Did the press comply with an HIV witch-hunt in Greece?

State and private television networks went ahead and published women’s mugshots and personal details, labelling them “HIV-infected prostitutes”.

When hundreds of women were rounded up in a police sweep in central Athens days before the May 2012 parliamentary elections, the move had all the hallmarks of a politically orchestrated campaign. The arrests preceded the release of figures showing a 57 per cent increase in HIV infections between 2010 and 2011, and the women were forced to take HIV tests.

Despite a lack of evidence, those who tested positive were imprisoned and charged with intentionally causing grievous bodily harm. When state and private television networks went ahead and published the women’s mugshots and personal details, labelling them “HIV-infected prostitutes”, many saw it as evidence of a compliant press.

The mainstream media soon lost interest in the story, staying silent when most of the women were gradually released or had the charges against them reduced, but now Zoe Mavroudi, a Greek filmmaker, has directed a film on the subject – Ruins: Chronicle of an HIV Witch-Hunt.

When I spoke to her on Skype shortly after the Greek premiere of Ruins, she told me how she had noticed that the case was still being discussed widely on social media. “People seemed to be harking back to it to express disgust for state and police arbitrariness. I sensed that the incident had become one of the most recognisable low points of the crisis,” she said. “I wanted to create a chronicle, a kind of reference point that would help people to understand and not forget.”

Made with the support of the Unite union and Union Solidarity International, the film includes interviews with two of the women who were imprisoned, along with their mothers, as well as academics and activists.

The interviews are intercut with footage that shows journalists and commentators referring to the women as “Aids prostitutes” who “spread death”.

The women’s case has now been taken to the European Court of Human Rights.

More than 30 per cent of Greek women are unemployed, compared to 24.6 per cent of men, and more than 65 per cent of young women are out of work. They are also affected by falling standards in maternity care and cuts to services for the sick and elderly. More and more young people are returning to live in the family home.

 “Greece is a very traditional society,” Mavroudi said, “and when you have the dismantling of social services . . . the burden falls on women even more than usual.

 “The feminist movement in Greece has been caught off guard by the crisis,” she added.

The arrests were condemned by some female MPs and several protests were held outside one courthouse and the ministry of health in Athens.

Mavroudi hopes that next time women will be better prepared. “This case in particular was unprecedented, targeted state aggression against women,” she said.

 “Without a strong and well-organised feminist movement, we cannot deal with this new reality.”

Feminist protesters take part in a demonstration in front of the Greek parliament in Athens. Has feminism been caught off guard by the recent crisis? Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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Why Britain’s Bangladeshis are so successful

In an age of fear about immigration, the success of the Bangladeshi population in Britain has a deeper resonance.

No day is complete without fears about immigrants failing to integrate in Britain. Romanians, Bulgarians and Syrians are among the ethnic groups now seen to be a burden on society, poorly educated and with few in good jobs, if in work at all.

A generation ago, much the same was said of the Bangladeshi community. Tower Hamlets, where the concentration of Bangladeshis is greatest, was the worst performing local authority in England until 1998. Until 2009, British Bangladeshis in England performed worse than the national average.

Today the Bangladeshi population is thriving: 62 per cent got five good GCSEs, including English and Maths, in 2015, five per cent above the average. The improvement among the poorest Bangladeshis has been particular spectacular: the results of Bangladeshis on Free School Meals (FSM) improved more than any other ethnic group on FSMs in the last decade, according to analysis of Department for Education figures.

Partly this is a story about London. If London’s schools have benefited from motivated Bangladeshi students, Bangladeshi pupils have also benefited from the attention given to the capital, and especially Tower Hamlets; 70 per cent of Bangladeshis in Britain live in the capital. But even outside the capital, Bangladeshi students “are doing very well”, and outperform Pakistani students, something that was not true in the recent past, says Simon Burgess from the University of Bristol.

The success of Bangladeshi girls, who outperformed boys by eight per cent in 2015, is particularly striking. Increased gender equality in Bangladesh – the gender pay gap fell 31 per cent from 1999-2009 – has led to Bangladeshi parents in England taking female education more seriously, says Abdul Hannan, the Bangladesh High Commissioner in the UK. He traces the development back to 1991, when Khaleda Zia became the first female prime minister in Bangladesh’s history; the country has had a female prime minister for 22 of the last 25 years.

The roots of the Bangladeshi population in Britain might be another factor in their success. The majority of Bangladeshis in the country hail from the city of Sylhet, which is central to Bangladesh’s economy and politics, and renowned for its food. “Our forefathers were the pioneers of the curry industry and we have followed in their footsteps,” says Pasha Khandaker, owner of a small chain of curry houses in Kent, who was born in Sylhet. Brick Lane alone has 57 Bangladeshi-owned curry houses; throughout England, around 90 per cent of all curry houses are owned by British Bangladeshis, according to the Bangladesh High Commission.

Other ethnic groups are less lucky. The skills and social and cultural capital of the British Pakistanis who originate from Mirpur, less integral to Pakistan than Sylhet is to Bangladesh, leave them less able to succeed in Britain, says Dr Parveen Akhtar, from the University of Bradford. The Bangladeshi population is also less constrained by kinship ties, Akhtar believes. In some British Pakistani communities, “individuals can live their lives with little or no contact with other communities”.

Younger British Bangladeshis have benefited from how their parents have become integrated into British life. “The second generation of Bangladeshi children had better financial support, better moral support and better access to education,” Hannan says.

As Bangladeshis have become more successful, so younger generations have become more aspirational. “Before you were an outlier going to university. As more people did it started to open the doors,” says Rushanara Ali, who became the first MP born in Bangladesh in 2010. She has detected an “attitude change about university for boys and girls.” Nasim Ali, a Bangladeshi councillor in Camden believes that, “the focus was on young people getting jobs when they turned 16” a generation ago, but now parents are more willing to spend extra money on tuition. 

Huge challenges remain. While the employment rate of Bangladeshis has improved – the proportion of women in work has risen by one-third in the last five years, according to research by Yaojun Li, from the University of Manchester – it still lags behind educational performance. Nine per cent of working age Bangladeshis are unemployed, almost twice the national average, Li has found. It does not help that the 12,000 Bangladeshi curry houses in Britain are closing at a rate of at least five a week. This does not reflect a lack of demand, says Khandaker, who is also President of the Bangladesh Caterers Association, but the government’s immigration restrictions, making it harder to find high-skilled chefs, and the increased ambition of young Bangladeshis today, who aspire to do more than work in the family business.

But, for all these concerns, as the soaring Bangladeshi children of today progress to adulthood, they will be well poised to gain leading jobs. David Cameron has said that he wants to see a British Asian prime minister in his lifetime. Hannan tells me that he is “positive that one day we will see someone from Bangladesh in the leadership”.

Nothing would better embody the sterling rise of the 600,000 British Bangladeshis. In an age of fear about immigration, the success of the Bangladeshi population in Britain has a deeper resonance. It shows that, with the right support, migrant communities can overcome early struggles to thrive. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.