Sunday 01 October 2023

Learning self-defence is a good idea: eradicating misogyny would be even better

This column first appeared in Malta Today

The shocking rape and murder of Paulina Dembska has caused a lot of women in Malta to start feeling nervous about something they once took for granted: the relative ‘safety’ of our streets even in the middle of the night or in the very early hours of the morning.

The tragedy we woke up to last Sunday has rattled a lot of people, but mostly women, precisely because it was a random murder. There does not seem to be any connection between the victim and her aggressor, and from what has been reported so far, as cliché as it sounds, it seems she was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. Although the time of death has not yet been made public, her lifeless body was found at 6.30am in a public garden.

This means that all those who habitually get up very early in the morning to go for a walk or a run, or to take their dogs out, are now thinking twice about the wisdom of doing so. Similarly, those who used to think nothing of walking home alone at midnight, 1am or even 2am in the morning, or who would blithely walk to their car parked in an eerie, empty carpark, are now re-evaluating their choices. Should we still be so carefree and confident that our country is safe?

When we watch those British and American thrillers where a woman is click-clacking her way alone in the dead of night, we all know she is a sure target for someone waiting to pounce. But, “Malta is not like that” we used to tell ourselves breezily, and almost a bit too smugly. However, now, after Paulina’s murder, we are not so sure any more. It has shaken us to the proverbial core and a sense of uneasiness has spread. Women have been sharing tips on how to defend themselves using their car keys, being told to keep something in their handbag which can be sprayed into an attacker’s eyes, and many are signing up for self-defence classes.

While on the face of it this might seem like a good idea, it is still alarming to think that we need to defend ourselves against the opposite sex. Why should I feel jumpy and anxious just because a man happens to be walking behind me on the street? Why do I need to look over my shoulder in the fear that I am being followed to my car or to my front door? Should every man now be considered a potential threat? No, of course not, but the lingering thought that he might attack is never quite out of our minds, but remains there, lingering and disturbing our peace of mind until we get safely home. This is no way to live, of course, but the reality is that this random murder has made us wary that a very real danger might be lurking around us.

When a woman is murdered, there is also the unfortunate temptation for the discussion to go off at a tangent. It is important to cut out all the noise first, like noise cancelling headphones which help us concentrate on the task at hand. And that means clearing our minds of all the impulsive, ill-informed online chatter by those who yap a lot but in realty are not contributing one iota to help society understand what we are dealing with.

First of all, it should be made clear that this was not a case of domestic violence, because the two were not in a relationship and there was nothing to link the victim to her murderer. It was, however, a sexually charged murder because the autopsy showed that Paulina had been raped. So yes, women’s rights organisations are right to talk about misogyny within the context of this horrific crime. It gets us nowhere, however, when the discourse is then hijacked and becomes a war of words between men and women, with the former demanding to know why this kind of “fuss” is not made when a man gets killed and women demanding to know why more men are not speaking out against what happened to Paulina.

It is a tired old circular debate which is replayed every time, and is boringly reminiscent of Labour and Nationalist fanatics who accuse each other of “where were you?” and “what about when…?” every time there is a political scandal. This is not about keeping score or some kind of macabre competition where one murder seemingly compensates for another.

The facts and statistics when it comes to women being murdered by men are undeniable: the percentages far outweigh the number of men murdered by women. The difference in men’s physical strength gives them an immediate advantage (unless there is a weapon involved), but there are also psychological differences which can be better explained by those who work in the field, of why women do not turn to murder quite as often. In fact, a woman who murders men is considered such an ‘oddity’ for want of a better word, that she becomes infamous and notorious like Aileen Wuornos (about whom the film ‘Monster’ was made). Worst of all, in society’s eyes, are women who murder children or teenagers, such as Myra Hindley and Rosemary West, who are considered pure evil.

Inevitably, there are men who still cannot grasp that when a woman is murdered it strikes a chill in our collective hearts. “That could have been me” we say to each other, and we say it not due to a figment of our imagination or because we are being melodramatic. We say it because we have all come across creepy, menacing types who set off our instinctive alarm bells, and most of us have averted possible harm because our self-preservation kicks in. Talk to any woman and she will automatically tell you of episodes where a man gave her a ‘bad vibe’, a certain look in his eye, a certain shift in his body language, and a sudden change in his tone. Finding yourself alone with such a man can go either of two ways, you either extricate yourself from the situation in the nick of time or else it ends up in a sexual assault or physical violence.

Women of all ages, as well as young girls do need to protect themselves so yes, learning self-defence and learning how to detect the warning signs of when you could be at possible risk is not a bad idea. The other side of the coin is equally important though. We need to be more aware of the societal changes happening around us and the cultural shifts which have changed the power dynamics between the genders to try and establish where this growing anger and hatred of women is stemming from. Again, there are no facile answers to such a loaded question. If there were we would not hear about so many female victims in places such as Italy, as well as the UK and the US.

It just sometimes feels like there are men walking around like powder kegs about to explode at the first sign that a woman has ‘crossed’ them. It could be because they had a bad relationship and were treated abysmally by a woman, or it could be a myriad of other deep-seated issues. But these are issues which need to be addressed through communication and understanding, not name calling or drawing a line in the sand in what seems like an escalating gender civil war.

I have refrained from going into the specifics of the case against the main suspect Abner Aquilina because I prefer to wait until all the facts emerge when he is charged in Court. What we do know is that he was a drug addict, was involved with the controversial Evangelist group River of Love and has been referred to Mt Carmel mental hospital by doctors. Details have also emerged of sexual harassment messages which the accused sent to other women.

Confounding the (still not established) underlying motive behind this murder have been all sorts of extraneous statements from various quarters – which I also regard as a lot of unnecessary noise. Unfortunately, some pseudo newsrooms, in their haste to churn out new content, will latch on to anything, no matter how puerile, to keep the story in the news cycle. What ever happened to sifting the real news from the rubbish? We expect and demand quick immediate answers and are impatient when we don’t get them so the public speculation begins. But this is not some half hour TV series where we learn why the killer did it at the end of the episode.

There are a plethora of underlying, troubling currents in our society which are bubbling just beneath the surface and that is what we should be addressing. We need to make Malta safe again for everyone, and especially for young women like Paulina, who had to tragically die on the island she loved so much.

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