Today is international women’s day, a day when we reflect on the position of women in the world.
As a Greek, I look back on the past year with anger and dismay. Although it’s hard to make distinctions on the basis of gender in the context of a generalized financial and social crisis, recent statistics show that Greek women are harder hit than Greek men from austerity policies. Women make up 57,39% of registered unemployed and up to 28,9% of all unemployed compared to 21,7% in men. Among young women, the percentage reaches a staggering 65,4%. Furthermore, it is not hard to imagine how the disintegration of social welfare and healthcare services has affected Greek women, who traditionally assume the largest burden of the responsibility of raising children and caring for the elderly.
But beyond these statistics, 2012 was a landmark year as it saw what may have been the most egregious violation of women’s rights in Greece, at least in my lifetime.
Last spring, a few days before the national elections, hundreds of women were arrested in Athens and force-tested for HIV. Those diagnosed positive, were charged with a felony and imprisoned, while their mug-shots were published online and on television along with their names and HIV status.
During interviews for a video documentary I am directing about the case as part of a team of volunteer journalists in Greece, several doctors, activists and lawyers have told me that the incident was nothing more than a ruthless pre-electoral plot to garner last minute conservative votes and create a temporary diversion at a time when Greece desperately needed an excuse to look away from its own deteriorating reflection.
Activists and doctors confirmed to me in interviews that all of the women except one who was arrested in an illegal brothel, were injecting drug users, some of them rounded up in the streets shortly after shooting drugs. And yet the label “prostitute” was uncritically applied to them and reproduced by a large section of the Greek media, obscuring the reality of their medical condition and their addiction and more importantly of the circumstances of their arrest.
For the purposes of the documentary, I also met with some of the women. One of them told me that at the police station where she was tested for HIV without her consent, she was treated “like a dog.” Another recounted that she was stopped at a traffic light by police men during the early morning hours and was asked to follow them for identity identification. She complied and ended up spending months in prison before being acquitted last January. It must have been a matter of routine for police officers to spot signs of drug abuse on her. I certainly did. Visibly scarred by decades of addiction, she must have seemed worn out and destitute; an easy target.
A feminist activist, who visited and assisted the women for months in the Korydallos prison in Athens, told me that the women’s families were among the hardest hit from the crisis. I witnessed the poverty of some of these families myself and met their beautiful children. Their lives were never acknowledged in television reports, where their mothers were dehumanized and branded a public threat.
Indeed, the Greek state executed a witch hunt so aggressive that it truly blows the mind. As if targeting HIV positive people and drug users – two relentlessly stigmatized groups – wasn’t enough, authorities picked out the women among them. Activists who were present during the women’s first court appearance told me they were metaphorically “hung” and “dragged along” in front of TV crews. The humiliation of the female body carries a historical significance that was apparently not lost on both former health minister Andreas Loverdos and former citizen’s protection minister Michalis Chrysochoidis, who pitted these defenseless people against the interests of the “Greek family.”
In light of the growing human rights violations in Greece, this case is far from an isolated incident. Only yesterday, the Efimerida ton Syntakton newspaper cited a confidential report that claimed the Greek police rounded up injecting drug users from central Athens two nights ago and transferred them to the Amygdaleza migrant detention camp in order to submit them to mandatory health checks. The article was followed by strong condemnations from addiction support networks but there has been no official response yet. In a fit of irony, the alleged operation has been named “Thetis” after the mother of the hero Achilles in Greek mythology.
The health provision that enables such police operations in the name of public health was drafted and voted into law by former minister Loverdos only three weeks before last year’s arrests. The women’s arrests and imprisonment may very well have been the first outbreak of what could be a series of orchestrated human rights violations against the rest of the Greek population under the same pretext.
As history has repeatedly demonstrated, when a society is nearing collapse, women are among the first victims of state repression. In the past year, Greek women were not exempt from that rule.
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