Last week we got a phone call at Malta InsideOut from a BBC stringer covering the divorce referendum. Some of the world’s press are hitting town. Periodically, Malta makes a bit of the wave in overseas media: lately, we’ve hit headlines when the Libya crisis started; a year back, it was for the Pope’s visit. And now the whole divorce debate and referendum is putting us in the spotlight.
We might say that it’s only of internal, national concern. Fair enough. But, it’s inevitable that folk overseas will gain an image of the nation through the lens of the divorce debate. Last night, I was at a dinner and spoke at length to a South African lawyer. He’d been just five hours in Malta, yet the divorce issue struck him – he lost count of the billboards en route from airport to hotel. Divorce was his first dinner party topic.
If our local/national concerns stopped at just being amusing to visitors to Malta, that would be fine. But some, such as the divorce debate, aren’t doing us a service on the world stage. However briefly we feature in overseas media, do we really want Malta talked of in articles alongside the Philippines, which together with the Vatican City is the only other state with no divorce? And where, so writes the BBC in an article here, it is not uncommon for “…poor people [to be] trapped for years in abusive marriages, [while] …the rich have more than one marriage annulled”. It’s a point that has resonance in Malta with our hybrid model of annulment and divorce for some, but not others.
The UK’s Telegraph newspaper manages to encapsulate the whole divorce saga here. To add more punch to its article, it takes the usual journalistic approach of giving some juicy quotes from particularly colourful characters. UK readers will draw obvious conclusions from this comment by Sarah: “My grandmother has three kids, two separated and one whose marriage was annulled. …I think she is OK with divorce but won’t vote yes because she sincerely believes she will burn in hell.”
Just as significant are the ‘related articles’ on Malta this Telegraph page pulls up at random: one on the row over the ‘phallic sculpture‘; the other on Malta joining the EU (and we all remember that referendum fondly too).
Closer to home, it takes a former Catholic priest from Palermo, Sicily, as reported in Malta Today, to make the argument for the separation of church and state. His point is that Catholics should not have the right to impose their morality on others. But, as the Telegraph article clearly says, they can do so because…”though Malta is theoretically a secular nation, the constitution declared Roman Catholicism “the religion of Malta” and gave the Church “the duty and the right to teach which principles are right and which are wrong”.”
Looking at some online forums, we find telling insights from foreigners who are caught up in the no-divorce in Malta scenario. An American man posted this a year back on an expats forum desperate for some advice on how to stay living in Malta with his Maltese partner, who’d been separated for 10 years. “I’m American, living with my fiancee in malta, for 7 months now. We decided that we can’t live apart anymore, she can’t move [to the USA] because of family issues, so I moved here. Thing is we can’t get married, since she is seperated, and here they do not have divorce.” He goes on to say that he’d burned up his savings living here, but couldn’t seem to get a job, legally, and had been coming and going to renew his visa. Not an ideal way for life to pan out.
For some overseas and for most foreign observers locally, Malta’s divorce debate is a distraction, perhaps only a five-minute read online or in print or a dinner party conversation piece. For those like the American man, it’s crucial to how they live their lives. Above all though, and for many here, it’s about Malta becoming a thoroughly modern state – which is how it should be seen on the world stage.
Photo: Leslie Vella