'A defining moment': teenager's fight for justice galvanises Cypriot feminists

By Helena Smith in Nicosia

Until recently, gender politics had appeared to have passed Cyprus by; the women’s movement, too. But with astonishing speed both have taken the country by storm in an outpouring of support for a British teenager convicted of fabricating her own rape by 12 Israeli youths.

On an island where feminism is still regarded by many as a dirty word, the 19-year-old’s case has roused rights’ activists to rally.

“It’s been a defining moment,” said Zelia Gregoriou, who teaches gender politics at the University of Cyprus. “It has enabled us unashamedly, and with courage, to put new words to problems, to name them as they are,” she added. “Misogynist, patriarchal, feminist, are among them.”

Until now the women’s movement had been a fledgling force in the European Union’s most easterly state. Talk of liberation, like rhetoric surrounding the politics of justice, were the preserve of an eclectic few in a nation where debate has long been dominated by the drama of the island’s political division.

In the 45 years since Turkey invaded Cyprus, in response to a coup aimed at union with Greece, human rights have taken a back seat to what Greek and Turkish Cypriots commonly call the Cyprus problem.

All that, however, dissipated in full view outside Famagusta’s district court where the Briton’s fight for justice – if belatedly – struck a chord. As the five-month trial of the teenager entered its final stages, long after her 12 alleged Israeli assailants had been allowed to fly home, members of the newly created Network Against Violence Against women (NAVAW) took up her cause.

It was not easy. Social media was already abuzz with posts abusing the young woman in Cyprus, Israel and the UK. Standing outside the court on Tuesday, Lewis Power QC, the lawyer leading the Briton’s defence team, described his client as displaying “immense bravery, courage and fortitude” in the face of vicious trolls and vile comments.

“There was this feeling that the way our institutions were conducting themselves was feeding this poison into society,” said Eliana Gogaki, a teacher who counts herself among the network’s supporters. “They were handling a case of abuse and violence in such a way that the victim had come out looking guilty. It was a question of ethics being turned on their head.”

NAVAW initially grew out of the anger that emerged when it became clear a serial killer had stalked the Mediterranean island for years targeting migrant women with abandon.

Detectives, who had previously dismissed reports of the missing foreigners, were taken to task by outraged Greek Cypriots, led by female academics, lawyers, journalists and politicians. The murderer, who was eventually tracked down last year, confessed to the deaths of seven women and girls, admitting he had had sex with almost all of them before dumping their bodies in lakes on the island.

Outrage over the killings and the incompetency exhibited by the authorities fuelled similar anger over the teenager’s treatment at the hands of a judge perceived as being both aggressive and vindictive.

In a trial that had been repeatedly postponed, proceedings had been dominated by what was described as the court’s predilection for “gender stereotypes, classic rape myths and victim bashing”.

But it was Israeli women, also appalled by the way the Briton had been portrayed at home, who, Cypriot activists say, emboldened them to take risks.

“They were more daring than us,” said Gregoriou. “They were able to say ‘we believe you’ when here we could only talk about the young woman not being given a fair trial. They had a wisdom and dynamism that has proved how important these transnational bonds really are.”

Activists carrying billboards proclaiming “I believe her” flew in from Jerusalem on the eve of the sentencing – many staying only long enough to protest outside the court – before boarding flights again to return home.

Dr Ruhama Weiss, the public intellectual who first raised the issue of the Briton on social media, said she’d been taken aback by the number of Israeli women who, like her, felt it morally expedient to exhibit solidarity towards the teenager – and not Jewish youths they might otherwise call their own.

“We were being told all the time this is dirty laundry that shouldn’t be aired,” she said. “But I had simply had enough. Of course now they are calling us traitors just as they are to women here.”