The Embodied Subject: Northern/Irish Feminist Judgments Project

WHB6t5xX_400x400This report of the fourth workshop of the Northern/Irish Feminist Judgments Project is by Sandra Duffy, an LL.M. student in International Human Rights Law & Public Policy at University College Cork.

‘The Embodied Subject’

The fourth workshop of the Northern/Irish Feminist Judgments Project was held in Griffith College Dublin on the 13th and 14th of April 2015. The Project, headed by Aoife O’Donoghue (Durham), Julie McCandless (LSE) and Máiréad Enright (Kent), seeks to add an oft-missed perspective in Northern/Irish jurisprudence by inserting a feminist judge on the bench of the Court in question in each case, and having them write the judgment addressing the issues overlooked or under-considered by the judgments handed down in the case itself.

The theme of the Dublin workshop was ‘the embodied subject’. As with most feminist consideration of the state of embodiment – especially that of women – there is often as much to be found in the silences as in the words. What does the law make of women’s bodies? Where are the gaps in consideration? How does the law address, or not address, the experiences of transgender and queer women – both in legislation, and in judicial opinion? Laws regulating the body, the physical self, can be blind to the social and psychological consequences they carry for the person thus regulated. If the law – as in most of the cases covered during the weekend – operates on a strict sex binary, where those female-assigned at birth are de jure considered female and those deemed male cannot be seen to be de facto female later in life, then the gendered experience of being a woman and experiencing one’s body is the square peg in the law’s round hole. Indeed, as Tanya Ní Mhuirthuile and Ivana Bacik ask in their judgment on Foy v An t-Ard Chláiritheoir, must sex assignation at birth be considered a statement of fact, or a rebuttable presumption?

The female sexed and gendered body forms an object for the law more often than its owner is deemed to be a subject and a participant in those laws. The selection of cases presented in this weekend displayed the judicial attitude to womanhood in all its forms, ranging from reproductive rights to gender recognition to adoption and ownership of one’s identity. The workshop also included cross-disciplinary talks from social scientists and activists which sought to place the question of law and the embodied subject into its fuller social context. The cases under consideration were McGee v Attorney General[1], McKinley v Minister for Defence[2], BJM v CM[3], Foy v An t-Ard Chláiritheoir[4], Barnes v Belfast City Council[5], Zappone and Gilligan v Revenue Commissioners[6], DPP v Tiernan[7], DPP v C[8], CC v Ireland[9], P.M.  v.  St. Vincent’s Hospital[10], and IOT v B[11].

These cases cover a broad spectrum of issues: the directly corporeal (BJM v CM, where the woman in question was treated as a body and nothing more by her ex-husband and the original judge) to the adminstrative (Zappone and Gilligan, two female spouses challenging an inequality in recognition and tax law) to the intersection of the civil right to privacy and the practical impact on health and family from denial of that right (Mc Gee v Attorney General). At times, the original judgments were considered to be broadly fair in their scope, in particular that of McKechnie J in Foy, where the rewriters found themselves in the curious position of being almost satisfied with the original opinion and looking for things to render it complete! Other cases, however, required fundamental change from the ground up. In Máiréad Enright’s opinion in McGee, she found herself breaking down the facts and circumstances of both the plaintifs, the McGee family, and the societal context in which the case took place. Máiréad questioned whether the right to use contraception was correctly identified as a right of the family unit, preferring to see it as a matter of individual privacy. The freedom to regulate one’s family planning could be considered to be a right of ’embodied conscience’ – living one’s civil and political rights through bodily experience.

One particularly egregious original judgment was that in BJM v CM. After having married, BJM was shocked to discover his wife had seriously physical scarring from a bad accident. He claimed that this scarring was physically repulsive enough that he had been tricked into the marriage and that his consent could not be considered informed; therefore, he sought a decree of nullity. Appallingly, this opinion was carried and the Ms’ marriage was annulled. This left CM in a position where she and her family found their lives in upheaval and their seventeen-year household suddenly without legal rights. The feminist judges remarked in particular on the voicelessness of CM throughout the case. The whole proceedings centres around BJM: his feelings and his experiences. CM is reduced to an object over which men are arguing. Indeed, the original judge goes so far as to state that concealing her scarring was to conceal something of ‘the fundamental nature of the person’ akin to a psychiatric illness. CM did not, however, suffer any such irregularity in personality or emotions – but due to her husband’s claimed lack of attraction to her, she was deemed defective enough that BJM could not have given informed consent to marrying her. She is regarded as her body and nothing more. The commentators also spoke about the lack of sexual identity of women before the Irish courts. The Madonna/whore dichotomy is very evident here; CM is either properly modest for not sleeping with BJM before marriage, or she is a dishonest fraud who sought to entrap a man before revealing her ‘dysfunctional’ self. Possibly she is both at once, but we cannot know what she herself was thinking because all the commentary on her life is coming from men – male husband, male doctors, male judge. If the embodied female subject in Irish law has a nadir in terms of respect, BJM v CM may possibly be it.

The interdisciplinary panels interspersed through the delivery of judgments covered issues of women in Irish society ranging from the history of the women politically active around the 1920s in Ireland, to the struggle for women’s right to sit on a jury. They included stories of front-line activism, such as that of front-line campaigner Ailbhe Smyth, and a powerful story from leader of the Survivors of Symphysiotomy support group Mary O’Connor. Most unexpectedly enthralling was the presentation of social geographer Mary Gilmartin, who spoke on ‘Bodies, Borders, and Scales’. She spoke of how the way in which we organise and conceptualise our physical space in society is one of the instruments through which we experience our lives within that society. The hierarchy of our esteem for space, placing cities as centres of power, alienates those without access to such power; similarly, when we consider the world as a collection of ‘more important’ versus ‘less important’ areas, we assign identity to people based on the physical space which they occupy and weigh their existence as more or less relevant than our own. In this way the symbolic value of that person’s physical existence is linked to their assigned place in the world – in Mary’s words, “the body, in effect, becomes the carrier of the border.”

Considering the physical self to own within it the borders of one’s assigned societal identity brings with it another way to understand the experiences of LGBTQ subjects in law. Whether it be a challenge to the legitimacy of one’s marriage or the ability to live without constant worry of being revealed to be transgender, the lives of the queer and trans* community in Ireland have never been easy. The brave women at the centre of the Foy and Zappone and Gilligan cases know that they carry with them the borders imposed on them by society, and in challenging those borders in the courts they opened their lives up to scrutiny and invalidation. The LGBTQ rights campaigns have always involved the assertion of both physical and psychological identity by those involved: the law addresses them solely as the product of their physical bodies in deciding who they are and with whom they may form a family. From a feminist viewpoint, the right to be considered a person in possession of full and equal human rights is essential. The feminist and LGBTQ struggle overlap and intersect, and it is right that we should deconstruct thinking around queer bodies as we do around female-sexed bodies more generally.

In thinking about bodies and their effects and uses, the questions of sexual activity, reproduction, and sexual violence arise. While the third IFJP workshop, in University College Cork, had centred on ‘the mothering subject’, this workshop looked at the effects of sexual regulation in Ireland on the woman as an individual as opposed to the carrier/mother of a child. Contraception was spoken of in the McGee judgment, and Máiréad also gave a colourful account of the condom-smuggling trade over the border in the 1970s. Caroline Fennell and Louise Kennefick had written their opinion on the DPP v Tiernan case, in which a sentence for rape was challenged and questions related to the law of sentencing overall arose. The feminist judges took issue with the views of Finlay CJ in the case, noting that his judgment contained stereotyped views of women and drew distinctions between different circumstances in which rapes occur. They wished to focus more on the role and experience of the victim-witness as an autonomous actor in the trial process (leading them to consider, also, the propriety of using feminist principles to argue for retributive justice for a victim). Eilinóir Flynn and Sinéad Ring looked at another case involving sexual autonomy, that of DPP v C. This case was based on the law around consent to sexual acts. The judges gave a thoughtful, complex look at the idea of consent both per se and as it can be regulated/proven in court. Foremost, again, were the ideas of autonomy and agency of the consenting party. They also noted that discussions of consent, as in this case, can be very heteronormative – just another way in which the embodied self finds itself playing a pre-determined role before the law.

The issue of corporeality is inseparable from the experience of being a woman in a sociolegal context. On a personal level, I took from this workshop a broader understanding of my existence before the law, along with the challenges of viewing the consequences of my own embodiment and that of others with a critical eye. From a wider perspective, being able to read a case with an eye to how the biological sex and true gender of the participants is an exercise which illuminates some repeating themes in Irish law: the body, the mother, the sexuality, the autonomy of choice.

[1]    [1973] IESC 2 (Máiréad Enright (Judge) & Emily Cloatre (Commentator))

[2]    [1992] 2 IR 333 (Joanne Conaghan (Judge) & Fergus Ryan (Commentator))

[3]    [1996] 2 IR 547 (Aideen Ryan & Katie Dawson (Judge) & Christine Ryan (Commentator))

[4]    [2007] IEHC. 116 (Tanya ní Mhuirthile (Judge) & Ivana Bacik (Commentator))

[5]    [2012] NICA 19 (Marie Fox (Judge) & Fiona Cooke (Commentator))

[6]    [2006] IEHC 404 (Fiona de Londras (Judge) & Siobhán Wills (Commentator))

[7]    [1988] 1 I.R. 250 (Louise Kennefick & Caroline Fennell (Judge) & Liz Campbell (Commentator))

[8]    [2001] 3 IR 345 (Eilionóir Flynn &  Sinéad Ring (Judge) & Anna Arstein-Kerslake (Commentator))

[9]    [2006] IESC 33 (David Prendergast (Judge) Cian O’Concubhair (Commentator))

[10]  [2003] IR 321 (Mary Donnelly (Judge) & Claire Murray (Commentator))

[11]  [1998] 2 IR 321 (Katherine O’Donnell & Claire McGettrick (Judges), James Smith (Commentator))

The Embodied Subject: Northern/Irish Feminist Judgments Project

Northern/Irish Feminist Judgments: First Workshop 'The Foreign Subject'

NIFJPWe are delighted to welcome back Ruth Houghton, a Graduate Teaching Assistant and Ph.D. candidate at Durham Law School who has previously written for us here and here. Ruth is also a commentator on the Northern/Irish Feminist Judgments Project. The post was published on Inherently Human.

The Project

As has been previously mentioned on this blog, the  Northern/Irish Feminist Judgments Project (@irishfjp) is led by Aoife O’Donoghue (Durham Law School), Julie McCandless (LSE Law) and Máiréad Enright (Kent Law School). A feminist judgments project writes the ‘missing feminist judgment’; it takes original decisions and rewrites them from a feminist perspective. Abiding to the strictures of precedent and custom that judges adhere to, the feminist judge shows how the law could have been interpreted or applied differently. This particular project builds on the work of the Canadian, Australian and English feminist judgments projects, and focuses specifically on the creation of identity in Ireland and Northern Ireland. The project will explore both jurisdictions, rewriting cases from both the Irish and Northern Irish courts. The Northern/Irish Feminist Judgments project explores the building of communities and the importance of diaspora for Irish identity as well as creating a space to explore the ways that Northern Irish and Irish identities have ‘affected, and defined themselves in relation to one another over time’.

First Drafting Workshop

On the 23rd October 2014, in Ulster University, five feminist judges presented their draft judgments to an interdisciplinary audience. The judges were free to choose the cases that they wanted to rewrite from a feminist perspective, which meant that there was a broad range of issues covered. From Irish constitutional law to vicarious liability for child sexual abuse, from employment law to public appointments and police powers and duties, these cases raised questions about community, identity, harm and the limitations of the legal systems.  The cases that were discussed at this workshop were; In re White (Judge: Catherine O’Rourke), McGimpsey v Ireland (Judge: Aoife O’Donoghue), In re E (Judge: Colin Murray), O’Keefe v Hickey (Judge: Maeve O’Rourke) and Flynn v Power (Judge: Eoin Daly).

Interspersed between the cases, were panels from scholars and activists from a variety of disciplines. The project aims to engage with the particular social, political and sectarian context and so issues of religion, sexuality and abortion were discussed during the two-day’ workshop. Photographer and filmmaker Emma Campbell (@frecklescorp) shared her video, When they put their hands out like scales, which includes the words from the Hansard debate on abortion in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 20th June 2000. Listening to words from the debate highlighted the prevalence of religion within the political debate on abortion. The images of walkways, paths and finally images of the docks were used to demonstrate the journeys women in Ireland have to take to seek an abortion and ultimately the denied statehood of these women. The extent to which abortion effects the construction or deconstruction of women’s identities was highlighted in the short-film as an actor read aloud Mrs Carson’s statement from the debate in the Assembly, ‘they should not be made to feel like criminals having to hide their identities. Nor should they be ostracised by society.’ Leanne McCormick demonstrated the role of female sexuality in the creation of women’s identities. She displayed images from ‘douching’ advertisements and told of how women were represented within trial reports from the early 20th century following accusations of abortions, attempted terminations and infanticide.

The construction of the foreign subject

The theme of the first drafting workshop was the ‘Foreign Subject’. Ex-President of the United States of American, Bill Clinton was noted to have said that ‘the most urgent issue facing the world [is] that of identity’ (quoted by Marianne Elliott). The creation of identities in Ireland and Northern Ireland was the focus of the panels at the first drafting workshop. Scholars from history, sociological, English literature and law came together to discuss the effects of the social, geographical, political and religious contexts on the construction of Irish identities. One element of this identity creation was migration and more broadly, travel and movement. Louise Ryan argued that identity is relational; it is located within particular places and created by the different relations between people. She discussed the effect of migration to England on Irish identity, showing how the perception of Irish people in England effects the way individuals present their Irish-ness.

In particular, the panels were interested in the way more marginalised groups build identities or have identities imposed upon them. Throughout the workshop the term foreign was constantly conceptualised and reconceptualised, stretched and expanded, to include those groups of people who are considered ‘foreign’ because they do not fit within societies expectations. ‘Foreign’ could include migrants, religious identities, LGBT persons, or women. Marianne Elliot noted how the word for foreign and protestant in Irish is the same and Anne Mulhall from University College Dublin spoke on the representation of migrant and LGBT persons in campaign literature.

One of the questions that the project seeks to explore is the role of the judiciary in the creation of identities. In judicial decisions, identities are created and the case law acts as a permeant record of this identity. The McGimpsey v Ireland case is an interesting example of the way litigants are constructed by the courts. The McGimpsey brothers lived in Northern Ireland and were well-known political actors amongst unionist supporters, their political belief was a rejection of Irish jurisdiction over Northern Ireland. They took a case to the courts in the Republic of Ireland challenging the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. Even though the brothers rejected Ireland’s territorial claims and unionists in general would have been disliked in the Republic, when the case was in the High Court in the Republic of Ireland, Barrington J described the litigants as being ‘patently sincere and serious people’. Emphasising the brothers’ good standing within the community and their public and civic lives, the court fashioned an ideal litigant. This raises the question whether a housewife could have brought the same case and received the same favourable treatment; a question that Aoife O’Donoghue considered in her feminist rewrite of the Irish Supreme Court judgment.

The interrelationship between questions of community and identity in Northern Ireland and Ireland is strong. The community in Northern Ireland meant Protestant and Catholic or Unionist and Nationalist. Marianne Elliot highlighted how these different community groups had very different oral histories, which are used to crystallise identities. The pervasiveness of this divide is seen by the nature of party politics, which draws a distinction between “unionist”, “nationalist” and “other”. Yet, Myrtle Hill, a historian at Queen’s University Belfast and Monica McWilliams from the Transitional Justice Institute, talked about and shared experiences of the women’s movement in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. They noted how the movement distanced itself from the political-party lines that were drawn and engaged in cross-community activism. More recently, the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition created in 1996, also refused to align with one ideology and were designated as “other” within the Irish National Assembly.

Still, a reoccurring trend in the Northern Irish and Irish judgments was the construction of identity along political and sectarian lines, dividing the community into Protestants and Catholics or unionists and nationalists. In re White concerned the appointment of representatives to the Northern Ireland Parades Commission (overseeing the parades or marches that take place in Northern Ireland). Despite the fact that women took part in the parades and were affected by the parades that took place on their streets, in the original decision it was held that ‘representative of the community’ did not include representing women. Similarly, in the case of McGimpsey v Ireland the original judgment talks of majority and minority community (invoking the Protestant majority and the Catholic minority). There is no thought to those people who fell outside of these divides, in particular those people who were excluded by the community: in response to the 1978 draft Homosexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order, the Democratic Unionist Party started a petition to “Save Ulster from Sodomy”.

The feminist judgments in the Northern/Irish Feminist Judgments Project demonstrate how these decisions could have been decided or reasoned differently to improve the place of women and minorities within society. Each judge had a different feminism and so had different methods of creating a feminist judgment. By placing women within the text of the judgment, by focusing on the specific gendered nature of the harm suffered, by telling the stories of the women involved or in the cases of In re White and McGimpsey v Ireland by reconceptualising ‘community’, the Northern/Irish Feminist Judgments Project is able to critique the original decisions. The Irish feminist judges are now challenging judicial decisions that had a negative effect on women and minority groups.

The Northern/Irish Feminist Judgments Project has been assisted by research from Zoe Carter and Eleanne Hussey (LSE) and Ellen Jepson from Gender and Law at DurhamThank you to the University of Ulster, Transitional Justice Institute and Law School for hosting and supporting the first workshop.

Northern/Irish Feminist Judgments: First Workshop 'The Foreign Subject'