For a more inclusive world.
2021 Varvara Athanasiou-Ioannou. Dedication page. Her Voice: Greek Women and their Friends. Victoria: Kerr Publishing Pty Ltd.
“I just had a really lovely interview with ABC radio in Melbourne,” Varvara’ Athanasiou-Ioannou’s joyful, melodic tones come through the phone. It is a voice filled with enthusiasm and optimism and energy and positivity.
We are having a conversation about her newly published book entitled ‘Her Voice: Greek Women and their Friends’ which has received an overwhelming response by readers and the media alike.
Since the book’s release last month, life has been a whirlwind for Greek Australian Varvara, who migrated to Australia at the age of 19 in 1972.
“Last Saturday, I was speaking for the Hellenic Council of America,” the modest author says incredulously. “Next year I have been invited to tour Brisbane, Sydney, Adelaide and Geelong in Melbourne…! I have also had amazing support from SBS radio as well as from The Age.”
“It has been phenomenal just how well the book has been received,” she says. “I am very, very excited and incredibly grateful.”
“Getting our stories out to mainstream media is so important.”
‘Her Voice: Greek Women and their Friends’ has been called an insightful anthology, and it contains the individual stories of 42 women – Greek Australian women and their friends to be precise – as they reflect upon the challenges that they have encountered on a myriad of levels in Australia over decades.
“Females of different generations, professions, cultures and faiths…share deeply personal reflections of resilience, endurance and courage, in a showcase of sisterhood between women from all walks of life,” says Professor Joy Damousi, one of the country’s most distinguished historians and public intellectuals in her heartfelt foreword.
“This book should be the beginning of an ongoing dialogue between women from all backgrounds, that can be passed on and down the generations. They will be inspired to mark out their own journeys…with the same spirit of fortitude and resoluteness on display in these pages,” she says, referring to the sheer inspirational power of the book.
Each story brings a different perspective unique to Greek-Australian and other culturally diverse women, told with striking insight, perception and sagacity.
Varvara explains that the book was “created out of love, to make a difference.”
The book’s first chapter is Varvara’s own story, beginning with her childhood in Ipeiros, Greece. She tells of her migration to Australia ‘with no English and describing the key events that shaped and assisted her in her journey to where she is today, including systematic racism that she experienced in a toxic workplace and the difficulties of navigating through male-dominated organisations, all while handling the challenges of managing a growing family.
Her husband, a once happy go lucky charismatic young man whom she met upon his migration to Australia from Athens in 1974, had become increasingly distracted by dreams of ‘home’ and unable to provide the kind of support that she needed as a working mother of two children.
In 2000, Varvara had what she calls an epiphany.
She decided to channel her energy into doing something positive as a way to overcome her toxic work environment. After a year of research, she founded the Greek Australian Women’s Network, naming it ‘Food For Thought Network’.
Her vision was that this network would attract the best speakers available, deal with issues relevant to women, and provide a culturally inclusive environment where Greek Australian women and their non-Greek friends would be able to learn and to enrich their lives and careers.
Twenty years later, the Food for Thought Network is complemented by Varvara’s global learning forum, a Facebook group founded last year called ‘Greek Australian Women and Friends Around the World’, consisting of thousands of women from all around the globe.
She describes the Group as a tool that empowers women and a place where they can share their stories and gain strength via the extensive support that the forum’s members provide.
Growing up in the small village of Ipeiros, Varvara’s father had a shop with the village’s only phone. With his brother, he would hire olive orchards so that people would have someplace to work, and so her family was widely respected there.
“People in the village were starving and he gave them credit,” explains Varvara, who in the book says, “With privilege came understanding that you have a responsibility to help the underprivileged” and “I believe that knowledge is useless if not shared for the benefit of humanity”, leading one to wonder whether it was her community-minded father – given his role in the village and the way he helped others – who had inspired all of Varvara’s work to help others.
“These quotes exactly define me,” says Varvara.
Varvara, however, says that unlike her father, she is more of a social entrepreneur rather than of a business nature.
“I do it for my soul, not for money,” she says.
What began as a support network for women of the Greek community quickly expanded to not only include the friends of Greek women but to also include men. In this interesting point of difference from most women’s empowerment movements, Varvara’s initiatives also focus upon the ‘inclusivity of men as powerful allies’, hence genuinely aiming to bridge the gap between genders rather than to create an even greater divide.
“Inclusivity rather than exclusion,” she says of her community networks established to pioneer issues such as domestic violence, mental health, patriarchal structures in our families, male-dominated community and private organisations and race issues.
Having spent much of her life advocating the benefits of diversity and inclusion, Varvara explains, “We cannot exclude men” – knowledge that stems from her extensive diversity training.
“Friendships and sisterhood are so important,” she affirms. “But we also need male champions to help in the creation of an inclusive world. We need to include everyone.”
“Women need to be at the decision-making table.
“One thing that shone through at the book launch on Saturday, and which always has been my desire, is that this book is not just for women but for all – men and women – especially men in positions of power.
“I want men to read the book, especially recruiters and CEOs and men in high power positions, recruiters of women on boards. Organisations would benefit exponentially from women on their team,” says Varvara.
In the short time since its release, “Her Voice: Greek Australian Women and their Friends” has been already recognised as being a book of great historical importance for Melbourne.
In the words of tireless campaigner for multiculturalism Bill Papastergiadis, President of the Greek Community of Melbourne and also the newly appointed Commissioner of the Victorian Multicultural Commission, ‘Her Voice’ “…is a book of historical importance showcasing diversity at its best, authentic storytelling of Greek Australian Women and their Friends who were born in the second half of the 20th century, sharing their challenges and triumphs in order to inspire… a conversation starter challenging norms.”
“The women that I have interviewed were born in the second half of the 20th century; their stories provide a previously undocumented narrative – a real snapshot in time of migrants struggles,” says Varvara.
“The stories within the book challenge the norms; they speak of all forms of diversity.
They are the tales of women in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s who have achieved a lot, despite racism, cultural expectations and norms, domestic violence, mental health problems and caring responsibilities, to name but a few of the barriers that they have managed to overcome.
From screenwriter Evy Papadopoulos who came out in her 40s saying, “so, it is part of who I am, but it is not who I am,” to Professor Vasso Apostolopoulos, whose initial studies on breast cancer vaccine paved the way for this type of research worldwide, advising: “when there is success there is always hatred. That is something to keep in mind throughout your career.” From the experiences of Hannah Assafiri, head cook and owner of iconic Melbourne institution Moroccan Soup Bar, who was married before she was 16 “to a man who I couldn’t reason or communicate with, or feel compassion and care from” to those of Mary Kalantzis, the first daughter of non-English speaking immigrants to be a full professor in Australia despite her arranged marriage at 17 as her parent’s way to show the world that they were successful in leaving Greece and migrating to Australia – ‘Her Voice’ offers multiple stories hence it resonates with everyone, especially those stuck and in need of inspiration, connecting women globally.
For Varvara, upon reflection over the past years, one of the greatest challenges she has herself has faced is that, as she puts it, her husband’s body is in Australia and his soul in in Greece.
‘I love Australia and I love Greece, both are my homes,” says Varvara, a sentiment which has earned her the nickname of Persephone amongst her friends, a reference to the Greek myth whereby the goddess would spend half of the months of the year with her husband in Hades as Queen of the Underworld and the remaining months with her mother on Olympus.
“Yet my husband’s body is in Australia and his soul is in Greece.”
“This was a big problem for me, the hardest thing,” she says.
“We would go to Greece and he would have nothing positive to say about Australia. “For a more objective view of Australia ask Varvara” he would say.”
It wasn’t until he was diagnosed with cancer and experienced the hospital system in Australia that Varvara’s husband began to see the country in a more positive light due to the excellent care that he received.
Varvara said that prior to his change of heart, to overcome this challenge, she first had to learn a very important lesson about relationships – to focus on the positives rather than the negatives.
“With this mind shift everything changed, and the relationship went from strength to strength,” she says.
“Someone asked me what do you hope to achieve?” says Varvara.
“I hope the book will add to the discord surrounding gender inequality and contribute towards creating equality in the world.
“I hope that mums teach their sons not to be bystanders to injustice and to be equal partners in housework and caring for children.
“I hope that CEOs do a cultural audit to see if they have the diversity and sectionality – across age, class, gender, culture, marital status and disability – needed to prosper.
“Diversity makes a difference and adds to the growth of any organisation.”
“Whilst we have made some meaningful inroads overall towards equality; we are nowhere where we need to be.”
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