Interview with Magda Zenon
July 19, 2017 at 6:00 p.m. in Nicosia
Anna Prodromou (AP)
Magda Zenon (MZ)
AP: Magda Zenon a woman, a professional, an activist, a friend, a mother. Quite a few 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?
MZ: Being a human being. I have a problem with identities, because I think identities put you in boxes. I think being a human being, probably a mother, because I’m a single parent, a lover. We tend to forget that, as women, we tend to forget that. As women we cannot speak about it because it’s not the done thing. A friend, an activist, ethnicity is the last on the list. Sometimes it doesn’t even appear, because it doesn’t represent me, and so those are enough. I try to avoid labels, because I think they lock you into stereotypes.
AP: You mentioned ethnic identity as the least important. Living in Cyprus at this point of time where there’s an ongoing debate over ethnic identity, how do you experience that?
MZ: Yeah ethnic, I don’t like it at all. Firstly, to me, my passport is a travel document. I don’t like being labeled as a Cypriot; I don’t like being labeled as a Greek. I like the fact that I have Greekness, ok? But it doesn’t get me stuck into what Greekness actually means. I enjoy the parts that I like, I like the fact that I’m fluent in English because you can play with words, so ethnic is not a part of it.
AP: Do you think your stance towards your ethnic identity can be attributed to the fact that you weren’t raised in Cyprus?
MZ: In fact on the contrary. I was born in South Africa during apartheid, and in apartheid South Africa, you were stuck in boxes, you were black or white. Even in the white community, you were Afrikaans, and the immigrants or the diaspora community where all divided into their own communities. I was Greek because the Greek-speaking people came together, instead of separating the Greeks and Greek-Cypriots. It made a lot more sense to just have the Greek speaking communities, the Greek-Cypriot community as one community. So, their labels were a defence mechanism and maybe that’s what took me away. I don’t like labels, because there I was labeled as an immigrant, I was white, and I was a woman. These all gave me privileges because of the community in which I lived, and the time that I lived in. The fortunate part of that was that I was brought up in a non-traditional Cypriot family. Non-traditional in the sense that all my grandparents had completed school. My grandfather was a lawyer, my parents and all their siblings finished school. I’m an urban Cypriot, so there is a little more open-mindedness in the family or there’s a thing that I had to go to university. No genders, no separation within the family. I was the third child and the third child you don’t control. The first child has a role to play, and the first child in my family was a son, followed by my sister and then I was the last “pelloplasma” (passionate, extraordinary and wild) and I was strong and I was an activist even as a child.
AP: Shifting towards your gender identity then, the fact that you are a woman didn’t appear to be an obstacle in your life as a young woman.
MZ: No, my parents considered it their duty to educate all of us. They considered their duty was over the day we finished university, all of us. No, definitely not, but you see, that’s why I’m saying that I consider myself different. Because I even see families with girls younger than me, that their families consider the idea of going to university not to be something normal, or a natural progression. It could be the family I was brought up in, it could be the kind of person that I am inside. But gender was never an issue. The only place where that was an issue was my father’s restaurant because there was a lot of alcohol. As his two daughters, we were not allowed to work there, his son on the other hand was always there. My father did not consider it an appropriate environment for his daughters, and it wasn’t upsetting, because he was keeping us safe, ok? So it didn’t bother me in the sense of why not? So, the only time gender actually was considered was when he was keeping us safe, rather than a case of something we couldn’t do.
AP: So how was the idea of Kaleid’HER’scope conceived? Hosting your own talk radio show focused on women.
MZ: Oh Kaleid’Her’scope! I’ve always been an activist. When I came to Cyprus, I got a job at a newspaper, which was so fortunate because the minute you work in a newspaper you could network, you could find people. About a month or two after I arrived in Cyprus, I started working at the newspaper and there was a conference; the British Council hosted a conference on “Women in divided communities. What can they do?” There were women from Ireland, Bosnia Herzegovina, Israel, Palestine and Cyprus. I can’t remember if there was anyone else. “Hands Across the Divide” developed as a result of that conference, so I got into the women’s movement. “Hands Across the Divide” was then invited to join the board of the Cyprus Community Media Center (CCMC). It was the year 2000 and they launched the MYCY radio and then this woman Archana Kapoor who has a community radio station in Delhi came to the launch event . And, in talking to her, I was inspired because she was talking about the fact that it’s very successful in India. In places like the Middle East or Asia, radio gives a voice to women because you don’t need to see them. They can’t be so visible in the Middle East or in the less developed world, although I don’t like that word “less-developed”, when referring to countries in Asia, Africa. So, I thought let me try, because I was in a woman’s movement and the worst thing that could happen is that it wouldn’t work. I wasn’t worried whether I could talk for an hour as I’m a chatterbox, I was more worried about whether I could stay on topic. Because you have to be very controlled, you can’t talk about a lot of things in one hour. I’ve been on the air for one hour a week for four years and in four years, I think I must have only missed about five shows.
AP: You have hosted shows and welcomed a number of renowned people.
MZ: I turned community media a little bit on its head, because community media is there to give a voice to people in the community, it’s not standard media, it gives a voice to people that don’t know “someone”, or are not part of the mainstream. I started off hosting women discussing gender-based violence, trafficking, and peacebuilding, which is my passion. I’ve talked with women that have overcome things, and have still achieved what they needed to do, or have gone above and beyond. But, what I discovered is that to me, it was very exciting to be in a position where I could actually pick up the phone and speak to whoever I wanted. Ok? And I also realized that because we are a small community, I wanted to introduce new voices, because how many times, can you interview the same people? You tend to start recycling after a while, so I started reaching out and interviewing women from abroad. The first person that I interviewed was my hero, Eve Ensler, from the “Vagina Monologues”. I happened to know a friend of hers who arranged the interview for me and we did an awesome interview via Skype on the meaning of feminism. But I find that for me, it’s very important to introduce other voices, whether they be local or from abroad, because we’ve got to change the conversation, we’ve got to change the way things are expressed, we have to bring in new ideas. It doesn’t mean they’re better, or by listening to the new idea change will happen by magic, but it might change the way you look at things.
AP: You mentioned women, gender-based violence, trafficking and peacebuilding as your passions. Is peacebuilding something that you were always interested in or did something happen that changed your perspective over time. Perhaps your move to Cyprus?
MZ: I have no idea. Peacebuilding, I do think that living in Cyprus has led to the peacebuilding focus, because we’re on an island living with conflict, although when you look around you, you’re surprised because this is the safest place in which to live. I think what surprises me here is that we have a high percentage of women that are PhD’s, are creative, are incredibly smart, have got so many ideas, are confident and yet they are not in the places where they should be, they are not involved in the decision-making. Why? And the reason why peacebuilding has caught my attention so much is that people tend to separate sectors when they get involved in activism and they tend to put sexual reproductive rights, education, trafficking, or gender-based violence; peace actually covers all of these, ok? What I’m very passionate about is the fact that just because I’m a peace activist and you’re an activist on sexual reproduction rights, for example, we are on the same side.
AP: All those issues are interrelated.
MZ: Yes. When gender-based violence is controlled or monitored when we all have access to health care, when education is open and fair, when there’s diversity in decision-making, when everyone has the opportunity for their voice to be heard, this will mean that most of our needs are covered.
AP: Do you think that women are included in the negotiation or the peacebuilding process?
MZ: They’re not at any level.
AP: Why is that?
MZ: Well, firstly because Cyprus has always been a patriarchal society and Cyprus was an agrarian society until 1974. Men have always taken the lead. I think it also has to do with colonialism. We’ve always passed the responsibility, the decision-making or search for solutions to other people. Also, patriarchy has done such a good job of instilling in us that the only inequality that exists in Cyprus is ethnic. I’ve personally heard from women that I’ve spoken to who said “Forget about gender equality, lets solve the Turkish and Greek Cypriot inequalities and then we’ll work on that.” They’ve done such a good job that there is no understanding on the fact that equality is an all-encompassing principle. It isn’t just Turkish-Cypriots and Greek-Cypriots or just men, it’s all genders, sexual orientations, religions, economic levels, its education, it’s everything. So, if you talk about equality, you can’t talk about it selectively and you cannot have a monolithic group of people making decisions about diverse communities. So, you cannot have six men around the age of 60 who are all fairly well off economically, who all hold degrees, probably in economics and law, making decisions or knowing what me as a low-income woman with a disability, for example and who is a single parent actually needs. So to me, it’s extremely important for all of us to understand that when we think about including women in the peace process, it’s not as simple as we want women in terms of the biology or gender.
AP: It’s the inclusiveness in terms of any human variation.
MZ: It’s changing the perspective.
AP: We do tend to talk a lot about Turkish-Cypriots and Greek-Cypriots and ignore that there are other communities on the island, Maronites, Armenians, Latins, for example.
MZ: Exactly! We also have Russians, etc.
AP: So everything is changing now, we have to be inclusive generally.
MZ: Of course, and to add one more reason that we need women at the table, also for the biology initially, because what we see now is just a group of men. You need to change the picture you see; you need to put a few skirts or blondes in the room. You need to change the picture you see, because the picture I observe when I look at that and look at the peacebuilding also needs to change internally. You also need to have women because they are different bodies to men and then see things through different gender lens. So, it’s the whole process of changing the way I look at things. I’ve got to get used to the idea that it’s not good enough. They’re not going to solve it without us if they haven’t asked us what we want, what we need. Not what I want, what I need.
AP: Are you optimistic about the future, are you hopeful about what’s happening now in Cyprus.
MZ: I will only be optimistic if women get involved and I’m being honest. I think if we don’t get off our asses, all of us as women, and I’m not talking necessarily about going to the negotiation table. We have to actively stand up and start talking to each other, communicating and moving beyond the stereotypes. What do we want to see in our communities? What are our needs? What are our fears? What are they planning? Because, I’ll give you one example: when men talk about security, which is what they are talking about now, ok, they talk about national security, borders, armies and territory. They don’t talk about human security and as a woman, when I talk about security, I’m talking about the need to be safe. Am I safe when I walk around? Will I have a job? Will my children be able to go to school? Can I travel alone? So, if this kind of human security is not covered when they’re having their fights, then what is security? And I’ve even said this to Mr. Mavroyiannis and Mr. Nami “Did it ever occur to you that if you actually put a woman at the table and the perspective shifts one step to the side, maybe you will find a way through?” To me, the key factor is that in a lot of things, men and women tend to look at things differently, there’s a different perspective. And I do believe, I’m not saying that we must get rid of armies and we don’t need armies, we do need armies for defense right? But that’s all you need it for. You also need to keep me safe in my everyday life. I want a solution, but I want the solution that I’ve been promised. I want to know that they’ve taken into account that I would still have a job, that I would still like to be able to send my child to the periptero (kiosk) and feel that he is safe.
AP: A feasible solution plan, which addresses issues beyond national security.
MZ: At a national level, the focus is not on everyday human activities and women tend to bring that to the conversation.
AP: Maybe also add the notion of collectiveness? Go beyond individual interests and think more collectively. Do you think Cypriots think collectively?
MZ: Well I tend to think that people don’t think collectively. If they did, it would be beneficial for the community as a whole.
AP: Is it a Cypriot trait?
MZ: I don’t know about that, and it would be unfair to say. But I do think that we need to start thinking as a community. We have to start thinking like that. I mean, because I have talked about this a lot, heard women in positions, well-paid positions, say “But I’m OK, why do you complain about the gender pay gap?” It doesn’t occur to them that they might be ok, but maybe I’m not? If you’re on a high salary and I’m on a low salary, it doesn’t make it ok. So, we do need to think as a community collectively, because if you’re not ok it’s bad for me and it’s bad for the community. So everyone’s got to be ok. So, if you’re not getting a good salary, I mean I’ve worked as single parent, I’ve gone through stages because I came to Cyprus late and it was hard to find a job. And I’ve gone through stages where I didn’t have enough food to feed my son, the rent had to be paid and there was no one to save me. That’s not a dignified life.
AP: Our lives are connected with invisible threads and our actions affect others.
MZ: Exactly! We’ve got to remember that peace and freedom actually mean the right of everyone to lead a life with dignity.
AP: I couldn’t agree with you more Magda. Thank you.
MZ: Thank you!
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