Cyprus: Keeping Time with its Libertine Past
By: Chez Shadman
Cyprus falls in the middle of a region that once used to boast as much decadence as it did victorious conquests. Located in the Mediterranean Sea, surrounded by Greece, Turkey, the Middle East, and North Africa, the island has seen and been influenced by many ancient cultures, including Persian, Greek, Phoenician, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and, more recently, British. The country gained independence in 1960, but civil war and strife between Turkish and Greek Cypriots continued for decades until the country was divided into two regions, Greek and Turkish-ruled. Today, Greek Orthodoxy and Islam are the predominant religions practiced on the island, leaving very little room for decadence of any kind—especially of a sexual nature.
Such change, of course, is as sad as it is inevitable in a region that has grown predominantly traditional at the hands of more conservative religions that have reigned over the region for centuries. Today, the island of Cyprus is a far cry from the island it once was, where polytheistic cultures celebrated not only life, but sexuality, fertility, and erotica; and, where goddesses such as Astarte and Anath made sure homage to such things were incessantly paid.
Perhaps the closest relation the island has to its ancient times is in its tourism. Cyprus is the Mediterranean’s third largest island and one of the region’s tourist hotspots, visited by 2.4 million people, annually. Tourism aside, however, traditional Cypriot culture is more modest. Traditional gender roles dominate the largely urban population, with men being the primary breadwinners and women tending to more domestic duties.
Women, in both rural and urban areas, bear the burden of avoiding sexual shame at all costs. In fact many, if not most, of the public spaces such as squares, coffee shops, and athletic centers are male-only and a woman risks disgracing herself and her family by visiting such places. That said, women typically stay at home and in church, occupy the rear of the building allowing the men to sit up front.
In Cypriot society, the ultimate relationship goal is marriage. Such a union is the ultimate rite of passage for both males and females, solidifying their status as mature and respectable adults fit to engage in society. As in many countries where religion reigns supreme, sex and sexuality are downplayed and marriage and family are emphasized. And in order for a woman to be considered a suitable bride, she must behave like a virgin, both physically and spiritually. That said, Cypriot females are socialized at a very young age, usually beginning at six years, to be feminine, modest, and demure. Prior to that, male and female children are allowed to play together in the streets. However, as they grow older, such play is frowned upon. According to the values of their society and in large part religion, females aren't even to make eye contact when a male looks upon them, lest they sully their name and their family's honor.
In traditional Cypriot marriage, the man is supposed to love his wife and the woman is to fear her husband and submit to his every will. Of course, modern Cypriot society has seen more secular provisions to marriage laws, particularly in regards to equality between men and women. However patriarchal tendencies still persist, providing men with a tacit edge over women. Such tendencies are seen, for example, in matters of divorce. Given the religious nature of Cyprus, divorce is maintained as a long and laborious process, most likely to deter its practice. And, it is also a much harsher process for women than for men.
In the last quarter of the 20th century, gender roles began changing. This was in large part to the Turkish invasion of 1974, during which 40 percent of the country came under Turkish rule, causing one-third of the population to flee to the country's south in order to escape harm. Within the refugee camps that were built to accommodate the fleeing citizens, many women served as cheap labor for the manufacturing industry. In the decades that followed, women's employment rates increased and hit a high in 1995 of nearly 40 percent. Education for women, once limited to females under the age of nine, also became more available, and today, the number of women in school rivals that of men.
Surprisingly enough, abortion laws are more secular in Cyprus and tend to favor women. The reason for such leniency can be attributed to the Turkish invasion during which many Greek Cypriot women were raped by Turkish soldiers. Abortions were allowed in such cases to aid the victims. The laws were eventually expanded to accommodate for pregnancies in which the woman’s life was in danger. Today, though no hard statistics are kept, it is thought that abortions are practiced widely due to loopholes in Cypriot law.
Prostitution abounds in Cyprus. There is no direct legislation that outlaws acts of prostitution. However, people who are caught soliciting such business or who profit from such acts are subject to imprisonment and fines. This has not deterred prostitution from flourishing in both the Greek and Turkish sectors of the island, though. Cyprus has also been criticized for its role in the global sex trade, acting as a transit point for smugglers.
And while it seems Cyprus is stuck in an old-fashioned way of living, typical of the region, the island is actually in a moment of transition. The country's youth make up a sizeable portion of the population and they are coming of age in world of technological dominance which leaves them privy to more secular cultures and their influences. They are caught between a past revered by older generations and a future that screams sexual freedom.
Cypriot youth are spearheading much social change in their country, primarily within the sexual realm. It should be noted, however, that while the youth are growing more secular, the young female population still views sexuality more conservatively than the male population. This is likely due to the heavier pressures and restrictions placed on female sexuality in Cyprus. Still, the growth of sexual experimentation among Cypriot youth is indicative of a shifting mentality.
In general, Cypriot society and culture still has some transitioning to do. For instance, while the youth of the island are exploring their sexuality with open-mindedness, sexual dialogue is still quite suppressed. And whereas many youth feel comfortable engaging in premarital sexual experimentation, family dynamics haven’t been making the shift as easily and many teenagers are left without proper guidance regarding sex and related matters, such as contraception and STD contraction. In fact, a growing concern in Cyprus is that of STD transmission. In 2004, approximately 50 percent of all new STD cases occurred in individuals below the age of 30.
The good news is that non-profit groups as well as the Cypriot government have been taking steps to improve the level of sex education and to provide the country’s youth with more resources for help and information.
Such reforms, along with a more open-minded and healthy approach to sexuality are a good sign that the island of Cyprus is joining the larger, global sexual dialogue. The island may be caught between an old and new age, but it seems that its people will continue to move forward toward a more liberal way of life, echoing the island’s ancient libertine past.