Let’s get this out of the way: catcalling is not ok. And doing it can certainly get you into trouble.
But anything you’ve been reading over the past few days claiming that using phrases like ‘haw’ lilly’ and ‘haw’ ġisem’ is punishable by law is a gross oversimplification of the actual matter. What is actually punishable by law, is sexual harassment.
An article posted about this ‘new law’ was making the rounds online recently, and it stated that catcalling could result in “a fine of €10,000 and a two-year prison sentence”.
As much as I agree that catcalling is condemnable, these measures do seem rather extreme, especially considering it would be rather difficult to enforce the law due to the verbal nature of catcalling. I mean, how do you even prove that someone said something to you in person anyway?
We decided to reach out to the Ministry for European Affairs and Equality (MEAE) to see if they could provide some clarifications.
The Ministry’s position
The MEAE clarified that harassment and sexual harassment laws have actually been in place for a number of years. In April of this year, the laws and penalties were updated, with the intent of providing a proper deterrent to anyone considering committing this heinous crime. It could be said that the previous penalties were mere slaps on the wrist that didn’t do much to actually deter offenders from committing sexual harassment.
They further clarified that the laws cover areas of harassment much wider than simple catcalling. Victims of harassment and sexual harassment experience ridicule, humiliation and intimidation. They are subjected to unwanted sexual requests, and hostile behaviour when such advances are refused.
Simplifying the issue into just namecalling on the street misrepresents the change in legislation. The MEAE is concerned that this false coverage may continue to deter victims from reporting such crimes, in a country where underreporting is a serious issue which the Government is constantly trying to address.
So, let’s break this down.
Malta is party to something called the ‘Istanbul Convention‘, a convention from the Council of Europe against domestic violence and specifically violence against women. The convention was put in place to ensure that adequate measures were being taken against individuals committing a crime of domestic violence (this includes “acts of physical, sexual, psychological or economic violence that occur within the family or domestic unit”) against a person of any gender, as well as violence of any kind directed specifically at women, including sexual harassment.
Article 40 of the Convention describes sexual harassment as follows;
The Maltese Criminal Code reflects the principles set out in the Isantbul Convention. When it comes to verbal abuse, the law does not list specific phrases as against the law. However the notion of verbally harassing an individual can be considered sexual harassment, if it is “unwelcome to the victim, and could be reasonably be regarded as offensive, humiliating, degrading, and, or intimidating towards that person”. This applies not just to spoken words, but also to gestures, written material and pictures.
The MEAE explained that it’s up to a court of law to decide whether a particular case of catcalling amounts to either of these serious offences.
If the courts do find a person to be “guilty of the offence of harassment or sexual harassment”, they will then be “liable to imprisonment for a term from 6 months to 2 years, or to a fine of not less than 5,000 to a maximum of 10,000 Euro, or to both such fine and imprisonment”.
What does this mean in practice?
Well, if you are a man and you catcall a woman by shouting ‘haw’ ġisem’, or you whistle at her, or sound your horn, you can be reported. If the Court determines that that could reasonably be regarded as unwelcome and offensive, humiliating, degrading or intimidating, then it will hit you with a fine or imprisonment, or both.
Moreover, the law refers to the action being made by a “person” to another person, so the same scenario would also occur if it is a woman doing the catcalling, whether to a man or another woman.
So the problem here is not the updated legislation itself. That is a welcome initiative. It’s about how to prove that the incident occurred when it quite literally lasts a matter of seconds and it becomes a case of your words agains theirs.
I can hear the eye-rolls and pre-mansplain-sigh all the way from my desk in Burmarrad.
And that is where the problem lies. The fear mongering surrounding this elusive €10,000 fine has elicited more anger from straight men than an understanding of the problem behind the concept of catcalling. A lot of people were even making jokes out of the idea of being fined for catcalling.
The truth is though, catcalling and public harassment is a real issue for women and girls, and threatening to fine the harassers based on court findings is not going to solve the problem when it is not that easy to provide evidence that the harassment occurred.
Rather, we need to delve into the roots of the problem and find out why so many men think it’s ok to inflict discomfort on women they don’t know (I know, #NotAllMen… but don’t make me pull out the receipts).
Let’s look at a hypothetical scenario…
A young woman, around 23 years old, is walking to her car in Valletta, and a man makes a weird kissy noise at her. The next week she is going for a jog along the Sliema front and someone in a truck passing by sounds their horn and shouts ‘haw’ Lilly!’. A couple of days later she’s walking to work in the morning and someone tells her to smile. The week after, on her way to her friend’s birthday party, a man tells her that she has a really nice ‘par saqajn’. She’s had enough so she takes a photo of the man and goes to court. The court identifies the man but says there is no way of proving that he verbally harassed her, so they can’t pursue the case.
Oh, and let’s not forget that there’s a near to 50/50 chance that the judge will be a man. And if that’s the case than this woman has to deal with the fear of feeling like he might dismiss her as being ‘overly sensitive’.
So, whilst it is great that the law seems to be making moves to try and stop street harassment, there is another discussion to be had: why are there individuals that think the behaviour is acceptable in the first place? And how can we stop people from developing the habit?