Shattered serenity

Misogyny, sexual harassment, and micro-aggressions are issues that Maltese society still has to deal with in a forceful manner.

The brutal murder of Polish 29-year-old Paulina Dembska – whose lifeless body was discovered early Sunday morning, in a popular Sliema public garden - is deeply disturbing on a number of counts.

It is hardly surprising that the entire country would resound with such a forceful expression of shock, anger and bewilderment: on one level, the sheer violence (and senselessness) of the act itself is something that demands such a reaction, in and of itself.

But on another level entirely, Dembska’s murder has also violently shaken – if not, outright destroyed – much of our entire perception of this ‘sweet country’ of ours (to quote the words of our national anthem). Certainly, it has caused people to respond with genuine alarm, at what appears to be a wholesale collapse of the ‘moral standards’ they have always believed this country to have been founded upon. 

And while, admittedly, much of this perception may even have been misplaced, all along: certainly, people are right to ask such entirely natural questions as, ‘how could this happen here’? Or – as is being asked with increasing frequency – ‘what could have been done to prevent it’?

As always, these are difficult questions to answer. As we were all graphically reminded during a public vigil, Dembska is hardly the only female victim of violence or murder in recent years. There have, in fact, been 36 murders that can be classified as ‘femicides’, in Malta over the past two decades; and while each individual crime may bear its own unique stamp… it is impossible to deny that they all consist in women, having been murdered precisely because they were women.

In Dembska’s case, it also appears from information gleaned from sources close to the investigation that the victim had no connection or relationship with her murderer.

Unlike most of the other femicides of the past few years, this was a random murder –was perpetrated in a public place, that is also popular with joggers, walkers and families with children - raising the hideously unnerving prospect that the same fate could quite literally have befallen any other woman, who just happened to be there at that particular time.

This apparent randomness - on top of the brutal fate suffered by Dembska, as revealed by the autopsy report - has understandably shattered the serenity of many women: who now feel they are no longer safe, even in the most public of places.

And the feeling of insecurity is by no means limited only to women (though this category is, for obvious reasons, the most susceptible). Truth be told, the effect of chilling crimes such as this, go far beyond the sheer horror of rape and murder. They also shatter our collective peace of mind, and the all-important fundamental right to feel ‘safe and protected’: whoever you are, and whatever the circumstances.

But the murder is also shocking because of what has emerged so far about the suspect, 20-year-old Abner Aquilina.

Aquilina is reported to have told police that it was the devil who instructed him to do what he did: suggesting some form of mental health problem that was further sustained by the fact that doctors referred him to Mount Carmel Hospital.

The facts around Aquilina’s state of mind, and what motivated him to kill what appears to be a perfect stranger, still have to be precisely established. But irrespective of any mental health condition - if at all - a pattern of misogyny has also been established in private messages Aquilina had sent to women (and very young teenagers), harassing them for sex.

It is now up to the justice system, of course, to decide Aquilina’s own fate in a court of law. But what the experience also illustrates, is that – though it may have been exacerbated by underlying mental issues – this crime can still be traced all the way back to the same widespread cultural streak, that somehow reduces women to the status of ‘objects’ to be used (and disposed of) by men. 

Clearly, then, misogyny, sexual harassment, and micro-aggressions are issues that Maltese society still has to deal with in a forceful manner. We very often appease our conscience by accepting these as traditional, cultural and Mediterranean traits; but as this episode so clearly shows, this is simply unacceptable. 

It only simply prepares the groundwork for perpetrators to believe they can ‘get away with murder’…. a boast which, alas, has been vindicated all too often in the past (as victims of domestic violence often discover, to their cost). 

Nothing will ever bring back Paulina Dembska back, of course – still less, any of the other female victims of male-perpetrated violence - but as activist Pia Micallef told this newspaper: “We can implement a million great policies, including the Istanbul Convention […]  but without a societal shift in mentality vis-a-vis how we view our ownership of women and their bodies, we will continue to face the same harrowing experiences over and over again.” 

The least we can do, then is take a long, hard look at our society - its legal structures, the support structures, the justice and educations systems – and ask ourselves how we continue to fail victims like Paulina Dembska, to this very day.