Malta opened the new year with a tragic event that has reminded citizens about the reality behind the island’s mask of safety. It is one of the many incidents on the island that has lead to pleads of action against gender-based violence, harassment and sexual assault.
Paulina Dembska, a dedicated cat lover, was raped and murdered in Sliema’s Independence Gardens in a random but brutal attack that has shocked the nation.
So, in light of the senseless murder, we decided to ask a simple question: “have you ever felt unsafe while walking in Malta?”
Lovin Malta was sent scores of personal accounts from women and men who have felt threatened while minding their business and these heartbreaking responses speak for themselves.
These are some of their stories:
1. Walking in public can be terrifying for women
Often, what should be a brisk evening walk unfortunately morphs into a series of fast-paced strides controlled by the anxiety-soaked mind of someone eager to make it back home unscathed.
This is not ok.
“Around a year ago I was followed and harassed near my car. I had done everything right – people walked me to the car park that my car was in. But as I was walking into my car a man came out of nowhere shouting at me telling me not to leave, I got into my car right in time but he still kept shouting at me and threatening me from outside,” one woman recounted.
“Ever since then, I can’t walk anywhere alone.”
Another woman detailed a series of unnerving experiences of harassment by one particular individual.
“I was walking my dog and there was a cab outside which I initially thought was waiting for someone. But then, as I started walking, this cab started following me very slowly, he even matched my walking pace. He was right next to me and for some reason I kept telling myself that he was probably looking for a house or something. But just as I turned the next corner, my dog decided to stop and urinate and the cab halted right near me,” a woman explained.
“At this moment, my heart dropped to my stomach and I thought this man was going to kidnap me.”
“I had no phone with me so I couldn’t ask for help, and as I stood at the corner in shock he rolled down his window. I started panicking, and genuinely thought that I wasn’t going to make it home, however, I decided to seem relaxed so he wouldn’t think I’m vulnerable.”
“Soon after, he began speaking to me in Arabic and I couldn’t understand him, although his tone didn’t sound friendly at all. He started gesturing with his hands for me to get into the car, so I started walking again and he proceeded to follow me. When I reached my house I was too scared to enter it, I didn’t want this man to know where I live. So I hid behind a car for 10 minutes.”
“When he couldn’t find me, he left and I made it home breathless.”
The next day she was in the car stuck in traffic with her family and she saw the same cab right next to her.
“He rolled down his window and he looked straight at me. He did the same hand movements, gesturing for me to get in the car with him.”
2. Even young girls face sexual harassment
A lot of the women we spoke to admitted to feeling objectified by other men since they were minors. Despite many claims that “Malta was once safe”, it really never has been – at least for women (or any other marginalised community for that matter) and young girls.
“When I was around nine or 10 years old I was sitting in the waiting room of St James Hospital when a middle aged man sat right next to me and kept asking me questions (I was alone because my sister was taking an X-ray and I wasn’t allowed in the room),” one woman said.
“After about five minutes of trying to speak to me, the creep touched my leg and kissed me on the forehead. I swear I can still feel his spit on my forehead when I think back. It completely traumatised me.”
“I got chased by a homeless guy around the block twice while I was 14 and walking my dog,” another woman shared.
3. Catcalling and sexual assault is far too common
Being looked at and spoken to like a walking sex toy just because you’re there is even more common.
“I once had a person walk in the opposite direction of me and while crossing my path, he yelled ‘aw ġisem’ (a derogatory phrase that targets a woman’s body) to my face. I felt gross,” one woman shared.
“My friend and I took a long time to choose a drink from the fridge at a gabanna and a bunch of old men were sitting close by. One of them looked at us and said ‘you like that your vaginas are getting cold, by any chance?’ I was 15,” another read.
“I once caught a man masturbating behind a friend of mine and I at Chalet in Sliema.”
The misogyny that has sunk into the roots of society has entitled a lot of people to look at women as one-dimensional objects created to satisfy their sexual needs.
Because of this, so many women and girls get horribly degrading comments hurled at them as if they got up onto a stage and said “judge me, please”.
But guess what, we don’t. We don’t ask to be called sexy, we don’t ask if you want to fuck us and we don’t ask for your disgusting opinions – so please, stop sharing them.
Side note: catcalling in Malta is illegal but it often flies under the radar because accusations are hardly ever taken seriously. Click here for a guide on what to do if you’re catcalled.
4. It doesn’t make a difference if it’s night or day
Unfortunately, some people are so unashamed of their predatory behaviour that they blatantly creep up on others in broad daylight.
“Recently I went for a walk in broad daylight on the Sliema front and noticed a guy walking by my side and behind me speaking about me as he filmed me on his phone (he thought I couldn’t hear him because of my headphones) please note, I was wearing leggings and a jumper.”
“He made me furious so I called him out on it (or started shouting rather) and he kept denying that he filmed anything until I made him show me his phone. I made sure he deleted it in front of me.”
“He then apologised but only because I embarrassed him in front of other people. Just goes to show the lack of respect.”
Beside the obvious misogynistic theme of this woman’s story, it raises an important question: why did no one intervene?
5. And it’s not just women
While women made up the overwhelming majority of responses, some men shared their own terror-inducing experiences on Malta’s streets.
“I was jumped when I was walking alone in Paceville,” one man said.
“I live in the Paceville area, so walking home is always scary… but from what I’ve seen, my sister has it a lot worse,” said another.
While few could pinpoint specific incidents, a lot of male respondents felt unsafe when walking alone.
Still, there were some men who simply cannot relate.
“Never. I walk through dark alleys with a skip in my step, headphones in.”
These responses just solidify the need for further action – action that goes deeper than just judicial and legislative changes.
What we need is a complete cultural reset. We need to uproot the patriarchal values that are so woven into the fabrics of Maltese society that they dictate the way we react to danger that others encounter.
This way, maybe victims will no longer be driven to silence and 85% of sexual assaults won’t go unreported anymore.
We’re all in the same boat here, when you see someone (male or female) visibly uncomfortable because of the actions of another, do something.
If the general society doesn’t take gender-based violence and targeted harassment seriously, neither will the authorities.
Anyone can become a victim of harassment, violence and sexual assault, even you.
Do you feel safe in the streets of Malta?