The outpouring of support that I received this week following the infamous Democratic Party Facebook status, which labelled me as a “village escort”, was extremely touching on a personal level. When I decided to join the political fray, I was prepared to grow a thicker skin. I also knew that there might be moments when I would have to sit down with my young daughter and husband to unpack and defy any mud-slinging thrown in my direction.

Nonetheless, it never crossed my mind that in these early days in my life as a parliamentarian, I would need to explain to my daughter that serving my constituents and my country had not turned me into a bad mother and a bad wife. I find great comfort in the thought that I owe it to my daughter to show her by example that she too can have agency in any sphere of life but that this may come at a cost.

It is now extremely easy to land like a ton of bricks on a small party, whose neophyte leader apologised immediately.

However, we need to acknowledge that the sexualised stereotypes and persistent attacks on the reputation of Labour women are the result of long-term processes and they are clearly based on conventional and often contradictory assumptions about appropriate female behaviour.

Labour women have been at the receiving end of vehement attacks on their reputation for decades. As opposed to the Nationalist Party, female activists have been at the forefront of Labour politics since the party was set up. Labour opponents did not need to work too hard to construct a negative image of these activists, given the traditional misogynistic cultural traits.

She had constructed a solid narrative that portrayed Labour women as dim and uncouth, women who lacked taste

One only needs to remember the portrayal of the first female Member of Parliament, Agatha Barbara, who became the first female minister and the first female Head of State. From the very first day she entered politics at the age of 24 in 1947, until her demise, she was called all sorts of negative names. She was even vilified post-posthumously, even though everyone knew that her own constituents loved her to such an extent that they kept re-electing her.

It is most unfortunate that in recent years the rumours and whispers that used to spread through the traditional grapevine, are now being vented on the internet, which has an infinite memory.

Insults and attacks on the reputation of female politicians are rife on social media, including blogs. Lest we forget, one individual who is responsible for the reinforcement of this most sexist and appalling narrative was unfortunately a female blogger.

Let us say it as it is.

Until her brutal murder six months ago, Daphne Caruana Galizia worked tirelessly to prop up demeaning and undignified elitist perceptions of women who identified with the Labour Party. After Barbara’s death, the widely popular blog Running Commentary gleefully described her as a “butch dyke” inviting followers to trade insults towards a politician who sacrificed her life to deliver public service.

Other Labour female decision-makers, including the current President of the Republic, were described as “a perambulating embarrassment to our gender… inarticulate and incompetent”.

As she exercised her freedom of expression, she liberally reinforced a narrative that portrayed us as monsters and whores. Many women suffered years of victimisation and sad insinuations. Few had the time or opportunity to defy her; many feared they would end up on the receiving end of her poisonous river of rumours and gossip.

Among her loyal followers she had constructed a solid narrative that portrayed Labour women as dim and uncouth, women who lacked taste and so it was implied that they should not be seen nor heard. According to her world view, Labour women lacked the credentials to become politicians and they also made bad lovers, bad wives and bad mothers.  

Merely a year ago, a court ruling confirmed that her attacks on my own reputation did not constitute fair comment. She was fined and the decision was made public but this did not mend the damage dealt to my reputation especially among some segments of Maltese society that still choose to continue demonising me merely on the basis of my political affiliation. 

After her most unfortunate murder, Caruana Galizia was deified by her family and supporters, but her divisive legacy lives on. These days many people wonder why 70 years after women’s suffrage, the participation rate of women in elections and in Parliament has remained the lowest in the whole of Europe and one of the lowest in the world.

This has been a concern that is often deemed to amount to a democratic deficit, where one sex is severely under-represented. It was not an easy decision for me to join the political fray when my family included a little girl of four years.

My decision to contest the election of 2017 was sustained by a supportive family, the enthusiasm of my constituents and the encouragement of my political party.

This is a decision I do not regret and I am glad that my party is actively encouraging more labour women to contest for political posts because they can lead the change.

No, politics does not need to be a dirty game.

Julia Farrugia Portelli is Parliamentary Secretary for Reforms, Citizenship and Simplification.

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