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Karpathos: The Greek Island Where Women Dominate

karpathos women
Women rule on the Greek island of Karpathos. Credit: Lin208/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 3.0

Karpathos, the second-largest island in the Dodecanese island chain, is a place where women dominate.

Because of its remote location, local people there have preserved many traditions including unique customs, their own dialect of the Greek language, and distinctive clothing.

In general, all the Dodecanese societies are known for the special and respected role women occupy in the community. But this is even more true on Karpathos, an island where it is as if women rule and men have a secondary role.

In fact, when one looks at photographs of people on Karpathos, they see mostly women: women in the beautiful traditional garb on religious feast days; a woman baking bread; a woman leading a donkey along a path.

Most characteristic is the village of Olympus. Perched high on a mountain, away from tourists and travelers, it is a place where time seems to have stopped.

In Olympus, the woman is without question the cohesive force within the broader family.

The Karpathos woman, as a mother, wife, daughter, and sister, supports the family structure with her prudent and constant involvement in all functions at home.

An affectionate mother for her children, a supportive force for her husband and her parents — and even her brother’s protector — the Karpathos woman is part of every joy and every sorrow life has to offer.

She bears, raises and then watches her children as they marry, takes tender care of her parents, and fights for a better life with both her hands and her mind, always with strength and courage.

Women of Karpathos during the occupation

In the dark times of Italian and German occupation, the women of Karpathos showed yet another face, that of the fearless resistance fighter.

They took it upon themselves to defend their freedom and dignity in every way they possibly could.

The resistance of girls during the Italian occupation was at first passive. This passive resistance translated into the refusal of students to attend primary school classes organized by the Italians to teach the Italian language.

One of the primary objectives of the conquerors was the “Italianization” of the Dodecanese culture and people.

According to testimonies of women who endured the compulsory Italian education, many girls simply stopped studying, or boldly refused to recite poems in front of the Italian flag.

Sometimes, they simply pretended to be unable to understand the language courses.

The Italians finally gave up, coming to the conclusion that the girls of Karpathos were incapable of learning the language, even the very young. In truth, this fallacious “inability” to learn the Italian language was nothing more than an imaginative boycott.

As for the young women of the island, their attitude towards the Italian soldiers was strictly enforced by their families and can be summed up in one sentence:

“No communication, no relationship.”

Even in cases where the purchase of essentials required cooperation with the Italians, all possible formalities were always observed, so that the girl could not remotely be accused of deviating from the path of virtue.

Karpathos women dominate
The village of Olympus on the island of Karpathos. Credit: Frente, CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia Commons

Karpathos women and espionage

Other women even collaborated with their husbands in engaging in espionage. Such is the case of sisters Maria and Sophia Trembella, who spied on the Italians along with their husbands.

In fact, Maria Trembella, a teacher, along with her husband Ioannis Othitis, was arrested and tried for espionage, ending up in prison on the island of Rhodes.

In the village of Pigadia, Marigoula Antimissari and her father, Michalis, even managed to stymie the Italians’ communication by destroying telephone cables.

But there were victims as well. The tragic victims of the occupation were the wives of men who were accused of espionage.

Maria Lytos, the wife of Christoforos Lytos, was forced to raise her five children alone after her husband became a spy, sending information he gathered to the Allies in the Middle East.

For a period of six months, Christoforos Lytos was on a mission to Karpathos and hid in the area of ​​Lastos, without ever daring to appear at his home for fear of having his children inadvertently jeopardize his mission.

Popi Gerogianni was a young single woman who was trained in using a rifle. She joined the resistance forces and took part in several missions undertaken by the freedom fighters.

Two tragic victims among the women of Karpathos were Sophia Kyzoulis and Marigo Despotaki. In 1942, the two women were taken by the Germans to a concentration camp in Goudi in Athens where they were kept for an extended period.

Despotaki was imprisoned — along with her four children, one of whom was only four years of age. The charge was that her husband was in England.

Despotaki and her children stayed in the camp for a total of a year and a half, without anyone knowing whether they were still alive or had died.

The last victim of the most recent conquerors of the Dodecanese was Marika Hatzimichalis-Alexiadis.

It was right before the departure of the Germans in the fall of 1944 when Hatzimichalis-Alexiadis heard that there was looting going on in the requisitioned houses in the village of Stavri.

The courageous woman ran back to her own home to see if she could save some things when a German soldier who saw her running threw a hand grenade at her feet.

Fortunately, the explosion injured the woman only in her legs, and she was able to recover after spending three months in the hospital.

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