The 91st cover of Time’s Person of the Year is dedicated to The Silence Breakers, a handful of women who began publically exposing the reality of sexual harassment they had undergone. Celebrities like Ashley Judd who had been coerced into going to bed with Harvey Weinstein or Taylor Swift who got groped by a DJ on tour and brought him to justice to claim a $1. People like Tarana Burke the founder of the #metoo movement in 2006 that Alyssa Milano picked up to rally the call for solidarity against sexual abuse, whose call was answered in 32,000 replies in less than 24 hours. The movement has reached crescendo; who would have thought a grandfatherly media icon such as Charlie Rose or even the great- grandfather Jonathan Swartz, the long-time weekend WNYC radio host, could topple under the weight. The #metoo movement is starting a revolution. It is as if women who heralded in the new year on Trump’s inauguration with the slogan “Pussy Fights Back” are doing just that.
That’s great for the American side of my hyphenated cultural identity. But what about my Greek side? Judging from the silence, it is as if the women’s movement does not exist. It is an Unwoman’s Movement.
Personal Anecdotes on Harassment
Given by my own personal experiences of Greek men and the Greek media portrayal of women during my residence there, I will claim that Greece remains one of the most oppressive European nations for women.
I remember getting groped at a party I was invited to by one of my uncle’s artist friends. Let’s just say he gave my breast a milk shake as a way of farewell– all within the presence of my very Greek uncle, who made no comment or offered any assistance. I brushed it off with an excuse, “I think we’ve had a bit too much wine.” But the experience has stayed with me to this day. I remember staying up late at night watching this stupid game show called “Tutti Frutti” an Italian import. The object was to win enough points to get one of the girls dressed as a fruit to bare her breasts. In the media, women were portrayed as sex objects—moaning “Oooh and aaah” when taking a shower with the latest shampoo, their ripe nipples in full view of the audience. I was taken aback when taxi drivers would proposition me for a “lollipop” just because I was walking by them. Teen boys on bicycles, raging hormones on wheels, would slap my buttocks as they flew by.
While I was not harassed at work, probably because as a professor and tutor I had autonomy, I could only imagine what it would be like for working women in Greece. I am sure the stories would be deplorable. Yet, fast-forward 20 years later, the situation might have gotten a bit more civilized, but I suspect this is only on the surface. The deep-seated sexism and misogyny is so thick in Greek culture that I believe most women themselves do not even realize how oppressed they are. It’s like an entire sex of a nation with Stockholm Syndrome.
Greek women are so entrenched with patriarchal stamp, they are not able to support or organize themselves into a working team, forget a movement. Feminism is such a taboo word because women equate it with lesbianism and values that threaten their very stable gender role functioning as mothers and wives. No respectable Greek woman can even think of herself as existing perfectly well without a husband or a boyfriend. Greek women are so in the dark as a whole about their rights; they have been so abused, so riddled with self-hatred because they have internalized the toxic baggage of the patriarchy for so long, they cannot even utter the words—gender equality, sexual harassment, women’s rights. For them, either because they cannot or want not, living and working alongside male privilege is taken as normal. An educated woman from Greece I spoke to honestly did not realize there was anything wrong with the situation in Greece. That’s how thick and deep her complacency went. I suspect that the women’s movement in Greece is 50 years behind what it is here in the US. It is akin to the “problem that has no name” that Betty Friedan described in her ground-breaking manifesto The Feminine Mystique in the 1950s and 60s.
History of Misogyny in Greek Culture
Greek culture has been traditionally misogynistic dating back to the Golden Age. As much as ancient Greece is applauded for its achievements in the arts, architecture, mathematics, science, technology, drama, democracy, it is never booed or critiqued for its deplorable ideas about women. Classical literature is rife with misogyny. It seems to be a huge oversight, an implicit complicity with the oppression, that no one recalls that the Greeks might have been right in many things but they were wrong, dead wrong, about their women. A society that degrades more than 50% of its own kind cannot be the idealized statue of perfection that classical Greece is portrayed to be. The classical degradation of womankind in our culture has left a legacy of scarred and traumatized women. Women who perpetuate the abusive and caustic ideas of women because they bear as mothers and culture transmitters the very culture that keeps them oppressed and repressed.
The 400 hundred years of Ottoman domination did not help develop a more inclusive idea of womanhood either. What between inheriting the misogyny of classical Greece and assimilating the Muslim denigration of women from the Turks, it is no wonder Greek women are still reeling from the beating(s). They are so buried in institutionalized misogyny and female repression they cannot recognize it.
The Diaspora Cultural Baggage
For us in the Diaspora, it is perhaps even harder to loosen the manacles of patriarchal domination. Because we have tried so hard to hold on to our identity through culture, any shift or change to the status quo of gender roles and tradition registers as a rejection of the entire culture itself. Women of the Hellenic Diaspora cannot shake the strongholds of culture for fear of losing their cultural identity. As a result, gender roles have been fossilized in many Hellenic communities. Of course, there are more progressive perspectives with education, assimilation, and generational evolution. But still, Tradition dies hard. Evidence for this is the entire National Philoptochos Society under the Greek Orthodox Diocese. While this group of women manage to do much good in their communities through philanthropic social services, it is still one of most gender-stabilizing structures in the New World. There are professional women with multiple degrees still reduced to the kitchen making keftedakia who would want a more creative outlet for their creative and intellectual energies.
Let me explain a bit more.
Greek women are raised bearing the cultural baggage to sacrifice self and all else to the shrine of The Family. While this is an honorable ideal, which decent human being wouldn’t want to a raise a healthy happy family, the problem happens when the burden for providing for the family falls predominantly on female backs. The discrepancy between men and women when it comes to child rearing and housework is greater in Greece and in Greek first and second generation families than it is in other parts of Europe. With more women in the workforce and the professions, this places an unfair stress on women. Gender roles have not caught up with the changing economic realties. In essence women are being worked to death on the career front and the home front.
What makes this exhaustion even more acute is the fact that women put even more stress on themselves to live up to the ideal of the perfect all-sacrificing Greek mother. They do not allow themselves the breaks they need, they overwork themselves making all the details fit–having the perfect hair and nails to match a perfect wardrobe, don’t forget Greek women are supposed to be gorgeous and Vogue quality most days; they must make the perfect pastitsyo, keep the cleanest most adorable house, they must make sure their kids have the best grades and get along with others pushing them into the best schools and dance/sports/youth programs;they must entertain and keep up with everyone and their needs and personalities; they must find time to go to the gym and the beauty parlor and the facial lady–all the while fending off advances from the boss at the office or putting in a 50 hour work week plus overtime. And they are supposed to do all this AND be pleasant and happy and courteous. Vre as sto diálo aren’t you sick and tired yet mori?
Greek women are their own worse enemy not only because they so neglect their own emotional needs by killing themselves for others but because they degrade and cat pick at each other for not living up to the ideal of the super Greek woman. They constantly tear each other apart honing in on weaknesses. See she’s put on so much weight she’s not taking care of herself. Soula’s girl is failing. She is doing something wrong with that child. Why didn’t Thelka host the party this year?
When Greek women come together it is to lambast each other or secretly keep tabs on what is doing and compare her own achievements. They cannot organize themselves politically because they are too exhausted with so little time left at their disposal to critically deconstruct the very ideal they are killing themselves to fulfill.
They have so internalized the message of their culture–to be a Greek woman is to be a victim–they cannot even use the word feminist or women’s rights. It is too taboo. Almost as taboo as calling a Greek woman a lesbian. A smart well endowed Greek woman I know who is in essence divorced but not on paper still makes sure to cook for her estranged husband and host his parties even while knowing full well that he has spent decades cheating on her. She will not divorce, probably because it will be a financial mess, but additionally because she does not want to mar that ideal of the Greek family that exists in the mind if not in reality.
When will the women’s movement come to Hellenic women? It is virtually impossible. Like I said, traditions die hard. And the tradition with a capitol T is the reason the ethnic minority has cohered and thrived in new lands. Part of keeping that community together is the sacred cow of Hellenic motherhood. You have to keep the cow because it gives you so much in milk and meat.
A Mixed Blessing
The state of affairs is a mixed blessing. On one side of the hyphenated identity, the woman’s movement is gaining momentum. Women in this country have reached the threshold just enough for their numbers and collective action to start a tipping point in the structures that underrepresented them. It is an exciting time. You can smell change. It’s under the seat, growing under your fingernails, ballooning on the horizon. Yet on the other side, in my Greek culture, one of the most revered for all its contributions to art, architecture, science, politics, women are still shackled to traditional notions of gender functioning –to their own detriment. Greek women have no movement, no collective or political awareness of their rights or grievances. In fact, they are so engrossed in up keeping the ridiculously exhausting ideal of the self-slaughtering Greek woman they do not even realize how much they are their own worst enemy. No, unless I am convinced otherwise, I cannot help but despair that the #woman’s movement will never come to the Greek community. We will be forever part of the Unwoman’s Movement.