The language of violence has increased at an alarming rate. This is not solely directed at women, but women are certainly a direct target. The reasons for this increase are manifold, and by no means solely a Maltese problem. Yet the consequences are the same.
Violence is used to silence women. It targets women who dare to be visible in public and have a voice, but it also silences the many others watching events unfold, ensuring they never use their voice.
At a webinar organised by NGO Mediating Women called ‘Under Attack: Women Journalists and the Gender based Risks that Come with the Job’, a number of academics, journalists and activists all told a depressingly similar story.
It is striking that the language of violence is the same as directed to women in academia. There too, women are constantly demeaned and subject to violent threats and this particularly affects early career researchers.
Such vitriol is often portrayed as the work of terrible people who have nothing better to do with their time. However, as an investigation by The Shift clearly illustrated, these attacks are coordinated. They are used as a political tool to silence dissent. But it goes further: they also silence informed opinions and, in the long term, critical thinking.
Daphne Caruana Galizia spent a lifetime battling these tactics. She dared have an opinion and she dared put her name to it. At first, people invested in keeping the status quo demeaned her by asking whether her husband or father wrote her columns. Unbowed, she carried on, facing an escalation of violence that culminated in her assassination.
You would hope that the literal destruction of a woman would cause people to stop and think. And many did, as evidenced by the growing civil society movement. More troublingly, the attacks on her intensified after her death. They targeted her family, accusing one of her sons of being directly responsible – even as the ones who detonated the bomb were arrested.
Then came the “funny memes” – furthering the ridicule of a woman who dared have a voice. It’s an effective tactic, designed to dehumanise her further. In the meantime, of course, the bigger aim is to divert attention from the real issue of a democracy under threat.
What emerged during the webinar was a concern about how to mitigate this discourse. Of course, it is possible to focus on cybercrime. One could spend time and resources tracking down the perpetrators. This is neither straightforward nor particularly effective.
Concerted attacks involve a muddy digital trail that cannot always be traced. Of course, sometimes you can trace individuals, for example when people on Parler openly plan an attack on the US Capitol. But this does not get to the root of the problem. It’s like removing a weed but leaving the root.
Corinne Vella, Daphne’s sister and a mighty woman in her own right, emphasised the root of the problem – institutions and the system itself.
The system is corrupt to the point that the very soil is poisoned and that poison sustains the weeds. The system is not some kind of separate entity, functioning like a robot. It is made and sustained by people. It shapes us and we shape it. We have allowed the poison to spread, and we now face the task of undoing the damage.
Some things can never be undone. We cannot bring Daphne back. But we sure can demand better – more than that, we can be better and it is our duty to be better.
Mediating Women is one of many organisations justly demanding that we change what we find acceptable in terms of language. We need to put a stop to dehumanising language, we need to be vigilant at all times and call it out at all times. Of course, this comes at a cost because they will target those of us who speak up.
Those who insist on doing harm need to remember that there are many of us, and when one of us needs to recharge, the rest of us will rise up and continue the fight.
Changing an entire system is a gargantuan task, but we need to remember that we are part of that system and that we are in the right, even as attacks intensify. Surrender has never been an option.