I only met Daphne once in person. It was about eight years ago when I had just started working in a marketing role for architects. I had been in touch with her about covering a project my employers were working on in Flair – back then Taste and Flair were still separate. When she came to the office, I was nervous to meet her. Not unusual – I’m nervous about meeting most people. But with her, it was next level. I had heard her name so many times around my own kitchen table, known so many people to be terrified of her, and here I was, just a quivering 23-year-old whose chief role was to send out a calendar invite to everyone involved.
When she arrived at our offices, the sea of men that characteristically hovered around me (because I’m very short), parted. They stood up, made way, made themselves tidy. I thought I heard my boss stutter. It was wild, incomparable to anything I’d ever experienced. Daphne was a woman inevitably respected, deeply feared, and unequivocally magnetic. Men physically rose to her occasion – something I never dreamed could happen to any woman in the context I grew up in. I approached her sheepishly, introduced myself as the person who had sent the calendar invite, and told her how well I knew her sons. I instantly kicked myself for mentioning something so frivolous. Why on Earth would she be interested in that? She was. Her face lit up, she asked me all about how I knew them, and listened with authentic attention.
In that moment she embodied all the traits I had grown, and been taught, to recognise in Maltese women – warmth, nurturing, genuine caring. She moved on after that, and everyone’s day carried on as it always did.
I never had another conversation with her, and all these years later she’ll never know how much of an impact she has had on my identity. A person I knew so little (I was never a dedicated reader of hers), but who shaped so much of how I defined what it meant to be a woman in Malta.
The day she was killed changed my life forever. Every moment I had been spoken over, not taken seriously, even called stupid by a man who was close to me in my life came back to me in that instant; it ricocheted through my brain with a force that mirrored the explosion that had torn her body to pieces. They had destroyed the only woman who had ever scared them, who had ever commanded attention just by virtue of existing, who had mustered a meaningful degree of respect and awe from all and every man on the islands. She had done the impossible. Until she hadn’t. Because they were still more powerful than her. They destroyed her.
The week Daphne was murdered, I’d been engrossed in the unending layers of the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment and assault scandal. I had become hypnotised by the sudden and implacable momentum by which countless women’s stories had taken hold of America – and, shortly thereafter, the rest of the Western world. I watched as they made public a remorseless culture of patriarchal abuse – not one beat, Tweet, or panel discussion went unread, unscrolled or unwatched.
Now, it’s a year later, and none of those discussions have abated. Not because of womenhood’s unwavering perseverance in its pursuit of justice, but because enough shit has happened to us that the fight for fairness will never, ever end. Despite tens of millions of women screaming at the top of their brains to try and make men feel just an ounce of what Daphne could just by walking into a room, very little has changed. An alleged sexual assaulter has been voted into the Supreme Court in America. Daphne is still dead. I still hold myself back when speaking to my (wonderful) male friends, for fear of being considered secondary, emotional and cute. These things all speak to the same problem, the same reality, of what it is to be a Maltese woman today.
For about five minutes in my early twenties, Daphne unwittingly demonstrated that I could become a woman who people respected. Who men didn’t label as just “different from other women”. An equal. She also showed me that I didn’t need to let go of everything that I knew I wanted to grow up to be – a person who cared about what people had to say, who loved their family, who really valued the sanctity of parenthood. I haven’t yet become the woman Daphne promised I could be. But I’m grateful to her that she made me believe it was possible.