‘Housing the oppressor’ | Audrey Friggieri

The murder of Bernice Cassar has shocked and outraged the public; but as Domestic Violence Commissioner AUDREY FRIGGIERI points out, Bernice was also the victim of ‘a monster called stigma’; and we all have a part to play, in feeding this monster

This week, Bernice Cassar became the 17th victim of femicide in the past decade. First of all: do you agree with the reaction of (among others) Women for Women, that this was a case of society having collectively ‘failed’ Bernice Cassar? And if so, how?

Well, that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? But yes, I do believe that we are all implicated, one way or another. Because society is made up of all of us: what we believe; what we hold to be important; what we prioritise, the decisions we make… so yes: when a tragedy like this happens, it means that society has failed. Clearly, we have failed Bernice Cassar; but we have also failed ourselves. These are, after all, things that are not supposed to happen.

But it’s not a question of ‘pointing fingers’ at one entity or another. Yes, some people are more responsible, definitely. But we all have a degree of responsibility, in all this. The way we speak; the way we judge; the way we tend to ‘blame the victim’… even the fact that there is so much stigma [around domestic violence]. Why does this stigma exist? Because people are socialised into thinking that – if they have this problem – they are alone. And they feel ashamed: because they think to themselves that: ‘Nobody else has this problem; it’s just me. So there must be something wrong with me…’

And they are left to go through this hell alone, behind closed doors. They often feel they can’t speak about the problem; because they might lose their friends; because people will judge them; or because they think, ‘Who knows what the relatives will say?’; ‘How they will treat me, or look at me, from now on?’…

All these factors combine to form the monster called ‘stigma’. And stigma is a product of society: of cultural values that we have inherited through the ages; of lots of ideas – coming from our Colonial past; the influence of the Church, and so on - that have fossilized into the collective consciousness. And if we don’t stop and think critically; and reflect… we will end up perpetuating those ideas, on autopilot.

This is why education is so important…

On the subject of education: there have already been efforts to ‘educate’ the public, including a number of (ongoing) campaigns organised by the Domestic Violence Commission. And yet – to quote the Malta Women’s Lobby – “the situation in Malta is regressing rather than improving in many aspects”. Statistically, they are right: in 2015, Malta’s Chief pathologist stated that femicides account of 25% of all murders committed in Malta. But every time it happens, our reaction is always to say that ‘it should serve as a wake-up call’…

Well: we always say things like ‘the time has come’; we always speak about ‘wake-up calls’… but it all rings false, to me. Because this has to do with our way of life; it has been with us, forever. Why do we need a femicide to occur, to ‘wake up’ and say, ‘Oops, we have a problem’?


That’s what I was coming to, though. What are we actually doing, in practical terms - apart from organising educational campaigns, etc. – to prevent such murders from happening?

Well, a lot is being done, to be fair. But yes, the problem remains.  Because it takes education, to address an issue of this magnitude; and you can’t just educate people, from one moment to the next…

By education, I don’t just mean what we teach our children at school. Yes, schools do play a huge role: but the media also has a very important part to play, in educating the public. Tell me: who are the story-tellers of our time? Are they the teachers in schools? Or is it the social media; and the constant bombardment by advertising, of all kinds… which include examples of how to behave; and what sort of values to aspire to?

Look at young people today: where are they getting their education from?  They’re constantly with their mobile phones in their hand; they’re following all these ‘social media celebrities’… they’re observing how these people dress; how they speak; what is important to these people; so we also get this culture, of distorting your appearance to fit into some kind of ‘ideal look’…

And people repeat what they see. They repeat what they hear, every day. So the media, too, have a very important function, when it comes to educating the public.

Are you seeing anything specific – when it comes to advertising, for instance; or the messages imparted by social media – that reinforces the stereotypical views of women being ‘objects, to be possessed by men’?

Oh, yes. All the time. Just look at how women are portrayed in pop videos, for instance. Or in advertising. Despite all the campaigns, all the education, all the feminism, and so on… we still keep seeing women treated as objects. And we still see women who keep accepting to be treated as objects…

This raises another aspect. While women’s rights groups have taken a united stand, in demanding that responsibility be shouldered for Bernice Cassar’s murder… the same view is not necessarily shared by all women, across the board. There were even comments, posted by women, arguing that ‘we should not be too quick to define this murder as a femicide.’  And we see this in other cases, too: there is often a tendency for women ‘blame the victim’ in such cases. How do you account for this, yourself?

I come from an education background, so I’ll take a step back here. I studied [Brazilian education philosopher] Paolo Freire: who wrote about oppression, and how we tend to ‘house the oppressor’.

If you have been socialised into thinking that there is ‘only one way to be’, or ‘only one way to live your life’ - and that means ‘bowing your head to the oppressor’; and following all the precepts that are imposed on you… then eventually, instead of fighting for your freedom, you will end up ‘housing your oppressor’ inside of you.

In other words, you will accept your oppression: because you want to ‘fit in’; you don’t want to ‘rock the boat’… or because it simply makes your life easier.

But still: you’re not in control of your own life. And this is also because, when you ‘house the oppressor’, you will lack the ability to observe yourself from a distance, and see what’s really going on.

Ans this phenomenon is very much in action right now. Many people ‘house the oppressor’: and this includes women who believe that other women are responsible for their own predicament, through their own behaviour.

In rape cases, for instance: they might comment about ‘what the victim was wearing’… or ‘how she was dancing’; or ‘how drunk she was’. Or if there are domestic problems in the home, it’s because ‘she’s a bad mother’…

Because let’s face it: ours is a very judgmental culture. Our society is literally dripping with judgmentalism, all the time.  It’s sad, really. That’s the only word that comes to mind. It makes me angry, too, at times: but when I reflect about it quietly, on my own… I find it really sad, more than anything else. Because you can’t grow, in a culture where everybody is always judging everybody else.

At the same time, however: let’s not overlook that there are also women out there, who are really doing an awesome job of fighting against this culture. I applaud these trailblazers, these role-models, who also inspire me. And I hope to inspire others, in my turn.

As for the vast majority of Maltese women and girls, however: if they are not educated to think critically – and to ‘not accept everything’, basically – then sadly, they are going to keep housing the oppressor.

Coming back to the specific circumstances of Bernice Cassar’s murder: earlier, you said that ‘it’s not a question of pointing fingers at one entity, or another’. Yet this case does seem to expose shortcomings with certain institutions. Cassar had filed multiple police reports against her estranged partner; and she was even granted a protection order, by the law-courts.  Yet none of this seems to have translated into any actual protection for the victim. Doesn’t this also mean that entities such as the police DO actually bear responsibility for what happened?

In this case, the perpetrator breached the conditions of the protection order handed down by the courts. It doesn’t mean that the police were not doing their job…

Sorry to interrupt: but that is precisely what many people out there are saying, right now. They are arguing that – in this particularly instance – the police did NOT do their job properly…

I would say that’s unfair. That’s very unfair. The police really do try hard, with the resources they have available to them. Now: if you asked me whether have enough resources, or not… my answer would certainly be ‘No’. The police need more resources: even if, in this area, no amount of resources – financial, or otherwise - is ever going to be enough.   

Was it really just a case of insufficient resources, though? One complaint that is often levelled at the police, is that – at a certain level – they tend to minimise the danger faced by potential victims of domestic violence. Do you think that the police took their responsibilities seriously enough, when faced with this complaint?

Yes, of course they did. I have great trust in the police; because I know they’re working hard. What can happen, however, is that when a victim of domestic violence goes to the police station, to file a report… she might end up having to wait a long time. Why? Because ever since we’ve stepped our awareness campaigns - and our campaigns are now ubiquitous: all year round, we’re on social media, in schools… everywhere, really – the police have reported an increase in domestic violence complaints.

They actually have queues at the Domestic Violence Unit now. I am told that people have to wait long hours; and – unlike other similar waiting room scenarios: such as at the doctor, for instance – each individual case will be highly complicated. It’s not a simply a matter of ‘waiting to be told what medicines you need to take’; the cases that land at the Domestic Violence Unit include intimate partner violence; child-to-parent violence… but also child abuse; people accusing others of molesting their children… these are all very sensitive cases, that involve highly complex social problems.

So, the resources being what they are: it’s no surprise, really, that there are long queues. There are only two rooms at the Domestic Violence Unit: on one room, there is risk assessment going on – which takes time – and in the other, there is a police official listening to each individual report. On top of that, there’s also a play-room: because there will very often be children present… in short, there’s always a lot going on.

But they don’t have the amount of space required, to speak to more than one person simultaneously. It’s ‘one case, at a time’. So if there are 10 people waiting outside; and an individual report can take three hours, or more, to file… yes, of course people are going to feel frustrated. Of course, they’re going to say: ‘I went to the police, and waited seven hours. They’re inefficient…’

But that’s unjust. The police are doing the best they can, with the resources hey have…

I see your point: but people reading this will surely be asking themselves: ‘OK, but if the police are not responsible… where does the buck really stop?’

From the reports we receive ourselves, it seems the main stumbling block concerns delays in the legal system. Because what often happens is that: the police will prosecute; they will want those cases to be heard; they will bring them to the attention of the magistrate… but then, there’s only one magistrate to hear them all; there’s a massive backlog of cases; and again, people end up having to wait.

It’s not the magistrate’s fault, naturally; she is qualified, and experienced… and she’s doing a brilliant job, at the end of the day. But she has inherited an entire barrage of past cases; and more are being filed all the time.

And all this waiting is, to say the least, unhelpful. It is frustrating; and it doesn’t help the relationship, either. So yes: we need to improve the court system, to avoid these delays. This has to be solved, once and for all.