On the evening of the 5th March a diverse group of women will take to the iconic stairs at Stormont to take part in the second Alternative Ms Ulster event, part of International Women’s Day 2016 NI programme.
Organiser Clare Bailey, deputy leader of the Green Party NI, told me about how she got the idea for the event. Clare was working in Stormont in the office of the Green party MLA Stephen Agnew. On arriving at work one morning she noticed an event had taken place in the Great Hall the night before. Later Clare discovered that a heat of Miss Northern Ireland had been held the night before, with 3 MLAs acting as judges.
Women are underrepresented at Stormont, with the percentage of women MLAs finally breaking the 20% mark following co-options during this term. The most common barriers to women in politics are known as the ‘5 Cs’; cash, childcare, confidence, candidate selection and culture. What does it say about the culture of Stormont when 3 elected representatives had no issue judging women based on their appearance in a competition which requires entrants to be single and childless, without considering the messages this could convey about women’s supposed role in society?
“Our MLA’s have the power to make conditions for women in Northern Ireland better but instead they chose to host a beauty competition! I decided then to organise Alternative Ms Ulster”
For International Women’s day 2014 Alternative Ms Ulster gave women a platform to speak at Stormont on a wide range of issues, from reproductive rights and domestic violence, to public transport and mental health. Even gardening got a mention. 20 women marched down the stairs and spoke their piece, in a building which is the heart of a system where women and their interests are often relegated to second place, or ignored completely.
While the focus of the night was on what women had to say, rather than what they looked like, this wasn’t what caught the eye of the only photographer who turned up. Cara Parks, an actress, was speaking at the event about sexual violence. The photographer noticed that from a particular angle it was possible to see Cara’s nipple. Gasp! A nipple! Clare reports that:
“It (the nipple) made front page news. Radio shows were discussing it for weeks. The irony was that everyone wanted to talk about what Cara was or wasn’t wearing. No-one wanted to know what she or any other woman was saying!”
No one was concerned with what any of the women had to say at the event, they just wanted to talk about how audacious this woman, and her nipple, were.
Alternative Ms Ulster is back this year. Women are invited to speak about the issues that affect them – their bodies, their families, their society. This is a chance for women of all backgrounds to say what is going unsaid by the people in power, highlight changes that need to be made, and celebrate the work that is already being done to benefit the lives and opportunities of women in Northern Ireland.
“With the Assembly elections happening in a few short weeks this is women’s opportunity to let Stormont know what is important to them”
As well as a platform for raising issues, Alternative Ms Ulster stands to be great craic!
Local playwrite and comedian Nuala McKeever will be hosting the event. Jayne Harkness Bones (VOKXEN) will kick things off and she’ll be joined by the inimitable DJ Venus Dupree, two fantastically talented women to help us shout, yell, dance, and demand more from our politicians and our society.
The event is free but you need to register for a ticket at the email address below. If you are interested in speaking at the event get in touch with Clare at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Danielle Roberts is a PhD candidate researching gender and politics in Northern Ireland, and is an active member of Belfast Feminist Network, who will be taking part in Saturday’s IWD Rally as part of the International Women’s Day 2016 programme of events. You can keep up to date with Belfast Feminist Network on Twitter and Facebook.