Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution 1.2 – Reviews


Begona Aretxaga: Shattering Silence: Women, Nationalism, and Political Subjectivity in Northern Ireland.

1997. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Unversity Press. 211 pp including index. Cloth $49.50 Paper $14.95

Shattering Silence is an ethnographic study of working-class, nationalist (Republican) women in Belfast. Although Aretxaga originally intended only to look at the contemporary political condition of these women, she soon realized that this condition was inextricably linked to the political history of the region. As a result, the book is equal parts history, analysis, and firsthand accounts – and is all the stronger for it.

Aretxaga begins by looking at the traditional view of the conflict in Northern Ireland: "violent men and victimized women" (4), and examines women's attempts to construct a national and feminist identity within the struggle against the British. This is a study of how gender functions within both the colonial and revolutionary context of Northern Ireland. Although there has been some analysis of this in the literature and the media, it has almost always been shallow, considering women as the victims in the conflict and ignoring the contributions made by women to the nationalist movement.

History is very important in Shattering Silence. Aretxaga includes a chapter which is basically a geographic history of West Belfast, which serves to ground the analysis to come. Every story told by the women interviewed is set within its political and historical context. For example, the Dirty Protest, in which women and men imprisoned by the British refused to bathe or remove bodily wastes from their cells cannot be understood independently of the Hunger Strikes or the Blanket Protest. It is within this context that Aretxaga is able to show the differences in experiences and representations of the women. Where the men were universally backed in the Dirty Protest, women, who joined to support equality within the nationalist movement, had the effect of heightening their gender differences. Whereas it was noble for men to live in dirt and excrement, the addition of menstrual blood made the protest unintelligible for most men and some women in Northern Ireland. Women's experiences were different, notably due to the different constructions of gender identity in Northern Irish culture.

The analysis used by Aretxaga is also important. She examines metaphor, narrative, and the construction of gender identity with an eye toward current theory, as well as the situation in Northern Ireland. Due to this, her particular analysis gains credibility. Importantly, Aretxaga examines narratives and myths as a tool of meaning-creation and not as the driving force of much activity in Northern Ireland, as others do.

Everything Aretxaga does in Shattering Silence is completed with a skill and style which makes the book clear and easy to read, without sacrificing detail or explanation. Not only is this is an important contribution to the study of Northern Ireland, but is also an important examination of the ways in which gender functions in conflicts.


 By Derek Sweetman, editor


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