Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Women and Mount Athos: adrift by Greece’s all-male monks’ republic

At Ouranoupolis dock, people are streaming ashore. Red-faced backpackers, black-clad monks, wheezing retirees. All of them are male, because this is Mount Athos.

Male pilgrims coming ashore in Ouranoupolis after spending time on all-male Mount Athos. Pilgrimages typically last for three days. Image © Anita Isalska

It seems incredible that a woman-free stronghold exists within the European Union. But on the Athos peninsula  the third tendril of Halkidiki in Northern Greece  a border near Ouranoupolis divides the all-male monastic communities of Mount Athos from the rest of Greece. Access is by boat only, and checks are strict. Visitors are allowed in limited numbers and by applying for a permit that involves ID checks.

Wives, girlfriends, sisters are waiting by the shore to welcome the boat. They have spent the last three days sunning and shopping in Ouranoupolis. The tourist industry here is impressive: shops overflow with monk-made produce from soaps to religious icons. A slew of jewellery shops have sprung up, perhaps to keep the womenfolk entertained while men contemplate the universe from Athos.

The women crane their necks as they see family members and friends come into view. Some of the Athos visitors are pilgrims, others travellers (Germans, Russians, a few Brits) lured by Athos’ solitude and magnificent religious architecture.

A few are relieved to be back in secular Athos. “Back to civilisation,” I hear one mutter. Though the experience won't have been without its jollities. Monks make wine and tsipouro (brandy) on Athos and share it generously with visiting pilgrims.

Olive oils, unguents and dainty little soaps, handcrafted by the religious communities on all-male Athos. Image © Anita Isalska

The monks also produce olive oil and honey, and there's a thriving market for both. Souvenir shops in Ouranoupolis proudly label their olive oil soaps and honeyed body lotions as monk-produced. It's curious that the market is so female-focused; monks who spend eight hours of their day praying in a female-free environment then spend another eight hours pressing oils destined to be rubbed into women's behinds.

To secure a permit to visit Athos, piety isn’t as much of a prerequisite as a penis. This is something wounding to many Orthodox women in Greece, frustrated at being disbarred from this holy place. Personally, I can conceive of reasons to create a single-sex space or lodging. But Athos is a sizeable landmass and transgressing isn't excused by an awkward apology and retreat.

The prevailing view of local women I speak to is acceptance. “It is like this for one thousand years,” explains one.

The argument for something’s worth because of tradition vexes. But for many, loudly objecting to the ban would be considered disrespectful to the spiritual focus of the monks. And why would a woman want to go where she isn’t wanted?

A woman photographs Mount Athos from 500m away, the legal distance a cruise ship can approach Greece's all-male religious communities. Image © Anita Isalska

No pilgrim I ask about his experience volunteers the topic of the gender ban. There's no, "Hey, isn't it weird you couldn't join us because of what you have downstairs!" When I mention it, they nod beatifically. The younger ones grimace sympathetically, as if nothing can be done.

It’s difficult to swallow the idea that women are excluded from, even barriers to, the pursuit of higher spiritual purpose. Some justifications sugarcoat the ban, saying that the Virgin Mary is so beloved of Athos’ monks that they couldn’t abide any other women on its shores.

Dressing the ban as maternal reverence smarts in the same way as so many other softly-softly sexisms around the world. Women are too delicate for parlour-room conversation. Too cherished to choose their own partners. Just as valued, though paid less.

Is the motivation to engineer a distraction-free dynamic for the monks on Athos? If so, it veers into ugly recesses of the imagination: the ban extends to female animals (except birds and insects). It's an all-out vagina embargo, positing femininity as a polluting entity when it comes to purifying the soul.

“What would happen,” I ask a local woman, “if I kept driving to the Athos border?” She smiles and crosses her wrists, to indicate handcuffs.

“What if I rented a boat and just crossed the water myself? There are boats for hire all over Ouranoupolis.”

Simonos Petras monastery, one of dozens of remarkable religious constructions on Greece's Mount Athos. Image © Anita Isalska
“You can try it,” she smiles. “A woman tried it years ago, dressed up as man, and in the face as well”  she pulls an imaginary beard from her chin  “but they caught her. They say her head was not ok...you know...” She taps her temple.

I linger and eavesdrop as men from the ferry describe their experiences. Amazing. Awe-inspiring. Incredible. Spiritual. The superlatives are flowing in several languages. Many more are silent, pondering. Smiles on the faces of the women, as they listen to these life-changing stories, are tight-lipped.

Before arriving here, I wondered whether sex segregation from the holy mountain would bleed into secular Athos. Would awkward coexistence of women and men be tangible in the town? Apparently not: I don’t detect even the faintest hint of rudeness in Ouranoupolis. In fact, the men here are perhaps the most courteous I’ve spoken to and interacted with in all my travels around Northern Greece. Smiles and greetings are freely bestowed; even the younger monks smile and dip their heads when I pass them in the streets and in my guesthouse.

Women travellers in Ouranoupolis will receive a deferentially warm welcome. Because Athos’ ban on women is a quiet, calm misogyny, sanctioned by the law of an ancient community. It’s a misogyny that nods and smiles, while keeping women at arm’s length.

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