Reappropriating Discourse

 

 

Maltese Women Making their Choices Rather Than Taking their Place

 

Adrian Grima for Babelmed, 1 March, 2003

 

Go to: Telling our Story. Adrian Grima interviews Clare Azzopardi

 

World War II brought about a series of important changes in Maltese society. It “caused the Maltese to stop, think and re-assess their traditional attitudes. Younger people especially began to question many of the things that their elders had accepted with a certain resignation, if not always complacently.” One result of this, writes Joseph M. Pirotta in Fortress Colony: The Final Act 1945-1964 – Vol. I, 1945-1954, was the emancipation of the Maltese wornan.

 

Taking her Place: Familial and Household Affairs

 

And yet, in Oliver Friggieri’s novel Il-Gidba published in 1977, practically 35 years after the end of the War in Malta, and in similar post-1964 novels, the role of the ideal woman is equated with that of the mother and very much restricted to the household. Rebekka’s mother tells her daughter that “children are a sign of God’s blessing,” and “even people like to see the married woman surrounded by her children.” Her next sentence shows how marriage is synonymous not with love but with having children; the use of the verb “live (in marriage),” here translated literally from Friggieri’s Maltese original, sounds unusual in Maltese too: “Everyone wants the woman to live in marriage...” The author has chosen his words very carefully and the weight of the unusual phrase “live in marriage” is no doubt intentional. This has at least two immediate effects: that of confining the woman to the limited space of the family and home; and that of equating the (ideal) role of the woman with that of the mother.

 

For the Maltese, almost exclusively male, writer, the figure of the mother may be the guiding star of one’s life; but from a wider perspective, she is also a woman that is deprived or more engaging public roles by that same male-dominated culture that claims to venerate her. Pirotta claims that “the Maltese woman had traditionally been only interested in familial and household affairs;” it would probably be fairer to say that her aspirations as a woman and as a mother had been confined to the family and the home; she was not allowed to look beyond the household. Before the Second World War, Maltese society was “totally male-dominated and the wife played little part in anything that fell outside the confines of the family home.

 

When war broke out and fighting intensified it became imperative to supplement the male labour lost through military conscription by employing females.” The great majority of those employed by the Civil government worked for the Departments of Education and of Medical and Health respectively, but a growing number of women filled posts traditionally occupied by men, including such formerly exclusive male strongholds as the dockyard. In the traditional sense of the term “economic,” because her role in the household has always been of great economic value, the “new economic role” acquired by women because of the War “contributed to the loosening of the social strictures that hemmed her in and prepared the way for the acquisition of full political rights.” Female emancipation, writes Pirotta, “was achieved in the face of strong male opposition, and often quite overt opposition from members of the clergy, since the Maltese Church insisted that a woman's place was in the home.

 

Research on marriage in Malta in the late eighteenth century by Frans Ciappara makes very interesting reading because it sheds light on the place and role of women at least up until World War II. Ciappara shows that women were considered and treated as “inferior beings.” The maxims of the Church reinforced the belief that wives were subservient to their husbands, and the Council of Trent, for example, “expressly forbade women to leave home without the husband’s consent.” Apart from that, the law imposed on them other “disabilities,” as the historian calls them: “They could not alienate any property, not even their dowry; nor borrow money, or make any financial transactions.” While men, with more spare time on their hands, went to the tavern to play cards and get drunk, the women took care of the children, and did all the house chores.

 

The influence of the Church on discourse related to the role of women and mothers remains great. In a pastoral letter published in 2000 (The Sunday Times, August 13, 2000), the bishops of Malta and Gozo defended the position of the local church on the role of "Women in the life of the Church" and reiterated the identification of the woman with motherhood: "the model for women in the life of the church has to be exactly [the Virgin] Mary,” the "Mother of God" who "takes her place with Christ's messianic service” (emphasis added). The Virgin Mary is "the cornerstone of the presence and the living participation that providence designed for women in the life of the church established by Christ, from its very beginning." After presenting the Catholic Church's arguments against allowing women to become priests, the bishops highlight what they single out as examples of the many beautiful qualities of women: mercy, compassion and the caring for others, such as the vulnerable, the weak and the destitute - qualities described by the Pope as ‘the genius of woman.’”

 

“Economically Inactive” Women in Malta

 

A report by journalist George Cini published in The Sunday Times (January 22, 2003) that quotes Anna Borg, the Employment and Training Corporation's senior executive on gender issues, claims that the employment rate for women in Malta, at 31.6 per cent, is 22.4 per cent below the EU average. Quoting from the last Labour Force Survey conducted in December 2001, she said that over 70 per cent of women were “economically inactive” compared with nearly 29 per cent of men.

 

Although the trend was for more women to attend tertiary education, female university students aged between 18 and 24 only accounted for about 10 per cent of the age group. In 1999, there were only two women students compared with 100 men who were following vocational training. The ETC plans to upgrade its courses aimed at women to make them more attractive and accessible time-wise for women with children.

 

Social Policy Minister Lawrence Gonzi said the government had laid down the legislative framework so that more family-friendly initiatives would be available for parents with children. The new legislative measures also provide for part-time workers to be offered training opportunities. In a letter to the editor of The Times published on January 28, 2003 (“Women at Work”), Tanya Briffa wrote that although “it is true that the new legislative framework is more family-friendly and provides better conditions for part-timers and full-timers on reduced hours,” a woman should not “be eternally expected to compromise her career for the family.”

 

“It is high time that men started to chip in with their time. They also have a pair of hands and a loving heart which permits them to give their 50 per cent in bringing up children. I know a lot of families where the woman works in a higher paid industry than her husband, and it should in this day and age be perfectly acceptable for either partner to juggle work and family time according to family and financial needs.”

 

Telling Our Story

 

I spoke to up and coming writer Clare Azzopardi (right) about how the situation of women in Maltese society affects her artistic creativity.

 

Clare, you have been working for a number of years as a professional teacher. You have also published a book of poetry with three (male) poets and a number of short stories that have been very well-received. Have you ever felt discriminated against because you are a woman? Have you had to work harder (than men) to prove yourself simply because you are a woman?

 

That night he told me that poetry should only be written by men, that good poetry is only written by men. I could have killed him but I was too sober after drinking a bottle of wine by myself. So I kept silent. He is still young and has published some of his poems with me and two other young men. Although his friends were completely against his weird thoughts, he still believes it and mocks about it in a rude way. This was the first poetry evening which was then followed by some more. The men had known each other quite well then, and had already been thinking for quite a long time about a joint publication. I joined the group by chance. One of them told me they were looking for someone else to join because they preferred being a quartet rather than a trio. He spoke to the other two and they accepted me, mostly because they wanted to be different from the Maltese quartets of the 70s, which consisted only of men.

 

Each time we met I had to drink at least 2 glasses of wine to ease my tension, and smoke a packet of cigarettes to calm down. Nevertheless I can never forget their blunt expressions and their pathetic comments. They admitted they couldn’t understand my poetry and the reason why!? …because they were written by a woman. Surely it wasn’t because they couldn’t understand it! Actually they didn’t even bother trying. They sort of knew they could never understand what women write. I felt very insecure then, but the fear of never being able to publish alone or with other women made me stay.

 

The book Illejla Ismagħni Ftit [Listen to Me Tonight] was published in December 2001 and funnily enough I am the only one of the four who is still writing, reading in public and planning to publish my collection of short stories early next year. I do work hard, but I cannot say I work harder than men. However I believe I have to work harder on my self-esteem than men do. The lack of confidence I had two years ago, has finally started to fade away. But I am convinced I will always have to work on it. Don’t forget I’m a woman! Things can never come my way if I don’t strive for them! At least not in Malta!

 

Do you consider Maltese society in general to be male-dominated or generally insensitive to the "story", the experience, of women?

 

Unfortunately yes. But I cannot really blame them. What “story” is there of women writing in Malta after all? The “story”, the experience of women has just started. It goes back only a few years and the female writers who have started it, narrated it and lived it can be easily counted on one hand. Therefore men are still insensitive to it. Even the men of my generation have no comments to make when they hear us women read something we’ve written. And we are all eager to get criticism, but they just keep back. I know I sound too negative, but that’s how it is or else that is how I feel. And yet I must also admit that the few people who have lately encouraged me and constructively criticized my work were men.

 

It is not only the insensitivity of men that makes this society male-dominated. The language does not really help us either. The grammar is in itself male-dominated. Let me give you one example. The word “kittieb” for instance stands for a male writer. If I want to refer to a female writer I can say “kittieba” but this word also means writers. Thus to be sure that everybody is understanding that I am speaking about a female writer, I have to say “kittieba mara”. A “kittieb” is always a male writer whereas a kittieba is not always a female writer and in order not to be misunderstood I have to specify by using the word “mara” – woman. The plural word “kittieba” at first glance means male writers, but of course women writers could be included. To speak of female writers only I have to add the word “nisa” – women. And like this word there are several more: “qarrej”, “kritiku”…

 

Has the Maltese Church or any other important institution discouraged women to take an active role in public life in Malta?

 

Yes, I guess it has in the past, and so have the two main Maltese political parties. But nowadays I don’t really feel discouraged by any of them. I only feel discouraged by the apathy and ignorance of some young male writers towards my writing or other women’s writing. Yet, what I want to say I just write and will eventually publish it.

 

You have been actively involved in the organization of writing workshops for women only. Are such workshops a sign that some or many Maltese women feel uncomfortable expressing themselves and their creativity in the presence of men?

 

Indeed, I have organized two sets of workshops for women only. They were successful. The women have really enjoyed them. Some of them have been encouraged so much, that they have recently published their work. And you are asking me, why women only? Well the first reason is simply that women feel very uneasy reading their own work and discussing their views about women writing in the presence of men. But this is not the only reason. In the workshops for women only, women could analyze the dominant discourse used in men’s poetry and prose and afterwards be able to deconstruct language using their own imagery, voice and style. The emphasis of the workshops was on the process of deconstructing language, of finding one’s voice. If men were present such a process could not have been successful.

 

What effect have these creative writing workshops had on you personally and on your writing?

 

Through these workshops I gained confidence which helped me experiment with new imagery and language, voice and style.

 

Do you have any female role models, Maltese or foreign?

 

Yes, my Maltese role models are Doreen Micallef and Maria Grech Ganado (right). My foreign female role models are the Alda Merini and Susanna Tamaro (Italy); Emily Bronte, Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, A.S. Byatt, and Muriel Spark (Britain); Simone De Beauvoir (France) and Margaret Atwood (North America).

 

Do you consider yourself a feminist? 

 

I guess so. I’d rather die as a feminist writer than just as a writer.

 

 

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