“Golden Dawn Girls,” Håvard Bustnes’ 2017 documentary on the lives of three Golden Dawn women, is a great example of the difficulties in navigating the issue of gender in far right extremism. The director approaches the question of what attracts women to a violent, neo-Nazi organization with a mixture of innocent curiosity and incredulity, which may partly explain why he was able to gain access to intimate moments that did more to expose this enigma than to resolve it.
The film begins with an almost naïve confession by the director who pans to the bright blue Aegean sea wondering: “I knew Greece as the land of blue sky and beaches… what happened to Greece?” In one of the last scenes he is questioning Ourania, the 26 year-old daughter of Nicolas Michaloliakos—the now convicted and imprisoned leader of Golden Dawn—in a conversation that perfectly illustrates cognitive compartmentalization: he shows her a photo of her father as a young person, giving a Seig Heil salute with a huge Swastika flag behind him. She thinks her dad looks ‘cute’. She knows that he is proud of his past but she does not believe he is a Nazi. The director finds it difficult to believe that she thinks this way. “Life is full of choices,” she says.
The documentary is a rare insight into the lives of Golden Dawn women who emerge as dynamic, confident and self-assured, always ready to push back when asked questions they do not care to answer. Jenny (Eugenia), the wife of Giorgos Germenis (imprisoned at the time) takes the lead in introducing the film crew to Golden Dawn and assure her party that it is a chance to show to the world that they are “normal” people. Along with Daphne, the mother of Panayiotis Iliopoulos (a Golden Dawn MP, also in prison awaiting trial) and Ourania, these women did everything within this radical-right extremist movement: taking care of children, organizing charity work, disseminating flyers and campaigning in taverns. When their men were taken away, they stepped up and into their place, delivering speeches and fiery chants at rallies. But, as the director notes incisively, women retreated to the background the moment these men emerged from pre-trial detention, exposing the traditional gender roles perpetuated by the movement.
“What does grandma tell you all the time? What is the most important thing in the world?” Daphne asks her 5-year-old granddaughter, nephew of Panayiotis Iliopoulos.
“Yes, love above all. Love does not allow you to do bad things.”
Alternating between scenes of neo-Nazi rallies, fascist imagery and Golden Dawn MPs having a meltdown in the Greek Parliament are instances of domestic ‘normalcy’ that could be charming if they were not almost immediately contradicted by cringe worthy moments. Although Daphne is overheard anxiously asking Jenny “what do they want us to talk about?”, she ends up providing unfiltered material that demonstrates what we know from research about the contribution of radical-right women. In another scene, the same granddaughter and her 10-year-old brother play next to Daphne. In a series of breath-taking theatrics, she hands them unloaded guns and urges them to fake shoot from the balcony. During a tavern canvassing spree, she pushes her way through an argument about violence: sure, her son could never be like Ilias Kasidiaris who punched “that lesbian” (journalist Liana Kanelli) on live television but “don’t we need men like Kasidiaris in the world?”
The paradox of radical-right women has been a constant, although under-researched question, often expressed as the “gender gap” issue in politics: women are less likely to vote for or represent a far right political party. Simplistic approaches through percentages, however, belie women’s tangible and often intense investment in these organizations that feed on racism and sexism. Daphne does not miss a beat when she hands out flyers to unsuspecting pedestrians or when she keeps telling her granddaughter that her uncle did “nothing” and does not deserve to be in prison. She validates what Kathleen Blee registered in Women of the Klan (1991) that women’s familial and community ties rendered the Klan’s influence “more deadly than the actions of Klansmen alone would suggest.” Paola Bacchetta and Margaret Power (2002) also note in their introduction to Right-Wing Women that “women’s participation enables the right to organize a totalizing project that moves through different spheres and encompasses a variety of spaces [beyond that inhabited by men].”
An example of this can again be found in the Bustnes documentary. None was more aware of the importance of mainstreaming Golden Dawn ideology than Ourania, the Psychology graduate student who professed her love of animals and refused to explain herself when accused of being a Nazi. She proudly showed off her favorite books (The Little Prince, Nietzsche, Freud), her extensive Disney movie collection and shelves full of board games: “Sorry to spoil the myth but that’s what we, the ‘mean fascists’ do;” her air quotes mocking the idea that she even cares what anyone thinks. The director seemed to be genuinely baffled by her, which is why he asked her to “remove the mask” and denounce her Nazi father. She looked him in the eye and said: “I support every single part of what he does, he thinks, he believes and acts. That’s my truth.”
In the opening scenes of the film, Jenny, who has an MA in International Relations, is asked to recall how she felt when her husband was first elected to the Greek Parliament in June 2012:
“I had already experienced the biggest event in my life, my daughter’s birth in January. I consider this the biggest and the most important achievement in my life. Above everything.”
In analyzing Golden Dawn “Women’s Front” online material, Koronaiou and Sakellariou explain how the elevation of women’s reproductive role into a political project is “rooted in historical fascism, […] which reframes motherhood within the public sphere through the ‘nationalization of women.’” Golden Dawn posts were replete with references to the problem of low fertility in Greece as women were called to political action by having babies: “We, women, must be proud of our gender and of the gift nature gave us, to create life. […] The greatest energy that a woman can offer to a national society and its people is her children” (p.265). Drawing on her ethnographic study of Golden Dawn women, Nayia Kamenou calls this a form of “radical motherhood”: the weaponization of women’s biological role into a political crusade. As one participant told her:
“For Golden Dawn, women are not considered to be inferior. … [Golden Dawn men] consider us women co-fighters to be superior… because we can bear children and are responsible for their upbringing.”
In another sense, this is similar to other international examples, with Cynthia Miller-Idriss summarizing the role of women in the US Tea Party movement as “reframing motherhood as a political act” by appealing to the “mama grizzlies’s” sense of empowerment through autonomy, self-reliance and a fierce instinct to protect the institution of the family from moral and cultural erosion.
This sense of women’s empowerment was demonstrated in the Bustnes film both in their confidence and in the roles they undertook during the pre-trial imprisonment of Golden Dawn’s male leadership. The director admits that part of his interest in following Jenny, Daphne and Ourania was to register how they re-evaluated their life choices given the new circumstances. He was surprised by the effect: Jenny and Ourania honed their skills at the podium while Daphne ramped up her door-to-door campaigning. He concluded with astonishment: “At the election of 2015 the women of Golden Dawn got to be the stars. […] They were being empowered in a direction that was frightening.”
Kamenou similarly concluded that Golden Dawn offered women an emancipatory space by allowing them to stitch together the party’s radical ideology on motherhood with their own version of feminism. The result was a type of militant femininity that peddles a catch-all, flexible gender discourse while maintaining support to the hyper-masculine and violent front of Golden Dawn.
“Golden Dawn Girls” ends with the baptism of Daphne’s granddaughter. Eirini Chrysavgi is her name, which translates to “Peace Golden Dawn;” an homage to radical motherhood. Daphne is not the center of attention anymore, she is seen watching from the sidelines moved by the symbolism of the moment. It is an important scene that captures several points in how analysis of extremism can be gendered.
First, women bring their social lives into politics. Far from resembling Kimmel’s ‘Angry White Men’ who find themselves displaced in the new social order, Golden Dawn women seem perfectly at home, shuttling seamlessly between the private and the public: for them, the political was indeed personal.
Second, the racist dimension of Golden Dawn ideology overshadows the latent misogyny of the party. Golden Dawn women maintained the now defunct White Women Front blogspot and used it as a resource for anything including recipes, dogmas and links to Stormfront. The blogspot’s front page still displays the 14 words in Greek. To assume that they acted against their self-interest would be to ignore their commitment to white supremacy.
Third, Golden Dawn women are exemplary of how right-wing extremism is both localized and internationalized. Daphne, showed the director a photo of hers with the daughter of Che Guevara—from the time when she was young and leftist and believed all the lies young people tend to believe, like, “democracy.” Daphne was also keen to drop all the code words of the globalized far right: the New World Order, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Jews controlling politicians like puppets. In a quintessential taxi scene—nothing more illuminating than striking a conversation about politics with an Athens taxi driver—she pushes back on the idea that there is incriminating evidence against the Golden Dawn men, including her son. They found guns, he says. She denies that, although she is later filmed cleaning a room decorated wall-to-wall with firearms. There are videos, argues the taxi driver. Maybe they are fake, she suggests, signaling the far right’s affinity to conspiracy theories. There is certainly a new world order for the three women of Golden Dawn who are now reckoning with a monumental court decision. Once all had been said and done in the documentary, four concrete walls and a prison cell awaited their loved ones in one of the biggest political trials in modern Greek history.
Dr Miranda Christou is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Associate Professor in Sociology of Education at the University of Cyprus. See her profile here.
© Miranda Christou. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).