Personal projects: ZHANA (Woman) 2017 // Ongoing
Every month I drive 730 kilometers north from Athens to reach some of the many isolated villages of Thrace - those of the Pomaks. They are a world of many contrasts; here someone can hear both the bells of the Christian churches and the muezzin making the call to prayer. There, I meet, discuss, connect with and photograph some of the Muslim women in this community, a minority whose voices have rarely been heard.
Due to socio-economic changes, many of these women are now opening up to the outside world, seeking the right to work, study and adopt new roles beyond the traditional confines of their villages and societies.
A little background
The Pomaks are ethnically Slav, Muslim citizens of the Greek state. They form part of Greece's broader Muslim minority who live in a state of relative autonomy from the rest of the country since the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. In practice this means that Sharia law is implemented to this day in the Pomak and other villages. Muftis appointed by the Greek state act as judges in civil cases, ruling over issues of marriage, divorce and inheritance.
While this parallel system has helped the Pomak community retain its cultural identity, it has also been criticized for failing to protect Muslim women’s constitutional rights and for gender discrimination. Today the desire of a growing number of women to move beyond the tight confines of traditional Pomak society is a major source of tension for the community.
Six years ago I first met Emine Bourountzi, a friend and one of the protagonists of my story. Today 37, she is one of the few Pomak women who are divorced, raising three children by herself in the nearby city of Xanthi. She was forced to marry her husband at the age of just 13 and was legally married to him until recently.
A few years after being wed, she moved to Xanthi and got her first real taste of life outside of the Pomak community.
“I felt as if I was a sheep fleeing its herd. I decided to take my headscarf off a few years later. I felt it had been forced on to me and that all those years [in my village] I had been living in exile. Having no identity and being uneducated.”
Today Emine is attending classes at a Greek public school with the aim of obtaining a high school diploma. She is also a leading voice fighting for gender equality for Pomak women. Yet at the same time she remains proud of her heritage, having founded a Pomak cultural center in Xanthi.
Emine's experience is just one example of the dualities many Pomak women contend with, being part of a tight-knit and proud community on the one hand, yet at the same time being subject to often oppressive rules and customs in an EU country in which church and state are theoretically separate by law.
Through the diverse experiences of Emine and many other women of the community my aim is to explore these complexities. Even though the Pomaks are an isolated and unique society, I relate to many of the issues the women contend with. Their stories also have a broader significance, given that they concern issues of patriarchy, religion, cultural norms and human rights. They will thus will resonate with people beyond Greece's narrow borders.