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Aoife Kelly: No Country for Women – how can some men still not ‘get it’?

It’s difficult to type, let alone form a coherent sentence, when your hands are shaking with anger, frustration, and a profound sense of sadness.

Nobody can deny that RTE’s two-part documentary No Country For Women, which explores the experience, and treatment, of women in Ireland over the past 100 years, under the control of their fathers, husbands, State and church, is necessary.

Nobody can deny that, although we have heard the stories of women incarcerated and abused in mother and baby homes and Magdalene Laundries and ‘mental asylums’ before,  we must hear them – we must listen – again and again and again ad nauseum lest we become complacent, and forget, and think we’re done with all this nasty business, this mistreatment of women, this abuse, this cowing down.

Nobody – man nor woman – can deny that we must look to our past to understand our present and effect change for the future.

Or can they?

This morning, after the first half of No Country aired, I sat down with my 67-year-old father for a cup of tea. He began speaking about the documentary and its impact on him.  He was furious.  He was furious about what had happened to these women.  He was furious that their families stood by and let it happen.  He was furious that the State and the church conspired to oppress an entire gender – his own grandmother, his mother, his aunts, his late wife, his daughter.

His words echoed many of those expressed by people on social media through and after the programme aired.  His words echoed mine.

But not everyone ‘gets it’.  Another man I know told me, in the wake of the documentary, that he found it “depressing and somehow pointless” as “the country needs to stop living so much in the past”.

This is a reasonable guy, a lovely guy, a highly intelligent, educated guy with a family. He cares about women. He probably voted for REPEAL. He would be horrified if a woman was paid less than him for the same work. But he’s self-aware enough to realise he still doesn’t “get it like you and other women do”, by virtue of his gender.

How many more men out there feel this way? And can we really move forward in any meaningful way if there are many men who feel that reflecting on the horrors (from the outright horrific to the more insidious, daily ‘small’ injustices) inflicted on our grandmothers, mothers, sisters, peers, daughters, in the distant past, the recent past, and the present is just “depressing” and “pointless”?

Of course, he cannot know what it’s like to be a woman, and how it feels to know – to really understand and viscerally feel – the galling, heart-ripping pain your grand-aunt felt as she was forced to hand over her baby, or the physical and mental anguish your friend endured making that secret, well-worn trip to England, in the way that you do. He cannot know the desperate, primal need to hear their stories, and the stories of women like them, to give context to, and process, your own standing in modern Ireland, a modern Ireland where women’s lives – and the lives and happiness and wellbeing of their partners and children – have been gambled on inappropriate medical screening, an Ireland where, until recent weeks, the control of women’s bodies remained with the State. He’s right, it is depressing. Pointless?  No. Regarding the Yes vote in the recent referendum, it did not come about in a vacuum. It came about thanks to the bravery of all those women who had been affected sharing their stories – repeatedly – and thanks to all those men and women who listened and reflected on the past and thought about the future and took heed and acted.

Men cannot fully understand, but I choose to believe that the majority of the men of Ireland feel like my father, of whom I am incredibly proud, and are willing to listen and can empathise with and understand our need to “wallow”, to stoke that anger and that sadness about the past so that we can move on and effect change in the future.

And let’s commend RTE for No Country for Women for giving us a voice, and helping us to do so.

No Country For Women is available to watch on the RTE Player. 




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