After all, women in Ireland are fortunate enough to not fall victim to female genital mutilation as in areas of Africa and Asia, never had to painfully bind their feet like the women of China, nor were they murdered for disgracing their families as in the Middle East and Asia. Although domestic abuse has been found statistically to rear its dreadful head in every society worldwide, Ireland seems at first glance to be a society in which women are relatively safe from rampant persecution. However, the awful truth is that almost every society in the world has horrific ways of punishing and controlling its women, and with the imminent release of the Magdalene Report, it is clear that this was ours.
It has only been eighteen years since the doors of the last remaining Magdalene laundry closed in county Waterford. Its victims are only now getting official and nationwide recognition, having lived completely imprisoned for ‘crimes’ of breaking stagnant social rules; ‘crimes’ that for the large part (around 92%) were not remotely recognised by any law in Ireland, some women for the full duration of their lives (almost 10%). Although the victims of the Magdalene laundries have forever been immortalised in Joni Mitchell’s song Magdalene Laundries and the 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters, the existence of the poorly disguised asylums was only officially recognised in 1993, having been open for almost 185 years by then.
While researching the laundries, I realised to my horror that tactics used in the Stanford Prison Experiment in the 1970s, found to have devastating emotional and mental consequences were also used in the laundries to eradicate these women’s sense of identity. This inevitably had the intended consequence of belittling their belief in their own survival outside of the laundries. Women who arrived were stripped of their belongings, given numbers and expected to refer to the nuns as “mother”, while having to contend with the unanimous label of “children”. Indeed, the identity of some women wound up so far removed from them that the report claims that between 1942 and 1968, 24 women died whose birth names had not been identified.
Most shockingly of all, the official report has claimed that far from preventing entry to the laundries, the state was responsible for sending almost a fifth of Magdalene victims to their horrific new homes, where it now publicly acknowledges they were at daily risk of suffering mental, emotional and psychological abuse.
The Magdalene laundries are a toxic by-product of a country that has been sometimes suffocated by religion, just as honour killings have been for Muslim women. As the appalling statistics just released by the Magdalene report show, we have far more in common with the female victims of abuse elsewhere in the world than we realise. Thankfully, these horrendous institutions have been eradicated in our society, but the numerous hair-raising stories emerging in the Irish media of what went on inside them show that the scars of these extremely unfortunate women will probably never fade.