P.S. Bouklis, Associate Lecturer in Criminology, Birkbeck University, London. – Precarious Faces

Posted by on Oct 26, 2013 in Blog




Precarious Faces

P.S. Bouklis, Associate Lecturer in Criminology, Birkbeck University

Women poets like Kiki Dimoula and Maria Laina have criticized the inscription of dominant repressive narratives on the female body.1 For instance, Dimoula’s “Mark of Recognition” presents a statue of a woman. Her hands are tied behind her back, she lies uncomfortably. If we can imagine her moving towards a direction then she would be crawling away; she would be struggling for an escape. The statue is actually called Epirus and it reflects political struggles in the often described as “chained” land of Northern Epirus. The sculptor, by using the symbol of a chained woman, juxtaposes “male” and “female” definitions of bodies and subverts established, conventional roles and valuations. Similarly the poem by Dimoula imagines the life of the statue, not as that of a statue, but as the female protagonist, as a living being, as a captive, as a woman whose gender recognition is a straightforward process. The ascription of the female gender role is a straightforward process not because we can conventionally read the bodily marks: her breasts, hips and long hair. No, it is because of her captivity, according to Dimoula, that we “read” her as a woman: “I call you a woman because you always end up a captive.” So the themes pre-exist and “Ruins: Chronicle of an HIV witch-hunt”, the documentary by Zoe Mavroudi, zooms into the lives of a group of female modern-day “captives” and tells the story of how this group of women, these female protagonists, became the cast of a sensationalised media case.

The case is simple.2 A police operation launched, in the centre of Athens, a few days before the national elections of May 6, 2012. The operation appeared to be legitimate and relied on a combination of healthcare (public health) provisions enforced by criminal law sanctions (Health Regulation No. GY/39A), according to which intentional transmission of infectious diseases must be prosecuted, regulated and contained. As a result of this operation, while hundreds of individuals were force-tested for HIV, 32 women were found to be HIV positive. Subsequently, they were detained on a rather unsubstantiated prostitution charge and an even more unsubstantiated (felony) charge for intentional transmission of HIV to harm their clients (see, also, 284A of the Greek Penal Code). While the relevant evidence was to be reviewed by the Greek criminal justice system, the Greek media had already reached a verdict: these women constituted a threat to “us” the healthy Greek population. These women were guilty of contaminating or potentially contaminating “us”. And because the Greek state and the Greek media assumed the role of a paternalistic carer, they had a duty to inform us about this threat. The names, therefore, pictures and personal details of the “criminal” women were intensely circulated within the span of several weeks and within existing discourses of danger specifically designed to instigate fear and to renew political identities.3

The recipe is also simple. To create a moral panic, the very first ingredient is to have a vulnerable, targetable population, a convenient scapegoat that can easily be exposed to processes of marginalisation and criminalisation. In this case, women that can be portrayed as a risk, a “miasma”, as dangerous individuals that threaten to “pollute” the healthy sections of “our” societies. These “threats to the common good”, in the case of the HIV witch-hunt described in the documentary, are fundamental for the sensationalist media and for the cultural channels to survive. The political rhetoric in this case created a particular political dilemma. On the one hand, there is the duty to protect the Greek, orthodox, heterosexual, family men from any risk of harm they may suffer. On the other hand, a group of women, portrayed as “aliens” (illegalised migrants), “prostitutes”, “drug users”, pose an immediate threat to the cleanliness of “our” men, an immediate threat to the Greek, Orthodox, holy institution of marriage. The dilemma follows a simple logic: is the duty of the Greek state to protect its citizens? If so, then the instrument of criminalisation needs to be used for punishing, for containing and for deporting the infected (portrayed as “infectious”) women and for eliminating, quarantining and expulsing their HIV positive bodies.4

To think a bit further about the parameters of this case, let me take you back to 2003. Greece was dressing up for hosting the 2004 Olympic games, new sweep police operations were attempting to “improve the image of the city” by arresting sex workers and generally citizens that were presented by the media as “morally questionable subjects”… During one of these operations, the police raided the gay bar “Spices” and arrested 11 individuals, gay men, for illegal distribution of pornographic paedophilic content via the internet, for pimping, for possession and use of drugs, for unnatural lewdness and for indecent publications. As with the case of HIV positive women, the “captives” of the system here appeared on the press, their names, occupational status, relationship status (one of the detainees was married to a woman) and other personal information were widely circulated. The media representations all attested to the fact that the “homosexual monster” exists and it is “our” duty, as healthy citizens, to prevent the infection of the “normal” sections of the population from that homosexual “disease”. Most representations constructed homosexuality as the main crime committed, even though homosexuality is not criminalised in Greece. The result of that moral panic went far beyond symbolic politics. While kept in the detention centres of Athens, one of the detainees committed suicide, hanging himself while in custody. However, even after his death, the representations were relentless. The suicide was presented as a plan for redemption and the media representations almost sighed with relief at the thought that the “repentance monster” had decided to eliminate the traces of his immoral and infectious existence.5

Are the similarities between the two cases a mere coincidence?  Is the construction of “moral panics” a mere coincidence?6 Or is it indeed a political strategy? Well, I am compelled to repeat the line from the documentary where the then Minister of Health, Andreas Loverdos, is asked to answer the question: “Andreas, do we know whether the girl is a trafficking victim? Because she is a criminal now.” And Mr Loverdos responds: “My dear friend, whether she is or not, she will be made into one.” And he further justifies his position by explaining that his will to criminalise the potential victim of sex trafficking is relying on some “unshakeable statistics” according to which these sex trafficking victims have been brought to Greece from the Sub-Saharan Africa and they have brought the HIV virus to the healthy Greek population.7 This last statement is rather puzzling however. It is puzzling because of three main reasons. Firstly, because it implies that all victims of human trafficking are sexually exploited by Greek family men. It implies that all victims of human trafficking have been brought to Greece from the Sub-Saharan Africa. It further implies that victims should be victimised further by state procedures, since their victimisation – according to the Minister – should not immediately trigger the enactment of victims’ rights entitlements. Only, parenthetically here it should be mentioned that during the year 2011, according to official statistics by the Hellenic Police, there were no victims identified from the Sub-Saharan Africa; while, in 2012 only 5 victims out of 94 came from Nigeria.8

Finally, to broaden this analysis, “Ruins” opens a wider discussion about criminalisation. In the context of sex trafficking in Greece, the victims are often treated as criminals, as traffickers, as illegalised sex workers, or as illegalised migrants; as gendered and sexualised subjects that are to be contained, to be deported, to be ostracised, to be punished. Within these conditions, the wider “sweeping” plan draws the lines of a face. The face as a surface that inscribes the traces of these immoral, infectious and precarious lives, the face of the precariousness of the other.9 This image shall not be forgotten.

P.S. Bouklis

Associate Lecturer in Criminology, Birkbeck University, London.


1 V Calotychos, Modern Greece. A Cultural Poetics, NY: Berg, 2003, :230.

2 See: Z Mavroudi [http://usilive.org/austerity-destroys-society-the-rise-of-hiv-aids-stigma-in-greece/]

3 It was indeed at stake the re-election of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK).

4 See: M Weait [http://www.hivjustice.net/news/greece-matthew-weait-on-the-moral-panic-over-the-mass-arrest-of-female-sex-workers-with-hiv-2/].

5 See P S Bouklis and P Kappas ‘Social Representations of Crime: The Spices Case’, BSc Dissertation, Athens: Panteion University, 2004.

6 See S Cohen Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Abingdon & NY: Routledge, 2011.

7 See A Loverdos ‘GA Statement at the High Level Meeting on the comprehensive review of the progress achieved in realising the Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS and the Political Declaration on HIV/AIDS’, NY: United Nations, 2011.

8 See Hellenic Police: [http://www.astynomia.gr/index.php?option=ozo_content&lang=’..’&perform=view&id=25382&Itemid=1074&lang=]

9 See J Butler Precarious Life. The Powers of Mourning and Violence, London & NY: Verso, 2004, :134.