“The personal is political” is a phrase that has gained new traction in recent years, and often, women’s bodies are the key location for this idea to play itself out. For as long as women have been giving birth our bodies have been coded as not belonging to us. We were once (and in some cultures still are) considered the property of our husbands, strangers continue to grope our pregnant bellies and when we are bad tempered people don’t hesitate to ask us “is it your time of the month?” All of these things communicate the message to us that our bodies are part of the public domain, and that others have a right to know the intimate details of our physiology. But what exactly are the consequences of this for women living in Ireland today? What are the wider implications of our lack of bodily autonomy? And, most importantly, how can we take back ownership of ourselves?
As a subject of much scrutiny, our bodies are often taken into the political realm whether we like it or not. However, there are ways we can use this to our advantage. Take the Repeal the 8th Campaign for example. As we move closer to the referendum which will decide whether the 8th amendment to the Irish constitution will be removed or not (an amendment that grants an equal right to life of the mother and the unborn child, effectively outlawing and criminalizing abortion), both the pro-life and the pro-choice sides have publicised the personal accounts of women who have dealt with this issue. Day after day, on radio, on television talk shows, and on social media, we are offered harrowing descriptions of pregnancy and abortion. Women talking about calling in sick to work and bleeding alone in English B&Bs. Women talking about carrying their babies to term and losing them moments later to fatal foetal abnormalities.
These stories are emotional, intimate, and incredibly personal. And yet, they are an integral part of these political campaigns. While the question of abortion is intrinsically tied up with state control of female bodies and lack of bodily autonomy, in this case women are turning this on its head to advertise for their own sides. While some may consider the sharing of these stories a form of emotional manipulation, the fight for abortion rights is not – and never was going to be – a clean, fair fight. The question we have to ask ourselves here is if whether sharing our personal stories is empowering or not. Are we being coerced into this by the patriarchal system that demands knowledge of our bodies? And is it fair that we should have to lay bare our suffering in order to make others believe in its existence? Or is this a form of taking control of our narratives and engendering wider understanding? It’s a question each woman can only answer for herself.
Similar to this is the matter of rape cases. A hot topic at the moment due to the high profile trial of the Ulster Rugby players accused of rape, if a victim goes (or attempts to go) to trial, he or she will be cross examined and have their personal life plumbed for any and all compromising material. Things such as your previous relationships, sexual history, and personal habits will be scrutinized. Your text messages, social media profiles, and other private correspondence will be looked at. In order to prove yourself you must be prepared to leave nothing withheld. This creates a rather strange conundrum. Victims are punished for not keeping their bodies protected – by wearing “provocative” clothing, by drinking alcohol, or by somehow “causing” their own assault – and are shamed for behaviour that doesn’t paint them as the “perfect victim.” Our society is quick to vilify a woman who has lost control of her body, or who has had that control taken from her – and the justice system is quick to displace blame. If Irish patriarchal society is supposed to keep control over women’s bodies, what happens when it fails? It wasn’t our fault, it was your fault.
Other groups such as members of the queer and trans communities are also often encouraged to disclose personal information about themselves, for example their relationship status, sexual history, or even intimate details about their bodies when they speak out about erasure or abuse – or even within the LGBT community itself in order to somehow “prove their credentials.” It would seem that in order to be taken seriously (or even to be heard in the first place) you have to shout louder than all others, be more articulate, and above all, leave no room for silence. In this way, people are constantly expected to take on the burden of revealing their personal stories, however painful or private they may be, in order to achieve a desired end – whether that’s acceptance, inclusion, or justice.
It would seem as if our bodily autonomy and personal narratives are being grasped at from all sides. In a heteronormative patriarchal society, privacy for women and for members of the LGBT community is simply not something we can attain by individual efforts. In order to surmount this, we must see a change in Irish society – we must trust women to make their own choices, we must believe women when they tell their stories, and we must allow everyone the right to keep their sexuality as private or as public as they wish. Until this happens, on an individual level we must constantly be aware that for us, the personal is indeed political, and that the right to privacy starts with our very own bodies.