Friday, September 23, 2005

The Magdalene Sisters

The film Magdalene Sisters is a scathing indictment of the excesses of the Irish Catholic Church at a time of a changing Catholic Church in the 60s and 70s. It depicts the lives of three women from very different backgrounds and forced into hard labor in an asylum where their rights are curtailed. Nuns ran the asylum where the women were compelled to do hard laundry everyday as part of the nuns’ enterprise for income generation. The asylum was very repressive which could be described aptly as hell on earth in the guise of a divine institution.

The reasons for the admittance of the women into the asylum vary. One had a child out of wedlock, which was a very grave taboo in an Irish culture dictated by the dominant Catholic Church. The others were simply very attractive to the other sex that they had to be confined there to avoid tempting the men and leading them into sin. This is the kind of repression which Irish women were subjected to, as dictated by a Church which was supposed to be reshaping its feudal view on women in those times. At its worst, the women of the Church are the very ones who are doing the feudal bidding of the powerful Church as seen in their humiliation of women in the asylum. This goes to show how powerful cultural institutions work to oppress and exploit rather than emancipate people’s consciousness. Hence, cultural institutions such as the Irish Church hinder the people from determining their own destiny. It seeks to preserve the feudal role of women of domestic subjugation and never a productive force in society.

This is very important to note because culture is the one responsible for the reproduction of the relations of power and relations of production in a given society. It represses or liberates according to the balance of forces in a society. In the case of Ireland, a repressive Church is deeply-rooted in the consciousness of its citizens, thus, the oppression and exploitation in the laundry is consensual on the part of the people, though not to the objects of exploitation in the asylum. This explains why the last of the laundries closed only in the middle of the 1990s.

The work conditions of the women are also horrible, the height of labor exploitation. The Church is exacting absolute surplus value from the women as they work without pay, in which the costs are only those for operations, food and housekeeping of the asylum. No wonder the Church held these laundries for so long! The asylum proved that slavery still existed during the modern times, even as modes of production have evolved from one system to another. This perhaps is the damning effect of culture. While social relations of production and quantitative changes in mode of production have occurred, the cultural system can preserve aspects of an old society and helps keep an old cultural institution as the Church in existence.

This profoundly explains why Irish society turned a blind eye on the excesses of the Church – the Magdalene laundries in particular. Culture can permit excesses because it dictates the status quo, the normal lifestyle of the people. In this case, it was perfectly fine for immoral Irish women to be sent to the laundries for reeducation, in a manner of speaking, it is the Church that says so anyway. It is this ignorance of people, perpetuated by an all-powerful Church that has created the nightmare of the Magdalene Laundries. No extent of oppression can ever be surmounted if the people are blinded from the very start by their Church that determines their way of life. The struggle against this can only come forth from within the confines of the asylum as they are directly affected by the abuses of the nuns.

It is unfortunate, though, that the Church, even the Vatican, is desperately trying to censor this historical reality from view. How can there ever be justice and peace when the peace and truth the Church demands is that which keeps people ignorant, silent and subjugated?

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