Policing without Police. Republican Paramilitary „Punishment” Attacks on Women in Northern Ireland 1971 – 1979

Juliane Röleke is currently a PhD candidate in history at Humboldt-University Berlin and at Leibniz-Centre for Contemporary Historical Research Potsdam. She has studied history and social sciences in Berlin and Belfast and is working on a project about violence and gender in everday-life during the conflict in Northern Ireland. Her research interest centers around forms of female deviant behaviour during the Troubles, gendered logic of sanctions and feminist interventions. In addition, she is working on the history of Nazi Germany for various memorials and organises educational projects for different football clubs.

Cartoon from: Belfast Telegraph, 13th Nov 1971, p. 6.
Picture courtesy of Belfast Telegraph

A few days after the 21st Miss World contest had taken place in London in November 1971, the Belfast Telegraph published the displayed cartoon by Rowel Friers, connecting the event across the sea to recent incidents in the war-torn province of Northern Ireland.[1] The cartoon picked up the phenomenon of Republican paramilitary “punishment” attacks against Catholic women in the region. It reveals the meaning of gender within informal justice[2] and constitutes itself an example of its sexist logic and perception.

The cartoon shows seven female participants of a beauty contest, all carrying a sash with a different “Miss”-title. While the other women appear upright and self-confident, wearing bathing suits, the woman in the middle hangs her head. Her sash says “Miss Free Derry”, and she is covered in black paint or tar. Her head, in contrast to the other women’s long hair, is shaved. In November 1971, several young women had indeed been shaved, tarred and feathered by female Republican paramilitaries in the city of Derry, an Irish Nationalist stronghold in the region. The cartoon is therefore one of the earliest historical resources relating to this specific form of paramilitary violence. It constitutes an example for non-Republican reactions and shows how they were shaped both by voyeuristic attraction and indignation. The fact that until today none of the attacked women has spoken out publicly about what she experienced indicates the high level of shame and fear related to the assaults.

Informal Justice in Northern Ireland

When the legitimacy of the state and the influence of the British government were challenged in Northern Ireland from 1969 onwards, questions of policing and judiciary moved to the centre of the conflict. In the barricaded Catholic communities of the early 1970s, Republican paramilitaries like the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), the Official Irish Republican Army (OIRA) and the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) installed an alternative policing and juridical system, based on improvised trials and “punishments” like warnings, threats, tarring and feathering, kidnappings, beatings, shootings, exile and executions.[3]What outsiders often perceived as acts of terror was supported by at least parts of the population. Hostility towards the predominantly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the state police force, was widespread, even more so as it had become part of counterinsurgency strategies. Members of paramilitary groups, who were born, raised and deeply rooted within their small communities, were often seen as more trustworthy and efficient in policing neighbourhoods than the rejected state forces.

Republican Paramilitary “Punishment” Attacks against Women

The Belfast Telegraph cartoon symbolizes three key aspects of Republican paramilitary “punishment” attacks against women. In the first place, the choice of a beauty contest for picking up the theme of the attacks reinforced their sexist logic. All of the Derry women assaulted in November 1971 were accused of having romantic or sexual relationships with British soldiers and were thus labelled “Soldier Dolls” or “Soldier Lovers”, terms which revealed the centrality of the wish to control an alleged female sexuality through the attacks. It was not only the possible passing of information to the British Army which was perceived as a threat by Republican paramilitaries, but also the form of relationship the women presumably had. A supporter of the assaults later stated in the Irish Nationalist magazine Saoirse: “The policy of discouraging girls from associating or sororising with soldiers is intended to totally eradicate what miserable pittance of off-duty relaxation is left for these bully boys.“[4]

Secondly, the cartoon portrays the gendered form of the paramilitary “punishment” attacks. While Republican paramilitaries occasionally tarred and feathered men as well, only women were shaved. Removing a woman’s hair forcefully, a key symbol of womanhood and femininity, has a long tradition in European history reaching back to Tacitus‘ Germania and theBible.[5] Republican paramilitaries shaved women systematically during the War of Independence between 1919 and 1921. The displayed cartoon represents itself a voyeuristic sight on the unmasked victim after such an act of violence.

In consequence, the cartoon can thirdly be understood as an integral part of creating a Republican emblem that is engraved deeply in the visual memory of the Troubles[6]: the negative icon of the shaved, tarred and feathered “Soldier Doll” as the female transgressor of Irish or Catholic values. The attacks themselves were public, they took place in front of crowds and at central places in the community, in front of churches or pubs. Drawings like the cartoon, photographs, poems and other receptions helped to spread this specific imagery beyond the circle of people who had actually witnessed an attack. Until today, precisely this image of the tarred and feathered, shaved “Soldier Doll” has eclipsed the commemoration of other reasons for and forms in which women were “punished” by Republican paramilitaries.

Eventually, the sexualised and gendered logic of the attacks caused intense discussions about the legitimacy and different forms of physical violence against women, a topic which was about to become more prominent in Northern Ireland with the rise of the women’s movement.[7] It was feminists who in the end openly spoke out in 1979 against paramilitary “punishment” attacks against women and related it to other forms of violence against women. They brought the public attacks to a stop. However, most of the women who had already been attacked had to leave their communities, and most left Northern Ireland forever.


Diesen Artikel zitieren: Juliane Röleke, „Policing without Police. Republican Paramilitary „Punishment” Attacks on Women in Northern Ireland 1971 – 1979“, in: History | Sexuality | Law, 25/11/2020, https://hsl.hypotheses.org/1523, (abgerufen am: Datum).


[1]See Belfast Telegraph, 13th November 1971, 6.
[2]The term informal justice is chosen here following Colin Knox/Rachel Monaghan: Informal Justice in Divided Societies: Northern Ireland and South Africa. Basingstoke et.al., 2002.
[3]Informal justice existed within Protestant and Loyalist communitites too, but is not treated here due to limited space.
[4]J. B. Longfellow: Fraternising, in: Saoirse, New Year Edition, Newry 1972.
[5]For an in-depth analysis of this form of „punishment“ and its use in liberated France at the end of the Second World War see: Fabrice Virgli: Shorn Women. Gender and Punishment in Liberation France. Oxford 2002.
[6]A widespread local term for the conflict in Northern Ireland.
[7]For a contemporary view see for example Cathy Harkin and Avila Kilmurray: Working With Women In Derry, in: Marie Abott, Hugh Frazer, Women In Community Work. Belfast 1985, 38-45.


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