Professor Anastasia Christou, a sociologist, feminist and geographer, is on her way to northern Greece to interview survivors of the Greek Civil War (1946-1949). She hopes to better understand the legacies bequeathed to generations of Greeks who lost family members either to the brutality of the war or through displacement, and to understand the political identities of Greek towns and villages once pitted against each other through political ideology. It was not long, five years, but an intergenerational trauma that has continued in the shadows, successfully resisting the oxygen of excavation. With the impact still felt today, some of the survivors, now in their 90s, have agreed to speak to her about the war.
Christou has some trepidation about the responsibility and the ethical care involved in bringing such issues to light, rather than the issues that may emerge; women worldwide have had to voice the intangible and difficult issues, as well as push for their rights, to go to school, push for genuine political representation, financial equality and self-actualisation, the violence done to their bodies and minds, and the silences they shoulder, for the sake of everyone else. Care for the participants; wellbeing and concern for the psychological trauma which such stories may unearth. As we talk, a butterfly enters through her window and crosses the screen. She is in East Sussex where it has rained all summer. This is the first she has seen all year, so she stops mid-sentence to admire it.
Christou was born and raised in New York to migrant Greek parents, who left Greece during the dictatorship, “practically eloping”, she says, after they met in Athens. Her late father came from a tiny hamlet outside of Thebes, and her mother, who now lives in Athens, came from a village in the mountains in the centre of the Peloponnese. Growing up in New York, her parents discussed their ancestral homeland. Even though it had become a somewhat “imaginary” one and many of their “scripted” stories, she says, had a frozen quality to them, they were, nonetheless, stories about stories, about food and relationships and family values and other things that sustained her and planted the seed of an idea to return deep within. She went back and forth to Greece all her life and knows it intimately, but when her parents moved back to Greece in the nineties, Christou left America permanently to be with them. Undeniably brilliant, she did well in Greece, coming first in the country for a doctorate in Geography (she has two PhDs), but, as a keen observer of society, she found higher education there to be complicated, “dysfunctional, materialistic, conservative, class-ridden, misogynistic even”, and came instead to the UK, anchoring her research and a second doctorate in Geography at the University of Sussex.
Over the years, she has built up an exciting interdisciplinary body of work on migration and social justice, which straddles and draws on the fields of history, law, sociology, and geography, inspired by philosophy and literature. But there is always the return to Greece to understand, the displacement that occurred, why it has required a working-class, feminist, critical scholar to help unearth the stories from a difficult past.
She is about to finalise a paper on what she calls femicide, over the pandemic in Greece, how shockingly excessive the many forms of violence, physical and emotional, against women are “Every single loss of life is precious, but the degree and the occurrence of women being tortured in terms of domestic violence by their partners, husbands and fathers has increased and been exacerbated by the pandemic. It’s a national issue, but it’s also a global one. We tend to embrace mothers as biological producers of the nation, but they’re abused. Even in a patriarchal society like Greece, mothers were valued, but we see shocking abuse and intergenerational violence.”
Christou is committed to finding solidarity with others. As Professor of Sociology and Social Justice at Middlesex University, London, and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, she is also proudly the Chair of her university’s trade union. She is an anti-racist feminist, influenced by black feminists and their scholarship, indigenous poets and stories: “I go back to those communities that have given so much humanity through their oppression. That is an enormous responsibility to infuse my learning.” Her politics belong to the left liberatory movements, praxis and philosophies that 20th century America bequeathed the world; politics which she had to discover on her own, outside the Eurocentric canon in which she was immersed. Through these prisms, in addition to her work on Greece, she has explored Polish, Cuban and Jewish communities, taken snapshots of Romanian, Bulgarian, Polish and Albanian women against a backdrop of post-socialist political change, studied intergenerational communities in France (Toulouse) and Britain (Seaford and Newhaven) and also examined legacies of societal divisions caused by colonialism and how war has left countries like Israel and Palestine or Cyprus divided. “My life and activism are shaped by a quest for social justice” she says, “It informs the teaching and research that I do, and my research is shaped through activism, and they all seem interconnected. And that’s been a part of my existential sense of identity as an individual, an activist, and an academic.”
She says she developed a strong work ethic growing up in a working-class community, where everyone laboured to stay afloat, so the local library became an oasis of possibility for her: “Words had an incredible textual stimulation for me. They were a magnet for me to imagine what the outside world was beyond the parameters of our very small basement flat. So English literature and philosophy, words, ideas, and concepts were the first full and magnetic attraction during an era where everybody kept telling me, ‘Oh, you’ll never get a job; you need to study business or IT.” Clever and self-determined, she was accepted to St. John’s University in New York, where she graduated with a BA in English Literature and Philosophy with a concentration in Government and Politics, gaining a Master of Arts in International Relations and Comparative Politics one year later. From 1994 to 2000, Christou worked as Associate Dean and Head of the English Department at New York College/the State University of New York at New Paltz and Empire State College. In 2001, however, soon after 9/11, she moved from Greece to the UK, travelling back and forth between the countries in a pre-Brexit world. This enabled her to complete a DPhil in Geography from the University of Sussex and a PhD in Social and Cultural Geography from the University of the Aegean, Greece, with one- and two-year fellowships in Greece, Denmark, Canada, and Berlin. Before moving to Middlesex, she spent eight years at the University of Sussex as a research fellow, and then as a lecturer in Cultural Geography and Programme Convenor of the Globalisation, Ethnicity and Culture MA.
In 2020, she says, an email from Cara had been circulated, asking for mentors for research projects by Syria Programme participants, and one of the projects, to her delight, was feminist movements in northwest Syria. “I persuaded another newly appointed colleague to join me as a co-mentor. We were thrilled that this topic was an undertaking by two male participants.” Ayman Alnabo, a former lecturer in semitic languages at Aleppo University and Director of the Idlib Antiquities Centre, and Houssein Hory, who gained his doctorate in the history and preservation of art objects and architecture from the University of Rome III in 2008, before working as a researcher at the General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums through to 2011, submitted a research proposal to the Cara Syria Programme in 2020, on the diversity of women’s experiences during the conflict, and the feminist movements that drew on Syrian cultural heritage, as well as progressive revolutionary ideals. It was a surprise for Christou to find a research project bridging the politics of social justice and people’s everyday lived experiences, so she was excited to mentor, teach, collaborate with them, and to be informed through a reciprocal learning journey.
The team developed the paper and devised methodologies together. Alnabo conducted ethnographic qualitative research, analysing elements of political, economic, and social discrimination and exclusion. It was a particular story with universal resonance. Syrian women have fought many battles, family separation, loss of culture, sexual violence, discrimination and exclusion, and yet, kept alive a feminist ethic of care over their communities. It was a demanding and challenging project, she says, with a lot of discussion around gender and analytical constructs. “They went through all the hurdles to do it, collected some amazing data, and wrote a rich and extensive paper, which is due to be resubmitted to the Journal of Gender and Religion following revisions. Fingers crossed, the publication will be out soon and how amazing that will be.”
She hopes there will be future collaboration with Cara and laments not knowing about the Syria Programme before 2020: “I am constantly intrigued by so much that we need to do as educators and, at the same time, also need to learn, so I see myself not just as a teacher but also as a learner and co-learner and co-producing knowledge with other colleagues. And here is where Cara has enormously enlightened my journey to self-discovery and self-understanding. I have been conducting voluntary work for many years because doing voluntary work is a lifeline to sustaining my self-motivation to action and activism. It’s enriching, fulfilling, and rewarding. It helps me stay motivated to do my day job. It has become a compass to redirect me to all the other tasks I need to do.”