The Marie Stopes office in Belfast has no sign outside but I knew I was in the right place. In front of the building, around a small table displaying posters of dead foetuses, was a group of men and women who watched as I approached. Inside, a white-haired man held open the doors for me. “You know they’re going to torch you on your way out?” he said. I laughed nervously, but he wasn’t smiling.
In June, a few weeks before my visit, more than 200 people signed an open letter to the police in Northern Ireland demanding to be arrested with a mother who was being prosecuted for buying abortion pills for her underage daughter. The signatories were all admitting to the same crime. I’d come to talk to some of the activists behind the letter, including Fionnghuala Nic Roibeaird. When we met at a café she recounted how she and others had gathered outside Musgrave Police Station the previous night. “We were basically goading them,” said Roibeaird, who is 21. “They don’t want to touch it.” Róisín Jackman, another activist, explained that “they” are Northern Ireland’s politicians, for whom “silence is compliance”.
These women have not been silent. They have lobbied politicians, presented petitions and run a weekly information and campaign stall in the city’s Cornmarket. But, faced with an intransigent government, they had decided to go further. “We have to be constantly handing ourselves in [to the police],” Roibeaird said. “It’s the only way to force them to deal with it.”
The perception of feminists today is often one of women sitting behind computer screens, lazily clicking on petitions, broadcasting from their Twitter soapbox. They lack the glamour and bravery of the famously militant suffragettes, who resisted the authorities with their bodies and their freedom. But as the feminist historian Louise Raw points out, “The suffragettes tried everything first.” Only after years of lobbying failed did they turn to smashing windows.
Knowing how to get attention is an invaluable skill for any campaigner, but particularly those outside mainstream political debate. It is often these activists who are most likely to turn to civil disobedience. “I think it’s when our backs are against the wall, as they have been for the past ten years, that we see direct action,” said Pragna Patel, director of Southall Black Sisters, a charity that assists female victims of violence. “Direct action forces a public debate which the state would rather not have.” For Patel, civil disobedience doesn’t even have to be about breaking the law. “I think it’s about shattering the idea that there’s a consensus around the law. Especially if it’s an oppressive law.”
For Southall Black Sisters, action has included turning up with megaphones to areas where immigration officials are conducting raids – partly to condemn the officers, but also to let communities know that they were not alone. Patel’s distinction is important because the consequences of law-breaking vary depending on the transgressor. On 8 June, hundreds gathered outside Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire, chanting “Shut it down” and “Set her free”. From the squat building where the womenare housed, hands waved out of windows that opened only a few inches. A few demonstrators clung to the perimeter fence and shook it. Others joined in, and eventually it came down. Protesters streamed over on to the grassy bank in front of the concrete wall.
Marchu Girma, grass-roots co-ordinator at Women for Refugee Women, told me that, as organisers, they were conflicted about breaching the fence. It wasn’t the refugee women among the demonstrators who pulled the fence down, but “middle-class white youth”. She added: “That didn’t mean the women were not cheering the fence-breakers on. But they were also fearful. Even after getting refugee status, there’s a five-year wait for citizenship. If in that five years they have any police record, they will never be able to receive their citizenship. So there is a huge risk for them being involved in civil disobedience.” Those who breached the fence had good intentions. But although their law-breaking carried little personal risk, the outcome for those they were supposedly there to help could have been dire.
Civil disobedience often seems like the bravest and most committed option, but it’s not always the smartest one. In 1914, a faction of mainly working-class women split from the Women’s Social and Political Union to form the East London Federation of Suffragettes. They were not against militancy, but the fact was that the personal cost for them was much higher than for their middle-class sisters. Often the main breadwinner in their family, they could not afford to go to prison. And, the feminist historian Sarah Jackson says, “Civil disobedience . . . to some extent confirmed rather than contradicted a stereotype that working-class women were rough and aggressive. It didn’t really have the same shock value as when polite high-society ladies were doing it.” Working-class shock value came from lobbying MPs and “by being articulate, by being intelligent, by being persuasive”.
Sometimes, just being a woman is enough to rule out direct action. “Women are never unencumbered,” said the veteran socialist Bea Campbell, referring to women’s unequal shouldering of the burden of unpaid care-work. As a result, their activism always has to navigate personal responsibilities. “It doesn’t stop them doing hugely radical things, but it doesn’t necessarily mean getting arrested.” Yet, occasionally, the politics of despair takes over. As Aderonke Apata, a lesbian from Nigeria who was involved in a protest at Yarl’s Wood, said: “When you’ve tried everything you can, what else can you do but demand freedom?”
Caroline Criado-Perez is a feminist campaigner and the author of Do it Like a Woman (Portobello Books)
This article appears in the 14 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn supremacy