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Dirt, Blood and Bodies: Gender difference, social transformation and the impact of the women’s protest in Armagh prison

Dirt, Blood and Bodies: Gender difference, social transformation and the impact of the women’s protest in Armagh prison

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Karinda Tolland. Originally submitted for BA ANTHROPOLOGY , with lecturer chandana mathur in the category of Social Studies
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Karinda Tolland. Originally submitted for BA ANTHROPOLOGY , with lecturer chandana mathur in the category of Social Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 30, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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05/13/2014

 
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Dirt, Blood and Bodies: Gender difference, social transformation and the impact of 
the women’s protest in Armagh prison
 
~
 Dirtiness of any kind seems to us incompatible with civilization
~(Sigmund Freud,
Civilization and its Discontents
, 1930)
ABSTRACT
Although much has been written about the recent political struggles in Northern Ireland,
there has been little research on the gendered experience of life in women‟s versus men‟s
prisons. This essay focuses on an extraordinary event that took place on February 12,
1980 in the Armagh women‟s prison in Northern Ireland; an event that saw theRepublican women join their male counterparts in a dirty „no
-
wash‟ protest
The coordinated political action where prisoners refused to leave their cells either to washor to use the toilets, instead living in the midst of their own dirt and body waste,provoked an inexpressible horror from both Irish and international audiences. The dirtyprotest, whether undertaken by male or female bodies, was a radical reappropriation of the British conception of the Irish as barbaric and uncivilized. Like the concurrentprotest in Long Kesh, female prisoners smeared their own excrement on the walls of their
cells; however, the women had one more „shocking‟ resource at the
ir disposal. As thisessay illustrates, the 30 women in Armagh were deemed to be more revolting than the400 dirty men because they made public something that, in the minds of most people atthe time, should have remained unseen
 – 
menstrual blood.
 
2The R
epublican women‟s subversive body protest was demonstrative not only of their 
resistance to the removal of their political status, but also to the subjugated and genderedform of punishment they experienced at the hands of the Armagh prison guards. Thewomen utilized the very instruments of oppression intended to keep them subordinate andbegan to highlight their oppression not just as colonized people, but also as women.Rather than being kept hidden, the menstrual blood becomes a signifier of violence andcentral to the building of a discursive protest.This event is unique in that it expresses femininity in an uneasy juxtaposition with the
 politics of modern Irish Republicanism structured around the figures of a „passive‟ and
somewhat gender neutral female body. The physicality of such overt and politicizedfemininity was difficult to accept, even among the ranks of the supporting Republican
movement. This essay explores how the Armagh women‟s participation in the no
-washprotests helped to complicate the positioning of Republican women, provoking amovement of social transformation
 – 
expressed by their sexuality
 – 
that encapsulates therise of a distinct form of feminism rooted within the Republican movement
 
.
 
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INTRODUCTION
The struggle to unite the six counties of the North of Ireland with the 26 county Republicof the south has become synonymous with a period of ethno-political conflict well known
as the „Troubles‟.
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The violence that erupted in the late 1960s has its roots deep in thedivisio
ns caused by Ireland‟s history of conquest, settlement and colonization. Fuelled
by the aspirations of political belonging, ethnic identities, religious backgrounds andpractices as well as economic inequalities, the Troubles are characterized by waves of 
violence on the one hand and political deadlock on the other (McGarry and O‟Leary
1995). This essay engages with the work of Begoña Aretxaga and her research onwomen, nationalism and political subjectivity in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.Her ethnography
Shattering Silence
(1997) represents a quest to insert gender as a centralcateg
ory of analysis in what most observers saw as a men‟s war. In particular, this essay
focuses on an extraordinary event that took place on February 12, 1980 in the Armaghprison which houses Republican female prisoners; an event that expresses femininity inuneasy juxtaposition with the politics of modern Irish Republicanism structured around
the figures of a „passive‟ and somewhat gender neutral female body. These women, no
longer willing to allow a political and psychological wounding upon their bodies, joinedthe male Republican
 prisoners in their dirty „no
-
wash‟ protest. The coordinated political
action where prisoners refused to leave their cells either to wash or to use the toilets,instead living in the midst of their own dirt and body waste, provoked an inexpressible
1
 
The duration of the Troubles is conventionally dated from the late 1960s to the late 1990s when the peaceprocess began. This was made possible by paramilitary ceasefires by Republicans and Loyalists and
culminated in the political agreement of 1998 (usually referred to as the „Belfast Agreement‟ or „GoodFriday Agreement‟) (Coulter 1999).
 

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