Women on the walls in Belfast: murals and representations of women in conflict

By Marie Migeon, University of Basel

Introduction

In Belfast, political debate has been taking place through visual representations and especially through murals since the 1980s (Jarman 1998; Rolston 2003). They fulfil a variety of roles, spreading political claims in public space, featuring wishes for the future of Northern Ireland, and showing specific memories of the conflict. Like most representations of conflict, these murals tend to leave out women, as they are expected to be ‘outside’ of the conflict, peaceful characters surrounding the combatants and not active participants (Åhäll 2012; O’Keefe 2013).

Originally mainly painted (and allowed) in unionist and loyalist areas[1], they began to spread in nationalist and republican neighbourhoods following the 1981 hunger strikes (Jarman 1998). While murals are by essence temporary artefacts – they are painted over and altered over the years – the archive compiled by Tony Crowley and hosted by Claremont College Libraries allows us to see murals dating back to the start of the Troubles[2].

Where are the women?

Visual and feminist scholars working on Northern Ireland have already pointed out the lack of women in Northern Irish representations of the conflict (O’Keefe 2013; Rolston 2018). Street art is highly gendered, in part because mural artists are overwhelmingly men (Ross 2016), and reflect gendered power relations within society, where women are defined as “acted upon” rather than actors (Enloe 2014, 34). These narratives are reinforced in times of war, where men are identified and seen as the actors, the warriors, the fighters, and women as the victims, the mothers who stay at home, and to some extent, the natural peacemakers. Indeed, as has been shown by various feminist scholars, women in situations of conflict are rarely seen and shown as active participants, as they “have been designated as non-combatants, peaceful and associated with a life-giving identity” (Åhäll 2012, 290). Even when they take on active roles in the conflict, such as in Northern Ireland, where women made up about 30% of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, women are still viewed as the ‘backbone’ of the group rather than as combatants (Gilmartin 2019). Building upon this work, and upon the work of scholars such as Laura Sjoberg and Caron Gentry (2007), my research looks at the way women are represented in relation to the conflict.

A first analysis of the Claremont College archive shows that, among the 312 murals identified as nationalist and republican in Belfast, women are present in 112 murals (about 30 per cent). Interestingly, there is a stark difference between women in nationalist murals (32 out of 52 murals) and women in republican murals (80 out of 260 murals)[3]. Nationalist murals tend to make claims through representations of culture and community, while republican murals feature political actors and combatants as well. The archive features murals from 1981 to 2018, and there is no significant variation in the representation of women: women are not more represented over time, and they have not been invisibilised over time either.

How are women represented?

My research has been drawing on an extensive feminist literature that has investigated the way women in conflict are shown. On the one hand, researchers have shown that women in conflict are overwhelmingly linked to the image of motherhood, of care, and to some extent, are understood and represented (only) as victims (Achilleos-Sarll 2020; Gilmartin 2019). On the other hand, scholars have explored representations of violent women and demonstrated how narratives around these women strip them from their agency or negotiate this agency around essentialist tropes (Åhäll 2012), reducing them to figures of “mothers, monsters, whores” (Sjoberg and Gentry 2007, 227). This work allowed me to build first categories to analyse Republican and Nationalist murals in Belfast: women as family/community, women as monster, women as sexualised beings, women as victims. My analysis of murals also brought about new categories: women as combatants, women as activists and women as mythical/religious figures. These first two categories contradict the expectation that women are only seen as passive witnesses or victims in conflict, but can also be understood as a way to legitimise the conflict from the point of view of Republican painters. Indeed, as Loken explains: “Women may humanize organizations, signal the urgency of struggle, and mobilize civilians into support for or participation in political violence” (Loken 2021, 24). In this archive, no Republican or Nationalist mural fits into the category of “women as sexualised beings”.

How are women mainly represented?Republican muralsNationalist murals
As activists232
As combatants170
As enemy30
As family/community1721
As mythical/religious figures85
As victims124
 8032

Interestingly, murals can fit into various categories. For example, many murals representing mythical figures represent Virgin Mary or Mother Ireland, who can also be seen as mother figures. This is also the case of murals representing women as victims, where they can often be seen as mothers as well. Some murals also show mothers as activist, although some of these representations show them alongside men as combatants. In these seven murals, women are shown as side characters to the main issue: armed combat.

Putting women on the walls

Among the murals representing women that can be found in the archive, some murals seem to have been painted and/or commissioned by women. As Theresa O’Keeffe (2013) explains, women of the Republican movement, especially starting in the 1990s, decided to represent themselves in public space to avoid exclusion. This seems to be the case of a double mural in Hawthorn Street (West Belfast). On the right side, the mural – titled The Women of 1916 – shows four women as combatants. They are in uniform, carrying weapons, and the mural is dedicated to “the Women of Cumann na mBan, Oglaigh na hEireann, and Sinn Fein”. As the mural does not represent active combatants, their faces are recognisable, and the four women look to the passer-by, bringing them in. These women do not have particularly feminine traits: their hair is short or put together under a beret, their coats are big and hide their form. To some extent, they are masculinised (Åhäll 2012). On the left, another mural shows women with more traditionally expected feminine traits: we can see curls in their hair, and their bodies are not hidden under uniforms. They are two civilian women, not combatants, representing historical figures of the Irish Republican movement, political activists and thinkers Winifred Carney and Nora Connolly. In between their two portraits, a quote acknowledges the work of women in the past (sisters) and puts women of the present and future on the same level as men (brothers). In comparison to the Women of the 1916 mural, their traits are a bit more traditionally feminine. In this mural, women are political actors, they are the main characters and take up public space. While combatant women are represented with less feminine traits than the activist women, it is still very clear that they are women, and that in these two different roles, they actively participated in the ‘struggle’. By inscribing themselves on the wall, in the city, these roles becomes visible. It is also important that those two murals are painted next to one another as they reinforce this message: women are there, as political actors. Images are both constructed and constructing (Rose 2016, 16–22), and when representations are widely circulated, their norms and assumptions become ‘common sense’ (Harvey 2020, 63–64).

Relying on the assumption that visual representations are important in politics and in peace (Campos, Pavoni, and Zaimakis 2021; Mitchell et al. 2020), we can conclude that murals showing women as combatants and activists are politically significant because they express a particular narrative of the conflict (Mitchell et al. 2020), and challenge existing assumptions (Dabène 2020) of women’s roles in conflict. Further research with politically active women in Belfast will help shed light on how women in Northern Ireland interpret these images, and if they see it as a useful way to make themselves politically seen.

Image: Extramural Activity. 2008. X00237 X00235. Cumman na mBan – The Women of 1916. Available online at: https://extramuralactivity.com/2008/03/08/the-women-of-1916/

Bibliography

Achilleos-Sarll, Columba. 2020. ‘“Seeing” the Women, Peace and Security Agenda: Visual (Re)Productions of WPS in UK Government National Action Plans’. International Affairs 96(6): 1643–63.

Åhäll, Linda. 2012. ‘The Writing of Heroines: Motherhood and Female Agency in Political Violence’. Security Dialogue 43(4): 287–303.

Campos, Ricardo, Andrea Pavoni, and Yiannis Zaimakis, eds. 2021. Political Graffiti in Critical Times: The Aesthetics of Street Politics. First Edition. New York: Berghahn Books.

Dabène, Olivier. 2020. Street Art and Democracy in Latin America.

Gilmartin, Niall. 2019. Female Combatants after Armed Struggle: Lost in Transition? Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, NY: Routledge.

Harvey, Alison. 2020. Feminist Media Studies. Cambridge, UK ; Medford, MA: Polity Press.

Jarman, Neil. 1998. ‘Painting Landscapes: The Place of Murals in the Symbolic Construction of Urban Space’. In Symbols in Northern Ireland, ed. Anthony D. Buckley. Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies, Queen’s University of Belfast.

Loken, Meredith. 2021. ‘“Both Needed and Threatened”: Armed Mothers in Militant Visuals’. Security Dialogue 52(1): 21–44.

Mitchell, Jolyon P, Giselle Vincett, Theodora Hawksley, and Hal Culbertson. 2020. Peacebuilding and the Arts.

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Rolston, Bill. 2003. ‘Changing the Political Landscape: Murals and Transition in Northern Ireland’. Irish Studies Review 11(1): 3–16.

———. 2018. ‘Women on the Walls: Representations of Women in Political Murals in Northern Ireland’. Crime, Media, Culture 14(3): 365–89.

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Sjoberg, Laura, and Caron E. Gentry. 2007. Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Women’s Violence in Global Politics. London: Zed Books.

Toivanen, Mari, and Bahar Baser. 2016. ‘Gender in the Representations of an Armed Conflict: Female Kurdish Combatants in French and British Media’. 9: 294–314.


[1] In Northern Ireland, people identifying as loyalists or unionists believe that Northern Ireland belongs with the United Kingdom while people identifying as nationalists or as republicans believe that Northern Ireland belongs with the Republic of Ireland.

[2] My research so far has relied on the archive compiled at Claremont College but the Conflict Archive on Northern Ireland hosted by Ulster University as well as the blog Extramural Activity also provide images of murals in Northern Ireland.

[3] The distinction between Nationalist and Republican murals is the one made by Tony Crowley and the Claremont College archive.

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