Misogyny in the Greek parliament and media: a problem no-one wants to deal with

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by YIANNIS BABOULIAS 6 December 2013 originally published at OpenDemocracy.net
Chauvinism and corruption work in tandem to stifle public life in Greece. The disparaging and dismissive treatment of female politicians points to a wider malaise.

For all the international coverage on corruption, riots and sensationalist cries of imminent collapse, one of the most endemic and persistent problems in the Greek political world still seems to be well outside mainstream interest. No one appears to be keen to deal with the inherent misogyny in Greek politics. But the reality points to a direct link between the problems facing Greece today, and the instigators of sexist attacks inside and outside the parliament.

The recent case of Zoe Constantopoulou, one of the most prominent SYRIZA MPs, who has in recent years been the scourge of PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos over a case of alleged corruption, paints a picture that should be quite telling. In the events around the eviction of the ERT occupation by riot police in November this year, Constantopoulou, along with other MPs, found herself outside the building, in solidarity with the gathered crowd of activists and former workers.

What then transpired, instead of worrying her colleagues and alerting them to the truly appalling behaviour of the police (who not only didn’t allow MPs to enter the building, essentially breaking the law by restricting an elected official’s freedom of movement, but moved against her and the crowd, shoving them backwards), was met with indifference by her colleagues. When surrounded by riot police officers, she cried out for help. Instead of cross-party solidarity and condemnation of the police’s actions, Constantopoulou was mocked by MPs from opposition parties and mainstream newspapers alike. One of them, the Minister of Health Adonis Georgiadis, said that her behaviour clearly shows she needs psychiatric help.

This is not of course an isolated event, but rather, just one sign that points to a general culture of dismissiveness and berating towards female MPs. Theodoros Pangalos, a former PASOK MP, infamous for phrases like “we all ate together” and “It doesn’t matter if the NSA was spying on us, we were spying on them too”, said of the incident where she and fellow MP R.Makri tried to climb the buildings railings “When you have a lady from the Parliament, who not only climbs but also sits οn the railings that are sharp….”.

Unfortunately, the people that once made up the supposedly progressive, socialist PASOK, seem to have missed the memo that calls for even basic respect to someone’s gender and choices. In one of their many confrontations, Evengelos Venizelos, the aforementioned leader of PASOK, told Constantopoulou “I wish you’d get pregnant soon”. “Why?” She replied. “For what reason?”. “It’s just a wish”, he concluded.

Only days apart, Theodora Tzakri of PASOK, became a target of sexist comments regarding her appearance and choice of shoes, when she voted “Yes” in the motion of no confidence the opposition party filed against the government. Because of this brave choice (regardless of her past in politics), she was subsequently kicked out of the party, as well as ridiculed in the media.

But of course, PASOK doesn’t hold any sort of monopoly on such behaviour. From the Golden Dawn’s Illias Kasidiaris slapping a female MP on live TV and telling another to sit down “because you’re drunk again” in the parliament, to PASOK and ND, the problem is pervasive. There seems to be a an idea that female MPs are there simply to fill some quota and make the party look good to female voters, and that women are not really part of the political process.
Image via author
Greek daily ‘Ta Nea’ depicting female politicians as pole-dancers. Image by: Dimitris Hantzopoulos.

In Greece, women have been hit harder by the crisis. In an article earlier this year, Dawn Foster outlined how unemployment and bad health are now more prevalent among women in Greece than before the economic crisis. How do we expect to see any change, when the representatives most likely to bring these subjects up are casually berated by other MPs and media alike? When we see them presented as hysteric or, as we recently saw with Constantopoulou and Makri, as pole-dancers seeking everyone’s attention in the Greek daily “Ta Nea”. This is not by chance or unconnected. The media conglomerate DOL, owners of newspapers “To Vima” and “Ta Nea” among others, are known for their close relationship with PASOK and the government, and also for towing the line set by them. This attack is an orchestrated attempt by the old patriarchy to berate two MPs based on their gender, and not their politics. Even the Association of Greek Editors, usually late to wake up and smell the coffee, published a rare announcement that called for an end to vile sexist attacks against women in the media.

This brings us to another problem inherent in Greek politics. Women who usually move up in a party’s ranks, are not themselves “ordinary”. Daughters and wives of ex-ministers and prime-ministers, they partake in a world of privilege locked to most people. This goes for the left as much as the right. If they, with all the accumulated social and political capital behind them, are treated in such a manner, what hope do we have to see women from working and even middle class backgrounds, taking part in Greek politics? When they know for sure that they will be powerless to not only influence the agenda, but even feel safe as people. How do we expect change?

People like Venizelos and Pangalos are directly connected to cronyism and corruption, to laws that subvert the legal system, to vile language directed to the weakest parts of the Greek society. For these people to insult officials when they are (in the case of Venizelos) under questioning for a major case of corruption, is despicable, and no one should stand for it. The lack of respect they show female MPs is an extension of the disregard they show towards the Greek people and its torment in general. And this lack of respect, locks women and people who don’t come from political families, out of the political process. This, should be reason enough, to spell the end of their career in politics.

I voted for SYRIZA twice, hoping for change in this, even before it reached its current ratings. And the MPs in its parliamentary team, are there because I and a few million other people chose them. And they have in fact brought on positive change, condemning these attacks described above as soon as they happened, and by promoting several female MPs in key positions. But it’s not enough. The anti-austerity platform they run on presents a challenge to the chauvinistic and corrupt politics that brought Greece to this point. It should also become a platform in which women from different paths of life get a voice. It should become the heart of the politics Greece needs.

With violence against women on the rise, the rhetoric employed by the ruling parties is more than harmful. Through rallies – like the one organised in downtown Athens on the 25th of November, as part of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and mobilisation through independent networks – a lot of effort is put in raising awareness about these attitudes. But the political system itself, and by extension the media, are unwilling to engage in a wider debate about the place of women in politics. Maybe an effort needs to be made to start this debate from abroad.

There’s a clear link between governments that favour corruption and cronyism, and misogyny. The example of Italy and the attacks on Cécile Kyenge immediately come to mind. The solution to these problems will only come once we have successfully cleared the path for women to partake in the process as equals, regardless of background and gender, and only when we have managed to make parliaments spaces in which politics, and not someone’s genitals or fashion sense, are debated.

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