The post-austerity era in Greece: Problems and possibilities from a feminist critical perspective

Remarks on the social aspects of the memorandum policy in Greece during the past four years: The “Gender Trouble memorandum”

The memorandum and the austerity policy in Greece have caused the erosion of labour and social rights, the dissolution of social care infrastructures and also a crisis of democratic institutions’ functioning in Greece. This policy has worsened the social position of women in Greek society. High unemployment rates among women, and especially young women, the public discourse on the structure of family and interpersonal relationships, the exclusion of women from professions that are still considered to be a male privilege, the stereotypical representation of femininity perpetuated by popular media and the timeless phenomenon of the “under-representation” of women in politics indicate their lower position in Greek society.
Historically, the system of social organisation in Greece retains a traditional character in comparison to other European societies, which refer more to the standard of bourgeois democracy and the principles of the Enlightenment period. However, it is true that since the restoration of democracy in Greece in 1975, institutional reforms have promoted and established an institutional version of gender equality.
In particular, the feminist movement in Greece has been a catalyst for the expansion of democracy and contributed to the institutionalisation of gender equality in the early years of the eighties, but it has failed to lead to a collision with patriarchal ideology, which until today remains a fundamental aspect of Greek popular ideology.
The measures taken in the context of the memorandum agreement in Greece downgraded institutional equality and consequently undermined the status of social equality. Take, for example, the employment sector: layoffs in the private sector, the conservative reformation of the pension system and unemployment have affected more women than men. A very specific example of this can be seen in the deepening of the pre-existing wage gap between women and men.
In addition, the previous Conservative government (New Democracy, right-wing party) expressed deeply conservative political positions on issues of gender, race and sexual orientation. We must not forget that it was this extreme right-wing government that established the appalling immigrant prison camps still seen today around Greece, while promoting a new model of strict migration policies. This government also rejected all kinds of progressive reforms, such as the recognition of citizenship for the children of immigrants born in Greece, and also the recognition of civil unions between couples of the same sex. All this, along with the aggressive presence of the Far Right (Golden Dawn) in the Greek Parliament and the public sphere, have created a strong conservative social “atmosphere” in Greece.

Gender Violence as an aspect of the Greek social crisis

As all feminists – those of the Second or the Third Wave – we share common beliefs concerning the social grounds of gender violence. And, of course, we all agree that the main source of this classless and “race-less” phenomenon has a name: patriarchy. But on the other hand, it’s true – and especially speaking on behalf of the Europeans of the South – that the social crisis caused by austerity is related to an alarming increase in gender violence in the European South.
It was within this social context that the prosecution of 12 allegedly HIV-positive women [1] took place at the beginning of spring 2012 in Athens. We can either see this case as a pure form of biopolitics in a developing authoritarian state, or as a communicative pre-electoral game with the aim to appeal to the “lowest instincts” of the conservative electorate in Greece. It certainly represents an “implementation” of aggressive sexism imposed by constitutions such as the ministry, the police, a small group of physicians and also by the media.

Remarks on the new perspectives of the post-austerity era

In recent years in Greece, a broad social movement against austerity and large scale solidarity networks have been gaining momentum and have, in many cases, created links with anti-racist movements, feminist and LGBTQI (Lesbian Gay Bi Trans Queer Intersex) movements. The electoral rise of Syriza in the 2012 elections and its 2015 electoral victory was mainly a result of such social processes. Since 2010, along with austerity, we have experienced a newly formed social movement – I permit myself to describe it here as a “Greek spring” – which resulted in this major change in the political spectrum.
This critical situation poses new problems and new challenges for the European radical left: how can a Syriza government and the popular movement deal with the strategic challenges they face given the fact that the popular Greek ideology regarding issues of gender, race and sexual orientation remains very dominant?
Syriza’s first few government initiatives in the areas of social salvation, migration policies (closing concentration camps, process of development of social welfare structures accessible to all etc.) and social rights (e.g. promoting civil union adaptation for same sex couples, promoting anti-racist policies in the fields of education and work  etc.) form a positive example, but alone they are not enough. The interaction with social movements and the introduction of a feminist viewpoint into the policy-making procedure seems to be the “big issue” that the new government has come up against.

Female participation in Government and criticism

Syriza has accepted a lot of criticism – wisely, in my view – because of the lack of women ministers in its cabinet. There are only four female ministers participating in the cabinet, and also the newly-elected Greek parliament president, Zoe Konstantopoulou, is only the second and the youngest woman in the history of this institution to hold the position. Podemos and the United Left in Spain criticised Syriza on this, saying “There is not Democracy without them” – meaning the women (expressed with the twitter hashtag: #no hay Democracia sin ellas). And certainly this is correct, although it is also true that Syriza is the party with the highest proportion of female MPs in the Greek parliament (44 MPs).
Moreover, in my opinion, what will primarily contribute to the formation of a new alternative political culture will be the issue of whether the female members of this government and of the parliamentary group will be able to effectively influence the formation of policies and decision-making procedures. Furthermore, the greatest chance both the women and men of Syriza have of shifting values will depend upon the possibilities of introducing a feminist viewpoint into political theory and practice, as well as adopting an original political culture.

The above text is the summary of a paper presented in the context of Prague’s EL conference (14-15 March 2015): “
Education seen through women’s eyes”, panel title: Women, social rights and social success
For a short report of the conference click here.
[1] See the documentary ”Ruins – Chronicle of an HIV witch-hunt”