[WATCH] Women are always being pointed at | Carla Camilleri

‘Burning Bikinis’, a documentary by the Aditus Foundation, explores the evolution of women’s rights in Malta from the 1960s to the present. Researcher Carla Camilleri on what has changed since then... and also what hasn’t

Burning Bikinis: the evolution of women’s rights in Malta
Burning Bikinis: the evolution of women’s rights in Malta
Carla Camilleri
Carla Camilleri

There has, up to a point, always been a correlation between beachwear (or the lack thereof) and public morality in Malta. Until the late 1990s, beaches used to be littered with signs warning tourists (in multiple languages) that topless sunbathing could get you arrested and possibly fined.

Skinny dipping remains a punishable offence, and it was only a few years ago that a group of Scandinavian language students got arrested for it. Yet it has been a long time since issues such as these were considered remotely controversial... let alone the subject of fierce and heated debate.

For that, you will have to do what the producers of ‘Burning Bikinis’ did, and delve into the situation that prevailed in Malta in the 1960s. Shown at St James Cavalier last Friday, the 53-minute documentary takes its cue from a rumour that a number of bikinis were once burnt in a public conflagration, at a time when Archbishop Mikiel Gonzi was spearheading a cultural war against indecency. 

In their efforts to verify this claim, researchers shed considerable light on what was (to me, at any rate) a relatively unknown episode of recent history: characterised by an often very staunch resistance to the influence of ‘foreign’ ideas  and ‘values’ in Malta... with a special emphasis on ideas and values that concerned the role of women in society. 

Carla Camilleri was one of those researchers; and (like myself watching the film this week) much of what eventually unfolded on the screen came as news to her as it was being pieced together. But how much of it was a surprise? And how much of it is still relevant today?

“At the time when we were first discussing the project back in 2015, a number of events happened in Malta focusing on two particular situations involving women. There was one situation where a Kazakh woman was arrested and fined for dancing in a bikini during the Stella Maris festa. It could have been slightly culturally insensitive for her to do that... but we thought it was a bit of an exaggeration. In the same month, there was also a Muslim woman who wanted to swim in a burkini at a private sports ground, and was denied the right on the grounds of hygiene, etc...”

These incidents triggered an interest to explore the issue of female emancipation in Malta from its earliest inception. 

“We started carrying out research, and were made aware, through a MaltaToday article, of the fact that Archbishop Mikiel Gonzi had sent a letter to Prime Minister Borg Olivier, asking him to institute a ‘morality police’ based on a number of issues. One of them being the immorality he was seeing on public beaches: namely, bikinis. So in the ‘Swinging Sixties’, we were discussing women in bikinis... and in 2014/15, we were still discussing what women should wear. We wanted to know where the reaction was – Was there even a reaction? Should there have been a reaction? – and also where we are at the moment...”

One of the things that emerges from ‘Burning Bikinis’ is that Maltese feminism – though it started late, compared to other countries – has actually experienced a fast and energetic evolution. At the time when Gonzi was pressuring the Maltese government over bikinis, there seem to have been no ‘feminist movements’ to speak of at all. (Historian Dominic Fenech even argues that the entire concept of ‘women’s rights’ was all-but completely alien). Yet in the two decades that followed, a number of organisations arose that fought, with considerable success, for a number of pivotal women’s issues... among them, family planning clinics in the 1970s.

The film features interviews with several of the pioneers; and in so doing it also indirectly raises the question of what is happening on this front today. Recent experience (in particular, the morning-after pill debate) suggests that similar organisations are actually fewer in number than in the 1970s, and arguably less vocal...

“In fact, our initial idea was to focus on the 1960s, and compare it to the present. Then we realised that the movements in the 1970s and 1980s should not be ignored, as they were the real protagonists of the history of Maltese female movements. Of course, we have to look at it in the context of what was going on in Europe in the 1970s as well. It is part of that whole global movement. But when we were researching, we also questioned what happened in the 1990s and early 2000s. There seems to have been a lull, which is picking up again now. However, when you see what they were discussing in the 1970s and what we’re discussing today, they are very similar. Divorce, for instance, only came in five years ago. In the 1970s we were talking about family planning clinics; today, again, we’re talking about birth control. It makes you take a step back and ask, OK, so what have we done in these past 40 years?”

But ‘Burning Bikinis’ also makes one realise the extent to which society has changed over the same period. Even the fact that awareness set in so rapidly after the 1960s – resulting in several movements that would have been considered unthinkable a decade before – suggests that the forces against change were infinitely stronger back then. The presence of Archbishop Gonzi comes across as formidable, for instance. If he can be taken as an embodiment of the ‘patriarchal society’ alluded to throughout the film: could it be argued that this attitude was simply too strong in the 1960s, and that change could only come about once the political powerhouses of the time (in this case, Gonzi) had retired from the scene?

“The patriarchy was very strong at the time; but I think in the 1960s there was a general shift in mentality between old and young. The ‘Swinging Sixties’ might not have been very vocal, but girls in those days did wear bikinis... maybe in secret. There was a kind of revolution, but a very quiet one. Woman started going out to work; smoking in public, driving cars. I’m not sure whether it has anything to do with Gonzi himself as a figurehead; or with what was happening in the rest of the world. But in the 1970s there was also a very big social shift as well: under Mintoff, a lot of the legal structures changed...”

Nonetheless, it may be significant that the ‘patriarchy’ persisted even as these changes were being effected. Mintoff may have been considerably more progressive than Gonzi, but in his own way he was also a patriarchical figure. Eddie Fenech Adami too. Throughout Maltese political history, we generally find strong-minded men shaping things for everyone else. Could it be part of the reason why there has traditionally been so much resistance to female emancipation? Is it that we have – for decades, if not centuries – always associated ‘power’ with ‘men’?  And if so, how does one break a perception like that?

“It’s difficult to break because the changes are relatively recent. The breakthrough was CEDAW [The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women], which we only ratified in 1993. But when you look at the figures: the rate of full-time employment of women is one of the lowest in Europe; only 16% of candidates in the last election were women – to me, that’s a bit shocking. There’s only one female Cabinet minister out of 14; nine members of parliament out of 71... so there is a definite imbalance. Where does it stem from? I think part of it stems from the old patriarchal system that doesn’t see women as being, maybe, strong enough...”

At the same time, however, there is a paradox in those figures. The number of female candidates in every election might be low, but proportionally, the percentage of those who get elected is much higher than it is for men. This suggests that the Maltese electorate has no issue with voting for women... but that there aren’t many to actually vote for.

“True: although the number of candidates is relatively low, the success rate of electing women candidates is quite high. However I am not sure whether there is an active movement within the bigger parties to recruit female candidates. This might be part of the issue...”

Could it also be that women themselves aren’t stepping forward as candidates on their own initiative?

“It could be a bit of both. Women are maybe not empowered enough, in themselves, to feel like they can actually go for it. I don’t think there’s a lack of interest per se. But, seeing the success rate for women candidates is so high: if I were in a political party I would definitely look for more female candidates. Ideally, 50-50...”

Meanwhile, there is another hurdle facing women in politics. Getting elected to parliament is one thing; getting entrusted with serious political responsibility is another. For all the higher female representation, Malta’s political circuit is still overwhelmingly male in its outlook. The parties are (with the exception of Marlene Farrugia’s PD) all led by men; our Prime Ministers have always been men, and their appointments have traditionally always favoured men more than women. Could it be that we have collectively come round to accepting equality in terms of political representation... but not in terms of political office?

“If you look at, not just this government but even previous ones... I don’t want to generalise, but women tend to be given the ‘soft’ ministries: social policy, civil liberties... why shouldn’t there be a woman prime minister, foreign minister or finance minister? Or police commissioner? University rector? These are not political positions, I know, but... why not? Even if you look at the way the news is reported by journalists, for instance. ‘Female doctor, mother of two...’ You wouldn’t say that about a male doctor. There’s nothing wrong in saying that you’re a parent... but usually the fact that you’re a women, a mother and working is usually linked to your secondary profession being a lawyer, doctor, etc.”

In a sense, these latent prejudices seem to be a hangover from the mentality of the 1960s. As such, they also underscore how much worse things used to be. Today, we talk about women struggling to reach the top of the career ladder... back then, the idea that a woman should even set foot on that ladder was scandalous. At the risk of asking an inappropriate question: could Maltese feminism have been partly the victim of its own success? Is there an underlying attitude to the effect that women’s lot has improved so much since the repressive days of the Bikini inquisition, that there is nothing left to really fight for? 

“Obviously there have been great changes since the 1960s. But even if we look at what’s been going on even very recently in the world – like the Women’s March, for instance – there’s clearly still something that needs to be done, that needs to be spoken about. Definitely, equality has not yet been achieved. There is still that glass ceiling. We’ve heard a lot about glass ceilings, and about breaking – or not breaking – them. What we saw when we were researching was that: OK, things have changed... women can go out to work if they want to, but they don’t that much. It’s still a relatively patriarchal society: in the film we interviewed a number of activists and academics, and they all say that patriarchy is alive and well in Malta. And if you speak to women in Malta, on a day to day basis they are still faced with a number of barriers.”

This brings me to one aspect in which the underlying mentality hasn’t changed much: perceptions of the role of women in society. Ostensibly the topic of the documentary centred on bikinis... but that was only on the surface. On a deeper level, the film is about how women are perceived, how they were expected to dress and behave. We might have moved on from the bikini stage, but even in present-day debates (the morning-after pill is an example) we still tend to talk about ‘women’ more on the basis of what they ‘should’ be, rather than what they are...

“Definitely: if you see how the discussion has evolved, there is less concern about the wellbeing of women themselves, and more about the woman as something to be, kind of controlled. ‘This is the way you should live your life, this is the way you should control your sexuality’...”

Out of curiosity... why does she think this prospect frightens people so much? Why are certain people afraid of women taking more control over their own lives?

“I think because maybe it questions their own belief about how women should act. That women have the freedom to control their fertility, their sex life... to go out to work, and be what they would like to be, without the strict, clear rules that were there in the past... that rocks the foundations of what they believe in.”

Coming back to the notion of ‘how women should live’...  another side to the feminist coin concerned the emergence of movements aiming to preserve the status quo. The one that struck me was the ‘Mary-Like’ movement: which, as the name suggests, proposed Our Lady (i.e., archetypal Virgin Mother) as the role model for women to aspire to. This in turn suggests a certain expectation of the ‘Ideal Woman’, which hasn’t really faded away entirely. The pro-life movement, for instance, also uses decidedly Marian imagery in its public campaigns. How strong is this form of social pressure today? 

“When we see discussions relating to women in Malta, there’s still that imagery: you know, ‘woman = mother: obedient, good...’ You can go to University, of course. You need to pass your exams. But then you’re going to be a mother, and after that you should stay home. Nothing wrong with staying home, don’t get me wrong. But you should have the freedom to choose. On the flipside, there is the ‘nasty, bad woman’ who’s always being pointed at: the single mother, who paints her nails even though she’s unemployed. Either way, women are always pointed at: you’re either ‘this’... or you’re nasty.”

Burning Bikinis is funded by the Arts Council Malta, Creative Communities, together with the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany and the US Embassy.

Credits : “Burning Bikinis” 

Produced by aditus foundation, in co-production with Subway Lab

A film by Alessandro Tesei & Emmanuel Tut-Rah Farah;

Original music by Etnika, Matteo Cincopan - The Poets