Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgian Women Break the Mould

New economic realities are eroding the traditional stereotype of Georgian women as devoted home-makers and long-suffering martyrs.
By Ia Antadze

In the 12th century Georgian epic, "The Knight in a Panther's Skin", a young man finds his long-lost sweetheart locked up in a remote tower. And, when she discovers that her lover is near, the woman writes him a message, which reads, "I have been sitting here all this while, fostering the love that I bear you."

The tale is deeply symbolic of the traditional view of Georgian women who pride themselves on their devotion, despite the forbidding walls which society has built around them.

Ever since the Golden Age of King Tamara, women in Georgia's male-dominated society have been expected to serve their husbands and children, while the men make the decisions and observe their warrior traditions. In wartime, the women carried out their husbands' duties as well - hence the Georgian word "deda-katsi", which literally means "mother-man".

In return, Georgian women enjoyed the veneration of society: even now Georgians say "mother and father", "wife and husband", "girls and boys" - never vice-versa.

It is, however, a stereotype which has been constantly challenged over the last 10 years, as women find themselves forced to leave the family circle and find themselves jobs.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Georgian men have found they are unable to adapt to the new realities and the demands of a market economy. In a nation where 90 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line and 30 per cent suffer from malnutrition, women are often obliged to take on the role of the family's breadwinner.

Against the backdrop of male defeatism, Georgian women have risen to the challenge in the spirit of self-sacrifice - their historical legacy.

Options for them, however, are limited: most attempt to make a living by selling goods at street markets and kiosks. Even professional women who are qualified doctors, musicians or academics can be found trading in second-hand clothes or home-made cakes in the streets of Tbilisi.

And their heroic efforts have won them the respect and compassion of modern Georgian society, simply because they try to overcome obstacles which have defeated their menfolk.

Despite this forced liberation, moral and family values within Georgian society appear to have survived intact. Georgia boasts 17 centuries of Christian tradition and a woman's fidelity is sacrosanct. Adultery is still regarded as a mortal sin, as women are traditionally responsible for the dignity of their family unit. While male peccadilloes are generally tolerated, unfaithful women can expect to be shunned by society.

In the same way, widows who remain faithful to their husband's memory are held in especial esteem. They remain the most popular heroines of Georgian literature, where they are usually described as "towers of strength".

However, even modern society frowns on women's involvement in street demonstrations, particularly in the nationalist movement, which often mobilises more women than men in rallies. The most extreme examples are the so-called "mourning mothers in black" - women who have lost sons during Georgia's internal conflicts. Protesting that the killers remain unpunished, the women picket government buildings round-the-clock, occasionally mobbing members of parliament (MP) which cross their path.

Of the 235 MPs in the new parliament, only 16 are women. Irina Sarishvili, leader of the National Democratic Party, remains the darling of the Georgian press - even though she failed to win a seat in the October 31 elections.

Sarishvili is seen to represent the tragic and courageous side of Georgian women. On December 3, 1994, hired killers attacked Sarishvili and her husband, politician Gia Chanturia, outside their home. Chanturia was killed and Sarishvili badly wounded, but she later went on to take over the reins of her husband's party, once considered to be the most promising political faction in the republic.

Elene Tevdoradze is among the foremost defenders of human rights in Georgia. Chairwoman of the parliamentary committee on human rights, she is constantly accosted by admirers - who usually greet her with the words, "You probably don't remember me but you helped me once..."

Other prominent women include two ministers, Tamara Beruchashvili, responsible for foreign trade, and environment minister Nino Ckhobadze, as well as two ambassadors, Rusudan Lordkipanidze, in Italy, and the well-known filmmaker and artist, Lana Ghoghoberidze, ambassador to the EU.

But, most of all, the traditions of Georgian womanhood are upheld by Nanuli Shevardnadze, the president's wife. The First Lady may head a women's charity organisation which supports orphans and publish her own newspaper, but she also admits a complete dependence on her husband who, she is convinced, will save the country from its current economic hardships. "When I fail to understand what's going on, I totally trust my husband," says Nanuli Shevardnadze. "In the long run, it will emerge that he has everything meticulously planned."

Ia Antadze is a journalist on the Tbilisi newspaper Kavkasioni.