Women in Georgia: Re-learning Gender Equality

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Women in Georgia: Re-learning Gender Equality

Picture: anjči Licence: CC BY

Georgia, a country in the South Caucasus, is trying to develop into a European state without losing its best values and traditions. Gender politics is one of the indicators of democratic development; for Georgia, it is also a history of dialogue with Europe.
It is widely believed that the women’s movement in the Caucasus began with the establishment of the Soviet Union. Lela Gaprindashvili, a professor at Tbilisi State University, studied the origins of the women’s movement in the South Caucasus and found answers in 19th-century history.

Lela Gaprindashvili, professor at Tbilisi State University
Tbilisi was a very interesting place in the 19th century. The entire Caucasus was intermingled here - the north and the south, Europe, and at the same time, Russia. At this period of time, European ideas really began to reach Georgia through the Russian language. Later, when Georgians started to travel regularly to Europe and study the culture, they experienced directly the European environment and themselves became carriers of these ideas.

In the mid-19th century, the English couple John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor published a paper, “The Liberation of Women", calling on European women to become independent. The idea quickly became popular throughout Europe.

Lela Gaprindashvili
The first woman in Georgia to pick up this idea and seek like-minded supporters was Ekaterine Gabashvili. She is considered to be one of the first feminists. In the late 19th century it took her almost 20 years to open the first school for women, which taught sewing and needlecraft. The students of this school began taking orders and making money. Such schools were opened in the capital and several regions. It was a very popular idea. Their development was supported mainly by aristocratic circles, who were familiar with all of the European ideas of that time, especially Anastasia Tumanishvili-Tsereteli and Ekaterina Melikishvili-Meskhi. These women made a huge contribution to opening up education for women. This is why I do not concur that the Bolsheviks and the Marxists gave us education. Women’s education in Georgia is a product of Georgian-European dialogue and the women's movement.

Two European writers – the Austrian Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Bertha Zutner and the Englishwoman Marjory Wardrop – had the strongest influence on the Georgian women's movement of the 19th century. The pacifist Bertha Zutner visited Georgia in 1879 at the invitation of Ekaterine Dadiani, Princess of Megrelia, and spent 9 years here together with her husband.

Lela Gaprindashvili
Bertha Zutner was familiar with many of Georgia’s distinguished public figures. At precisely the time of her visit the media began a debate - men accused women of neglecting their household chores, of getting too addicted to fashion, and of forgetting their traditional roles in the family.  Georgian women responded that since an uneducated mother who is not recognized in society and does not have a profession cannot be a good teacher for her child, women should receive a complete education and get involved in solving of all of the issues relevant to society.

Marjory Wardrop, the sister of the English envoy to the Caucasus, was very popular in Georgia. She studied Georgian, translating and publishing for the first time in Europe the greatest poem of Shota Rustaveli, the poet and thinker of the 12th-century Georgian Renaissance. “Lion’s whelps are equal, be they male or female” - This phrase from “The Knight in the Panther's Skin” was admired by the British novelist. In her study, she noted that the idea of equality for women in Georgia was not new. After all, the idea should not been strange for a state which flourished in the period when it was ruled by a woman, the legendary Queen Tamar.

Lela Gaprindashvili
Both men and women admired the fact that Marjory spoke Georgian. And all of this took place during a general policy of Russification, when the Georgian language was prohibited in schools. At that time, even publication of a textbook of the Georgian language was a revolution. Therefore, efforts undertaken by Europeans to promote Georgian culture were very important. Marjory Wardrop wrote that Georgia should not be afraid of Europe and its values.

By the late 19th century, social-democratic ideas became very popular in Georgia. Not only aristocrats joined the women's movement. Kato Mikeladze, the daughter of a famous Georgian journalist, was educated in Brussels in the late 19th century and returned to Georgia in 1910. She founded the first major movement of suffragists in Kutaisi, western Georgia. The newspaper Voice of Georgia's Women published translations of the most interesting European feminists. Its campaign was successful: Four percent of the delegates in the first Parliament of Georgia elected in 1918 were women.

In the Soviet period there was a street in the center of Tbilisi named after Clara Zetkin. In 1991, after Georgia regained its independence, this street and many others were renamed. The International Working Women’s Day holiday on March 8th was abolished. Instead, Mother's Day was celebrated. Only in 2002 was March 8th restored as a public holiday.

However, to date this holiday is perceived as merely a day to celebrate spring and beauty. As in Soviet times, almost nobody mentions women's rights, yet women still receive flowers as a gift. Seventy years of Soviet stagnation made it quite difficult to revive discussions on gender issues in our society. March 8th is a crucial date for women's organizations, but they are still not popular within society.

Eka Agdgomelashvili
In the Soviet period, women's equality was a part of state policy, not a result of the evolution of the women's movement, but regarded as one of the achievements of the Bolshevik Revolution. Immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the state lost its main function of chief ideologist. This function was divided among the media, schools and institutions, as well as the church, whose influence is strengthening. In today’s Georgia, only women’s organizations fight for the increased political participation of women. All the rest - the media, political parties, and the family as a social institution – work in the opposite direction, trying to revive the traditional role of women.

Rusudan Kervalishvili came into politics from business. She chairs the Council on Gender Equality in the Parliament of Georgia. The Council was established in 2009. The number of women in the current Parliament is almost the same as in 1918, only five percent. Only eight out of 150 members of Parliament are women.
Rusudan Kervalishvili is the Vice-Speaker of the Parliament of Georgia and the Chairperson of the Council on Gender Equality in the Parliament of Georgia.

I was raised in Communist society, when a monument to a woman and a man with a hammer and sickle stood in front of the building of today’s Parliament. That woman and man really were absolutely equal. The crossed hammer and sickle signified that in that closed society everything was all right concerning gender equality and freedom. They did not have any problems in this respect. Today this Soviet ideology makes us smile and wonder where all the problems must have gone. We survived the 20-year period of conflict, but where is women's participation in their resolution? In the peace process? The same problems prevail all over the Caucasus region – where are the women? Are our women not interested in the peace process? But this is not true! Men make decisions as a result of which their own families, women and children suffer. Unfortunately, this is the reality of the recent period in the Caucasus and throughout the world.

One of the first achievements of the successful cooperation among non-governmental organizations and the Gender Council is the adoption of a Law on Gender Equality by the Parliament of Georgia in 2010. Now we need to develop mechanisms for its implementation - otherwise, equality will remain on paper.

Rusudan Kervalishvili
I think personally, and here most of the representatives of the NGO sector agree with me, that we should employ temporary special measures. For example, those parties who have the highest number of women nominated in the first ten mandates during the intra-party elections should receive special recognition from society. If society is not interested in this, it is natural that women will not be well represented in the next parliament. The desire of women to go into politics often makes most of society smile, if not laugh. Does a woman want to participate? Please! There are women! No, there are not! In fact, the number of women in politics is so small that they cannot convey the whole pain and needs of the society.

Eka Agdgomelashvili
I cannot say that there are few women in political parties. However, analyses show that they often perform basic work, for example, the dissemination of information during the campaign or public relations. In the end women are always somewhere at the bottom of the party list, which, of course, reduces their chances of getting into parliament. And even when we're talking about women who have managed to become active political figures, I must say that it does not change the picture in general. I analyzed the pre-election rhetoric of female politicians and concluded that none of these women were interested in representing women as a social group. There is no single political party that would take into account, let alone try to solve, problems that concern women.
The sharp decline in the number of women in positions of power in Georgia is not unique. This trend is evident in all post-Soviet countries. This means that the gender balance was created artificially in the Soviet Union and could not stand the test of time.

Eka Agdgomelashvili
We’re talking about power-sharing. We're talking about a patriarchal culture, and requesting that men voluntarily share the power with women. This happens only in fairy tales. In Europe, in order to achieve this, women really had to fight for their rights. And in Georgia, we can only request that the political parties take our recommendations into account.

In Georgia we often talk about the cult of respect for women as part of our tradition. However, real life does not always confirm this thesis. One of the most serious and urgent problems of the gender movement in Georgia is domestic violence. In 2009 the UN Population Fund conducted a large-scale study for the first time in Georgia, which showed that nearly a third of women face physical or psychological violence from men. Liberali, a popular magazine, dedicated an article to this topic.

Natia Guliashvili
According to the study, about 34 percent of the 2000 women surveyed have at least one reason to justify a husband beating his wife. That's awful! Women believe that a husband has the right to beat his wife if she is unfaithful. There is a fairly high percentage of women - about 30 percent – who are not allowed by their husbands to see friends or relatives.

Natia just graduated from the university and believes that most young people in Georgia are still quite immature, living at their parents’ expense rather than striving for economic independence.

Natia Guliashvili
In recent years, such surveys have been conducted quite often, and I still hear these stereotypes that the most important thing for a woman is the household and raising children. Our society still does not understand that a woman can put her career first instead of marriage. The statistics prove it as well: at universities female students outnumber male students, but after graduation, generally the boys get jobs and the girls get married and dedicate themselves to family life. I think that the imposition of stereotypes affects not only women but also men. From early childhood boys are taught that man must be in charge of the family; they are burdened with more rights and duties than they even want.

To better understand the role of women in the traditions of Georgian society, we went to the mountains. The Svaneti region in Georgia is considered to be the highest populated place in Europe - 2400 meters above sea level. Svanetians are proud of the fact that during their thousand-year history they have not known any ruler. As in other mountainous areas of Georgia, here, too, a military democracy was formed in the Middle Ages. The famous Svanatian towers – where whole families hid to protect themselves from the attacks of enemies, are sightseeing attractions for today’s tourists.  And to learn about their traditions we went to the museum. Ethnographer Dali Paliani says that “the Elder”, called “Makhvshi” in Svaneti, was elected at a general assembly with the participation of both men and women. In peacetime Makhvshi was a judge, and in times of war he led the army. The most important problems of the community were resolved at general assemblies.

Dali Paliani
The stick I am holding in my hand is called “MIJVRA”. It was borne by the Elder, who served as a mediator during disputes. Svaneti was a free territory and, accordingly, its people resolved domestic or economic disputes themselves. Of course, most of the decisions were made by men; but in the process of discussions women also participated quite often and exerted their influence. Women's views were not ignored. The women had a major role and function in the family and the community. Of course, women did not participate in the Svanatian ritual of swearing an oath to the icon, but they could express their opinions on an equal basis with men.

For several years in Svaneti has been actively developing tourism. The workload has increased and the women here are the leaders again - it is easier for women to find work in the service sector. In this the harsh laws of the mountains, which were established in the Middle Ages, contradict the modern reality. Even though a woman can support a family, in public and family life she plays only a secondary role after men.

Ten years ago Rusudan Nakani created the first and only women's NGO in the mountainous region. The organization ceased to exist a full three years ago. Rusudan now owns a small shop. According to her, the main problems for women in this region are domestic violence, a nearly zero level of political activity by women, dependence on public opinion and stereotypes. Rusudan hopes that a new generation will be more fortunate.

Rusudan Nakani
My generation is already lost, because as the years go by, the level of initiatives decreases, we are absorbed by everyday problems. We made many concessions and I do not want our children to repeat the same. And we need support from the whole society so that their lives, too, won’t be passed in vain, so that they have some freedom, so that they spend their lives meaningfully.

Another region - Marneuli.  Azerbaijanis live here - one of the largest national minorities in Georgia. The problems are similar here – a low level of political and social activities, stereotypes, practically total dependence of women on their families. The fact that they do not know the state language exacerbates the situation. Leila Suleimanova leads a unique organization called the “Union of Azerbaijani women of Georgia”. She believes that the emphasis should be placed on education. In ten years around 50,000 people have participated in various programs offered by the organization. At the Center for Integration one can learn Georgian and English, get legal advice, and even learn a new profession - for example, how to weave carpets.

LEILA Suleimanova
We are trying to attract women to public activities, to elections, at least in order to be able to solve basic problems of everyday life in their own communities. The more women participate in local government, the more social problems will be solved and the easier it will be for women themselves to live in this society.
Statistics show that in 48 percent of families, a woman is the main breadwinner or contributes as much to the family budget as her husband. However, women's rights in the labor market continue to be violated.

Eka Agdgomelashvili
Changes that were recently made to the Labor Code may be perceived as a discriminatory practice. For example, the law does not prohibit a contractor’s firing a pregnant woman or a woman with small children, or not hiring her despite equal qualifications. This puts professional women on an unequal footing compared with men. What is more, two years ago the social benefits for maternity leave were abolished.

Natia Guliashvili
Just because of the stereotypes of the patriarchal culture, which dictate that women are responsible for raising children, no man in Georgia could imagine taking paternity leave – only maternity leave by women is acceptable. In any case, such leave is either unpaid or paid very little, so that here again, women suffer financially. In Sweden, 85 percent of employed men use paternity leave and participate actively in raising their children; I have never heard of such a case in Georgia. There is a paradoxical situation; Parliament passes laws on gender equality, but all of this comes from the top, while it needs to come from the bottom, from women themselves. I think these stereotypes are too deeply engrained in our women, and this prevents them from being active.
However, patriarchal laws do not apply to labor migration. For every 100 men who leave the country to search for work, 67 women migrate for the same reason. Often they work illegally. Every other woman is not able to return home, cannot see her children for years or is not able to start a family of her own. NGOs urge the authorities to work seriously on this problem.

Rusudan Kervalishvili
We have a very big problem with migrant workers in Europe. The state must protect the rights of these women. They can become victims of trafficking. The action plan in the Gender Equality Law was resolved to research and collect data on this issue. We greatly appreciate that many non-governmental organizations are active in this direction.

The Law on Gender Equality adopted by the Parliament is a new challenge for gender organizations. For the first time in Georgia all laws will be analyzed in terms of gender politics. Up to now the law has not required such an analysis.

Gigi Tsereteli
Vice-Speaker of the Parliament of Georgia, a member of the Gender Advisory Board, President of the European Parliamentary Forum for Population and Development.

Today society is openly discussing the meaning of gender equality and discrimination, and is aware that violence is more than just physical abuse. Previously it was not acceptable to discuss such issues in Georgia; it was a taboo. Today gender-related laws have been institutionalized, so now the main problem is the implementation of this gender policy in all spheres of life. Salaries, positions, participation in politics and governance, in business and public activities - gender discrimination should be abolished everywhere.

Today there are about 200 women's organizations registered in Georgia, but less than half are active. The main problem is low popularity. The main priorities of these organizations are the fight against poverty, labor migration, trafficking, domestic violence and for women’s active participation in politics.




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