Charting troubled waters

This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 36, Winter 1997/98.

In the North of Ireland, the nationalist struggle is at the centre of political discussion and action. Nationalists often make connections with the struggles of other oppressed and colonised peoples, but in reality, argues Shahidah Janjua, the nationalist agenda marginalises other concerns. Racism and (hetero)sexism are common in Northern Ireland as elsewhere, but because they do not ‘fit’ a one-dimensional model of ‘radical’ politics, those who experience oppression every day are often alienated and silenced, or compelled to split complex identities into fragments. ‘Justice’, says Shahidah Janjua, ‘does not come in neat little packages’. As a black lesbian feminist living in the North of Ireland, she calls for a politics that can deliver ‘justice for all of me’.

I attended a one day Conference held in Downtown Women’s Centre Belfast during the International Women’s Day celebrations in March of this year (1997). The Conference was entitled Women Building Bridges, and was concerned with women working together across divides in the former Yugoslavia, Israel, Palestine, and the North of Ireland. I was asked, by one of the speakers/activists from Dublin, a Jewish woman, if I would write an article on racism in the North of Ireland.

It is difficult now, seven months later, to describe precisely how I felt about this request. I was conscious that Ronit and I had only just met, and that aside from our contributions to the discussions on the day, and a relatively brief conversation between us, we knew little about each other. At the same time her request signified a strong connection we had made — despite the brevity of our contact, despite the differences in the environments in which we lived (North and South Ireland), despite the differences between us. This connection was based upon our experiences of being marginal to and alienated from these environments.

I was moved by the generosity of a woman who believed I had something to say, and something to offer, both in respect of my personal experience in the North of Ireland, and my analysis of it. No-one had asked me to speak of my experience of racism in Ireland before this. It was a powerful incentive to write — to give it expression. I wrote a first draft that dealt with racism, in relation to nationalism, while at the same time trying to attach other oppressive experiences to it. However the black part of me could not be so easily hacked off from other parts, that together make up the whole of me. I was fragmenting my experiences, and thereby the experiences of others.

The following article is a reworking of that draft, and is as true to the perspective and politics to which I hold and live by, as I am capable of expressing at this point in time. I thank Ronit for her original request, and thank especially the women at Trouble and Strife, for their support in encouraging my reworking of the original draft.

Racism is a global reality. Individual and collective black experience bears testament to it, both in the context of lives lived in developed and developing countries. White men insinuate themselves into positions of power everywhere. They are the monetary, military and media backbone of the world. Developing economies are tailor-made to meet the needs of white consumers at home and abroad in manufacture, cash crops and tourism (Taiwan, Kenya, Thailand). White military might will punish ignore or support the bad boys of developing nations in accordance with western social and political values. White western cultural imperi­alism sets the standards for economic social and political behaviours. The historical track record of a now globalised white supremacy bears witness to the genocide of Native American and Canadian peoples, Africans made slaves, Asian indentured labour in Africa, the colonisation of whole nations, the destruction of whole civilisa­tions (Zimbabwe). Racial oppression is not new, it dates back as far as first contact between white and black peoples.

While living in the North of Ireland I was told with monotonous regularity that Irish people are not racist because they have been, in the case of the South, and are still, in the case of the North, a colonised people. In the context of the North this is a specifically Republican/Nationalist claim. It is a claim which assumes a commonality of experience of oppression with black people. It is true that many aspects of colonial oppression are shared by black and white peoples, and that these may form the basis for alliance. It is also true that the most econo­mically and politically deprived of white people are the beneficiaries of white supremacist thought and action, informed by the historical record, perpetuated through education, religion and popular culture, immortalised in porno­graphy, practised informally, and institutionally. Irish Catholics are still buying the damned souls of black babies through donations made to Trocaire collection boxes.

The right to dominance

Audre Lorde, black woman, lesbian, writer, activist, gives us a succinct definition of Racism which covers it all:

Racism: The belief in the inherent superiority of one race over all others and thereby the right to dominance.

It is not surprising then that I can offer a catalogue of incidents, personal experiences of racist behaviours, in the North of Ireland, included among them being spat at on the streets, called a black bastard, being asked how much I charge for sex, having my money counted out for me by a shop assistant in her best loud voice, reserved for the deaf and the different, my best unaccented English being to no avail.

In a place where clear boundaries mark the territory between Protestants and Catholics, loyalists and republicans, no such boundaries exist for the perpetration of racial abuse. Whether on the Glen Road of West Belfast, or the Doagh Road of North Belfast, I was seared daily by words, actions, and looks, that branded me with an unbelonging. A black woman acquaintance born and raised in Ballymoney was constantly asked where she came from, Bally­money was never the right answer, only somewhere in Africa would do.

I have been nurtured on the racially hostile terrain of England since the age of fourteen. None of the above was new to me. Being habituated to abuse removes its cutting edge and holds few surprises. It can also be the fuel for a useful rage that informs both survival and the desire for justice.

In the North of Ireland there is another dimension to racist behaviour which resides specifically in Nationalist/Republican thinking. In essence it is a variation on the patriarchal theme of defining some people as other, lesser, insignificant beings, which serves to perpetuate a hierarchy. This was a surprise to me, and perhaps I need to take a portion of responsibility for my own naivete. Yet when I heard white people make common cause with Black South Africans, Palestinians, Nicaraguans, on the basis of shared experiences of colonisation, I hoped that the connection was both deeply understood and deeply felt. However, I came to learn that common cause can be claimed for reasons of political expediency, without an inward glance at deeply held prejudices and actions based upon them.

The annihilation of self

The ‘whatever you say, say nothing’ atmosphere created by the British war machine, an atmosphere of fear, terror, and silence, also has its uses in the nationalist environment, in which discussion is likewise limited to a white male war agenda. The focus of this agenda is concerned with what men have done, what men are doing, and what men will do in the future. Women and children are adjuncts to these actions and strategies, in positions of suffering, support, and sacrifice. Others are irrelevant, albeit in different ways. It is in this environment that I experienced the most profound annihi­lation of self. Nationalism was the vehicle by which it was achieved. My un-Irishness, without any necessary reference to my skin colour, origins, language or culture, was sufficient to cancel out all experience, thought, emotion, that did not adhere to the nationalist agenda or analysis. Irish dissenters from the nationalist view suffer gravely the vilification, sometimes physical abuse, and even ostracism of a nation­alist backlash. A woman told me that when she spoke of her shock at the careless placing of a bomb that had killed a neighbour, she was beaten by her husband, and told that he would shoot her family if she expressed such senti­ments again. For Others is reserved a no response, nothingness, denoting a different kind of contempt.

In a context in which hierarchy is the practice, no one escapes being categorised into its many layers. There are of necessity, for those who hold the power of definition, many groups of Others, all of whom fall outside the white, male, young, Christian, heterosexual standard, all of whom are less significant, lesser beings.

As a black, woman, lesbian, with no avenue for expression of any of my many othernesses, the imperative to have each aspect of myself discretely fragmented from the rest in order to be made more palatable for others, is the patriarchy’s kick in the teeth for the different. Fragmentation is anathema to personal integrity. Political integrity cannot remain intact through discon­nection. Yet, both fragmentation and disconnect­ion are requirements of single issue, single minded projects. Irish nationalism is such a project. In the words of Robin Morgan:

If I had to name one quality as the genius of patriarchy, it would be compartmentalisation, the capacity for institutionalising disconnection. (p51)

The movement for National Sovereignty, for National Liberation, presents the same oppres­sive face as any other patriarchal institution, Irish Nationalism is no exception, its basic principle being the acquisition or maintenance of power for its male, heterosexual, and in this case white, members. This is its single issue. This is its single minded project.

After the revolution

It is a well known maxim of nationalist movements that women’s issues/liberation must await attention until national liberation has been won. For women also read black, traveller, lesbian, gay, children, disabled, elderly, and every one not white and male, for a measure and identification of the excluded. While governed by these strictures which are made worse by the conditions of war, the past and present experi­ences of Others are considered anecdotal, hearsay which is not worthy of inclusion in the record of oppressions. The few examples that follow illustrate this claim.

A woman ex-prisoner of Maghaberry jail told of her experiences of being strip searched, not allowed free association with other prison­ers, subjected to open visits (no privacy), being denied educational opportunities, having severe restrictions placed upon access to reading materials, specifically feminist, generally political. There have been successful campaigns to stop the practice of strip searching of women and men, although it becomes reinstituted from time to time at the whim of the prison author­ities. The other denials of rights however remain a common feature of women prisoners lives, and not of the lives of the men of Long Kesh. The movement did not fight for the rights of women. Moreover, when women prisoners learned that the men in Long Kesh were using pornography, they wrote to them saying that all women are degraded and objectified in it, that it destroyed the equality they felt they had had with their male comrades, and that the men should stop having it and using it. The men’s considered reply was that the women were overreacting.

The woman in question was outraged by this inequality of treatment both by the British State and her own male comrades. She described herself as being torn apart in her need to balance the greater nationalist good with the injustices that women experience. A policy paper she wrote, as a member of Sinn Fein Women’s Department, on the conditions of women prisoners was presented to the Ard Comhairle (Chief Council) and subsequently shelved for its strong stance. Her unacknowl­edged and unaddressed rage is labelled by members of her organisation as neurosis and hysteria.

Hierarchies of oppression

Speaking of her experience in South Africa Teboho Maitse says, ‘nationalism brings into relief its own deployment of new and old forms of patriarchal control over women.’ Teboho Maitse’s voice is one among many women’s voices who have warned us of the betrayal of women by Nationalist movements. Sisterhood is Global, an International Women’s Movement anthology, edited by Robin Morgan and published in 1984, abounds with the voices of women from around the globe who have had similar experiences and issued similar warnings. Our reasons for disregarding them need careful and heartfelt examination. Why do we perceive them as so different from ourselves? Certainly not for reasons of gender. For reasons of colour, culture, religion, history then? If so, how are we connecting with them? Do we select to hear only that which we are comfortable with? Are the men in our movements, countries, homes, better human beings than the men in their movements, countries, homes? Have they stopped the battery and rape of women? Have they stopped the abuses of children? Would they conduct a war for women’s right to abortion?

In Long Kesh in the late ‘80’s a Republican prisoner made the courageous decision to ‘come out’ as a homosexual. His decision was prompt­ed by the tacit refusal of other men to shower at the same time as him, and rumour mongering regarding his being ‘queer’. His declaration of his sexual identity became the cause for an open debate amongst heterosexual Republican prisoners as to his rights to ‘practice’ his sexual preference in the prison environment, and how this would undermine republican prisoners’ morale. The same arguments proliferate in the American and British armed forces.

Fear of homosexuality is a terrifically powerful tool in the social manipulation and control of men — all of whom agree that they must be Men — against each other in the futile quest for unim­peachable masculinity. (Andrea Dworkin, Right Wing Women, p122)

In the early 90s several Jewish graves in the Jewish section of a West Belfast cemetery were desecrated. This was of momentary interest to the local press, and did no more than raise a whisper of concern in nationalist circles. Prior to this I was not conscious of the existence of a Jewish community in Belfast. The fact of there being a section of a cemetery reserved for Jewish graves indicates a long term settlement of Jewish people in Belfast.

Outside the geographical boundaries of the North of Ireland Nationalists may generally recognise anti-semitism for the physical and ideological oppression of Jewish people that it is. Within the geographical boundaries of the North of Ireland the practice of anti-semitism by Irish individuals is made invisible. It is not simply subsumed into the Nationalist agenda, it is disappeared. Only racial hatred of the Irish, as experienced by Irish people at the hands of the British, is on this agenda, thus a hierarchy of oppression is instituted, rather than connections and alliances made.

Invisible oppressions

In England Irish people struggle for a recognition and acknowledgement of their oppression, in relation to what the British State is perpetrating against them in their homeland, and in relation to how this State oppresses them as a dispossessed people who inhabit English soil. In England there is another parallel struggle conducted amongst oppressed peoples black and white, who all vie for the position of the most oppressed. Battle scars are compared. It is a male pastime. The results are self evident. The movements of the oppressed are frag­mented, differences in lives and experiences not valued, a hierarchy of oppression instituted, alliances not made. Every stereotype that the patriarchal order ever threw at us is embedded in our own hearts, we live and breathe them, and some will benefit from them more than others. Can we be honest with ourselves about the reasons for, and the consequences of this contest, and why it really does not matter to those engaged in it?

The great hatreds that suffuse history, pushing it forward to inevitable and repeated horror, are all first passions, not ideas. Hatred of blacks, hatred of Jews, and long standing, intense, blood drenched nationalist hatreds are forms of race hatred. (Andrea Dworkin, Right Wing Women, p12)

At a Lesbian Conference held in Belfast in 1991 one of the workshops offered an oppor­tunity for dialogue between Lesbians and members of Sinn Fein Women’s Department. During this discussion it was stated categori­cally by the latter group that there are no Lesbians in Sinn Fein. I was put in mind of an article by Adrienne Rich entitled ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’ in her book Blood Bread and Poetry (1987) in which she states,

The denial of the reality and visibility to women’s passion for women, women’s choice of women as allies, life companions, and community, the forcing of such relationships into dissimulation and their disintegration under intense pressure have meant an incalculable loss to the power of all women. The lie of compulsory female hetero­sexuality today afflicts… every organising attempt every relationship or conversation over which it hovers.

The history of Ireland, while not marked or marred by engagement in the black slave trade, for reasons of its own colonisation by the English, is nevertheless bereft of any record of those slaves, houseboys, housemaids, ayahs, who may have come to the end of their trans­portation road in Dublin or Belfast, by courtesy of English merchants and landowners. Neither am I aware of any research to discover how numbers of people of African descent have come by Irish names, in cases where interracial marriage or adoption are not the answer.

Colonisation and silence

In any other context the history of a people is recognised as constituting a necessary anchor for both a personal and a national identity. For the nationalist movement the history of coloni­sation as told by the colonised, the story of domination and their struggles against it, form the bedrock of current political analysis and action, provide the basis for a vision of a different future. Only when we know who we have been can we know who we might be.

The colonisation of black people, travellers, women, lesbians, gay men, in the Irish context, takes on a different meaning if we recognise that as whole communities of people, disparate or not, minorities or not, (women constitute 51% of the population) their stories have rarely and in some cases never been told. Erasure, denial and censure remain commonplace in our lives.

Nationalism typically has sprung from men’s feelings of disempowerment, men’s humiliation and their hope for war, as well as from the anger at being denied power or turned into a nation of boys.

On what basis then can the nationalist experience continue to claim a commonality of experience with other oppressed peoples, when on its own terrain it becomes the oppressor, sacrificing the past and present lives of those who are deemed to distract from the nationalist project?

Colonisation is not only that which has been done to us by people from another country, it is also, and first, that which is done to us by the people we live with. We are colonised when we cannot speak about who we are, about what is happening to us, when we have to pretend that we are not hurt, when we are afraid not only of the outsider but of our own. This is colonisation of our minds and bodies, and no-one had to cross the water to do this.

Inclusive justice

I started to understand that I could not have justice for myself — my blackness, my sexu­ality, my woman-ness — when I heard women screaming while being battered at night in Lenadoon where I lived, when the woman working in the community centre opposite my house knocked on my door in desperation, saying she couldn’t cope with the numbers of reports made to her of children being sexually abused in the area, when women told me about being harassed, stalked and raped. I understood that the men who fought for their freedom were the same men who were doing these things. When I spoke about this to women in the Republican/Nationalist movement, they said they know what happens to women and what men do. The words Freedom and Self-determi­nation, which I thought I had understood, took on a different meaning for me, and I had believed I was a Feminist.

For women, being a colonised people hurts us, and complicates our lives in many ways. Not only does it mean being silenced by and living in terror of the outsider, but also the insider. It also means that these experiences lived minute by minute, hour by hour, all our lives, makes them like breathing, so normal to our living that they are like the oxygen in the air. We do not see it; we do not see our own suffering. After all we’ve had many lifetimes of no-one seeing it, or not taking it seriously when they did. For us it means seeing the lives of others as more valuable than our own. It means it is very hard for us to understand that any demand for justice that does not include us, is not a demand for justice at all.

The Patriarchal order that I have spoken about throughout is male domination, which, whatever else it may do in the name of freedom, democracy, religion, culture, hangs on to its privilege to beat women, rape women, abuse and control women socially, economically and in many other ways. Men hang on to it individually when they violate us, and they hang on to it collectively when they tell us that justice for us will have to wait, until everything else has been sorted out for them. ‘Until’ is a very very long time, and indications are that it means ‘never’.

I want racial justice, but justice does not come in neat little packages. I cannot have it for one part of me and not the rest of me. I cannot get justice from people who are unjust in their closest relationships, in their most intimate associations with others, and who see all women as ‘fair game’. They will not understand what I am talking about, because they do not practice it. I will only get justice for all of me when we women desire it and seek it out for ourselves, and for all women. All other justice is depen­dent on this.


Andrea Dworkin Right-Wing Women: The Politics of Domesticated Females (The Womens Press, 1983)

Audre Lorde Sister Outsider (The Crossing Press, 1984)

Maghaberry Fact File, Sinn Fein POW Department. (No date)

Teboho Maitse ‘The Past is the Present: Thoughts from the New South Africa’ in Diane Bell and Renate Klein (eds) Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed (Zed Books, 1996)

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