July 20, 2017 at 6:00 p.m. in Nicosia
Anna Prodromou (AP)
Maria Hadjipavlou (MH)
AP: Maria Hadjipavlou a woman, a professor, an activist, a mother, a friend. Numerous identities – individual, social, collective identities – intersecting in just one person and I’m sure we could add more. Which identity, or which part of your identity, do you feel defines you the most?
MH: I think identities are so shifting and they’re so mobile, but at the same time very porous. So, the moment you say I’m more of an activist, it’s at that moment that the other identities emerge, because my identity as an activist is informed by my scholarly work, by my own experiences, as well as my relationships with other women, with other groups and people; so, for me, it’s a combination of identities that are constantly in conversation. And I become extremely, I wouldn’t say angry, but sad when people stress one aspect of their identities over another. And, especially in conflict situations like we experience in Cyprus, the ethnic identity is predominant. I’m Greek or Greek Cypriot, I’m Turk, I’m Turkish Cypriot, I’m Maronite Cypriot, I’m this and that, and so on. So, when I hear it, it makes me feel how we impoverish this richness of our being and also how the conflict culture imposes these polarities on us. So, you know, in my teaching I would always tell my students to open up and introduce into their theses other threats to their experience of being.
AP: So we should bring as many identities in as possible, if we set aside the negative connotation of identities? The best scenario would be to become accustomed to as many identities as possible and then start an internal conversation and exchange between them?
MH: Yes. Because actually, the concept of identity has become so politicized. We have so much identity politics, identity conflict and identity clashes that I think it’s time to find another concept, you know, for expressing who we are, because when I was doing research soon after ‘74 and I would go to the refugee camps and talk to people, if I asked somebody how they were or where are they were from, they would say from this particular neighbourhood, from this particular house; so their local identity came to define them more than the nationality or ethnicity. So I felt at that time how the elite, the political elite, are completely disregarding these other forms of living and existing on our island.
AP: When did you start to develop greater interests on these issues?
MH: Because of the background of my studies, I was always interested in the human condition, especially when I read literature in the ‘60s in London and that was a time when a lot of new ideas were emerging.
AP: Even before choosing your field of study, was it something that you always felt the need to do or something that developed because of various occurrences or events in your life?
MH: Absolutely yes, and especially as I remember myself when I was at school, in high school and also even in the elementary school, I can go as back as far as that time and recognize that I was really curious about the world and also about how families were working, you know, and how I was rebelling most of the time. Let’s say I wouldn’t go to my auntie’s house because the whole family was going there and I wanted to stay at home and read, listen to music or be on my own and that was considered very strange at such an early age.
AP: A strange behaviour or attitude coming from a girl?
MH: Very strange for the family that I was not really conforming to what was expected of a daughter and also that I had discovered early on that I was different, but this difference also developed powerful urge in me to be integrated. So, it was these two forces that to this day, you know, have always been with me…
AP: It’s given you a different perspective?
MH: Yes, and also the way I looked physically. You know, I had very red hair, I had freckles and all my friends at school had dark hair, so they were calling me the English girl. I was very upset about that you know and I used to have a huge complex, yeah, because it was also during the time of EOKA and also later, when I was at high school it was the same, you know, I was different, I looked physically different.
AP: It is interesting, that an external element defined you as a person, defined you in the eyes of others.
MH: By others, always by others, and at that age where you are very vulnerable, you internalize this and you say, why can’t I be like them? So, I used to ask questions to my mother like why was I born like this? And she would say your great grandmother, you know, was like this and it’s in our family um… so I had to struggle. So, when I was in high school, I wanted to go to England to study because they called me the English girl and because I liked the English language as well, so I got to go to England to study after I went on strike, because my father didn’t want me to go. He would say, where are you going? Who would look after you? Who are you going to stay with? And so on. So that was the first time I realized that after you finished high school, you were supposed to work and get married. So that was the way they perceived that I should behave, I should act and so one way to convince my parents, in this case my father, was to go on hunger strike, so I didn’t eat for several days and, in the end, my father called me and said OK we’ll get you a passport and you will go to study.
AP: So first of all, you felt that appearance was an obstacle to belonging?
MH: The feeling of being one of them.
AP: And then gender added a different dimension, your femininity. Your feminine nature also worked as an obstacle.
MH: Yeah, an obstacle in the sense that there was a ceiling in terms of how much education I could get and also I had to fulfil my role as a woman by getting married, by having a family and so on, whereas going to study, you escape from that, you know, the socially family expected role, etc. So yes, and I’m the oldest in the family and I was the last one to get married and the last one to have children. Every time I felt this pressure to get married or people would suggest such and such a man for me, I would get a scholarship and run away (laughing). So it’s all interconnected. I really fully embraced what the radical feminist told us that the personal is political. And, if we look back it all, it emanates from our early understanding of the world and our socialization processes.
AP: Do you think that war has had an even greater influence on the attitudes towards women in Cyprus?
MH: Yes. I think the fact that we’ve had a dominant issue means that it has had a significant influence on our personal, our professional and also our public life in Cyprus. And it is still going on. I mean, we open the TV, we meet with friends, we sleep, and the Cyprus problem remains in our consciousness and I think it’s a type of a violence on our body, on our psychic existence and, at the same time, it makes us understand that this conflict has been created, it’s run and it’s debated by the male population of this island, on both sides you know, and the fact that we have peace talks, they’ re not really peace talks, they are monologues. Each side sits at the table and gives its own speech, makes its own points, so we haven’t learned to dialogue, we haven’t really learned how to empathize with the other side. So, this kind of dialogic relational aspect of looking at the current situation, as a shared problem to be solved together has not materialized. So we don’t have this type of culture. We have, as I have always believed, a culture of separation, especially for women. If you think about it Anna, let alone that we had no feminism movement in Cyprus, the first woman was not elected in the parliament until 1982, and that was Rina Katselli who came from a very privileged family and her husband had connections. So they proposed her as a female candidate for Kyrenia…
AP: And again, it’s interesting that Kyrenia was chosen, again it makes you wonder…
MH: Exactly, Right! A woman feeling she’s got to play the role that reflects the pain and the suffering of my city, the role of the refugee etc. so it’s all gender-related. If you consider everything in Cyprus, the gender aspect permeates all aspects of our lives here.
AP: You think that women are not included in the negotiation process, in the reconciliation process?
MH: They’re not at the heart of the decision-making process. It’s an issue of democracy. And I believe this, what I’m going to tell you is that the level of development of a country, like in Cyprus, is contingent upon the way the country treats its women. I believe if we look at all societies, the level of development, social, cultural, political and economic, you will see that in the countries that are more developed in all these aspects, the women are treated very differently than in countries like ours, where women are treated in a different manner. All these exclusions as well as these very sharp gender stereotypes that we impose on each other. Because, in a patriarchal, militaristic and nationalistic society like Cyprus, both genders are losing. It’s not that the men are gaining, in fact they are losers as well, but they don’t recognize that, ok? That is why I believe we need a gender consciousness in Cyprus where both men and women will pose the question: What does this system do to our relationship?
AP: And to a certain extent to our families, to our communities, to us collectively?
MH: Of course. It starts from the interpersonal, the inter-relational to the global, in my view.
AP: Throughout your many years as activist, you have been part of “Hands Across the Divide” and the “Gender Advisory”. Do you think that your actions have brought about change? Undeniably, it is a work of passion for you, it’s your purpose in life, but do you see any results? Do people really listen or is it just a case of talking in the same bubble repeatedly and it’s just the same people that are listening?
MH: What I have found is that in my teaching, in the courses I gave on gender, gender in relation to power, politics international organizations, feminist theories, as well as gender in terms of conflict, peace and security and so on, the world views of both the male and female students who took these courses. The way they perceived themselves, the way they look at issues, and the way I think they imagine themselves changed. So yes, it makes an impact and in my activist work, I aimed to transfer this kind of hope. So I’ve been doing this for many, many decades but I believe it’s a process. I’m not someone who will say enough is enough. I know when a patriarchal system is established and rooted so deeply, particularly in terms of ethnocentrisms and nationalisms, you need double the effort to deconstruct and unpack them. I mean, it took centuries for workers to obtain the right to work eight hours. How many centuries did it take for women to start getting their first rights, which were the right to education and the right to vote? And just think how, Mary Wollstonecraft, started in 18th century England, which was a democratic country, with a bill of rights, so many centuries earlier. So yes, I’m hopeful that this is the way to transform our society and it is very important that gender consciousness and gender equality issues become part of our daily public conversation. We need to do that work. The other aspect is that we mustn’t assume that all women are aware of these issues, that all women are feminists; even the concept of feminism still has a very negative connotation Anna, so you can imagine the amount of work required. So, when I teach my students that feminism is an ideology, is a world view, is a theory, is a value and that there are different perspectives like in all ideologies and how one is in conversation with the other, they then start to perceive themselves differently. So yes, I don’t know if they are listening, but I know that all I can do is trust in my belief for societal change. I can maybe contribute in a small way to the process of change.
AP: To conclude, are you optimistic, are you hopeful about the future of Cyprus?
MH: I have ups and downs. And again, what is optimism and what is pessimism? I think these are other constructs, they are states of mind, or they are feelings and feelings change all the time as you know, and I believe that we do have the potential today. I get so happy when I see young men and women, from all of our communities and foreigners “the other others” who love this country and who are so talented and they are creating, they are making pockets of peace in different ways all over the island. And I believe one day, be it in the arts, in dance, in political thinking, on the Internet on blogs and so on, I believe that the potential exists there. The challenge is how we can transform this into a space where they would start speaking to each other, but at the same time challenge the dominant discourses in more forceful ways. I think that the political elites and the politics in Cyprus are morally bankrupt. I don’t think it has much to offer.
AP: So a social change coming from the youth.
MH: Yes and from below.
AP: From below, grassroots.
MH: I firmly believe the grassroots and the meso-level, the intellectuals who are critical now, the intellectuals who are not self-censoring everything they say and who dare to take risks, because in conflict situations, the polarization and the labelling is so strong that it sometimes puts people into a situation where either they self-censor themselves or they resign or they take the risk and they burn themselves. So, this is not a very healthy situation in a democratic state.
AP: Thank you very much for your time!
MH: Thank you!
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