Greek women seek Mount Athos access

As a society that kept its women indoors only two generations ago, Greece has made major advances in gender equality. But it remains home to one of Europe’s last all-male outposts, a pocket blissfully ignorant of equality laws where the female sex – animals included – has been guiltlessly banned for more than 1,000 years. Welcome to Mount Athos, where no woman has set foot since AD 1045, when this self-governing religious community of some 20 monasteries issued a decree forbidding women access on grounds of impurity. Located on a remote headland in northeastern Greece, this monastic community, also known as the Holy Mountain, is considered one of Orthodox Christianity’s holiest sites. Efforts to lift the ancient ban – most recently by the European Parliament in 2002 and 2003 – have fallen on deaf ears. And successive Greek governments have not dared to force the issue with the influential Greek Orthodox Church, which is constitutionally part of the state. «It’s a disgrace,» said Anna Karamanou, a former European Parliament deputy with the PASOK party. «Mount Athos receives millions of euros in EU subsidies for monastery restoration, and these are funds to which female taxpayers have also contributed.» For Soula Panaretou, a member of the Synaspismos Left Coalition party, the community’s holy code is an «anachronism» that denies access to some of Greece’s most beautiful landscape, extending over 336 square kilometers (130 square miles) of the verdant Halkidiki peninsula. «We respect the monks’ religious beliefs and the sacred character of this site,» Panaretou told AFP. «But this is a United Nations-listed heritage site with forests, magnificent coasts, unique buildings… On what grounds can one deny, for example, a female ornithologist the right to conduct research on Mount Athos?» she asked. Armed with European treaties that guarantee the community’s unique status as well as those rarely enforced Greek laws that prescribe prison sentences of two to 12 months for people who violate its code, the monks see no need for change. «Mount Athos has a tradition going back 1,200 years, based on a decree from the Byzantine Empire… this status must be followed forever,» said Father Nikodemos, secretary of the community’s governing body. «If women are allowed to visit, entire families will start coming, and the site will become difficult to maintain,» he told AFP. «Women can establish a similar site for themselves, if they so desire.» Karamanou, who was criticized by fellow Socialist Euro-deputies for her zeal on breaking the ban, admits that few Greek women have rallied to her cause. «It’s true that this prohibition is an outrage to women,» said feminist militant Sissy Vovou. «But it’s a marginal issue (in) our struggle against sexism in daily life, in society, in the family and the workplace,» she added. Figures released by the EU statistics service (Eurostat) on Monday ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8 show that Greek women received salaries that were 10 percent lower than those of men in 2004. Greek women also had an unemployment rate of 15.5 percent in January 2006, compared to 6.4 percent among men. «I’ve heard for years that (Mount Athos) is not a priority issue,» said Karamanou. «I don’t agree. This ban is indicative of inequalities in Greek society and having it lifted would make an extremely strong impression.»