In a previous post entitled “Greek Feminism: The Unwoman’s Movement,” the claim was made that there was no women’s movement in Greece and that feminism was basically a taboo word. Well, things are not so black and white. An interview with Sissy Vovou, a 25-year veteran of the feminist cause in Greece and contributing editor of the Greek feminist site, tomov.gr (“mov” translates to the color purple), set the record straight.
Vovou noted that the election of Donald Trump that awakened a latent women’s movement in the US has sent shock waves across the world reawakening an interest in gender equality. “All things good and bad with regards to the women’s movement comes from the US,” she contends. “It’s like an electric current that surged the women’s movement all over the world.”
Greece as a small country with over a 5,000-year history of patriarchy has harbored a women’s movement, according to Vovou. While she notes that Greece is in the 90th place for gender equality on the World Index and comes in last place for the nations in Europe, she is optimistic that change is coming in her society. “Feminism is not strong in Greece,” she says, “but it exists.”
She noted that the Eurocrisis that hit her nation particularly hard in 2010 has both strengthened and weakened the feminist position in Greece, according to how one reads the consequences. One reading of the impact of the crisis is negative. The dwindling of resources allotted by government and the private sector to women’s resources in health, employment has eroded women’s empowerment, leading to increases in unemployment, domestic violence, and a step back into more traditional roles. The looming crisis with its after-effects also shifted attention to more pressing concerns, mostly matters of survival. “With so many other societal priorities to attend to, we can’t have the luxury of focusing on women’s rights was the claim,” Vouvou explains, “Women’s rights are important but it is not the right moment.” (She noted this has been the common call at all times, whether good or ill.)
However, the impact of the crisis did bring a positive result. Many women for the first time choose to take a place in the public sphere. They rallied to espouse the cause of refugee rights, especially the rights of women refugees in record numbers. They learned about instances of rape and sexual exploitation of refugee women first-hand, so much so that “all those women who never wanted to hear about women’s rights became a bit more sensitive to the cause.” The active participation of women in a cause that brought them out of the domestic role into the public sphere actually accomplished one of the goals of the women’s movement, according to Vovou. Even if women have traditionally embraced social causes that involved nurturing (i.e. feeding the homeless, finding housing for refugees), natural extensions of their responsibilities in the domestic sphere, nevertheless, this entrance into the public space signals an important shift for themselves and society at large.
While she notes that Greece has followed the American trend of putting more female graduates through higher education with terminal degrees, approximately 55% of students are female in Greek universities, the access of graduates to higher-level paying jobs is much less than their American counterparts. Even though more small businesses have been operating by women, economic opportunity for women does not change the map for political equality.
In Vovou’s mind there are three major drivers of change: 1 changing the mindsets of both men and women with regards to gender equality; 2 changing the state’s stance on gender equality and 3 changing the composition and outlook of the courts.
For each of these columns of change, Vovou offered distressing examples of how Greece is still in the gender Middle Ages. For one, a general consciousness raising has to happen for both genders. “Some of the most vicious police of the patriarchy are women themselves,”Vovou cites. Women are the most critical of other women when they try to act independently outside the prescribed traditional roles for them. Secondly, the Greek state has made no efforts to embrace change for women’s rights. “It still has not ratified the Istanbul Convention,” she implores. While 2016 ushered in the Family Violence Act that openly considered the issue, it remains a problematic piece of legislation. Thirdly, while the judicial system is packed with female justices, in some jurisdictions over 65% of the women, it is very conservative and usually votes aggressively against women’s interests.
Vovou cautions about assuming that just because an institution is populated with women does not necessarily mean it has feminist leanings. Greek jurisprudence is still grappling with the legal definitions of rape and sexual harassment, issues the US law system has reached consensus . As evidence, she cites two court cases involving the murder of a husband by an abused spouse. In both cases, unpublicized and confidential as of yet, the women have not been allowed to enter a plea of self-defense in the matter because of the conservative interpretation of ‘murder’ in the Greek legal code.
The revolution that the #metoo movement has unleashed in this country is far in the horizon for Greek feminists. That does not mean that Sissy Vovou and others will not continue to fight. Their organization makes sure to disseminate information, create flyers and leaflets, and maintaining a listserv, forum and website, protesting and raising awareness for gender-related rights issues. Tomov organized a rally to bring justice to a sensationalized serial rapist case last year, for example. They marched to close the women’s prison in the notorious Korydallos complex as well as organizing a march and rallying for the cause of female refugees at the Ellinikon Detention Center.
When asked whether a feminist is born or made, Vovou on first response answers, “Of course, everything is made” but only at the very end of the interview does she remember the secret story of her birth she learned from a gossipy aunt many years later:
“I was the third and last daughter of my mother. She was 36 when she had me. So on the day I was born at the hospital, my father came to visit. Before he came up to the room, he was greeted by the doorman who congratulated him, ‘Oh Mr Vovos, congratulations! May she live many years, you have a little girl.’ With that my father turned away and it did not go up to visit his newborn or her mother. It was so terrible a shock to know that his last and final child would be another girl. When I learned the story, I was born a feminist.”
Vovo ended with an optimistic insight, “We can’t get rid of 4,000 of the patriarchy inscribed in poetry, art, and literature so easily, but we must try. The smallest thing we do does have an impact.”
Resource List for Greek Feminism: