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ATHENS NEWS FRIDAY 31 MARCH 2006

Arts, Sex, Abortion and Greekness

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 correlations
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 body.


© 2006 Adrianne Kalfopoulou, Author. All Rights Reserved
akalf@hol.gr