This is the sixth in a series of posts celebrating the women fighting for positive change in our world. Today I’m talking to storyteller, actor, educator and accidental activist Pia Zammit, who also forms part of Occupy Justice.
When would you say your activism really began? Why?
Well this depends on how you define ‘activism’. I’ve always been vocal about things that are ‘wrong’. I’m not a ‘defy authority at all costs’ anarchist in any way shape or form – I believe that rules and laws keep us functional, happier and safe – however I WILL stand up to authority when wrong is wrong. As a mouse of a child I did this, as a slightly bolder teenager I did this too (I was one of the junior members in the fight for the right to choose your school in the 80s), as a rather bold adult when, along with fellow Unifaun members, we took the government (then the PN) to court over the censorship in theatre fight, and now as a thoroughly fed up adult via #occupyjustice and Repubblika.
This current ‘spate’ started when Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated. I looked on in horror as our authorities failed us – the police commissioner went into hiding, the attorney general fell silent, the prime minister mumbled something and then did nothing, the opposition agreed to not discuss her assassination in parliament.
This was a national crisis. I expected those who we elected to look after us, to be on the streets hugging everyone and telling us that it’s all going to be ok – instead we were made to feel like mad traitors for asking for answers.
One week after her assassination once the daze started to lift, I just wanted to go up to Castille Square with a tent and bang on a drum and yell till my voice ran out. It was a gut visceral reaction. A number of female friends felt the same way and said they’d join. And that is literally how #occupyjustice started.
We passed the word round to other friends and suddenly we were a sizeable group of women – all angrily asking for answers and action. It was not our intention to start a civil activist movement – It happened organically. After three days at Castille Square we marched down to Sliema to join the Civil Society Network vigil (now seemingly defunct), and after that we realised that civil society needed our voice – we’d struck a chord.
Maybe because we are women. Maybe because we don’t have political backgrounds.
Maybe because we were completely new to this.
It’s a constant uphill struggle: what keeps you going?
I don’t know if I am. It’s soul sucking and depressing and tough and exhausting, and I know that I’m going to die with my boots on.
But there isn’t an alternative. Wrong is wrong is wrong, and I can’t live with that. As far as activism is concerned: I’d rather my energy were spent on raising awareness about equality, the environment and critical thinking skills. However good governance, truth and justice are the most urgent.
We’re fighting a machine much bigger than ourselves – we’re David, they’re Goliath.
We are realistic though – we know our limitations – and if we can just enable a handful of people to recognise that they have a voice and they are allowed to use it, then it’s worth it.
I am unbelievably lucky to be surrounded by a FANTASTIC group of women. They are brave and intelligent and witty and selfless and strong and principled in ways I can only dream of being. I am humbled by their power and strength – and they make the uphill manageable.
The upside of this mess is that I wouldn’t have found this family without it.
Outside of activism I have a network of life-long friends too who are my anchor and my
sanity. I also have a mum who taught me how to fight for what is right and is there by my side, fist raised to sky at every action/vigil/activity.
You keep going because you have to .
What do you do to unplug/de-stress?
Theatre. I allow myself a few forays on stage – even though it means that I have to forgo sleep as there’s much to do. In an ideal world I’d be on stage more, but needs must.
Comedy Knights is a staple – social criticism is necessary, satire is VITAL when it comes to activism – so making time for Comedy Knights is actually a duty not just a pleasure.
And the gym. Two years ago I would’ve rather stuck needles in my eyes than go to a gym – now it’s NECESSARY. I’d be climbing walls without it.
What have you learned/taken away (personally) from being so involved in activism?
That women are unbelievably strong! My fellow activists make me cry at their brilliance. That sleep is a luxury we can do without.
That you can’t win every battle but that doesn’t mean that you can’t still stay in the war. That some people don’t have principles.
That we need to over-haul our education system (to be fair I knew that one all along).
That I’m still a hippie at heart because my dreams are now about setting up a commune far away from here, growing our own vegetables and making our own wine.
That sadly sometimes even people who are ‘on your side’ will bite you in the ass –
sometimes for valid reasons, sometimes not. I struggle to understand how people can forget that the WHOLE is much more important than the ONE when it comes to activism.
Sometimes you have to sacrifice your feelings or your pride. Sometimes you’re going to step on ‘allies’’ toes – some times it can’t be helped, most times it’s accidental. Sometimes there’s going to be fall-out and backlash. I’ve learnt that I have to bury that hurt and live with it. The cause is more important than my feelings.
What has been the most testing or difficult aspect of being an activist?
Fighting the spin.
I’m quite ‘naïve’ – I don’t understand why people feel compelled to lie. If your argument is strong, if your belief that what you are doing is the right thing is solid – then why do you have to lie to discredit your opponent. I know I’m an idealist – but I don’t understand lying and it brings out hulk-proportions rage in me.
THE SPIN IS: that we’re a front for politicians. That we’re trying to over-throw a government and reinstate the PN.
I wouldn’t blink an eye if it were the Labour government in power from now till eternity (on the political spectrum I’m a liberal-socialist) – as long as there’s honesty and truth and as long as decisions are taken for the good of the many not the few, and as long as those we elect to represent us are thinking of the future and doing their utmost to ensure that future generations will have jobs, houses, education and air to breathe.
The truth is that many people can’t fathom nor stomach the fact that women have an exceedingly strong voice and their own opinions. It’s easier to put us in that ‘controlled by male-politicians’ box – because it fits people’s blinkered view more. Also (and more importantly) it diminishes our message.
Discredit the messenger to discredit the message. This is what they did to Daphne, this is what they’re trying to do to Caroline Muscat, Matthew Caruana Galizia and Manuel Delia too. It’s dishonest and disgusting and makes me Hulk-Rage.
What we’re fighting for is good governance – we’re not fussed about WHO does this, we’re just particular about the HOW. After all, I personally voted for the PN in March 2008 and 7 months later took them to court for stomping on my human rights (theatre censorship as per above) – it TRULY isn’t the ‘who’ but the ‘how’.
Also I can’t understand how people can’t see through the spin and repeat it as though it were the truth. This is why we need critical thinking skills and an education system over- haul.
Do you feel like you’re making a difference?
On good days, yes – on bad days, no.
The reality though is that we have made a difference, because if we’ve made even a couple of young people realise that they can vote a government in yet STILL retain the right to question and criticise – then it’s a win. And we’ve done that.
Baby steps, but we’ll get there.
One day people will realise that we’re on Malta’s side. We truly want the best for our country. We may be dead when that happens – but it will happen.
Oh crikey, this all makes me sound like I’m a raving optimist! I’m not! I’m digging deep, finding the ‘hopeful things’ and clinging on to them.