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Maeve Higgins: We have to face up to rape culture and misogyny in Ireland 

"Sometimes you need an outsider to see a world like this, a world that we know very intimately." 

Shane Crowley, a young screenwriter from Killorglin, Co Kerry, said that on stage at the Cannes Film Festival last month. Crowley was interviewed after a screening of God's Creatures, a new film set in a fictional fishing village in Kerry. 

The specifics of the story — hopefully without spoiling it — are that a mother, played by Emily Watson, lies to protect her son, played by Paul Mescal, from a crime he committed. 

The repercussions ricochet through the individuals involved and through the close-knit community. 

It's a psychological drama and an emotional epic, but more than that, it's a fictional film that somehow tells the exact truth about rape in Ireland. 

Art can do that sometimes; art can illuminate, question, and push us to understand something too big and grotesque to grapple with in our daily lives.

The film is directed by two American women, Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer. 

They portray the ugliness and ordinariness, alongside some moments of redemptory beauty, that make up this Irish coastal community's reaction to rape. 

We see how Irish communities often treat women who come forward with the truth; we see their silence and complicity. 

We watch as they ostracise the woman telling the truth, punishing her instead of the criminal, who they support implicitly and explicitly. 

The film is intense but it's not loud; the action happens in the silences familiar to all of us who grew up in the patriarchal and oppressive Ireland of the 1980s and '90s, a version still going strong today. 

Watching the film hurtled me back into memories of the friends and neighbours, men, who lined up to shake Danny Foley's hand at his sentencing for sexual assault in a Kerry courtroom in 2009. 

It reminded me of growing up in a country where men vastly outnumber women in every sphere of power, from elected officials to church leaders to hospital consultants. 

It brought home to me, once again, that being female means I am valued less in every way.

Since the conviction and jailing of five men in the Midlands last week for the rape of a 17-year-old girl in 2016, I've been trying to process how those men could do what they did to a person, to a child. 

Justice Tara Burns, the judge who sentenced the men, described the case as horrifying and said they had "acted like animals" and lacked any "shred of humanity or respect, fundamentally required for a functioning society." 

A case like this disgusting gang rape shocks us, and we all agree it is unacceptable. 

The thing is, though, our society does function without the humanity and respect every person deserves; our communities function daily with this violence swirling away just beneath the surface. 

In many ways, rape culture and misogyny are the rule rather than the exception.

Sure, we never consciously decided to make our communities and society misogynistic, to make something as violent and damaging as sexual assault a threat and a reality for many of us. 

One in five women in Ireland has been raped in their lifetime and one in two women in Ireland has experienced "any form of sexual violence".
One in five women in Ireland has been raped in their lifetime and one in two women in Ireland has experienced "any form of sexual violence".

Yet here we are. In 2020, Maynooth University and Trinity College Dublin researchers conducted a study on sexual violence and the social functioning of survivors. 

Their sample of more than 1,000 Irish adults found that one in five women in Ireland has been raped in their lifetime. One in two women in Ireland has experienced "any form of sexual violence". 

Isn't that insane? So many women are burdened by this. And for every victim, there is a corresponding perpetrator, forcing the questions — what is going on with men, and how does a society like ours foster such violence?

God's Creatures will be released in Ireland later this year, and I think it will resonate both at home and abroad. 

The film reflected back to me things about Ireland I knew to be true but had difficulty naming and understanding. 

While Shane Crowley wrote the script, the story originated with the film's producer, Fodhla Cronin O'Reilly, whose intention and vision have held steady. 

In the film's press notes, Crowley and Cronin O'Reilly explained that they wanted to look at the cost of male privilege, "and to explore the gender politics of our world ... to investigate themes of gender, family, trauma, sexuality, desire, and emigration — and to ask the questions— how could people do this to sexual assault survivors, how could communities treat individuals like this?"

How we name rape culture is essential, and how we reflect it back to ourselves must be to destroy it rather than perpetuate it. 

UN Women is the United Nations' organisation dedicated to gender equality, and they name rape culture as a reason women are disrespected and disbelieved:

"Rape culture is pervasive. It's embedded in the way we think, speak, and move in the world. While the contexts may differ, rape culture is always rooted in patriarchal beliefs, power, and control. 

"Rape culture is the social environment that allows sexual violence to be normalised and justified, fuelled by the persistent gender inequalities and attitudes about gender and sexuality."

  God's Creatures does so much heavy lifting here, not by depicting a rape on screen — which it does not do — but by staying with the characters within the quiet and quotidian violence that is misogyny. 

When viewed through outside eyes, the sea, the work, and the life we know as Irish people take on a new significance. 

This Irish story and these American storytellers combine forces to make the film universal. And when we see it, how can we continue to accept it?

Aisling Franciosi plays Sarah Murphy, the character who suffers the community's punishment for speaking up against one of their beloved boys. 

Ms Franciosi said that when preparing herself for the role, she used the knowledge that most violence against women is done to them by men they know, not strangers, regular men, men people love. 

"The greyness and humanness of people who commit horrible acts is what makes it more terrifying. And when it's someone you know, the lines are not easy to draw," Ms Franciosi said.

"For me, it felt important and challenging to explore these ideas, to look inside and ask hard questions." 

Franciosi is correct of course, it is both important and challenging. Facing rape culture in Ireland and everywhere, with whatever weapons we have, be they art or stories, or any other form of solidarity with women, is powerful and urgent work.