Still far to go for gender equality

Wider gender equality rights include the right of women to participate in public life without harassment; to determine their own futures, unfettered by the social pressures of a male-dominated society; and to feel safe in their own country

Three occasions this week have served as an ominous reminder of the precarious state of women’s rights in Malta. 

The first was an assault on a female Swedish sunbather, by a male aggressor, in broad daylight on a public beach; the second, a travel ban imposed on a woman whose abusive partner claimed ‘wanted an abortion’; and the third was the judgement handed down in a libel case filed by Parliamentary Secretary Rosianne Cutajar. 

In different ways, each of these episodes remind us that women in Malta have to live encumbered with fears that men do not necessarily have on a day-to-day basis. 

That a person may be attacked in a suspected attempted rape, while at the beach; that a woman might be held from exercising her freedom of movement because a man alleges she intends getting an abortion (and, even more bizarrely, that the court would even entertain such a request for whatever duration); and that women in politics are slandered by people who refuse to debate politically, and instead prefer ad hominem attacks: suggesting that women with agency are supposed to be judged on the basis of their personal choices, as opposed to their professional behaviour… 

These are all realities which – while not always taking such extreme forms as violence, or the curtailment of human rights – would be considered ‘rare’ or even unheard-of, if the victim were a man. Nonetheless, it is a reflection of the sort of treatment or attitudes encountered by most Maltese women in their daily lives. 

But while some of these attitudes are grounded in universal realities – it is an inescapable fact that women account for well over 90% of all global rape (or attempted rape) cases – others are also reflective of an altogether more local cultural mindset. 

The Rosianne Cutajar case, for example, is indicative of the different way society reacts to male and female figures in political life. 

Maltese politics being the combative arena it is, male targets are not usually spared from their fair share of ‘ad hominem’ attacks. But the nature of the insults used to describe men tends to be very different from its feminine counterpart. 

Unlike men, women in politics tend to be singled out for entirely personal matters. In Cutajar’s case, it was to be called a ‘prostitute’: partly in reference to unsubstantiated allegations made about the politician’s private life, before taking up public service. 

But in other cases it may be their physical appearance, or even their clothes (the case of former President Marie-Louise Coleiro, criticised for her choice of attire at a pubic event, is a classic example). 

All such cases, however, are rooted in the same general malaise: it reflects an underlying (often unwitting) assumption that women should not really hold such positions at all… so that, when they do – and even more so, when they prove just as successful, if not more, than men – the reaction is not merely of antipathy, but of aggressive (often violent) impulses. 

But while the law courts upheld this view when ruling on Cutajar’s libel case, the justice system itself appears to be perpetuating much the same stereotype when it comes to other, women-related issues. Though it was eventually lifted after a week, the courts originally decided to impose a travel ban on a woman, simply because her partner had accused her of seeking to terminate a pregnancy abroad.  

This ruling is not only clearly misogynistic – reducing the woman concerned to the level of her (apparently abusive) partner’s total control and to the biological essence of child-bearer rather than a person with rights – but it is also legally unsound. Even if it could be proven, the intention to abort overseas cannot be considered a crime, because the procedure would be legal in the country where it is performed. 

Much more ominously, however, the court ruling openly breaches the woman’s fundamental human rights – the right to freedom of movement (not to mention the right to a private life). 

All this illustrates the extent to which women’s rights are pushed to one side, whenever the controversial matter of abortion is brought up for discussion. 

Yet discuss we must, even if just to avoid repetitions of such injustices in future. Interestingly enough, this was the substance of an online comment by former PM Alfred Sant, calling for a mature, reasoned debate on the issue: which received the support of Labour deputy leader Daniel Farrugia as well as members of Labour’s women’s section NL. 

This sentiment echoes a sea-change in the way abortion is spoken about in Malta. After all, it was in 2019 and 2020 that we saw the rise of a pro choice coalition of young female activists, progressives, doctors and feminists. But we should not just debate abortion: we also need to speak about the wider context of gender equality rights; and that also includes the right of women to participate in public life without harassment; the right of women to determine their own futures, unfettered by the social pressures of a male-dominated society; and above all, the right of women and LGBTQI+ people to feel safe in their own country. 

It seems that we still have some distance to go.