Women in the Greek Tragedy

As we look at the high politics of the situation in Greece with New Democracy taking government, under a pledge to keep the bailout(s): a strategy with no end game as each new granting of credit sees Greece plunge deeper into debt and misery; continual instability as each loan installment is due and each repayment term reached; horse trading among the elevated stateswo/men of Europe, while the markets play a cynical game of hot potato.  It is worth looking at what this situation has actually meant on the ground in Greece.

While Europe’s eye is fix’d on mighty things,
The fate of empires and the fall of kings;
While quacks of State must each produce his plan,
And even children lisp the Rights of Man;
Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention,
The Rights of Woman merit some attention.

Robert Burns, The Rights of Woman

The social fabric of Greece is in meltdown.  The strong family culture that is embodied in the “Moral Mother” of Greek national ideology, is rapidly disintegrating.    Cuts in public sector employment has seen female unemployment rise to 20.9%,  while half of young women aged 15-25 are without work, the increasing squeeze on household budgets impact on the abilities of households to cope in a time of increasing pressure, and it is women who run the households all the while  cuts in provision of healthcare and education are  seeing women taking on increasing responsibilities in a time when their capacity is diminished. 

Women access medical services more routinely than men do – contraception, abortion, ante-natal services and childbirth all require a level of routine healthcare, which has no male equivalent.  The “Family Code” of Greece, has resulted in a culture which sees “proof of fertility” as desirable.   Long term contraceptive usage is among the lowest in Europe, with only two percent of women accessing family planning clinics, instead reliance on withdrawal and condom use prevails, with contraception being seen as a male responsibility.  It would seem to be a responsibility that Greek males set little store by, as abortion rates in Greece  is the second highest in Europe (after Romania).

Abortion was common in Greece, even before the 1986 law legalising the practice, which sees the state cover some of the costs associated with the procedure, however a lack of sex education and publicity surrounding the legal status of abortion, an abortion limit of 12 weeks and a ban on the advertising of abortion services sees a high number of illegal abortions continuing where women bear the full cost.  All the while Greek hospitals are turning away pregnant women who cannot raise the 900 euro required to receive ante-natal and childbirth services.

Greek women have some of the lowest labour market participation rates in the EU, despite this women in the labour force are far more likely than a man to be unemployed, while female take-home wages are only 80% of male wages.  As pressures on household economies increase, the increasing suicide rate of men leaves women who have embraced a traditional domestic role without a “provider”, all the while increased caring responsibilities necessitated by the cuts impact on their ability to participate in the labour market have left women financially exposed and vulnerable.

Prostitution in Athens has exploded in the last five years.   The law provides for a licence to be issued to women to practice prostitution if they are unmarried and over 50.  Brothels are legal so long as they are situated at least 200 metres from certain institutions, including schools, churches and playgrounds.    Consequently much of the rise has been in illegal prostitution.  Centering around Omonia, illegal brothels proliferate, while street prostitution is common.  As the Greek economy collapses, the bodies of Greek women have become a commodity with an annual turnover of over 100 million Euros.

The reaction to this rise by the authorities is horrific.

A crackdown on illegal prostitution launced in 2010 together with the discovery in April of an HIV positive woman in prostitution has seen a backlash against women driven into the sex industry by poverty, desperation and trafficking. The first woman discovered to to be HIV positive while working in the industry had her name and image plastered all over international media as she was prosecuted with grievous bodily harm.  The 700 men who contacted the authorities admitting that they had used women in the brothel in which she worked, including 15 who had had sex with her while taking no precautions to prevent STI transmission,  faced no repercussions, other than being encouraged to undergo HIV testing.

Despite male to female HIV transmission being far higher than female to male, the precarious situation of Greek women and a culture of male expectation of unprotected sex, it was the women of Athens who were targetted rather than the men, numbering in the thousands, who confessed to paying women to make use of them.  Over a hundred women were rounded up and subjected to compulsory HIV testing, with 17 testing positive and arrested.    Twelve of these women were then paraded on police websites, while helplines were set up to reassure and support those who had abused them.

The continuation of the bailout measures signified by the election of New Democracy sees no end to this continuing misery, in a country where female politicians get assaulted live on national television, by a fascist who cannot be caught until he appears in court at the expiration of his arrest warrent to press charges against them, while his party continue to command 7% of the popular vote.

Of all creatures who live and have intelligence, we women are the most miserable. […] People say that we women lead a life without danger inside our homes, while men fight in war; but they are wrong.

Euripides, Medea

 Women have played a critical role in the history of Greece and resistance to invasion, occupation and fascism.  The anti-fascist resistance movement of the 40s. the EAM, blended national liberation, women’s liberation and worker emancipation as it fought the invasion of Mussolini.  The establishment of women’s platoons within the ELAS, the military wing of the EAM saw women take up active service, eventually comprising over a quarter of the resistance forces.   During the Civil War, women’s involvement in the KKE, saw a further blending of left wing thought and feminist empancipation an alliance which continued on after the war and on through the Junta.

In the 70s, as Greece recovered from dictatorship and the second wave of feminism was born, Greek feminist, which had blended the family as the source of women’s power with a narrative which supported female military participation.  The second wave and its critiques of domestic and interpersonal relations saw a schism emerge in the Greek feminist movement, as the left sought to confine the feminist narratives in its midst, while new autonomous feminist movements emerged critiquing the male power structures inherent in the wider movement.  Both strands again united over the issue of female compulsory military service, opposing conscription as anti-feminist within the Greek construction of female domestic power and the history of the resistance women fighting for a nation on their own terms rather than a construction of nation and the military handed down from on-high.

The history of Greek feminism, then places large emphasis on the family as a source of female power and of authentic resistance to oppression, occupation and dictatorship.  As families are squeezed, the social fabric which sustains the nation breaks down, Greek women are in the front line of austerity, exploited as survival overcomes dignity, and scapegoated to avoid confronting the wider troubles of the country.

It is time for the women of Greece to again assume their positions at the front line, fighting to maintain their country’s autonomy in the face of the Troika and economic imperialism being imposed and resisting the internal threat of fascism, for there is no doubt that it is the women of Greece who are in the front line of its effects.

Day by day woman climbs the staircase which, step by step, leads her higher and closer to man. It is not only national liberation, but also her own social liberation, that sounds today’s revolutionary revival. . . . And she does not want her freedom to be handed to her, by men, as she knows that freedom granted is not freedom at all.

Vervenioti, The woman of the resistance

First published by the International Socialist Group on 27th June 2012

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Updated: June 28, 2012 — 9:49 pm
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