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Tradition and Contestation: Orthodoxy and Gender in Contemporary Greece

Date:20 August 2019
Mount Athos monestary
Mount Athos monestary

On July 8th 2019, Kyriakos Mitsotakis was sworn in as Prime Minister of Greece. He is known for his focus on tradition and religion. This includes a strong commitment to Greece’s most remarkable peninsula, Mount Athos. The Mountain, which hosts an all-male Eastern Orthodox monastic community, is famous for an 11th-century decree banning women from entering the territory. In this post, Eline Westra examines how a disputed status quo has stood the test of time and how Mitsotakis’ government, in its embrace of conservatism, is unlikely to change that.  

Welcome to Mount Athos: a geographical area of 400 km² ruled by a semi-autonomous monastic society in Northern-Greece, also described as the spiritual heart of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The mountain, with its twenty monasteries and approximately two thousand monks (both Greek and international), is located on a stunning peninsula close to the city of Thessaloniki. The first monks settled there as early as in the 5th century CE, while organised monastic life started four centuries later. Today, the male-only monastic community continues to operate in nearly the same way, with a focus on sobriety, ritual, and devotion to God and the Virgin Mary in a common quest for spiritual maturity.  

A breach of women’s rights?   

A seemingly peaceful place, Mount Athos has become a focal point in a discussion on tradition and religious freedom on the one hand, and gender equality and human rights on the other. At the heart of this debate is the mountain’s so-called Avaton religious law. This 11th-century decision states that anyone with a female body is prohibited from accessing the area. This includes most female animals. If a woman violates the rule, she risks a fine or a prison sentence of between two months and a year.

The monks hold that the absence of women is indispensable for the rituals and worship at Athos and that female presence would interfere with their ability to practice their religion. The peninsula is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who is said to have rested on the shores of Mount Athos on a journey to Jerusalem. It is believed that she chose the Mountain to be for monks only. Any “earthly” woman visiting Mount Athos after the visit of the Holy Woman would offend Her and distract the monks from their worship of the Virgin.

Critics call the Avaton a concrete example of gender discrimination and an infringement on women’s freedom of movement. During the last century, many have attempted to challenge the ban in one way or the other. For instance, at the time of the Greek Civil War in 1948, an all-female communist armed group invaded Athos and took possession of Karyes, its capital town, for several hours. In 1929, the French journalist Maryse Choisy went so far as to surgically remove her breasts and dress up as a man to gain access to the island. She managed to live among the monks for about a month and published a book about her experience: Un mois chez les hommes.

Since 1979, when Greece joined the European Union, the issue has been on the European agenda too. In the country’s accession treaty and later in the Schengen treaty, a special clause had to be added to limit the right of free travel on and to Athos. The ancient privileged status of Mount Athos is also entrenched in the Greek Constitution, which guarantees the right to self-government of the monasteries (although the region remains part of Greek territory).

Several EU parliament members and Greek MPs have called the Avaton an infringement on the rights of women and the principle of non-discrimination. In 2001, Italian MEP Gianni Vattimo asked the European Commission how the EU and UNESCO could fund a world heritage site that not all humans are allowed to visit. In the same line of thinking, others wondered how it could be justified that female taxpayers contribute to the restoration of historic buildings and libraries they cannot even see - not even for research purposes.

Opponents of the ban have also criticized the binary oppositions drawn by the Church and its supporters between the good old world and bad modern world. They point out that the monks have been involved in capitalist money-making practices and corruption scandals with UNESCO and EU funding. A researcher from the Hellenic Observatory claimed that the monks actively participate in “the same world they morally and practically denounce in their everyday life.”

In 2003 the European Parliament adopted a resolution on basic rights in the EU, which included a paragraph requesting the lifting of the ban on women entering Mount Athos. It described the monks’ decision from 1045 as something “which nowadays violates the universally recognised principle of gender equality, Community non-discrimination and equality legislation and the provisions relating to free movement of persons within the EU.” The resolution, however, was of a non-binding nature. It has not been enforced.

That same year, a Greek member of the European Parliament, Anna Karamanou, elaborated on the resolution in an article for the Greek newspaper Eleftherotypia. She wrote that nowadays  the ban “is neither of logic nor of morality or democratic or even religious reasoning; since the Christian teaching excludes any discrimination on the basis of sex (citation from the Bible: ‘there can be neither male nor female…’)”. However, the church defends religious discrimination against women on the basis of a tradition argument.”

Defending Mount Athos, defending tradition

Tradition seems indeed to be the key word in the public debate on Mount Athos, although it is framed in a different manner by supporters and opponents of the Avaton. While Anna Karamanou and several European politicians view the centuries-old tradition as something outdated and therefore in need of change, the Greek Orthodox Church and its political supporters turn the argument around. They portray tradition as something positive, even indispensable, in times of crisis and the multiple challenges posed by Modernity.

As Michelango Paganopoulos argues, the Holy Mountain is often presented by the Church as one of the last bastions of peace and modesty, which must be passionately defended against a chaotic modern world of capitalism and consumption, rising unemployment, neo-fundamentalism and the pollution of nature. This frame has in turn been used by conservative politicians in Greece, who in this way answered to feelings of uncertainty and in Greek society following the economic crisis.

Between 2010 and 2012, Greece was the first member of the European Union to accept an IMF/EU bailout package involving drastic austerity measures largely forced upon the country by external creditors. In 2014, researchers spoke of a profound social and political impact of the crisis, with “a record unemployment rate, decreased wage levels, the closure of businesses and an increasing number of people facing social exclusion through wages inequalities among the citizens.”

Earlier papers describe the often-overlooked socio-political impact of the crisis. Scholar Christos Lyrintzis speaks of “a crisis of the political” with deep de-politicization and a general loss of trust in politics in Greek society. Later events do not help to change this trend. In the national referendum of July 2015, 61% of Greeks voted against the conditions of another international bailout package. Yet the Greek government, then led by the socialist-left Syriza party, still accepted a bailout deal, which eventually included harder austerity measures than the ones rejected by voters. 

It is in light of these events that we should approach the debate on Mount Athos. In the face of uncertainty and foreign interference, political voices invoking “safe bastions” of Greek tradition found support among a suffering and disappointed Greek electorate. That goes especially for groups such as Mitsotakis’ New Democracy Party, which belonged to the opposition during the past few years. New Democracy has historically shown great support for conservative ideals and symbols of tradition, of which the Greek Orthodox Church is a logical symbol.

During the 400 years of Ottoman occupation in Greece, the Church played an essential role in preserving Greek language and culture from Islamic influences. Scholar Leonie B. Liveris described it as a powerful institution sustaining Greek citizens both during the occupation, the liberation in 1821, and later in the rebuilding of Greek society. She argues moreover that the Church became a safe place especially for migrants to the New World: “In the diaspora small communities turned in on themselves for survival and focused on the Church as the centre of their lives, the place of refuge and familiarity, the place of being at home.”

In recent times of external (economic and political) interference in Greece and disappointment with domestic and international politics, the Church could again be regarded as a place of protection and continuity. Mount Athos, with its 400 square kilometres that are seemingly untouched by modernity, is a concrete image of the Greek Orthodox tradition. And thus, Athos’ historicity – including the Avaton - is largely praised in the dominant national political discourse.   

Mitsotakis and his renewed support for the “custodians of tradition”

Praise of the Church and Mount Athos is also what Mitsotakis has shown so far. Three weeks ago, the new Prime Minister officially took office and did so by taking a sacred oath in a religious ceremony. He described this move as a “return to holy regularity.” He confirmed the importance of a close connection between Church and State, paid attention to the salaries of priests, and spoke of plans bring religion back to the schools.

In 2016, on a visit to Mount Athos as opposition leader, he called Mount Athos a place of deep tranquillity and spiritual peace. He is said to be proud of the uniqueness of the peninsula and called the monks “custodians of tradition.” He continued: “With your constant presence and offer for more than a thousand years, you maintain the Orthodox faith, the unaltered tradition, the Orthodox truth (…).”

Mitsotakis’ supportive discourse and close relations with the Church are a continuation of what the traditional political elite has done for decades. Not surprisingly, Greek voices against the Avaton continue to be outweighed by Greek supporters. Even among feminist movements in Greece, the issue does not seem to have priority. In a 2006 article former MEP Anna Karamanou regretted that it was not high on the agenda of activists, because, she said, it could be an important breakthrough and a symbol for women’s emancipation in Greece. Other feminists, however, point at the many other improvements to strive for in daily life when it comes to gender equality in Greece. Indeed, a 2010 study concluded that in Greece “gender rhetoric is firmly entrenched as part of political correctness” while in practice conservative societal values prevail and obstruct change.

Finding a middle ground?

With the New Democracy Party and the traditional political class in power again, it seems that these conservative values will continue to dominate Greek politics and society. Consequently, there are no indications that women will be able to visit Mount Athos anytime soon. And yet, I believe that it is possible to find a middle ground in the debate and move from the absolute ban to a more inclusive approach. The monasteries may open for the public only in specific periods to ensure the monks’ right to practice their religion. The risk that Mount Athos falls prey to mass tourism can be eliminated by strictly monitoring and restricting the number of incoming tourists.

For the defenders of tradition, though, any change may be understood as a step away from the idea of safety and well-known continuity: an idea Mitsotakis is likely to carefully hold on to.  




Eline Westra studied International Relations at the University of Groningen before completing a Master's degree in Human Rights. She is currently based in Greece. 


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