Women in Cyprus: The Other Half of the Sky

  My great-grandmother brought thirteen children into the world, only five of whom survived. She gave birth to my grandfather by herself, under a tree in the field where she had been working, and cut off her own umbilical cord. She taught me, when I was very young, that death was a part of life and that I should be prepared.
My paternal grandmother, daughter and wife of farmers, had six children and lived every moment in the praise of God. She taught me that thinking of others before oneself and extending a helping hand is what brought harmony to the world. She never, ever complained, even when she became a refugee, having lost everything she ever owned and worked for. Only, she missed the community of other women, which had been scattered into the four winds after the Turkish invasion.

My maternal grandmother left for the city when she was only two. She had five children, one of whom died a baby. She never worked outside the home and often complained, but I now realise that her frustration of not being allowed to go to secondary school - ‘it was not necessary for a woman’ - had much to do with it. She read voraciously and wrote poetry at quiet moments. She taught me the love of life, to which she clung passionately until the end, in the face of diabetes and a serious heart problem.

My mother completed secondary school and has worked all her life. She had two children, for whom she made many sacrifices so that both could have a comfortable life but, most importantly, a good education. She was not allowed to go abroad to study herself, ironically by her mother, who was afraid of the big wide world gulping up her eldest daughter. She thought her son was better equipped to cope, and he was sent to study in Canada, where he still lives today.

That brings us down to me. My mother did let go, with great trepidation, fear even, and I was sent abroad to study. I came back, got relatively good white-collar jobs, I am thirty-five and have no children. This profile of the last four generations of my own family – although mine has perhaps tended to be rather more matriarchal than others, men often playing the role of supporter rather than leader - is a fairly representative one of the evolution of the Cypriot woman’s position in society. But can we evaluate it? Can we call it progress?
In a myriad ways, yes. We may have lost the support of a close-knit community and the wisdom that comes from intimate contact with nature’s rhythms, the legacy and continuity. But we should not be tempted to use rose-tinted glasses to look at the past. From a harsh, practically mediaeval way of life, the Cypriot woman has steadily emerged in the last 50 years, with the help of domestic appliances, education and an updated legal system, to a position of qualified equality with men, and with a range of choices and opportunities. The sky is the limit - in theory. But back down on earth, there is a big daily struggle to be fought, against suffocating social and cultural expectations and practices, with male prejudice as one of the main rivals, but also women’s own self-esteem playing an important part in women’s perception of themselves. In the past, a woman’s role was clearly defined as home and children carer. Now that she has left the home to work on equal terms with men, she has relinquished none of her other duties. Imperceptibly almost, she gets dragged into a contest of perfection, often by other women as well as her own insecurities and feelings of guilt: she needs to be the perfect professional, the perfect wife, mother, housewife, hostess and, of course, the most beautiful and best-dressed. Social expectations are huge and peer pressures massive. Often, unhappiness and marriages in ruin (Cyprus has a very high divorce rate, despite the fact that, until recently, it was very much a traditional society) are the end result of frustrations built up from juggling endless responsibilities, with little help from anyone else. We’ve gone full circle: previous dissatisfaction with the non-existence of opportunities has now turned to frustration for all the baggage these opportunities have brought along with them. A new compass is urgently needed.

There is a big gap, therefore, between mentalities and the law, where the latter has to move on at the pace of the Western world while the former drag their feet. Harmonisation with the acquis communautaire of the European Union, of which Cyprus is a prospective member, has meant huge strides have been taken towards eliminating most forms of legal discrimination against women, as well as safeguarding women’s rights and their protection in all fields of Cyprus legislation. The National Machinery for Women’s Rights - effectively a superbly efficient one-woman show - was set up by the Cyprus government to monitor the general progress towards legal equality, to identify areas where legal action is needed, to monitor the enforcement of the existing legislation (not one of the island’s strong points, this) and to initiate the setting up of law reform committees to deal with specific issues. There is still a lot more work to be done - for example, the setting up of an Equal Opportunities Committee - but things are moving at a fast rate and in the right direction.

To what extent, however, are all these changes affecting or improving the real life of women? As a result of the expansion and updating of family and labour law and the government’s efforts to promote equality in all aspects of life, maternity protection and expansion of facilities for the care of children, as well as the high rates of economic growth and low unemployment, the increased public awareness of women’s specific problems and gradually changing social perceptions, the role and status of Cypriot women in socio-economic life has improved significantly in the last 20 years. The number of women entering the labour market has been constantly growing: their share in the total labour force rose from 30% in 1976 to 37% in 1985 and 39% in 1997. Also, in 1997, 27% of employed women as opposed to 19% of men had received higher education. However, the truth behind these statistics is that girls continue to select subjects that lead to occupations traditionally considered to be suitable for women, like teachers and secretaries. Few of them succeed in breaching stereotyped attitudes regarding gender roles to follow technical or vocational education.

At the workplace itself, differentiation with men continues. Few women are in managerial positions, and equal pay remains a pie in the sky. A female friend who shares a law office with her husband was forced to put up all her degrees on the wall after she was repeatedly mistaken for the secretary, many clients (both men and women) persistently asking to see ‘the boss’. There is little understanding of women’s need to address their maternal duties, and, especially in the private sector, they are expected to put in long hours to be accepted as equals. Favourable part-time arrangements or time-sharing for working mothers are practically unheard of. There is also still considerable reluctance from women to report cases of harassment at work, for fear they will not be taken seriously and of losing their jobs. In business, the number of women starting their own enterprise is a poor 12%, lagging far behind that of the US (37%) and the EU (27%). According to a Cyprus National Report on the Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action, 2000, the main obstacles to gender equality and women’s advancement in employment are traditional attitudes. “These tend to reinforce women’s occupational concentration in a narrow range of occupations either in industry itself or in the economy in general. At the same time, women remain the primary carers for the upbringing of children and caring of the elderly and disabled.”

The need has been identified, therefore, for the attitudes of both men and women to change concerning the role of women in the workplace, both through suitable vocational guidance programmes and enlightenment campaigns on the equality of the sexes, while at the same time positive, and particularly financial, steps need to be taken to encourage women to embark on their own initiatives, assert themselves in the marketplace and become economically independent. The Ministry of Labour has already taken some measures towards redressing this imbalance by sponsoring a scheme to give financial support to new enterprises by women. In October 2000, 350 women with the vision to tackle the problem of access to financial resources founded the Women’s Cooperative Bank ‘Initiative’ Ltd, a non-profit organisation under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism whose board members represent all districts and are banking experts, business owners and academics, offering their services on a voluntary basis. Although the Bank accepts male customers, it is particularly sensitive to enhancing women’s entrepreneurial activity and is in the process of designing programmes tailored on women entrepreneurs’ needs, in cooperation with the government and within the framework of European programmes. It would not be too difficult to infer from all of the above that women’s participation in power and decision-making is negligible. Although back in 1960, men and women entered the fledgling Republic of Cyprus together in partnership, both endowed with the right to vote, the female gender has been practically absent from both Parliament and the Council of Ministers: in the 42 years of the Cyprus Republic’s existence, fewer than 10 women have held the position of a Member of Parliament and only three have served as Ministers. Last week’s change of government brought great expectations, with the new president declaring that the people would be surprised at the number of female appointments in his government.We were: there was only one. At local government level, women councillors make up 20% of the total, while only one woman is serving as mayor out of a total of 33. In the judiciary, 17 judges out of 75 are women, while only now are women breaking into the top levels of the civil service machinery, reaching high governmental positions.
Once more, the reasons behind this mostly sorry picture are identified as being the deep-rooted traditional attitudes and perceptions regarding gender roles, obstructing women’s substantive and equal participation in all aspects of public life. The fact that women primarily bear the burden of the upbringing of children and caring for disadvantaged relatives also means that they lack the time and energy to become more involved in public affairs. Other reasons sited are the fact that political parties are still male dominated and unfriendly, even to those women who show a keen interest in becoming involved; that women lack confidence as well as a support network; and that women in politics are as good as invisible in the media.

Nevertheless, the number of women contesting local and parliamentary elections is slowly rising and the government is looking to encourage this trend with measures that include training programmes for the empowerment of women, pressure on political parties to offer practical support to increase the number of women in their candidate lists (some of them have introduced quotas, while others remain vehemently against any such measure) and contacts with the mass media to give equal opportunities to women candidates during pre-election periods. In particular, the National Machinery for Women’s Rights has in the past harnessed the support of ‘Athina’ radio station, a relatively recent women’s platform, run by women for women, whose top priorities are to present women’s perspectives and female personalities, as well as to address the special needs and problems of women.

Domestic violence is one such problem that has in recent years reared its ugly head, although, perversely, this might in some ways be a good thing because the fact that nobody talked about it in the past certainly did not preclude its existence. According to a speech made recently by the former Minister of Justice, “the problem of violence in the family [in Cyprus] is serious and the vast majority of the victims are women and children and generally persons who are financially, socially and psychologically weak. In the last years, the cases of violence and abuse have been reported to the police and also to other agencies more easily, but at the same there are indications about aggravation of the problem. What is more, the myth that this problem concerns only people of low educational or social standard has collapsed.” The Violence in the Family (Prevention and Protection of Victims) Law, approved in 1994, and subsequently improved and substituted in 2000, goes a long way to protect the rights of those vulnerable to abuse. However, as the Minister himself acknowledged, for the proper and effective implementation of this legislation there is a need for collective, systematic and co-ordinated effort of all agencies involved, both governmental and non-governmental. Particular emphasis has been given in the last years to the sensitisation and training of the police, a force which, traditionally male-dominated, had a rather different perspective on the problem.

In Cyprus, where conditions of extreme poverty and standards of living below the national average are rare and where hunger and starvation have long been overcome, poverty can only be identified in terms of what is locally perceived to be an acceptable standard of living. That said, the Department of Social Welfare Services of the ministry of Labour has figures to show that female-headed households run a higher risk of poverty and that, although the proportion of such households is confined to 14%, their share among the poor households is of the order of 33%. In cases of single parenthood where the woman-mother and head of household becomes unemployed, the family reaches the poverty line. A considerable number from this group come from a refugee background with fewer possibilities of support from the extended family. Moreover, there appears to be a conspiracy of silence among most of the political forces on the shameful issue of discrimination towards the children of women refugees, who do not enjoy any of the plentiful benefits that the children of male refugees do. Rural women are also considered to be a category with special problems, despite the various rural development programmes designed to assist them, and their equal access to basic social services. Hourly wages of the agricultural labour force still discriminate in favour of men, while women remain fully responsible for household duties. Figures from the Department of Statistics and Research reveal that more than 1 in 5 rural households headed by women are poor, but only 1 out of 20 male-headed households face the same problem in rural areas. Women in rural areas are also more likely to suffer restrictions in their social lives, while parental interference in marriage arrangements is still known to take place.

This rather helpless picture of course sits in stark contrast with the outwardly emancipated, well-heeled, young to middle-aged female city-dweller, modelling herself on globalised images in foreign television shows and fashion magazines, who is just as much predator as victim in the sexual game: at night, she can be seen out with her pack of girlfriends, dressed to kill and ready to pounce. In the last few years, Cypriot women, particularly – but not exclusively - those who have had the opportunity to ‘flee’ abroad to study and enjoy an independent existence, have begun to take control of and come to terms with their sexuality. They may experiment with different sexual partners, often appear casual about relationships and are increasingly unimpressed with the Cypriot male’s machismo. It would, on appearances, seem that Aphrodite, the frolicking goddess of beauty - famed to have emerged out of the frothy waters off the coast of Paphos - is back in business, displacing the more placid image of the Virgin Mary that had replaced her in the places of worship 2,000 years ago. That, however, would be too presumptuous, because the ultimate aim of the Cypriot girl, however much make-up she might pile on, is to land a good marriage, confirmed in church, and have children. (Yes, the opt-out clause of divorce does exist, but Cypriot women are well aware of the expensive price it comes at, both financially and psychologically.) Insecurities and doubts about self-worth gnaw continuously at the self-assured exterior, and it is amusing to see the extent to which the young Cypriot woman has not quite succeeded to shake off the conservatism of a whole society, even in cheating: “Twenty-three-year old woman, married, from a good family and with a good job, seeks married man for affair,” read a ‘pink’ ad in the personal advertisements section of a national newspaper recently. Femininity – yes. Feminism – not quite yet.

Where women have come into their own and have made a concerted effort to make a difference is in their participation in peace conflict resolution. Having suffered the harsh consequences of military conflict for so many years, Cypriot women are particularly sensitive on matters of human rights and peace. They have been very active in protesting against the illegal occupation of their island through mass peaceful marches, while at the same time trying to create a culture of peace through various activities, including the promotion of bicommunal peaceful conflict resolution. As a direct result of their growing consciousness and mobilization on peace issues, the international Eco-Peace Village has been established, in partnership with the Commonwealth Secretariat, focusing on the training and sensitisation of women and young people on gender equality, ecological and peace issues.

Ultimately, however, it is in the environment of culture that women have found the absolute freedom to express themselves, their hopes, fears, anxieties and frustrations. And, perhaps unexpectedly and revealingly, these are not all concerned with attempts to tear down male dominance. The maturity of the Cypriot female artist has taken her down other roots, on difficult journeys towards the self, in search of an understanding of her own life role. There is also little hesitation to view one’s image straight in the eye and to apply the strictest self-criticism. As in The other half of the sky, a ‘female’ play by Cypriot playwright Evridiki Pericleous-Papadopoulou premiering now in Nicosia, “the women are stripped naked of their social class mantle and are left free to meet with their biological secretions, their instinctive hatreds and the weapons of their sex.” The raw picture is not always flattering, at times it may be downright ugly, even. But only if there are women out there honest enough to look at reality, analyse it and try to make it a better place, where foreign influences are not just superimposed but are harmonised with our indigenous social and historical circumstance, will there be growth and a comfortable place for women in their own society. Xenia Andreou

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