Woman + Politics = Prostitute

Ultimately the word is intended to hurt because it projects the victim as the utmost perversion of society’s (very male) ideal of ‘Womanhood’. If Malta’s social construct of ‘the ideal woman’ (modelled on… no, not the pop singer, the other one) is an embodiment of ‘modesty, humility, chastity ad virtue’… what’s on the other end of the scale?

Labour MP Rosianne Cutajar
Labour MP Rosianne Cutajar

Of course, there is a male equivalent to that equation, too: ‘Man + Politics = Crook’. But then again, it is debatable how much of an insult that really is, in a culture that evidently attaches certain value to the idea of breaking the law (and getting away with it) as an end in itself.

Being a prostitute, on the other hand – and, what’s more, a female prostitute at that – is something our society seems to insist on holding in the utmost contempt imaginable.

Even our language reflects this sort of unabashed, unapologetic gender bias. We refer to a female prostitute as a ‘qahba’… and it is arguably the lowest and most demeaning form of insult that can be levelled at a woman. A male prostitute, on the other hand, is a ‘qahbu’. And unless you use the word very literally – in which case, it usually becomes more of a statement of fact, than any direct judgment of character – you will find that it more commonly refers to behaviour of a criminal/delinquent/antisocial variety…  i.e., nothing to do with ‘sex’ or ‘social morals’ at all.
‘Dak il-qahbu’ of a shopkeeper who overcharged or cheated you, for instance: or that other ‘qahbu’ of a drunk teenager, who scratched your car with a key, or broke off your side-mirrors, after a night on the town…

It is not exactly a compliment, naturally. But at the same time, being called a ‘qahbu’ is nowhere near as downright offensive – or ever intended quite so literally, for that matter – as ‘qahba’ invariably is, when applied to a woman.

To put it another way: one of the most notorious gangsters of the 1980s (originally suspected of involvement in the murder of Raymond Caruana, 22 years ago this month) was nicknamed ‘Il-Qahbu’… not as an insult, mind you; but as a label with which he himself was presumably quite happy to identify.

I can’t imagine any woman, of any background whatsoever, taking to the nickname ‘Il-Qahba’ with quite the same gusto. Unlike its male equivalent, it not considered a mildly offensive, but broadly acceptable bit of cultural irreverence.  It is – let’s face it – really quite insulting. Not just because it equates ‘politics’ with ‘prostitution’ (in which case, quite frankly the prostitutes should be the ones taking offence); but more because of the inescapable mindset that inevitably underlies it.

It goes something like this: if you’re female, and successful in politics… and elsewhere, too; but let’s stick to politics for now. Oh, that reminds me: if you’re female, successful, but on the ‘wrong’ side of politics... Important distinction, that. It’s perfectly OK if you achieve your success with the ‘right’ party; in fact, depending on the party, you might even get to be defended by all Malta’s civil society put together…

But that sort of illogicality is applicable to all aspects of Maltese politics, not just its women. The bottom line either way (and no matter how many ways it can conceivably be work outed) is that: if you’re female, and a politician… you’re a ‘qahba’. Simple as that, really.

And there is even a perfectly ‘logical’ explanation. The only way a woman can possibly earn the trust and support of around 10% of her particular district… is to sleep with at least 90% of its male voters. I mean… how else do women climb up the political ladder, anyway? By actually campaigning? Working hard? Doing ‘manly’ things like debating on TV? Don’t be silly. They’re women, for crying out loud…

Erm… yes, so as I was saying: ‘qahba’ – in these circumstances, and all things considered – really is a pretty harsh insult to use. And yet; just look how easily it rolls off the tongue these days. I started by suggesting a link with Malta’s rate of female political participation… and, well, the numbers sort of speak for themselves, really.

At present, only 10 out of 65 members of the Maltese Parliament are women: that’s 6.5%. And yet, just look at the percentage of that tiny 6.5% that has been publicly called out (one way or another) as ‘sluts’ in their time. In some cases, the insult even came directly from one or more MPs during a Parliamentary debate. Marlene Farrugia, Julia Farrugia Portelli, Rosianne Cutajar are examples I remember off-hand… and already we’re up to 30%.

Throw social media commentary into the mix, and suddenly it becomes a dead certainty that all (100%) of Malta’s women parliamentarians will have been saddled with the ‘qahba’ label, or equivalent thereof, at one point or other in their career.

So we may have the lowest rate of female political participation in the EU; but take heart, people. When it comes to the rate at which we gleefully insult our tiny percentage of female representatives, we are without doubt the undefeated champions of Europe (and we’ll keep on fighting, to the end, etc).

Then people wonder why our national female political participation rate is so low. Hmmm… what could the answer be, I wonder? Because there aren’t enough ‘family-friendly’ measures in parliament? Because Maltese husbands can’t be trusted to check the oven every so often, while their wives are busy debating national legislation? Or could it be that Maltese women just don’t particularly relish the idea exposing themselves to a tsunami of instant, online ‘slut-shaming’, the moment they step out of the shadows and into public life?

Even so, however; I doubt the answer is as simple as ‘a fear of instantly being labelled with the most insulting, demeaning slurs imaginable’. I will certainly not wade headlong into the battle of the sexes here: but my guess is that people tend to generally respond to things like ‘insults’ – or the threat of insults - in their own, unique ways. That they also happen to be ‘male’ or ‘female’ just makes for an interesting footnote, that’s all.

Besides: this culture of ‘slutshaming’ cannot really be described as uniquely Maltese cultural trait, either. I have no doubt the same slur is used just as freely in most, if not all other European languages: and in the same way too. I.e., to instantly label female politicians one doesn’t happen to particularly like.

So no: this is not, and cannot be, something we have concocted ourselves. But I have noticed a certain pattern to how it manifests here, as opposed to other places. I’ve already outlined at least one of the practical effects; and it certainly does seem to be ‘unique to Malta’. That 6.5% statistic… it cannot be a coincidence that so few Maltese women choose to enter political life; yet almost all who do, are routinely targeted by – at minimum – insulting and derogatory language; and at maximum, a concerted social media smear campaign (sometimes extending to the mainstream media) to the same effect.

One other difference that stands out is that the word is used here not only liberally – as I’m sure it is everywhere else in the world – but also literally. It is not just a knee-jerk impulse to spout the most immediately offensive label that springs to mind.

Lurking in this unpleasant mix there really is a genuine, profound and particularly ugly type of misogyny at work.

Ultimately the word is intended to hurt because it projects the victim as the utmost perversion of society’s (very male) ideal of ‘Womanhood’. If Malta’s social construct of ‘the ideal woman’ (modelled on… no, not the pop singer, the other one) is an embodiment of ‘modesty, humility, chastity ad virtue’… what’s on the other end of the scale?

It’s all condensed into that one little word, ‘qahba’. It encapsulates the generally impossible ideal all women are expected to live up to… and punishes those who can’t, by casting them as the very opposite: as far from ‘perfection’ as it is possible to be.  

Kind of unfair, don’t you think? On women in general… but on prostitutes in particular. And this, too, is that something that might be ‘unique’ about our national prejudice against ‘prostitution’. Similar prejudices exist everywhere; but they are usually tempered by the ‘redeeming factors’ traditionally attached to that role by virtually all the world’s cultures.

What would literature and (especially) film be, without the stock character of the ‘prostitute with the heart of gold’?  That’s already the entire ‘Western’ genre – John Wayne, Clare Trevor and all – wiped out in fell swoop. ‘Gone with the Wind’, too. (No, I mean the film by that name. It has a ‘gold-hearted prostitute’ character too…) And as for Julia Roberts: she would probably have remained a struggling unknown actress all her life, exploited forever by the Harvey Weinsteins of Hollywood… instead of becoming the world’s highest paid filmstar, thanks to the global success of ‘Pretty Woman’.

Remember? That classic ‘rags to riches’ cinematic fairy tale, about a Los Angeles streetwalker who finds true love (and spectacular wealth) in the form of Richard Gere, who overcomes his own prejudices to look beyond the superficial trappings of society, and….? Yeah, that’s the one.
Well, just imagine if ‘Pretty Woman’ was made to reflect the moral compass of the typical Maltese ‘slut-shamer’ today. It would be classic case of ‘rags to...um… more rags’: Julia Roberts would start out as a prostitute in the gutter… and she would basically stay there forever.  

I mean, she’s a slut, isn’t she? She ought to know her place. And anyway, who would want to see ‘her kind’ actually rising above her humble origins, to eventually carve out a successful life of her own? No: she made her bed, now she should sleep in it, etc.

And to argue that point most convincingly onscreen, would be none other than Richard Gere himself: who would have shamelessly exploited Julia at the nearest motel, then dumped her on the pavement and driven off in his glistening red Lamborghini… The End.

Yeah, that will get the Oscars just pouring in, right? ‘Not a dry eye in the house’, the critics said… probably because there were no eyes in the house at all: everyone just stormed out in a huff before Intermission.

But it didn’t happen like that, did it? No: Julia Roberts starts off as a ‘slut/whore/qahba/troia’; and thanks to series of cheesy and entirely predictable plot developments, she ends up as a successful social cli… I mean, she works her way up to the top… No, not that way... Oh, you know what I mean. She wins in the end, and everyone comes out of the cinema all happiness and smiles.

There is, after all, a reason why that formula has always worked so well. It appeals to a universal sense of social justice, whereby ‘good things happen to good people trapped in bad circumstances’.

It is the complete absence of anything resembling this sentiment, anywhere in the ‘Woman + Politics = Slut’ equation, that I find most offensive.

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