From Skouries to Athens, the struggle of Greek women against austerity

As Greece’s protracted crisis disappears from the international headlines, violence against women is both exacerbated by and mirrors the structural violence of austerity. The resistance of Greek women takes place on several fronts.

Yiannis Baboulias
16 April 2014

In the past few months, and particularly after the crackdown against the neo-nazi party Golden Dawn, the world has taken its eyes from Greece. A mixture of positive news on the economic front and lack of spectacular rioting for some time now, has both deterred journalists from spending time on the ground and convinced editors that there is nothing newsworthy that can’t be covered from abroad. Even the BBC correspondent in Athens, has recently been moved to the Ukraine. It could be that the primary budget surplus announced by the government spells the end of Greece’s adventures, and as Business Week notes, the beginning of a real recovery.

Unfortunately, as in many instances in the recent coverage of ‘austerity’ Greece, these reports are evidently wrong. Not only is the country’s financial situation is dire and getting worse, but the state’s oppression has intensified in the past two years under the New Democracy/Pasok coalition. In the place of generalised disturbances in the streets, this is a much more diversified and nuanced aggression from the side of the state. Forget about tear-gas and molotov cocktails, we now must to look at Greece in a different way.

This new situation should be described as a financial war, waged by the government against the people, combined with a bio-political side, that sees state violence unleashed against smaller and more clearly defined groups that may not necessarily enjoy the public’s sympathy at all times. It’s a kind of violence that carries distinct socio-economical markings, and indeed, gender ones. And it’s by no means isolated to Athens, or any other area of Greece in particular.

A few months ago in North Greece, protesters against the opening of a gold mine in Skouries, were attacked by the police. But these weren’t random protesters. After a demo moving through the forest reached a riot police squad blocking their path, the men of the group decided to look for another way up the mountain, while the women stood in front of the police, waving banners and shouting chants against the Canadian multi-national El Dorado and its Greek subsidiary Hellenic Gold, who have already started destroying chunks of the ancient forest of Skouries. After a while, the police brutally attacked them, broke their lines, and people were injured. The same story was repeated not two weeks ago.

If anything, it looks like the police in Skouries – used by the extractive industry almost like a private army and one they apparently donate fuel and technical support to – has been especially brutal towards women. In another incident, during a demonstration in spring 2013, an elderly woman was dragged out of her car, made to kneel on the ground, and was repeatedly hit on the knee by a riot police officer. And unfortunately, this kind of targeting vulnerable groups, has only increased in intensity since.

In the past month, Greek news have been flooded with the images of 595 cleaners protesting their redundancy outside the Ministry of Finance in Athens. The (almost) six hundred women lost their jobs as part of the deal between the Greek government and the Troika.  Alongside cuts in Health, Education and administration, the support staff of ministries and other public bodies is to be drastically reduced. Many believe this to be a necessary reform, and in many ways it is. But how is the state is handling the very real grievances of these women who now face unemployment in a country were almost 30% of the active adult population is entirely out of the job market with little prospects of return? With riot police and mockery of course.

One of the Prime Minister’s advisors, while in conversation with the head of the cleaner’s union on live television tried to downplay the violence employed by the police against women who were demonstrating in characteristically unthreatening fashion. He was silenced by her response: “You should see our bruised arms and bodies, that’s the truth of how the state is treating us”. While this was taking place in the streets, the minister in charge of their case was refusing to even meet with them. After they tried to occupy the building last week, the state’s facade went out the window, as images of fully armoured police officers carrying middle aged women out like potato sacks flooded the media. One was seen crying outside the building as her knee was injured. Some of them were later made to pay 25 euros to be seen in a hospital, the fee being part of another policy this government has implemented.

The worst aspect of this new situation is that it seems to be working for the government. By isolating groups and interests and attacking them individually, the coalition has managed to keep the general population from mobilising against their catastrophic policies. But it is clear that they are targeting the most vulnerable portions of the population: The sick, the women, the old, those leaving outside the major urban centres. It’s a particularly dark strategy, and a highly successful one, as it works on more than one fronts.

There is no part of Greek life right now that is not seeing a form of violence hovering above it like a spectre. Domestic and sexual violence is on the rise, as is addiction and suicide. The government is celebrating the dramatic drop in wages and quality of life as a success. The EU rewards these policies. And the Greek people are left to deal with this never ending death-spiral. But in this new situation, crucially, there are specific groups being targeted by the state and the police. It is not an accident that were men are tear-gassed, women are beaten up. This is nothing but an extension of an age old problem, endemic in the Greek society, that of domestic violence. It is not by accident that all protesters get it bad, but it is well known that the younger a protester, the more brutal the police will be against them.

The EU-sanctioned government is quite simply attempting to make dissent very expensive, both physically and mentally. It has found that painting each group in a different light serves their purposes better. In order for this to succeed, they’re tapping into pre-existing notions inside the Greek mentality: apathy, misogyny and a phobia towards the youth. There is only one way to highlight this: We must stop being tear-gas hounds and treating these incidents as minor outbreaks.

There is a greater context to this new situation, and oppression deployed against specific groups is much more dangerous than wider crackdowns against demonstrators. These are attempts to demonise individual citizens and groups. There is even a level of anti-communist hysteria whipped up by the government spokesmen every time one of these incidents makes the news, and the protesters or promptly labelled as “communist and left-wing crazies”.

If we accept that this is how we do things in Europe now, we’re heading down a very dangerous path, a path we all know the end of. If we don’t stand up for these groups, we will quickly find ourselves amongst one.

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