Smile, it might never happen. But you know, it’s happening


The thing about gender-based violence is that it doesn’t just happen during the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign. It doesn’t just happen in a bad marriage. It doesn’t just happen to working class women or Traveller women or women in third-world countries. It doesn’t just happen to women. And it doesn’t happen overnight.

It begins even as you do, as quietly and insidiously as any other form of bullying. Headstrong. Cantankerous. Lively. A handful. Good at giving lip. Good at giving cheek. Good at the back-chat. Good at crossing the line. Good at overstepping the mark.

It might crop up in jest – seemingly innocent. It might be a teacher or carer, “heehawing away” as Galway Kinnell wrote “all of us, without asking if, underneath we weren’t striking back, too late at our own parents, for their humiliation of us”. 

It might be you laughing the loudest.

But it might also be you lying quite still in the dark that night, wondering how even jest can twist and turn and morph.

It might be a look, a word, a warning.

It might start out as a feeling. This is often how gender-based violence happens at first, taking such firm root that long before blood or fists or breakages – and even if you never experience one single physical incident – it has hold of you.

It happens in hundreds of ways that seem petty, mundane, bordering on ridiculous: school afternoons when – as a girl- you were kept inside to knit or sew as the boys ran wild in the yard. It might be six or seven or eight of these school years, sitting inside and listening to  their football knock against the window. Knock, knock, knocking: reminding you – this is just how it is.

It might be bloodless, leaving no marks.

It might happen verbally, words becoming bullets. There is no strike to a little girl as effective as a well-delivered threat. You better watch yourself, better watch your step. You’ll be left on the shelf, you’ll be left holding the babies, taken away by the fairies, taken away by the men in white coats. 

Gender-based violence makes you the watchman of yourself.

And in the nervous system, the watchman lives and thrives. He’s the reason your breath quickens when you think you hear footsteps behind. He’s why you blame yourself for taking the short road. He trembles your whole body, even as you look around and find no-one there. Illusive, evasive and visceral, gender-based violence leaves you feeling like a fool. And when someone says smile, it might never happen, you smile.

But you know: it’s happening.

And gender-based violence affects men. Look around at what is happening to estranged fathers, to young male youths – the numbers with mental health difficulties, the suicide rate. Violence against men and masculinity is a point-in-case that pain is the result of more than just brute force.

But for the war on women we reserve extra efficient artillery, and one more than any other trumps all: silence.

Deadly, easy to access, easy to use: silence is, perhaps, the greatest weapon of everyday gender-based violence.

In 1895 Bridget Cleary was the last ‘witch’ burned in Ireland by her husband and relatives. Today we don’t burn, we turn the volume down to a level so low it is, in itself, a heat of sorts.

In Ireland, for example, the number of sexual offences against women is steadily on the rise, as resolution through the court declines. Women in Ireland are not speaking out. Make no mistake, women are still being harmed.

Dramaqueen. Diva. Looking for attention. Looking for an audience. Looking for it. Bitchcuntwitchwagonslutwhoretramp.

We silence women in the courts, silence women in the health-care system, silence women in the church, silence women on the national stage. In Ireland Waking The Feminists was born to try and discuss what happens when women in theatre are prevented from sharing, directing and acting out their stories.

‘We tell each other stories ‘in order to live’ writes Joan Didion.

So, what happens when we are not allowed to tell our stories? We begin to die a little. The girl inside, with the ball knocking against her window over and over and over again, withdraws into herself, further wounded.

When we cannot tell and hear the stories that reflect our lives, our lives become inaccessible, irrelevant, dreamlesss. If we are to end gender-based violence, we need stages of all kinds. We need the arts in the same way that we need politics, media, technology. These social spaces are the radios by which we hear ourselves and others; these are the mirrors. These are the places in which, finally, disarming can begin.

Until 10 December 2016, the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign aims to raise awareness of all types of gender-based violence, including physical, emotional and financial. Use this opportunity to explore a deeper understanding of what gender-based violence really means and the depths to which, over a lifetime, it may be happening to us all.

Annemarie Ni Churreain, Originally posted November 2015

Annemarie Ni Churreain is a poet and writer from Donegal. In 2016, she was a recipient of the Arts Council Next Generation Artists Award. In 2017, her debut poetry collection BLOODROOT is forthcoming. Follow her on Facebook here