Let’s call misogyny by its name

Calling women ‘whores’ is clearly unacceptable. What is needed is an effort to stamp out an increasingly worrying culture of verbal violence directed at women: not just in politics, but across the board

Malta is not known for its peaceful, non-confrontational way of doing politics but we do seem to be going through a particularly hostile phase at the moment, even by our own traditional standards.

Political confrontations seem to undeniably be taking place on increasingly more personal, and insulting, terrain.

Labour MP Rosianne Cutajar, for instance, recently filed two libel suits over disparaging remarks about her on Facebook.

Her anger at being labelled a ‘whore’ is entirely justified – even more so, when placed in the context of similar harassment going back to at least 2012, when she was first elected as mayor of Qormi, and thus came within the line of political fire.

Cutajar is certainly not the only female MP or politician to face this sort of harassment; indeed, her argument when presenting those libel suits was that ‘no woman’ should have to endure such labelling at all.

It is perhaps remarkable that someone even had to make such a self-evident point. Such language is clearly unacceptable, as it debases women in general; by implying that women cannot possibly succeed without ‘male patronage’.

As such, it betrays a crude humiliation of all women, everywhere.

Cutajar is also right to appeal for a more civil style of discussion. There can be no denying that the language used by some on social media is anything but conducive to an informed and critical debate.

Comments such as those flagged by Cutajar are intended to demean the person, rather than attack the argument.

In this particular context, however, the situation is made worse by the fact that the people who indulged in calling Cutajar a ‘whore’, were justifiably shocked and outraged when former GWU boss Tony Zarb described the women of ‘Occupy Justice’ using the same insult.

The NGO issued a statement to condemn Zarb at the time, and his language was universally condemned.

Yet in this case, both libel suits are against comments posted by activists from the same group, or close to it.

Why these two individuals chose to go down the same demeaning road that they had previously condemned, is incomprehensible and hypocritical to say the least. And they have not been alone in taking this road.

Rosianne Cutajar did well to call out the individuals and the language used. It is not something any woman should accept.

But whether she should have filed for libel is another matter altogether. Here we are on legal terrain; and the law itself allows a wider margin of tolerance when criticism and offensive language is directed towards public figures.

Cutajar herself intimated similar misgivings, in a previous interview with MaltaToday:

“Today, I can say that I am thick-skinned enough to handle it,” she said at the time (August 2018). “In fact I didn’t even sue Daphne Caruana Galizia [over the original allegation]. But the problem is also that I felt at the time... let me put it this way: in Malta, the legal situation concerning libel is such that even if you are 100% right, you still have to prove that you are right. I was always afraid – and bear in mind I was 22 or 23 at the time – that... what if she goes on to win the case, even if it’s a lie? My political career would be over...”

That she would meanwhile reconsider that position is understandable, given that the insults have only intensified since then.

But as a politician and MP, Cutajar can expect to receive offensive criticism more than any other ordinary individual.

Local case history attests to this; as do several landmark judgments by the European Court of Human Rights, which define ‘freedom of expression’ as also extending to the freedom to offend.

Within this context it is questionable whether Cutajar should have gone down the legal road with her objections.

Perhaps it is an indication of just how far the culture of verbal violence has deteriorated in recent years; but this is ultimately a question of cultural mindsets… and in the long term, addressing such issues requires more than legal action on individual cases.

Cutajar is on firmer ground with her argument that she was compelled to take legal action – they are the only two libel cases she has ever filed – to stand up not only for her dignity, but also that of other women who suffer in silence.

It is a noble stand to take; but she would probably have been more effective directing her justified anger towards condemning disparaging remarks against women in all circumstances, and from wherever they came. 

Such a stand would put her a cut above the hypocrites who indulge in calling others names, but who are outraged when the very same offence is directed towards them.

Ultimately, however, what is needed is an effort to stamp out an increasingly worrying culture of verbal violence directed at women: not just in politics, but across the board.

To this end, partisan politics would have to be put aside, for long enough to at least recognise what is acceptable, and unacceptable, in public discourse.

Calling women ‘whores’ is clearly unacceptable. Surely, on this we can all agree.