It starts with ‘Aw, ġisem!’… it ends in femicide | Marceline Naudi

The brutal rape and murder of 29-year-old Paulina Dembska seems to have shattered our perceptions of Malta as a ‘safe country for women’; but as MARCELINE NAUDI, senior lecturer at the University’s Faculty of Social Well-being, reminds us: ‘rape and murder’ are not the only things women may have to feel ‘unsafe’ about, in Malta

Marceline Naudi (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Marceline Naudi (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

Various women’s rights organisations have described last Sunday’s shocking femicide as “the direct result of a culture of hatred towards women that we have allowed to foster”. This elicited hostile reactions on social media - mostly from men – but first of all: can you explain precisely why you think that this murder can be so directly attributed to a local ‘culture of misogyny’?

Let me start by getting my own personal views out of the way first. Yes, this is very clearly a femicide; and yes, it is the direct result of a misogynistic culture.

But when we use words like ‘misogyny’ – which, don’t get me wrong, is the correct word to use – men generally tend to get defensive.  Not each and every man, obviously: but there does tend to be a general reaction, coming from men, along the lines that…  ‘no, we don’t hate women’; and that it’s actually ‘feminists who hate men’; and so on...

But what we really mean, when we say that we live in a ‘misogynistic culture’, is something very different. I always take it back to the general stereotypes:  our ingrained perceptions of how a woman, or a man, ‘should be’, according to the culture we have been brought up in.

Things have changed, to some degree, over the years… but the roots of that culture are still very strong within us. If a man can’t support his family, for instance: he is, to this day, made to feel very bad about it. If a man’s wife happens to have a much higher social, or financial, position… he might feel very ‘put out’; and other people will look at him as if he’s ‘not really doing his job… as a Man.’

On the other hand, a woman who ‘goes for it’ – or who does not conform to the stereotype of ‘24-7 wife/mother/child-carer’, in any other way – is still generally seen as ‘neglecting the family’; and very often still feels guilty, that she is somehow ‘failing’ in her primary role in life… as a Woman.

These gender stereotypes, I would say, are still very deeply rooted within us. It is obviously a generalisation – there will always be women, and men, who don’t conform to these expectations – but I still think it’s a more or less accurate assessment. Men are generally expected to be the ‘providers’, in our culture… whereas the primary role of the woman is ‘to serve’: her husband, her children, her family…

Sorry to interrupt, but some men out there (and just for the record: I’m not one of them myself) might consider it a bit of a ‘stretch’, to attribute such a nefarious crime to the sort of cultural attitudes you are describing right now. It is, after all, one thing for a man to expect a woman to ‘serve him supper’. But it is quite another for a man to rape and strangle the first woman he meets…

But I don’t just mean ‘serving food on the dinner table’ (though that’s part of it, too). I also mean ‘to serve’ in the sexual sense. And if we look at it purely from the sexual angle: the same culture also dictates that men are supposed to be the ‘predators’… if you’ll accept the term. They are expected to ‘take the lead’, and to make all the advances: in all areas, really… but specifically, when it comes to sex.

When I was a teenager, for example, the girls always had to wait for the boys to ask them to dance… in what we used to call a ‘disco-dance’, back in those days. And it certainly would not have been done, for a girl to take the lead by kissing a boy, instead of the other way round. Oh, no: the boy was always supposed to be the ‘leader’, in terms of initiating sexual advances. And the girls were always expected to hold back.

So, very generally: what our society has taught us – all of us: men and women alike – is that: the man should be the one to ‘go get it’; while the woman should be there, only to serve. That, by the way, is what we really mean by ‘Male Privilege’: there is an expectation in our society that - just as is it the woman’s role ‘to serve’ – it is therefore the man’s privilege ‘to be served’.

That’s a message that gets implanted into boys from a very early age – and girls too, by the way: because we have all been brought up absorbing the same cultural background, whether we realise it or not.

So when those boys grow up, and become young men: all those expectations of male privilege will still be there.  And we see this across the board, too: it’s not just a question ‘being served at table’… or even sexually, for that matter… but also in politics; in business; in just about every aspect of social life. The man ‘expects’ to get what he wants… while the woman has to ‘accept’ – not ‘expect’ – whatever she ends up actually getting.

But to tie in more directly with your question: just this morning, I read an article on Lovin Malta asking the question: ‘Do you feel safe, as a woman, in Malta?’ It quoted many different women, talking about their own daily experiences... and what emerges – not just from that article, but also from various surveys and reports over the years – is that it is actually extremely rare to find a woman who has NOT been harassed, while walking through the streets… or using public transport, or whatever.

In fact, I’ll even go a step further. You very probably won’t find any at all. Not a single one. The only thing you might find is that most women don’t even acknowledge the harassment any longer… because it is so very ‘normal’, in our lives - such an everyday occurrence - that it’s almost become ‘expected’.

If I’m understanding correctly, then: you interpret Abner Aquilina’s actions as a natural (albeit extreme) extension of the same culture that has ‘normalised’ other so many other crimes against women: such as harassment, stalking, domestic violence, and so on?

Yes. I do see it that way.  Because violence against women is, in fact, a continuum. It starts with: ‘Aw, gisem!’… and, at the clean other end of the spectrum, it ends in femicide. Somewhere along the same line, however, you will also find intimate partner violence; physical violence; sexual violence; emotional violence; harassment; stalking; stranger assault… you know: all the things that add up to violence, in one form or another, targeting women.

And yes, they are all connected. Because it is all part of the same patriarchy; of the same misogynistic culture that we live in… and it all goes back to the same, deeply ingrained gender stereotypes that we have all been absorbing - often without even realising it - since early childhood.

As young girls, for instance, we have always been taught – and this is certainly still true, to this day – to be ‘responsible for own safety’. We have always been held responsible – no, ‘accountable’ – for the behaviour of men.

So if something happens to a woman, late at night… the question that gets asked is, ‘Why was she out at that time?’… or, ‘Why was she dressed like that?’… or, ‘Was she drunk?’ [Pause]

Because of course, if a woman gets raped while drunk… it’s all her own fault, for having got drunk in the first place. And she was ‘asking for it’, too, by dressing like that… anyway, you know what I mean.

But then, if a man gets drunk, and rapes a woman… suddenly, his drunkenness becomes a ‘mitigating factor’. It means that he was ‘not in control of his own actions’. So while the rape-victim ends up getting ‘blamed’ for being drunk… we end up excusing the rapist, for exactly the same reason…

On the subject of ‘mitigating factors’: there have been indications that both our laws concerning women’s safety - and also their enforcement by the police, the judiciary, and so on – often leave much to be desired. Since last Sunday, for instance, numerous women have claimed reporting harassment cases to the police – including by Aquilina himself – but were ignored…

Well, you have to also bear in mind that all those institutions you just mentioned – the police, the judiciary, and so on – are all, ultimately, composed of people, just like you and I.

And just like you and I… they, too, were all brought up deeply immersed in the same patriarchal culture; they all had the same traditional gender stereotypes inculcated into them – about what men and women ‘should be’, and how they ‘should behave’ - almost from the day they were born.

Of course, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re all going to be misogynists, as a result; but it does mean that - when it comes to assessing cases involving crimes against women, for instance - their own reactions; their attitudes; their decisions, and so on, will all be subconsciously shaped by the same, patriarchal cultural influences.

So, just as the general public might react to any given rape by asking, ‘what was she doing out at that time?’ – not in relation to Paulina Dembska, by the way; I’m talking generally here – well, the police themselves often react in exactly the same way.

Just to mention one specific case, out of several that I happen to be familiar with: when a domestic violence victim reported her partner to the police… the inspector’s reaction was to say: ‘U le, qed tghaggiba! Mur id-dar u ahsel wiccek, u tara li m’ghandek xejn! [Oh, you’re just making a fuss, that’s all. Go home and wash your face, you’ll see that you’re not hurt’…]

And this raises several serious problems, apart from the obvious – i.e., that if that is the sort of treatment domestic violence victims are expected to receive… you can hardly blame them for being reluctant to report cases to the police, can you?

But it also goes to show that it is not enough to have adequate laws, either. What those experiences tell us, is that we can be signatories to all the relevant treaties, yes, and we can and enact all the proper necessary legislation – but the law itself is still mediated by people, at the end of the day.

So unless we finally come to grips with the underlying misogynistic culture itself – unless we somehow manage to instil a generational culture change, of the kind that is so sorely needed – the problem itself cannot ever be solved, only through ‘legislative touches’ here and there.

Another issue, however, concerns the resources available to the police.  In spite of all the improvements that have taken place – including a dedicated unit, specifically to cater for domestic violence - we have still noted a significant increase in domestic violence reports, from 2019 to 2020.

Now: part of this increase is certainly down to the greater awareness that exists today. But the fact remains that there has still been a sharp rise in the number of cases currently being reported to the police. Now: has there been any corresponding, proportional increase to the human resources available to the police, to actually handle that volume of cases?

I’m not saying this to justify the sort of behaviour I just described, naturally… and I’m not saying there haven’t been any improvements to the police’s human resources at all, either.

But from the figures we’re seeing today – not just in police reports, by the way… but also from shelters, and social welfare agencies such as Appogg – it doesn’t look like they have increased, in direct proportion to the case-load they now have to deal with…

But that brings us right back to the question you yourself raised earlier. How safe is Malta for women, anyway? Because let’s face it: in an environment where almost ALL women report experiencing harassment, in one form or another - and when harassment itself forms part of the same spectrum that leads to violence against women – the implications are disturbing, to say the least…

Well, as I said before: women have always been held accountable for their own safety. And this is particularly relevant to the femicide we are talking about right now.

In fact, I’ve seen many comments on social media – far too many, I might add - along the lines that: ‘women should learn self-defence’; or they should ‘carry weapons like pepper spray’, and so on…

[Pause] I mean, what the bloody hell? It is men who should be taught not to harass women – and even more so, not to rape and murder them – and certainly NOT ‘women who should be taught self-defence’!

[Deep breath] But then again… it takes us back to those same inbuilt gender stereotypes I’ve been talking about all along. It is yet another case of ‘holding women accountable, for the behaviour of men’. So unless we do eventually learn that: no, women’s primary role is not to ‘serve men’… and no, there should be no such thing as ‘male privilege’, in any shape or form… we can only expect that culture to result in more violence against women, and not less.