Beyond the rhetoric of wellbeing, equality and social prosperity, there are many in our society who are pushed to the margins on the basis of the colour of their skin, sexual orientation or gender identity, religion, disability, or lack of access to wealth and other resources. Or because we make it difficult for them to fit in.
by Angele Deguara
Image: Martin Galea De Giovanni
The middle of September was marked by two seemingly unrelated, even contrasting, events. I am referring to the Pride Week celebrations and to the brutal killing of yet another vulnerable woman, allegedly at the hands of her partner and father of her children. Yet, perhaps due to their simultaneous occurrence, they made me reflect on the state of our society, particularly on the various contradictory elements that make it what it is: a modern society with a booming economy which tops the list on civil rights but which is also witness to a disturbing number of stories that complicate the rosy picture.
The news of Lourdes Agius being a fourth woman murdered allegedly by a man in as many months reached me just before I was leaving for Valletta to participate in the Pride parade, as I do every year. However, this year I could not get into the euphoric, colourful, noisy mood which has recently come to characterise the Pride and which normally gets me carried away. I could not shake off the feeling that behind all the glitter, there is a lot which is not gold, even within the LGBT+ community itself; that there are many categories of people in Malta who do not have much to celebrate as they live on the fringes of our society.
Beyond the legislation and the political rhetoric about wellbeing, equality and prosperity, there are still many in our society who are pushed to the margins.
Beyond the legislation and the political rhetoric about wellbeing, equality and social prosperity, there are many in our society who are pushed to the margins because of the colour of their skin, sexual orientation or gender identity, because of their religion, disability, or lack of access to wealth and other resources. Because we make it difficult for them to fit in.
We should not let celebrations such as the Pride (and don’t get me wrong, we do have reason to celebrate on the LGBTI+ legislative front) divert our attention from the prejudice, the intolerance, the hate and the lack of empathy towards those who are different from us. This fact should impede us from overstating our sense of accomplishment and drive us to do much more on the social front to address the plight of many who suffer, often in silence because their voice is not strong enough, if at all.
Legislation and policies on their own do not necessarily bring about a change in the way we look at those who are different from us, although they surely help. They do not always ensure access to life chances such as education, employment, health and decent housing.
There are those within the LGBTI+ community itself, especially transpersons, who still face numerous obstacles in everyday life at school, within the labour market, at home and in various other social spheres and life situations. And this is just one category of people. There are others who experience social segregation due to the colour of their skin or because of their faith. Certain religions, particularly Islam, tend to carry a great deal of stigma in our society just as being a barrani, especially if one’s skin is rather darker than that of the average not-so-white Maltese.
Victims of domestic abuse may experience extreme physical segregation should they end up having to seek shelter and support within a gated institutional setting.
And what about women who are victims of domestic violence like the one murdered a few days ago? Domestic abuse disempowers victims, reduces their self-esteem and excludes them from social life because of the fear, the bruises, the dependence, the threats, the jealousy as well as the lack of economic means. Victims of domestic abuse may experience extreme physical segregation should they end up having to seek shelter and support within a gated institutional setting.
Institutionalisation such as that experienced by inmates in mental institutions, prisons, old people’s homes and the aforementioned shelters for victims of domestic abuse further exacerbates the degree and the sentiment of social segregation. However, people may also be segregated within their own homes, for example, due to a disability, because of old age, because they are precluded by their partners or parents or because they cannot afford to participate in social life.
Nowadays, the social media may provide opportunities for such people to interact with others. However, this also brings to mind another form of social segregation, experienced by those who are not computer literate or who do not have access to the internet. In our digital age, not being online excludes one from information, interaction, knowledge and many other services.
Social segregation may not necessarily be institutionalised or legal as was the racial segregation under apartheid or in the United States in the 1950s and 60s. It may manifest itself in practice on a cultural, social or institutional level even when legislation is in place to combat it, as in the case of Malta.
The so-called flexibility, which is increasingly characterising the labour market of economically advanced countries, is driving many people into poverty and even homelessness.
Social segregation may be vertical, as in the inequalities existing in the labour market both in terms of occupational positions as well as in the meagre incomes accessible to those in the lower grades, especially those in manual jobs. Nowadays, the so-called flexibility, which is increasingly characterising the labour market of economically advanced countries, is driving many people into poverty and even homelessness. Not knowing whether your definite contract will be renewed or whether your employer will fire you due to restructuring (or other fancy words used as excuses) can also drive you into psychologically and socially undesirable states.
Various forms of segregation—vertical and horizontal—often combine. More commonly used to refer to segregation within the labour market, particularly practices which segregate men from women in gender-specific occupations, horizontal segregation also applies to cases of one minority group shunning other minorities. An example of this may be racist behaviour manifested by members of the LGBTI+ community or homophobic sentiments expressed by a person with a physical disability.
Social segregation is very much part of the everyday life experiences of many people around us even if it is not always so visible. Examples abound:
people with disabilities;
people suffering from mental illness;
migrants who are ghettoised in very unwelcoming neighbourhoods;
elderly people who live alone and are often forgotten by those they love;
people whose identity is stigmatised because of their ethnicity or beliefs;
those struggling to make ends meet on a minimum wage or a little more and who cannot afford to pay the rent let alone have a social life;
people living in depressed communities who may have to give an address of a family member to get a job;
and many more who are ‘othered’ by the comfortable majority may all experience segregation.
Segregation may be self-imposed although here one should also look at the factors that have led people to refuse to interact and participate with others in society. The experience of segregation may well disempower people, lower their self-esteem and stifle their voice. However, it may also lead to forms of resistance and hope for social change.
Angele Deguara is a senior lecturer and subject co-ordinator of Sociology and Art at the Junior College of the University of Malta. She conducted her PhD research in the anthropology of religion and sexuality with LGBT Catholics in Malta and Palermo. She is the author of Life on the Line: A Sociological Investigation of Women working in a Clothing Factory in Malta as well as a number of other published works. Her main research interests are religion, sexuality, gender and poverty. She is an activist for social justice and civil rights and a member of 8th March 365, a feminist group within Moviment Graffitti.