Greece, Syriza, and the gender gap

Syriza has pledged to reverse the sharp regression of gender equality in Greece if voted into power – could they?


Every so often, the more violent and absurd instances of sexism in Greek politics penetrate the news cycle. Last month, we were treated to the sight of a group of independent MPs in the Greek parliament “sniffing” the coat of a fellow female MP, apparently inhaling the woman’s perfume and laughing like schoolboys at the back of the class.

This was just before the Presidential vote that triggered the snap elections to take place in two weeks’ time. With Syriza leading the polls by a narrow but steady margin, could their victory increase gender equality in Greece?

Syriza has clearly stated its commitment to equal rights, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. But what does this entail in practice? The party has set out concrete steps, including extending the cohabitation pact to cover all couples regardless of gender, and reinforcing existing anti-discrimination laws that are currently under-used.

Alexis Tsipras, the party leader, has not fought shy of antagonising elements of the Greek Orthodox Church, attempting to win over the more liberal, left-leaning figures while making clear that family law and social policy are matters for the state, not religion. 

These commitments are important, but would mean little without a change to the economic climate of Greece. While the government’s record of misogynistic rhetoric may be relatively damning, it is the legacy of austerity, initiated under George Papandreou’s centre-left PASOK government and furthered by the current Samaras government, which provides the backdrop to the regression of women’s rights and equality during the last four years.

The latest global figures by the World Economic Forum see Greece slide to 60th place in gender equality in 2011, and continue its plummet to the current ranking of 91. The only EU member states that rank lower are Hungary, the Czech Republic and Malta. Following the trend of austerity-hit countries around the world, the shrinking of the state and ruthless privatisation has hit women in Greece the hardest.

Women have experienced the ‘double whammy’ effect: they lose job status and income, particularly as they are over-represented in the public sector. Coupled with the cutting of social services such as childcare alongside increased general unemployment, staying at home in a full or part-time carer’s role becomes increasingly the ‘sensible’ or only choice for women.

Syriza has acknowledged in the past that women are “more severely affected by the memoranda policies”. In its founding congress of 2013 the party pledged to tackle this, including enacting counter-active legislation and the setting up of support units to deal with rising violence against women.

Yet issues of gender equality have taken a back seat in the run-up to the elections to those of finance and justice in a more universal sense. In fact, setting out any detailed election manifesto would be disingenuous for the party: the future of Greece under Syriza will be determined in great part by the outcome of negotiations with the EU over debt forgiveness. Announcing the latest policy programme in December, Tsipras acknowledged this, saying: “Today we are presenting to you not what we would want to do, but what we are able to do.”

Finally, then, women voting for Syriza will have to do so on trust that they will make a change, much like the rest of the electorate. That they are part of the only European party (GUE-NGL) to achieve full gender parity is a good sign, as is their support for the Greek women cleaners who have become symbolic of unfair, dehumanising and sexist treatment after they were fired by the state in 2013.

For some, Tsipras has done too much to dilute the party’s founding principles of radical equality in preparation for taking power. Yet, compare them with the government and their previous collusion with the neo-nazi party Golden Dawn, now under investigation, whose open misogyny and violent chauvinism saw them beating up members of the LGBT community and abusing women on national TV.

Syriza won’t stop everyday sexism, or members of parliament behaving like dogs on heat (after all, the men in question were former Syriza MPs). The real challenge, as ever, will be the economy: to turn “what we would want to do” into “what we are able to do”.

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Anthony Barnett

Sexism in Greek politics is extraordinary! I have one question, Niki, it is sort of related. Have Syriza promised to remove the immunity of parliamentarians from prosecution if they commit a crime, or may have done so?

Niki Seth-Smith

Yes, Syriza have pledged to stop the system in which politician’s crimes are first voted on in parliament, before they can go to court. I think that’s what you’re referring to?

Anne Cumming

Hello Niki, I’m wondering if any women were elected in the recent Greek election. Are there any women in the Syriza party? When I look at the photograph of the new cabinet, I see a bunch of men. Again.