Facets of access and (in)visibility in everyday public spaces
by Dina Vaiou, National Technical University of Athens (NTUA)
It is by now widely acknowledged that four years of implementing bailout agreements with the IMF, European Commission and the ECB have led to a deepening and multifaceted crisis in Greece. Recurrent memoranda and more or less extreme austerity programs do not seem to provide effective remedies. On the contrary, they lead to deep recession and social crisis, while the promised recovery is postponed to an unknown future. It seems that the small and peripheral Greek economy has provided an easier site for neoliberal experimentation on a number of frontal attacks: to demolish whatever there is of a welfare state and abolish workers’ rights, pension systems, wages and salaries, to reform an economy based on SMEs and self-employment and discredit informal practices of getting by, to attack the public sector and its tight links with family strategies, to marginalize democratic institutions and challenge national sovereignty1.
As the crisis deepens, lively and often conflictual debates take place among politicians and commentators across the political spectrum, with arguments which become “obsolete” very fast as the speed of local, European and international developments increases2. However, a dominant debate seems to consolidate, which focuses on the size of public debt, the re-capitalisation of banks, the probability of Grexit, the size and timing of a new loan installment etc. This macro-economic approach permits certain aspects of the crisis to surface/occupy central ground while others are hidden or deemed peripheral and perhaps “luxury” concerns. Among these, questions of spatial scale or the diverging and unequal ways in which the crisis is lived in different regions and in particular places and most prominently cities, “where austerity bites, [h]owever, never equally” (Peck 2012: 629). It is even more difficult to bring forward the “scale closest in”, i.e the concrete bodies that suffer/resist the policies of austerity, or to debate openly the growing appeal of ever more conservative attitudes which weave together xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, racism, antisemitism, islamophobia, class politics (see also Athanasiou 2012). Analyses which stress the gendered facets of the crisis and its unequal effects on women and men are rare and do not permeate the allegedly “central” or dominant understandings (among the few Karamessini 2013, Avdela, Psarra 2012). It seems that the issue taboo, even among left-wing analysts, it is thought to pertain to a “special”, i.e. less important, matter which may detract from the “main problem”3.
missing from the picture
This short contribution is part of work that has grown out of my interest in the less debated aspects of the Greek crisis. Through a series of examples and taking the risk of “strategic essentialism”, I discuss some of the ways in which the current crisis, that is also or primarily urban, as Harvey (2012) argues, hits women as embodied subjects. I start from the premise that, behind statistics and macro-economic calculations, different women (and men) live with unemployment, precarity, salary and pension cuts, poverty and deprivation or shrinking social rights and mounting everyday violence in the crisis-ridden neighbourhoods of Athens. The stories (or “snapshots”) of ordinary women that I evoke here are drawn from research in different neighbourhoods of Athens (see for example Vaiou 2013, 2014, Vaiou & Kalandides 2013). These stories of significant changes in women’s everyday lives help to reflect on how concrete experiences fit in/diverge from general patterns and common understandings of “the” crisis when the spaces of everyday life become test beds for coping/resisting austerity and authoritarianism.
A significant part of austerity policies has to do with downsizing the state, which practically means dismissal of thousands of public sector employees. Among them, 595 cleaners of the Ministry of Finance and 1700 administrative employees of universities. Administrators have fought a bitter and inventive struggle, striking for 3 months at the end of 2013 against layoffs and suspensions and are now in a process of fierce negotiation with the Ministry of Education. Cleaners demonstrate in the streets for many months now, repelling police brutality and media misrepresentation of their struggle and demands. It is seldom, if at all, mentioned that these bodies in struggle are female4 - women of different ages, persuasions and backgrounds. These bodies do not passively accept the dictums of the Troika; they claim publicly their right to a decent job and to bearable livelihoods.
exclusion from “the market”
In the years of austerity, the registered unemployment rate of young women (under 25) has reached 61% (in 2013). Skyrocketing unemployment, whose effects are felt in many neighbourhoods of Athens, excludes young women, even with high qualifications, from a whole range of social rights, jeopardises life prospects and personal choices, let alone stable careers, and deters from even claiming publicly the right to decent paid work. Precarious small jobs with very low and irregular wages inhibit economic emancipation, restrict emotional and sexual choices and undermine self-esteem, mental stability and health – ultimately leading the most dynamic and creative to emigrate to more promising environments.
lapsing into “illegality”
Cuts in salaries and pensions, along with dismantling of public services, feature very high in the critique against memoranda-inspired policies, particularly among Left analysts. What is hardly acknowledged, however, is the fact that this dismantling hits primarily (a) women as recipients of services for themselves and for other members of their households, (b) local women as workers in those services5 and (c) migrant women as workers in home care, a sector which had spectacularly expanded since the early 1990s. Loosing a job as home carer jeopardises not only the livelihoods of migrant women but also their “lawful” presence in Greece and the livelihoods of their families elsewhere – pointing to the global/local links of the Greek crisis with many “other” parts of Europe and beyond.
living with violence
The insecurities of unemployment, income cuts and precarity are aggravated by everyday fear, particularly in some central neighbourhoods of Athens where the Golden Dawn has chosen to claim territoriality and control over space. These practices and hate discourse, apart from direct violence, seem to lead to a creeping acceptance of aggression and a fast slide towards more conservative attitudes part of which is rising sexism and the adoption and promotion of extreme sexist models, behaviours and discourses. In a context where violence becomes ubiquitous, violence against women, within families and in public, is also on the increase – albeit hidden in a conspiracy of silence. Data is rare but very telling: over the past three years one in five women have experienced bashing or beating by their partners, one in two has experienced sexual abuse including rape, one in ten serious injury, while verbal and economic violence are on the increase6. By the same token, visibility in public space becomes ever more difficult and ambiguous.
Coping/resisting the crisis is not limited to private arrangements in which women assume an ever increasing and more burdensome bulk of domestic and care work, in deteriorating and often violent conditions. It extends to women’s dynamic, albeit not prominently visible, involvement in the wealth of solidarity initiatives which have sprung up in Athens (and other cities) - “an archipelago of social experiences” attempting to re-constitute a social tissue and cracking social bonds (Espinoza 2013). These include collective action for immediate day-to-day survival (like soup kitchens, social groceries, communal cooking, social medical wards and pharmacies, exchange networks…), actions based on broader political claims and practices of living together (e.g. social spaces, local assemblies, advice and support centres, occupied public spaces, or «no intermediaries» initiatives), as well as attempts of making a living collectively (employment collectives). The generally acclaiming discourse of solidarity misses out a significant “detail”: the particular bodies which put in time and passion to keep these initiatives going are female bodies, often excluded from “the market” but dynamically fighting back in private and public everyday spaces.
re-visiting the crisis
The passage from general data and theoretical conceptions of “the Greek crisis” to concrete place/s and to the experiences of particular embodied subjects – and back - is not an easy project. But such crossings of scale help carry the argument forward in two directions. First, they help understand the multiple determinations of an otherwise unqualified “one-fits-all” reference to an almost generic conception of crisis. Second, they help shape an approach which consciously oscillates between levels of reference which are usually kept apart: on the one hand, discourse/s and explanations constituted by “big pictures” and global analyses and on the other hand urban space and the spatialities produced through the bodily presence and everyday practices of individuals and groups.
The uncertainties that the crisis creates seem to lead to more conservative behaviours and gender divisions of labour, to a hardening of gender hierarchies and to an increasing acceptance and “normalisation” of downgrading women. The sexist, racist and homophobic discourse and aggressive macho behaviours of Golden Dawn find fertile ground among people personally and collectively disenchanted with the “state of emergency” which austerity policies constitute. In this context, real or imagined threats settle in and affect everyday practices and ways of being in public space and in the neighbourhoods of the city, now shaped by insecurity and fear. At the same time, struggles against job “suspensions” and practices of living together in the common spaces of various initiatives (may) open room for empowerment and negotiations of gender hierarchies.
As the stories of ordinary women also tell us, living with multiplicity and mutual engagement and with a plethora of possible trajectories and life choices – constituting “a progressive sense of place” as D. Massey (1994, 2005) urges us – is more than a theoretical conception. It is a major stake, a process of familiarisation with difference/s and otherness, which includes controversies, requires investment of time and labour, both material and emotional, abundantly contributed by bodies which usually “do not matter” – bodies which move out of isolation and desperation into newfound ways of not only coping but also of resisting the crisis.
In this sense, the stories of ordinary women are not an idiosyncratic particularity that can be easily ignored when we deal with (understandings of) “the” crisis. This choice of this scale, linked in multiple ways to many other scales (local, national, European, international), reveals areas of knowledge that would otherwise remain in the dark, as feminist geographers have forcefully argued for many years. The change of focus (like in photography) does not mean amplification or diminution of the subject itself; it means a change of view about it. Stories which connect concrete bodies with global processes enrich our understandings with more complex and more flexible variables and inform the “big pictures” - and not only the reverse. Such a theoretical and methodological approach is important, I believe, also politically at the present conjuncture, because it provides a vantage point from which to re-examine the meanings and practices of “doing politics” and re-evaluate claims of access, visibility and participation in urban public space/s and discourses.
1 The harsh austerity measures demanded by the so-called Troika have met the unquestioned approval and support of Greek banks and successive governments. Only the political Left, in its many facets and groupings, has strongly criticised and resisted them.
2 For alternative analyses, see among many Douzinas 2013, Tsakalotos and Laskos 2013, Papadopoulou & Sakellaridis 2012, Varoufakis 2011
3 An exception here is unemployment, particularly of young women, to which I come back below
4 one cleaner is a man and less than 25% in the administration of universities are men
5 79% of women’s employment concentrated in the service sector in 2009, which absorbed a high proportion of women with higher education
6 See the recent survey by the Institute of Andrology on men’s sexual behaviour: the agressor’s profile is that of a man a little over 40, with intense job insecurity or unemployed – but also 17% well-off. These data match the elaboration of results from the SOS helpline of the General Secretariat of Equality, as well as more scant data on wife killings, collected by the “feministnet” network
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