Longread: Leitrim ARC at the very first Rally for Choice, Malta

Photograph of three members of Leitrim ARC on a street in Malta, dressed in black 'Decriminalise' tshirts

On Saturday 28th September 2019, International Safe Abortion Day, the very first Rally for Choice was held in Malta. Three members of Leitrim Abortion Rights Campaign were privileged enough to be there.

Malta has traditionally been known as a very socially conservative country, but attitudes are changing. Catholicism is established in the island’s constitution as the state religion and claims more than 95% of religious adherents. Nonetheless, divorce was legalised as recently as 2011, following a referendum with a majority in favour of only 53%. By 2017, marriage equality had become legal in Malta, and a 2019 poll showed that 67% of Maltese favoured the legalisation of same-sex marriage throughout Europe. Much of the movement in attitudes is attributed to the exchanges with Europe at every level since Malta joined the EU in 2004.

When, following the famous repeal victory of 2018, the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act came into force in the Republic of Ireland in January 2019, Malta became the only EU member state to retain a ban on abortion. (Gibraltar and Northern Ireland are not, technically, separate countries). It was natural, then, that Maltese pro-choice advocates would look to Ireland for assistance in their struggle. Two of its most prominent campaigners attended a Post Repeal conference organised by the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth in Dublin in April of this year and the seeds of an idea were sown. Having heard Andrea Dibben and Lara Dimitrijevic speak, Leitrim decided to take action. In our usual manner, we chatted over cake and agreed that a group of us were Malta-bound.

We left Dublin on Thursday 26th September with Ryanair, as George Soros refused to lend us the private jet. Arriving into Valletta at 12.30am, jet-lagged and thirsty, we were told by our AirBnB host that the tap water in Malta is not potable, so had no option but to find a bar. Luckily, the bar we found stocked not only water, but Drumshanbo gin – essential for migrant Leitrimites. It also had a friendly barman who asked about our badges and t-shirts (we were sporting Gibraltar’s #NoMoreShame) and told us he thought it was a very good thing to come to Malta in solidarity with Maltese activists. A good omen for the weekend.

Friday morning saw us out and about in Valletta, the island’s capital. An amazingly beautiful city, it has the largest assortment of religious statues we have ever seen. Every street corner has a larger than life plaster saint bearing the name of the various city patrons – San Paulus (Saint Paul), the patron saint of misogyny, who was shipwrecked in Malta, features a lot, as does San Gwann (Saint John), who may or may not be the patron saint of priests’ housekeepers. We wore our Decriminalise t-shirts in solidarity with our siblings in Northern Ireland and as many badges as we could comfortably fit. Again, we found that people (mostly men) were interested and curious as to the reason for our trip. We found that there was quite a degree of ignorance about the laws pertaining to abortion in Malta. A lot of people seemed unaware of the situation, never having given the matter any great thought. When we explained the position, most seemed genuinely concerned and supportive of our efforts. One young man in particular changed his position from anti to pro-choice, once he had heard what we had to say. That’s a great warm, fuzzy feeling all round. He even wanted to buy us drinks – we refused but it was kind.

We walked and talked for hours through the steep city streets, spreading our pro-choice message (people reading our chests was quite an odd thing to get used to) and took in the sights of this wonderful place until the heat got to us and we decided to head back to the digs for a siesta – as the locals do. This was not to be, as we shortly got a message to say the wonderful Dr Pam Lowe, Lecturer in Sociology at Aston University and one of the world’s most knowledgeable abortion geeks, was in town and at a loose end. Pam duly arrived and tea was made. We had no cake (I know!) but made do with crackers, cheese and good olives. A wonderful chat ensued – abortion conversations are the best and Pam Lowe is a veritable font of knowledge. A couple of hours passed, and our guest left with plans to meet us at the Rally the following afternoon.

Pam had only been gone 15 minutes when a message came through from her – Doctors for Choice had set up a stall at the Science Exhibition near the Triton Fountain! It’s hard to explain how radical a move this was – Valletta, indeed Malta, had never seen a pro-choice information stall before. The doctors, mostly young but including the redoubtable Dr Isabel, who is as old as some of the Leitrim crew, were in effect “outing” themselves. Remember how long our own Doctors for Choice had to remain anonymous? We flung on our shoes and hightailed it up to the scene. There we met Andrea – hugs all round – and introduced ourselves to the docs and their supporters. These are fantastically brave people and it was an absolute privilege to see them breaking a mould in the square that evening. It was wonderful, too, to see that Maltese people were stopping to ask questions and engage with the stall.

Our fabulous day was rounded off by a delicious Indian meal in the company of the brilliant and seemingly indefatigable Ruth Taylor, of the Abortion Support Network, which has been operating in Malta since February. Ruth fitted right in with our crew, having a taste for curry-infused gin. She was on a flying visit and would miss most of the Rally but wanted to show her solidarity with the Maltese activists. Again, we were decked out in our abortion wear – this time in our #AbortionRightsNI t-shirts, with a guest appearance from Sister Michael of Derry Girls, who is the patron saint of reproductive rights campaigners. As always, it appears, we were asked about our clothes and our reasons for visiting the island, and again – the response was positive. There seems to be an undercurrent of support for change with no-one willing to be the first to put their hand up and say so.

Saturday morning saw us bedecked in our full Leitrim for Choice in Malta finery, with our green panuelos in solidarity with our South American comrades, and more badges than you could shake a stick at. More than a few heads turned as we marched through Valletta in search of a hearty breakfast, which was duly devoured in preparation for the efforts of the day ahead. We arrived at Hastings Park, which overlooks the beautiful harbour, ahead of time and were able to help with setting up the stage and writing placards and posters before we proudly affixed our Leitrim banner to the trees. We met the ground troops – the wonderful, brave young activists who are the life and soul of this nascent movement, along with their even braver mothers who are stalwart in support. Again, we met up with Ruth Taylor before she had to fly (literally) and cried and hugged our Maltese cousins as we met those with whom we’d only ever exchanged social media messages. Recognising kindred spirits is such an emotional experience. The setting up complete, there was just time for a quick pint before the Rally itself. Having found a suitable watering-hole nearby we downed a swift one and headed back to the Park.

The crowd had swelled in the short time we were away, and it looked like a couple of hundred people were now in the small space in front of the stage. Aleksandar Dimitrijevic later told us that they would have been delighted with 50. The pro-choice movement in Malta is a real family effort with Lara, Aleksandar and their daughter, Maya, involved along with Jelena, Aleksandar’s sister.

The speeches and music during the afternoon were powerful. All three of the Leitrim crew addressed the crowd and were given a warm welcome and great reception. Again, the Doctors for Choice featured in a prominent position, with their stall distributing information, badges and condoms. (As an aside, these are badges to die for.) T-shirts and badges from the pro-choice movement were also on sale. The Park had a real carnival atmosphere and the general feeling was one of camaraderie, good humour and solidarity. The incredible Dr Pam Lowe joined us, having attended the Anti-choice Rally, which was taking place nearby at the same time. She gladdened all our hearts when she informed us that our numbers exceeded theirs by a ratio of 2:1 (seems to be a common factor in measuring abortion-related sentiment worldwide). As the Rally ended, people seemed to be feeling emotional, tired but energised with a feeling that we had been witness to the beginning of something very special for Malta. We retired for a post-rally debriefing to The Pub (that’s its actual name – the place where Oliver Reed died) at the invitation of the manager’s wife, who had been in the Park. Our Maltese comrades were relieved, though tired, and we treated them to a well-deserved jar. We felt proud to have been able to lend our support and to stand in solidarity with them at their very first annual Rally. We felt proud, too, when word came through that almost all the Maltese papers were carrying write-ups of the event and our involvement.

As the exhausted organisers drifted home for a well-earned rest, we headed next door with Dr Pam, for a wonderful meal to round off our day. As we finished up, the restaurant owner came and sat with us. He apologised for dissuading his wife from attending the Rally earlier. He had been afraid that her being seen might affect their business. He now regretted that. His sister, who had spotted us earlier, had told him who we were. We talked with him for a while and realised that he had doubts but persuaded him that his doubts shouldn’t be allowed to affect other people’s choices. As we left, there were hugs and warm embraces from his sister, his son and from himself. A lovely way to end a very special day.

Sunday was our final day in Valletta, and we were determined to make the most of it. This time, we wore our Accessible, Safe & Legal Abortion for Malta t-shirts, lest there be any doubt as to the purpose of our mission. We walked through the city, as usual, and attracted attention, as usual. It really is so easy to raise visibility if you’re willing to stick your chest out. We got a “Nice work!” from a young woman working in a bar and explained the restrictions of the law pertaining to abortion to a man having his breakfast in the same place. We walked and we talked and shared some pro-choice information as we went. Valletta is an easy place to do this, as the people are warm and friendly, and willing to listen and engage. The only blowback we experienced in all our time in Malta was at the airport, when a woman walked off rather than give directions once she’d read our t-shirts. Never mind. You can’t win ‘em all. In general, though, the reaction to us was positive, if a little bemused at times. The issue is still not widely discussed so more awareness-raising events are needed. The Rally for Choice was an enormous step. The self-outing of the Doctors for Choice was another. Overall, we were astounded at the bravery of these people, the organisers, the speakers, the performers, the medics and the supporters, in putting themselves forward, putting their necks on the line. It was easy for us – we were leaving the following day. They will be facing the full onslaught of anti-choice vitriol in a small community – we all know what that’s like. They are heroes and we were proud and privileged to be able to stand with them. We came home feeling like we had done something really important. We’re going again next year. We’ll be needing more t-shirts.