INTERVIEW / Step aside, Zorba, for Dora the new Greek: Angela Lambert meets Greece's imposing Minister of Culture, who challenges the traditions of her male-dominated society

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IT IS in keeping with her post as the Greek Minister for Culture that Dora Bakoyiannis, who is more than 6 ft tall with shining black hair and eyes, should be as imposing as any classical deity. As I discovered, her life could form the plot of a Greek tragedy. She grew up in a political family and was 14 when, in 1968, the Colonels' junta took over Greece. Her father Konstantinos Mitsokakis, now prime minister, was imprisoned and, after his release, placed under house arrest. He escaped to Paris, where his family joined him.

Dora Mitsotakis was still in her teens when she met her husband-to-be, a journalist some years older than herself. In 1974, after the fall of the military regime, the family returned to Athens, where Dora and Pavlos Bakoyiannis married and their two children were born. He became an MP, but in 1989 he was assassinated by the 18 November terrorist group. His widow stood for election to his former seat, and won.

Greek widows, like Irene Papas in Zorba the Greek, were often forced by social convention into lifelong fidelity to their husbands' memory. Things have not changed much today. They go into mourning, wear black, and accept the authority of their sons, however young. They are not expected to step into the political fray. Why, at 45, did Mrs Bakoyiannis do otherwise?

'I grew up in a political family - I lived a very turbulent life - and all these experiences made me what I am. I felt very strongly that I wanted to participate because I wanted to change things.' Our conversation at her London hotel is interrupted by her press secretary. 'Minister: your daughter is on the telephone.' Mrs Bakoyiannis jumps up eagerly and I hear her voice, charged with maternal love and concern. 'Kalimera] Ti kanis?' She returns beaming and says, 'That was Alexia ringing from Athens. We talk every day. She is 17, but we are very close. She gives me a lot of strength. She is my best friend. It is a wonderful relationship.'

Tentatively, I state my view that Greek society is one of the most backward in Europe where women are concerned; that it is still one in which good Greek wives stay at home to care for their families. 'I was never a Greek mother staying at home]' she assures me. 'I always worked - even when I was at school, first babysitting, later translating. As a student in Munich, reading politics and communication studies, I worked with Greek children from immigrant families (there are many Greek Gastarbeitern in Germany) looking at their problems in adapting to another culture. When I came back to Greece and had my children, I started working in my father's private ministerial office. I worked for the Nea Demokratia party from 1978 and for its youth organisations.

'It is true that Greek society is one where men have a special importance, but it's also true in every other society - I've lived long enough outside Greece to know that. A lot of women are breaking through, forging their own lives and careers; but you must be much more tough and more able than a man if you are to succeed.'

Mrs Bakoyiannis is spoken of as a future Greek prime minister, and not simply because she is the daughter of the present incumbent. She is one of the foremost role models for today's young Greek women. Besides her obvious beauty and intelligence, she speaks fluent German, French and English: essential for a politician from a country whose language, however glorious its antecedents, few outsiders master. Earlier this month, not only did the Canadians elect a woman prime minister, but so did the Turks: a Muslim society. 'It's revolutionary. Astonishing,' she says.

'I represent Euritanea, the smallest and poorest constituency in Greece, underdeveloped, up in the mountains. When I stood for election, it was a shock for them. At first they voted for me just because I was the widow of my husband; though they looked at me with a lot of mistrust. It was no foregone conclusion. I heard an old man in a coffee house say, 'What are we going to do with this girl?'

'But once I was there and established, they forgot I was a woman - and now when I go there the coffee shops are full of women, too] Once they get to know and trust you, people don't care whether you're a man or a woman. They care that what you say is true and that you're genuine.'

Would she prefer a ministerial post in which she could effect more changes to Greek society and do something to improve the lot of women? She is emphatic: 'No] It's a very important job being Minister of Culture. Culture plays a tremendous role in our own lives and in other people's perceptions of Greece. Greek ideas and values remain very important, especially at a time when society is changing so much. People look back and feel a need to believe in certain values that the Greek spirit embodies. We are bombarded by the fake: we need pure, clear values.'

Changing tack, I suggest that Greece might have played a greater part in peace negotiations over former Yugoslavia. 'Everybody wants peace in the Balkans, of course, but for us it's crucial. Not only do we know the area: we are their neighbours. We are directly affected. Forty per cent of our products went through Yugoslavian markets.

'But when we tried to take the moral initiative, we were badly misunderstood and our intervention was attacked as philo-Serbian. Look, Greece is a Balkan country; these warring people are our neighbours. We know the area historically. We were against the premature recognition of Bosnia because we said, the first thing we must do is see whether these people will live together. We warned that recognising the Bosnians would lead to civil war the next day:

as it did. A month ago, at

the Athens Conference, we brought everybody together; but the resulting agreement didn't go through the Bosnian parliament.'

Returning to the status of women, I tell Mrs Bakoyiannis about the time I attended a dinner party in London given by young Greeks at which a three- year-old boy looked at me (I was deep in conversation with his father) and said, 'She's a woman - why isn't she in the kitchen?'

She laughs. 'Look, it takes time. There are many career women in Greece today. The younger generation accepts this, and things are changing; but mothers with careers face real problems. If you don't have your mother and mother-in-law to help out, it is a constant fight. Working mothers with young children have to put in 20 hours a day.'

Her eyes blaze. This has been her dilemma too, and she feels strongly. 'I don't want to give up being a woman, nor do I see why women should have to choose between being successful and having children. Why should you have to give up an important part of yourself, either way? We live in a transition period. After my husband's death, I wore black for two years. And then my 11-year-old son said, 'I don't want to see it one more day]' And he was right.'

Wait a minute . . . does this story support her point of view, or mine?

(Photograph omitted)

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