Violence towards women is not a game

In a bizarre twist, the questionable initiative of a local football club very quickly turned into a political controversy in its own right, as various personalities chipped in with their views on the matter.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

In many ways, the recent controversy surrounding Ched Evans – a Welsh footballer convicted of rape, who was offered a contract with Paola-based club Hibernians FC – tells us a lot more about ourselves than about the issue at stake.

Evans, a former Sheffield United and Wales striker, was convicted by a British court of raping a 19-year-old girl, and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. He was released on parole after serving half that sentence; Hibernians later made an offer to sign him up while he was still on parole. The football club stuck to its guns in the face of harsh criticism; but it transpired that the move was not legally possible owing to Evans’s probation conditions. And that was the end of the issue, at least insofar as the football transfer itself was concerned.

But things are rarely that simple: and in a bizarre twist, the questionable initiative of a local football club very quickly turned into a political controversy in its own right, as various personalities chipped in with their views on the matter.

The fastest to do so was Justice Minister Owen Bonnici, who defended the move on the ground that our criminal justice system foresees the rehabilitation of convicted criminals.

Given that Bonnici has no connection to Hibernians FC – other than contesting elections in the Paola district, which may account for his sudden interest – his statement was a little incongruous. Technically he is correct; but ‘rehabilitation’ does not mean that one is simply allowed to return to one’s former life as if nothing had happened. Ideally there should be an expression of shame or remorse – neither of which was forthcoming from Ched Evans – and at the very least, the process should take place after one’s dues to society have been fully paid.

But Bonnici’s involvement goes beyond expressing a mere opinion. The minister may not have realised the implications at the time, but his comment was insensitive because it also betrays a shallow understanding of a crime as serious as rape. We live in an age when consistent efforts are made to sensitise society as to the seriousness of violence towards women. All this takes place against a backdrop of resurgent feminism: Emma Watson addressing the United Nations General Assembly, campaigns urging politicians to take firm stands in support of women to be accorded the respect they deserve… not to mention the ongoing efforts of Bonnici’s own government to ensure gender equality and safeguard women’s rights.

The Justice Minister must be living in a very different world, if he didn’t realise that his remark would have raised eyebrows in this context. Moreover, his intervention also exposed a tendency for representatives of the present government to shoot from the hip, only to be gently admonished by their Prime Minister. Joseph Muscat in fact relayed a very different message: one which could only be interpreted as a case of distancing himself from his minister’s controversial views. 

This is hardly the first time Muscat has had to step in to contradict his own ministers. His reaction to the recent furore surrounding former home affairs minister Manuel Mallia’s personal driver was likewise very different from Mallia’s. In fact this difference ultimately led to the replacement of the said minister, arguably weakening Muscat’s government’s public profile in the process.

If recent events have taught us anything, it is in fact that persons occupying positions of public trust should weigh their words very carefully before uttering them. And Bonnici was not alone is rushing to comment without thinking.

Opposition MP Jason Azzopardi, honorary president of Hibernians but also current shadow minister for home affairs, surprisingly supported Bonnici’s view: and in so doing he likewise minimised the gravity of the crime for which Evans was convicted. 

MFA chairman Norman Darmanin Demajo went one step further: “I personally believe that a footballer’s career should not be ruined for a mistake. [Evans] was punished and he did his sentence so he should have a second chance….” 

It is debatable whether a case of intentional rape, confirmed by a court ruling, can be accurately described as a ‘mistake’. But again, the attitude displayed in all such comments seems to confirm the popular stereotype of Malta as a country in which violence perpetrated upon women is not taken seriously.

Already we have seen several questionably lenient court rulings in analogous cases of our own. Thoughtless comments posted online routinely make little of such serious matters as domestic violence: often arguing that the victim would have been to blame for her attire or state of inebriation… ignoring the fact that men have a moral responsibility to protect vulnerable women, not use their vulnerability as an excuse to condone crimes against them.

It is clear from reactions to the Ched Evans case that, at a certain level at least, the global drive for awareness on such sensitive issues has yet to take a firm foothold in Malta. Now that the issue itself has been aborted by the facts concerning Evans’ eligibility to play for Hibs, one hopes that the controversy may serve to provoke a long-overdue discussion on the actual state of women’s rights in Malta today.

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