A Woman's Autonomy 5/25/2018
Overheard on the Eve of the Irish Referendum to Repeal the Ban of Abortion
I live on the fourth floor an apartment block on a quiet lane in Dublin centre. From my tiny balcony (more like a perch) I listen to all the sounds of the city.
No matter the time of day, St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Christchurch sound battling bells.
During the day there are dueling cement mixers and shouts of orders from the construction workers below.
At five in the evening, it’s the honking of cars trying to get home, impatient that the construction is clogging up traffic on the little street.
At night, under cover of darkness, the mood changes entirely. The local junkies will arrange to meet their dealer, sometimes taking turns with the tourniquet. Lost tourists dragging rolling suitcases trudge wearily down the street looking for a street sign. A well-to-do couple begins an argument as they return from dinner out, saying, “It’s you who’s being an arsehole, not me.”
The narrow street is lined with six story buildings, and the sounds travel up and bounce off the walls. A street level whisper can be heard clearly on the fourth floor.
It’s the end of the school year for the many universities around here, and parties are being held across the city. Last night there was an especially big one on the top floor of my building. At one point, there were about twenty young people partying in the street below, either coming to or just leaving the party upstairs. Sometimes I enjoy listening to the revelers, if only to get a sense of where they’re from and “what the kids are up to nowadays.”
But last night what I heard disturbed me and sent me to bed profoundly dispirited.
I was drawn to my balcony by shouts of protest coming from a young woman, whose friends were trying to forcibly put her into a cab.
Three young men were saying, “You’ve had too much to drink. It’s time for you to go home.”
None were volunteering to escort her home. I figured they did not want their night to be curtailed. The woman (let’s call her Vanessa) wrested herself from their grasps and ran a bit further down the street.
I considered shouting down to them something like, “Listen, fellas, I know she’s had too much to drink. But you cannot force her into a cab.” But I didn’t. What tempted me was the fact that there was a tone to the Vanessa’s voice that suggested something deeper was going on. She was absolutely desperate to regain and maintain her autonomy.
When the cab was dismissed without its fare, Vanessa walked slowly back to group saying, “I just wanted to have fun for once.”
She sat down on a railing, and the men kneeled around her.
One man said, “The dean was very good to you.”
I became a bit smug overhearing this, thinking I might hear a tale of poor academic performance forgiven by a benevolent dean.
“Yes,” said Vanessa. “The dean was very good to me. But she said that there’s nothing she could do,” and then, “The dean said there’s nothing she could do, and now they’re just going to walk off!”
Each sentence or protest that followed revealed a situation much more grave than poor grades.
“It’s all my fault,” she moaned. “I went there willingly.”
The muffled whispers of those surrounding her seemed to say that it was not her fault.
“And now everybody knows!! They are showing the pictures!”
I gasped aloud, beginning to understand more of the story. I hoped that I was not heard.
Vanessa’s voice grew louder, “It’s my fault! I didn’t say ‘no’!” And then, tragically, she added, “I didn’t say ‘no’ loudly enough!”
One of the men said, “Wearing a short skirt and going to their place does not mean it’s your fault.”
“Even my counsellor said it’s my fault,” she went on. “My counsellor! My counsellor, my counsellor, he said it’s my fault! I have to believe him!”
I had the urge to run downstairs, grab her hands, and say, “Oh, sweet Vanessa, it is not your fault. I don’t know you, and I don’t know your whole story. It sounds to me like a group of men took advantage of you, violated your body and your privacy. Even if you said yes to the picture taking, they have no right to distribute them without your permission. Even if you went to the place willingly, you have a right to say ’no.’ And if you’d had too much to drink, your ‘yes’ would have had no meaning.”
But I didn’t. I remained on my balcony, sitting in stunned silence.Why didn’t I go down? I can offer excuses as to why I didn’t go talk to her, but none would suffice. I was afraid I would look like a batty old lady eavesdropping from above, butting in where I did not belong.
Instead, I sat and listened to more.
“They have the pictures and won’t give them back!”
One of the men asked if she’d agreed to the pictures.
“Of course I told them not to take the pictures! Who do you think I am? But they did it anyway! And now they’re going to walk off, the dean won’t do anything!”
This conversation went on for close to an hour.
Eventually she said, “Okay, I know I’ve had too much to drink, and that I just need to go home. But drinking is the only way I can forget.”
Oh, oh, oh, Vanessa, the system has failed you. You turned to your university for help, guidance, justice, and you were told that nothing could be done and that it’s your fault. You are surrounded by well-meaning friends who don’t have the tools to help you.
When in the United States compromising photos of girls and women are circulated, I am not surprised. The States is a place where restaurants named “Hooters” do thriving business and the ‘president’ grabs women’s genitalia. [#notmypresident] But I was disturbed by the fact that it was happening here, right under my nose, and Vanessa seems to have no recourse to address this violation of body and privacy.
This story was overheard last night, May 24, 2018. It was the eve of the Irish public referendum to repeal the eighth amendment, which bans abortion in the Republic except when a woman’s life is at risk. The irony of the timing is not lost on me. On a day on which my adopted country is voting to return a measure of autonomy to women, I am reflecting on the long distance women across the globe have to go before achieving the same rights to self-governance as men.