless, 25 who served six years at Armagh. She now works at the Wom- en’s Center, which counsels women on such issues as wel- fare, rape and family violence.
The interview took place at one of the local offices of Sinn Fein, the legal political party that supports the Iris Republican Army.
UNITY: How did women get involved in the struggle?
Brownlee: During the early 70’s, men were all taken away and interned (held without trial — ed.). This left the women all of a sudden on their own, with- out male support. “Ireland and its sons” — there’s this real chauvinistic attitude in Ireland.
Through women being left on their own, they finally had to cope, they had to take care of families, they had to work. Through that evolved this whole awareness: What have I been doing all these years? It broadened out until women were actually looking at the whole political arena. They were asking, why aren’t women involved? Why should I be kept in the house? Through that has evolved a whole political awareness. Some women have taken a really active role in politics.
We have very prominent women leaders. There’s the like of Rita O’Hara, who was one of the founding members of the Sinn Fein Women’s Department. Women like that are an inspiration to women all over Ireland because they’re no longer going to put up with being told they are only allowed to do one role.
UNITY: Why have the prison guards at Armagh been strip searching women since November 1982?
McCaughley: We see the strip searches as just further harassment by the authorities. They continually try to eat away at the women’s personal esteem, their individuality, trying to break their morale. There have been over 2,000 strip searches (since 1982) on an average of 15-20 women prisoners (at any given time). The main victims who are being stripped naked are remand prisoners, someone who has been arrested and can spend up to three years waiting for their trial.
A renowned psychologist based in Dublin, Dr. Ivor Browne, compared strip searching with rape. Rape is an act of violence and hatred, and these searches are just that. He saw the act of strip searching as trying to gain control over each and every woman.
UNITY: What impact does the Catholic Church have on women?
Brownless: The problem is vast. It’s such a church-controlled country. In the south, contraceptives are illegal (as are divorce and abortion — ed.). It’s a farce, because women will get contraceptives if they want to use them. In the north here, because we are part of the “United Kingdom,” contraceptives are easily available. Abortion isn’t. But even a priest said, “The Pope can say whatever he likes; the people will make their own decisions.”
UNITY: Are there problems with male chauvinism with the Republican movement?
Brownlee: The struggle is there for the simple fact that there are still chauvinists. They can be ever so liberal while they’re speaking, but when it comes to their own homes, that’s where it shows. They still expect a woman, whether she’s involved in politics, they still expect a woman to have dinner ready, feed the kids, take the kids to school, etc.
But on the whole, there really is more of an awareness. Women are being more appreciated.
One rule in the Women’s Center is that men aren’t allowed. That’s looked upon as being discrimination itself. It isn’t. We get women coming who have been raped, incest cases. Women come to us for the simple reason they know there’s no men there, that they can talk to a woman. We’ve been knocked for that, but on the whole, most men would appreciate it. So whether the opinions are there, well they are there, but it’s not going to knock the movement among the women.
Sinn Fein decided at the annual conference last year that they were opposed to abortion, but… I don’t remember the exact wording, but it had something to do with medical conditions. It’s still a topic that’s not spoken about. They have to wait for the opinion of the people themselves to change.
McCaughley: Personally speaking, it is my opinion that it would be up to the individual woman as to whether she has an abortion or not. It’s her body, it’s her life. (At each year’s annual conference, women activists within Sinn Fein have gained more votes for a changed position on abortion, but it is not yet a pro-choice stand. —ed.)
UNITY: What can people in the U.S. do to help stop the strip searches?
Brownlee: Take a few minutes of your time to sit down and write your congressmen, senators, clergymen and newspapers to condemn the strip searching. We do need donations, no matter how small. Send them to: Marie Moore, POW Department, 51/53 Falls Road, Belfast 13, Ireland.