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I Believe Her

'The #IBelieveHer moment has been a long time coming'

While the verdict in the Belfast rape trial may have been the catalyst for yesterday’s impromptu demonstrations, this is about so much more.

YESTERDAY, WOMEN ACROSS Ireland took to the streets to participate in demonstrations organised to show solidarity with victims of sexual crime. The rallying cry was #IBelieveHer, a reference to the woman at the centre of the Belfast rape trial, which concluded on Wednesday afternoon and saw Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding, Blane McIlroy and Rory Harrison acquitted on all charges.

But while this verdict may have been the catalyst for the impromptu demonstrations, this wasn’t only about her. It was about a broken system that all too often frames victims of rape and sexual assault as liars and opportunists, guilty of luring men into honeytraps or seeking to ruin their lives. It was about a system that instills little to no confidence among women that they will secure justice should they report a rape or sexual assault. It was about a society that readily excuses misogyny in all its forms and expects women to accept it as part and parcel of being a woman in the world.

It was about women saying, ‘Enough is enough.’

The jury for the Belfast rape trial was sworn in January 29th. Over the nine weeks that followed, the public was treated to daily dispatches from the trial. Tweets, court reports, news bulletins. It made for gruelling listening and reading. More importantly, it shed a light on what victims of sexual crime are forced to endure in a courtroom setting.

Before she went to the police, the woman at the centre of the trial expressed concern about going up against the might of Ulster Rugby and worried that she would be viewed as a ‘stupid little girl now regretting it’.

These predictions proved prophetic as she was put through eight days of cross-examination during which she was accused of misremembering details, deliberately withholding information and lying to save her own skin.

She was asked if she was attracted to celebrities. She was accused of ‘watering down’ her knowledge of rugby. She was told she had in fact invited herself along to the party. She was accused of ‘teasing’ Jackson. She was quizzed about fake tan stains on the trousers she wore that night. She was forced to look on as her bloodied underwear from the night in question was removed from a brown envelope and presented to the court. She was asked to justify her use of an upside down smiley emoji in a text to a friend.

Worst of all, she was questioned about her use of the third person – ‘you’ instead of ‘I’ – while giving evidence and accused of repeating something she had read rather than experienced herself. (Tellingly, while she was put through the wringer about her use of the third person, one of the defendants was able to claim that a text reading, ‘She was very loose’ actually meant that the night was good fun and shouldn’t be interpreted as a reference to the woman.)

The interactions struck many as unnecessarily antagonistic and aggressive, designed to discredit and humiliate her. Barristers have a job to do, yes, but does it serve anyone to frame women as liars and fantasists in cases as sensitive and murky as this? Or does it just validate that most sinister of threats, ‘Nobody will believe you’?

Meanwhile, the crude Whatsapp messages that spoke of ‘Belfast sluts,’ ‘spit roasts’ and ‘pumping birds’ were dismissed as young men bragging about their exploits. Juvenile and regrettable, but not indicative of anything untoward. Some claimed that those messages were nothing out of the ordinary. ‘Just lads being lads,’ they said. Women the length and the breadth of the country knew otherwise, though.

In those messages, they recognised the type of entitlement and aggression that has informed so many of their interactions with men over the years. They were reminded of the men who groped them in nightclubs. The men who wouldn’t take no for an answer. The men who couldn’t conceive that women might have their own desires and boundaries, and that these might go beyond being ‘pumped’ and ‘roasted’.

Just lads being lads.

On Wednesday afternoon, the jury in the trial returned verdicts of not guilty for all four defendants. They left the courtroom as they entered nine weeks previously and were free to move on with their lives.

Outside, Paddy Jackson’s solicitor read a statement calling it a ‘common sense verdict’ and decried the lack of consistency in the complainant’s testimony. Shortly afterwards, Stuart Olding’s solicitor read a statement on his behalf in which he denied any wrongdoing, but extended an apology to the complainant for ‘the hurt that was caused’.

It was a small, but necessary acknowledgment for a woman who had spent the last nine weeks being called everything from a slut to a liar.

Meanwhile, women around the country went one step further and declared, ‘I believe her.’ They donated money to rape crisis centres. They took to the streets. They made signs. All so they wouldn’t feel quite so helpless in a society that regularly tells them they are less than.

A society that regularly extends the benefit of the doubt to men while readily believing that a woman would put herself through a nine-week trial as some baffling act of self-preservation. A society that seems to worry an awful lot about men’s lives being ruined while having scant regard for the women whose lives are quietly ruined every day. A reputation, it seems, is more valuable than a person’s dignity and humanity.

Like the #MeToo moment before it, the #IBelieveHer moment has been a long time coming. While this trial, those texts, and that cross examination may have inspired it, it’s about so much more and has sparked long overdue conversations on consent, misogyny, and how the justice system works for victims of sexual crime.

These conversations will likely carry on for some time, but the message for now is loud and clear: enough is enough.


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