ATHENS NEWS FRIDAY 31 MARCH
Arts, Sex, Abortion
Issues of gender and national identity are the focus
of Alexandra Halkias'
'The Empty Cradle of Democracy'
By Adrianne Kalfopoulou
THE RELATIONSHIP between sexuality and Greek national identity,
fraught with gender politics and uneasy constructions of nationhood,
is the terrain of Alexandra Halkias' rich, meticulously detailed
project in The Empty Cradle of Democracy.
Contested and cultural understandings of gender and gender
relationships feed into ways to read
the dimografiko, Greece's national birth rate, or in Halkias'
words "the perceived national problem with a low birth
rate" that constitutes the book's central investigation.
In her assessment of "a cultural discourse of compulsory
mother-hood", Greece as a nexus of modernity and tradition
and the role of Greek Orthodoxy in the narratives of family,
the nation's high abortion rate presents itself as a site
of interconnections. The national body is bound up with the
gendered body, where religion, superstition, politics, race
and history come together to produce a highly complicated
subject, Halkias maps culturally specific notions of resistance,
invasion and trust as discourses that have shaped how women
translate abortion into an act that ranges from taking control
ofone's life (and biology) to testing the intimacies of heterosexual
relationship; she also extends national ideologies of race,
or "Greekness" to explain women's conflicted stances
in how they place themselves within society and the family.
The originality of Halkias' contribution lies in the ambition
with which she encompasses the multiple influences on contemporary
Greek women's choice of abortion as an apparently "natural"
form of birth control: "In this sense, abortions seems
more natural because other methods seem
less so...because of the larger narratives about gender, sexuality,
love, and appropriate citizenship
that they are embedded in" (my emphasis). As Elena, one
of the women Halkias interviews puts it in discussing how
the condom would "change things 'radically' rather than
'simply' protecting her 'a little'", the Pill represents
an even greater invasion on the "natural" intimacy
of sex: "I took the Pill in the past, but it had created
a strange psychological state. And generally I'm afraid when
I feel something intervening in my organism. In other words,
if it was possible for someone to have some other method of
contraception that doesn't intervene at all, at a//, that's,
what I would use...Now the pills. I feel that they intervene
in my cycle, that they block me..." What Halkias terms
"a national imaginary" incorporates narratives of
how birth control is viewed as a "foreign body",
and intervention (the IUD, condom, pill) considered an intrusion.
Yet another contributing factor to the low birth rate,' or
âmograiiko remains the lack of support from the state
for child care, the economic difficulties of having a family,
the necessity, and sometimes desire, of both parents to work.
In this framework, abortion is joined with a certain discourse
of modernisation, and available choice given restricted circumstance;
a sign, Halkias argues, to thesewomen's minds, of Greece's
ambivalent progress. And yet informing many of these narratives
is the nationalist understanding that Greece, and Greeks,
ought to reproduce more in order to compete with the potential
threats of neighbouring countries such as Turkey or Albania.
One of the strengths of this study is the way Halkias weaves
in primary sources, the oral testimonies of a wide variety
of Greek women from varying backgrounds, classes, and age
groups, into her critical discourse.
These first hand testaments give this richly layered work
immediacy and maintain reader interest in the subject matter
despite the weightiness of the themes. The sometimes far-reaching
this project achieves, the connection
for example, between idiosyncratic notions of "Greekness",
ie how "pure" national integrity is conflated with
having unprotected sex, seems at times overextended, and yet
it is just these sorts of connections that make this work
so intriguing and informative.
Another point of interest in a kind of "meta-sociological"
context is that this very culturally specific
work has been published by Duke University Press, a highly
reputable ¦ University Press which certainly has its
choice of manuscripts, doctoral dissertations and research
projects to pick from. That the press has brought this work
to print and added it to its list is a tribute to Halkias'
achievement not least of which is putting less conventionally
"Hellenistic" themes associated with
the culture into dialogue, on an academic world stage beyond
Greece's borders. Dr Halkias' book
will be of fundamental interest to anyone who wishes to probe
the paradoxical and sometimes tragic ironies of a fragmented
cultural modernity examined through the nation and the female