The horrific murder of Ashling Murphy in January once again shined a light on the shadow pandemic of gender-based violence. Harper Cleves looks at the significance of the mobilisations in the aftermath of this murder and how a movement to defeat men’s violence against women can be built.
On 12 January, Ashling Murphy became the first woman lost to femicide in Ireland in 2022. She left for a run on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, and never returned home. Ashling was a primary school teacher, a brilliant musician and athlete, a beloved girlfriend, daughter, sister, and friend. Her untimely death has left a gaping hole in the lives of all of those who knew her and countless others who didn’t, but who see themselves and those they love in every ordinary detail of her life, and the tremendous tragedy of her death.
In the 48 hours following Ashling’s death, hundreds of vigils sprang up spontaneously. GAA clubs, running groups, community centres, schools — no space was immune to this collective mourning and tens of thousands shared in this island-wide outpouring of grief and outrage. For anyone in attendance at these vigils, the depth of sadness was clear. But beneath this raw emotion, there was also a quiet resolve, reminiscent of the outrage that followed Savita Halapanavar’s death ten years ago when she was unable to obtain a life-saving abortion; a moment which was a catalyst for what would later become a movement to repeal the constitutional ban on abortion rights. “End the pandemic of violence against women” and “never again” could be seen on homemade placards held by young women with tear-stained faces. It is clear that in the eyes of many, the time has passed when femicide, state misogyny, and harassment will be accepted as normal.
The loss of Ashling Murphy constituted the latest in a long line of indignities that opened the floodgates of sadness and anger. At the time of Ashling’s death, 244 women in the South of Ireland had died as a result of men’s violence since 1996. In the North, 12 women have been lost as a result of femicide since 2020 alone, making it one of the most dangerous regions in Europe to be a woman. It is precisely because of the cumulative impact of those lost before her that Ashling’s death resulted in such an outpouring of grief.
Her shocking end also brought to the surface the litany of normalised daily experiences that women and gender non-conforming people face that fall within the spectrum of gender violence. This includes catcalling, online harassment, sexist and transphobic jokes, unwelcome attention from a boss or teacher, gaslighting, grooming, emotional and physical abuse within the home — not to mention the tremendous mental and physical effort that women and trans people go through to avoid such experiences. A European survey last year showed that 83% of women alter or limit their movement in public space to avoid harassment. And of course, in reality for most women and trans people who experience harassment, the most dangerous place to be is in their own home and in relationships with those who are supposed to love them. In Ireland, 87% of women murdered by men since 1996 were killed by men known to them.
The misogynistic Irish state
In the wake of Ashling Murphy’s murder, the Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and Green Party government has gone to great pains to performatively present itself as sympathetic allies of women living in Ireland. In a recently published article, the Tánaiste Leo Varadkar stated that he feels “mortified” as a “gay man and person of colour” by the times he has failed to recognise misogyny. He stated that “sexist jokes, assumptions about gender roles and leaving women out when decisions are being made” are all behaviours that contribute to “a culture of sexism.” There has even been talk about appointing a Minister of Women in this context.
However, a quick glance at the list of abuses carried by this government and government political parties historically makes obvious the blatant hypocrisy of these empty remarks. This is the same government that rubber-stamped the horrific, gaslighting Mother and Baby Homes report, which many hoped would provide justice to survivors. Instead, while portraits of the men who directly oversaw and funded the abuses levelled at working-class and poor women in these institutions hang on their walls, this government flouted its own responsibility, and instead placed responsibility on “society” — trying to create an equal share of responsibility between the state which carried out these abuses and the working-class people who were, in the main, its victims.
This is the government which in the last budget also allocated €17.6 million to the cruel greyhound racing industry, while providing no additional funding for domestic violence and rape crisis centres despite the fact that 19 women and three children have sought services from these centres every day since the beginning of the Covid pandemic. It was this government too, which last summer made the decision to open up sports stadiums, pubs and theatres as the vaccines became more widely available, while leaving pregnant people to attend prenatal appointments by themselves under the Covid legislation, often being forced to receive difficult news without the support of a loved one.
In fact, on the same day that Leo Varadkar’s “woke” reflections were published in the Irish Independent, he faced questions by Socialist Party TD Mick Barry, who asked why, in the context of at least two women being violently attacked in the weeks since Ashling Murphy’s death, the Gardaí and the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) were prosecuting a Limerick ROSA socialist-feminist activist and Socialist Party member for protesting against gender violence in a socially-distanced stand out last March. Varadkar refused to answer the question, hiding behind bureaucratic procedure, and instead responded with a condescending and dismissive scoff.
The outpouring of grief and solidarity from below that was the beating heart of the mass vigils after Ashling Murphy’s femicide needs to be seized and built upon. The time is now for a major mass movement to end gender-based violence organised in every community, school, college and workplace and this movement will be taking the political establishment and its system head on. Specifically, the trade union movement should take on a leading role, linked up with a struggle for major wage increases and rent cuts to take on the cost-of-living and inflation crisis. Poverty and housing insecurity compound being trapped in abusive situations and therefore these issues are indelibly linked.
Gender based violence and the patriarchal capitalist system
Gender-based violence, the majority of which is intimate partner or family-based abuse, is at base rooted in the patriarchal family structure — in which the owning and controlling of women’s bodies is central. The capitalist system has used this to its benefit by tying working-class and poor women into trillions of dollars annually worth of unpaid labour in the domestic sphere, which helps to reproduce the workforce that creates the profits for the capitalist class. Gender violence is the most extreme expression of the misogyny of this system.
There are many ways in which capitalism profits from and reproduces sexism and misogyny. Most jobs which are dominated by women are also low paid and precarious, for example care and cleaning, which boosts the profits of the bosses and is justified by sexist ideology. Towards the end of 2021 it was discovered that Facebook, which has its European headquarters in Ireland primarily to avoid paying taxes, knowingly allowed teenage girls to interact with algorithms on Instagram that promoted harmful beauty standards, and increased their rates of suicidal ideations. Why? Because people use social media more when they are mentally unwell, generating enormous profits for the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and the other billionaire sociopaths that capitalism benefits.
Pornhub, which recent investigations have revealed profits from child sexual abuse, rape, image-based sexual abuse, as well as racism and misogyny, is a company worth $97 billion today, making more annual profits than many large media conglomerates. The rigid beauty standards, gender stereotypes, and male entitlement pushed at the level of the state and big business find their most extreme expressions in right-wing incel culture, physical violence, and femicide. The abhorrent misogynistic ideas that run rampant in these groups are not innate to men, but are historically and socially produced, and continue to be a huge source of profit for big business under capitalism.
The potential for solidarity of working-class people of all genders has been demonstrated time and again in struggle. One recent example of this is the Mercedes Benz factory walkouts in the Basque country last October. When Erika Tavarez, a worker at the factory, was killed as a result of femicide, thousands of her mostly male colleagues walked out of work in solidarity, calling for an end to men’s violence against women. This sort of genuine, ground-up solidarity, which could also be seen in the multiracial, multi gendered nature of the vigils that sprung up in the wake of Ashling’s Murphy death, acts as a stark contrast to the disingenuous parsing out of meagre concessions by those in power. What is needed is not merely superficial gestures of diversity in the halls of the elite, but rather a radical overthrow of capitalism, which not only degrades women, but all of those who can be exploited and oppressed in order to turn a profit for those at the top.
What kind of movement we need
We need a movement that calls for the trebling of the funding provided to domestic violence services and rape crisis centres, effective immediately. It is unconscionable that seven women daily had to be turned away from these services over the course of the 2020, while billions in tax breaks and grants are handed out to big businesses and multinational corporations.
We need comprehensive, progressive LGBTQ+ inclusive sex education in all schools. This means that we must separate church and state and desegregate single-gender schools. A recent study showed that up to 25% of LGBTQ+ young people identify as nonbinary. Single-gender schools are not fit for purpose, and not only harm the well-being of students who do not fit neatly into the gender binary, but reinforce harmful gender stereotypes. Church-owned land where public services reside should be seized to ensure full separation of church and state
State-owned land must be used for the building of public housing so that we can end the seemingly unending housing crisis created by developers and profiteers, with the assistance of successive governments. This will not only provide much needed shelter and stability to the over 9,000 homeless, including many single mothers with children, but also to the untold number of people currently living in physically and emotionally unsafe homes with no financial means to escape.
Gender violence can never be truly addressed while economic precarity reigns, so we also call for a €15 minimum wage, indexed-linked with the cost of living, and free public childcare. We need more free time and a sharing-out of work, both in the workplace and at home, so we need a reduction in the working week to four days or 32 hours, with no loss in pay.
Women and all survivors of gender-based violence and abuse deserve safety from their abusers. But in a so-called justice system rife with victim blaming, which cancelled over 3,000 domestic violence 999 calls over the course of the 2020 lockdown, many women do not have faith that they can attain this safety. The struggle against gender violence must demand a major public enquiry organised by feminist, traveller, anti-racist organisations and trade unionists into cancelling of 999 calls, sexism, racism and anti-working class prejudice in the courts, garda and defence forces. The state, including the police and courts, has not acted in the interests of women or of working-class people. Instead it consistently defends the wealth and privileges of the capitalist elite. We need genuine democratic control by the working-class and oppressed majority over these institutions.
Ni una menos — not one more
To build the kind of movement which can take on this system, we need workers — and especially women workers — who kept our hospitals, schools, child care facilities and food shops up and running over the course of several lockdowns, to be at the centre of this struggle. In recent years, workers in the Spanish state and Switzerland mobilised in mass feminist strikes against sexism and misogyny. Millions of workers of all genders participated in these and they shut down big sections of the capitalist economy.
In South Korea, half a million workers of all genders took general strike action in October 2021 — echoing the potential, necessity and liberatory possibility of working-class and socialist feminism. Demand of this movement included guaranteed housing, health care and education for all, and specifically that the state must hire a million care workers to ensure free elder care and child care for all families. This shows the enormous potential power which a united working-class movement can bring to bear, and this could make the decisive difference for the struggle to end oppression.
We must make “never again” not simply a slogan we have to repeat, but a rallying cry in our struggle that inspires to fight for a socialist world based on public ownership and democratic decision making by the majority, organised for the good of all, and free from all forms of oppression and exploitation. With anger and hurt and the desire for a better future which drives us, we say loudly and clearly: not one more.