Zoi Konstantopoulou, Greece's Madame Speaker And Syriza Secret Weapon

Ambitious and unafraid to anger foe or friend, the 38-year-old Speaker of Parliament may be Greece's most powerful woman. And fighting corruption is at the top of her agenda.

Konstantopoulou, Greece's youngest-ever speaker and only second woman in the post.
Konstantopoulou, Greece's youngest-ever speaker and only second woman in the post.
Adéa Guillot

ATHENS â€" Night has fallen on Athens, and everything's quiet in the empty corridors of the Vouli, the Hellenic Parliament. Except in the anteroom of Speaker Zoi Konstantopoulou's office. It's past 11 p.m., and several people are still waiting to see the young woman.

"It's been like that every day since she took office," explains an employee who arrives to drop off some files for the next day. "During the day, she takes appointments one after the other, leads the debates in the parliament and again sees people in the evening until 2 or 3 a.m. I've been working here for more than 30 years and I've never seen anybody with such a work ethic."

Konstantopoulou, a radical-left Syriza party lawmaker, was elected with a record 235 votes (of the 298 legislators who were present that day). At 38, she's also the country's youngest-ever speaker and only the second woman to occupy the position.

"She's an alibi for Syriza," a lawmaker from the ex-governing New Democracy party says with irony. "They didn't appoint any women in their government, and they were quick to adjust their tactics by putting Mrs. Konstantopoulou's name forward to be the speaker. But she'll have to learn that you can't lead a parliament by getting on the wrong side of lawmakers."

The criticism doesn't surprise Konstantopoulou. "There's a real generational and sexism problem among those who have governed Greece until now, but they'll have to get used to it," she says. "I intend to change this parliament, turn it into a model of democracy and freedom but also responsibility."

At 5-feet-10, her powerful figure often dominates the room. She wears only black suits, and that coupled with her 3-inch-high heels and her long black hair are a stark contrast in the Lower House of Parliament, the Vouli, still largely dominated by men.

"The fact that there are only 69 women out of 300 lawmakers shows that parity is still a long way away," she says, sitting in her vast office decorated with baroque mosaics on the walls. "Me, I had two exceptional grandmothers, Zoi and Vasso. Self-taught women who taught me to choose my life, not to suffer anything. So whatever some people say, I'm not just here for parity reasons."

Manolis K. Hatziyakoumis, one of her former teachers, was the private instructor of a whole generation of Greeks who now occupy key positions, such as the Athens Mayor Giorgos Kaminis or the former law university superintendent and conservative legislator Theodoros Fortsakis. "Zoi has always had a fire, a curiosity, and most of all a comprehensive sense of common interest," Hatziyakoumis says. "What always mattered to me was to turn my pupils into humanists. Justice is the mother of all virtues, the ancient Greeks used to say. I believe in that, and that's what I taught Zoi, together with concepts of measurement and ethics. I think that for her, the law is everything."

Coming from a family of lawyers, she chose to keep the tradition alive very early on and studied law at the University of Athens, before earning a Masters degree at the Sorbonne in Paris and studying human rights and criminal law at the Columbia University in New York.

Konstantopoulou being interviewed on Jan. 26 â€" Photo: Ggia

While she was in Paris, she also taught English to convicts in a prison. "It's important to give back a little of what you receive," she says. "I think that students, especially law students, can quickly become useful to society."

Rise to power

As a lawyer, she represented the family of Alexis Grigoropoulos, an Athens teenager killed by a police officer in December 2008 and whose death started three weeks of urban rioting. "He was just a 15-year-old kid who'd gone out to drink a lemonade with his friends," she says. "When I heard the news, I felt this injustice in my guts. We got the murderer a life sentence and 10 years for his accomplice.".

Her father, Nikos Konstantopoulos, a lawyer himself, was president of the radical-left party Synaspismos between 1993 and 2004. It has since become the main component of Syriza. Her mother, journalist Lina Alexiou, would often denounce social injustice in her reports. So Konstantopoulou was surrounded by militant politics from a young age. "She's her father's daughter," says another lawmaker from the New Democracy party. "She's very ambitious and always wanted to give herself the means to one day rise up in Syriza."

Konstantopoulou explains that she was always interested in politics but believed she would stay away from it. "I know how demanding it is, and I love my work as a lawyer," she says. And yet, in 2009, she enlisted with Syriza for the European elections. "But it's only after the crisis that I decided to throw myself into it. It had become a duty."

She was elected a parliament member in June 2012, starting a tortuous path that would lead her to public recognition. The fight against corruption and tax fraud became her primary issues. She wrote the Black Book of Shame, which lists what Syriza considered political and financial scandals. Most importantly, she launched a crusade on the "Lagarde List," which contained the names of Greek tax evaders in Switzerland, "a perfect X-ray of Greek-style corruption and collusion," she says.

Given to Greek authorities in 2010 by the then-French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, the list wasn't examined until a parliamentary commission was launched to investigate the matter. The leader of the effort was none other than Zoi Konstantopoulou, and she proved to be the toughest member during witness hearings. The young woman stopped at nothing and asked the awkward questions, provoking unprecedented ire that could be heard from outside the room.

"Her rants were legendary," says Meliza Meya, a childhood friend and her bridesmaid during her 2014 wedding to sailor Apostolis Mantis. "The passionate Zoi that people have discovered is the one I've known all my life. Even in primary school, she was very sensitive to injustice and would fight for her rights or that of her classmates. As kids, we were fans of the TV show Matlock, the story of a lawyer who won every trial." Meya describes a "simple" and "joyful" woman in private, but one who "must show seriousness and inflexibility in the face of this political world that is afraid of losing its privileges and that is very violent towards her."

Ruffling feathers

Since becoming a parliament member, Konstantopoulou has made more enemies than friends. "We call her Robespierre because she likes to make heads roll and because she poses as a moralizing incorruptible like the French revolutionary," says a lawmaker from the center-left party To Potami (The River).

Manolis Kefalogiannis, a New Democracy legislator, has had many disagreements with Konstantopoulou. "She doesn't behave normally, with the concern for balance and compromise that should characterize a parliament Speaker," he says. "She a little bit populist. She's always giving her two cents on everything." Stavros Theodorakis, the To Potami leader, says "she proves to us every day that she can't collaborate, and I think that even Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras regrets having placed her there."

This is a direct reference to Konstantopoulou's refusal to vote in favor of the agreement between the Greek government and its international creditors, which planned to extend the bailout program for another four months. "It was a party consultation, but I think it's essential that everyone speak their mind freely during important procedures," she says bluntly. Her wild, independent spirit irritates even those inside her own party. "Zoi is her own woman, and her ambition is certainly to also position herself as a potential heir in Syriza," one senior party member says.

On March 4, Konstantopoulou presented a series of reforms she wants to introduce in parliament. Among those are ending several member privileges and fighting against parliamentary absenteeism by threatening to cut one-fifth of salaries for lawmakers who don't show up more than five times per month. Some of these ideas have ruffled feathers inside an institution that isn't used to such accountability.

More importantly, the speaker has pledged to create an audit committee of Greece's debt in the coming weeks. "The goal is to determine the potential despicability, illegality or illegitimacy of the public debt contracted by the Greek government," she explains, referencing several corruption scandals and the opaque nature of Greek weapon purchasing. "The people have a right to demand that the part of the debt that is illegal â€" if that's what the commission rules â€" be written off." It's an explosive statement even as Syriza, which has long expressed its wish to cancel some of the debt, seems to have yielded to its creditors' arguments and now only speaks of debt rescheduling.

"The negotiations have only just begun," Konstantopoulou insists. "We mustn't accept that Greece speaks only to the Eurogroup because mankind is not only made of economic relations." Reinforcing democracy, putting the people and their rights back at the core of political projects, in Greece as well as in Europe, "are not romantic goals but indispensable if we don't want Europe to explode," she says.

This sounds like a real declaration of faith, we observe. "You know, my office here used to be the king's daughter's chapel when the parliament was still the Royal Palace," she replies. So a declaration of faith it is, "but a republican and democratic one."

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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