Tbilisi, City Of Contrasts

Overlooking Tblisi

Zazz and friend looking out over old Tbilisi.

Standing beneath the shadow of the ancient medieval fortress of Narikala, my new friend Oliver and I gazed down at the city below us. His voice broke the momentary silence brought on by the awe that comes from taking in a beautiful scene.

“City of contrasts.”

I almost said, “jinx” before I realized he had taken the words out of my mouth. Old crumbling houses with sunken roofs, buildings in the shape of sleek metallic tubes, dozens of church steeples reaching out of dusty brick, and a modern cable-car lifting sightseers towards a giant metal woman brandishing a bowl and a sword. Tbilisi, Georgia is a city of contrasts.

I’ve always loved the sight of contrasts, whether in paintings, photography, or personalities; contrasts make things distinguishable. Two defined attributes working to highlight each attribute’s charm. Through contrast appears the heart and soul of a thing. What I found at the heart of Tbilisi was a proud culture rich in history and full of strength and opinion.

Mother of Georgia

Mother of Georgia.

Unfortunately, I quickly learned that coupled with the old and beautiful buildings in Tbilisi, was also an old form of sexism. Tbilisi has a strong feminine face, but a thick matriarchal backbone. Everywhere I went I would find eyes of men ogling me in obviously inappropriate ways. This caused me to want to wear longer sleeves and longer shorts despite the humid and hot weather in the summer. Possibly more upsetting than the heat, was the pressure to dress in a certain way to avoid being disrespected. 

However, I didn’t end up succumbing to the social pressure all thanks to a close friend of mine.

It’s easy to see that a truly strong country, making it through the test of time, produces strong people. In contrast to the old traditions of masculine privilege is a young woman working hard to make a difference with the rising generations of Georgian men and women. Elene Kvernadze of the United Nations Association of Georgia and my good friend, founded the movement “Open Your Eyes, Listen, Break the Silence” A movement to raise awareness about domestic violence in Georgia and to give more people strength to push social boundaries.

I got the pleasure of interviewing Elene about her home country and her views on gender equality in Georgia.

Elene Meditating

Kvernadze meditating on social issues over the old Tbilisi Baths.

As a guest to the country, my initial reaction might be a bit harsh. Is sexism really prevalent in Georgia?

Elene: YES! VERY! It’s strange how I never realized it growing up here… It took me leaving for college and actually looking at my country from afar to realize just how bad it was. It’s engrained in almost every aspect of our culture, but it’s wrapped in this strange tradition of respect; fake respect for women that blinds you.
Think of the statue you were talking about- it’s called the mother of Georgia. There’s a cult view of mothers and women, and how we have the utmost respect for them; when in reality the only thing this respect is visible in is calling the mother out from the kitchen during a feast to toast to their health and then letting them go back to being a slave for the evening- baking, cooking, and changing plates.

What are some of the cultural customs that stand out as sexist?

First of all, there’s the double standard! A woman is either a virgin or a whore; there is no in-between and the moment it’s know that you have had sex you are labeled as easy. It’s like you’re damaged goods. While on the other hand, guys are supposed to have a lot of experience with sex which includes prostitutes… from a very young age. It’s disgusting really. Women are basically not valued, no matter what they accomplish in life, unless they are married and have kids. So their value lies in their families. No matter how beautiful, smart educated and successful you are, if you are single, people kinda pity you. It’s weird… but it’s changing slowly.
Also, women are supposed to put their families first, raising kids and house work is their job… this is just the tip of the icebergs… there are also more serious issues, for example, that women should endure verbal and even physical abuse from their husbands for the sake of their families; which contributes to further violence within the home. I can talk about this forever, there are so many examples, but I think you get the idea.

Are there possible benefits to the way the gender culture in Georgia currently is and are they worth it?

I think in general the clear divide of roles between the sexes creates structure. Everyone knew their place and what was expected of them and life was “easy.” You know what I mean? Right now there is a crisis going on, especially in men, because those roles are changing. Women now do all the things men used to do but men are still struggling to realize that it means they now have to share the responsibilities women used to have. So there is a backlash from the society, and especially men, but I think that’s a normal part of change in any society: there is resistance and fear to the new and unknown. You will always have a part of the society who will try to conserve what was… but that’s just how it goes.

What needs to change and what are you and others doing to change it?

More strict laws need to be in place to battle gender based violence. These laws need to be implemented properly, officials need to be trained to understand these issues, civil society needs to take an active role; and most importantly, raising awareness in the public and ingraining the idea that each one of us is responsible for creating a society where everyone is treated equally and with dignity.
I actually think we are heading in the right direction and I’m very optimistic about it. This year 29 women were killed at the hands of their husbands or ex husbands in Georgia, this is a tragedy. And this tragedy was an awful awakening for the country to realize that this issue, actually IS an issue! Everyone from politicians to regular people have started talking about this, it is starting to become a priority… again; because people have started to care.
Tblisi Candy

Churchkhela, a Georgian fruit and nut candy. Not to be mistaken for anal beads.

I’ve been following social media in Georgia a bit and I realize that Elene is right. The rising generation of Georgians care, and in this they have once again proven to be strong and resilient people.

Contrasts are beautiful, they highlight features that might otherwise be missed in a blend. But possibly more importantly, contrasts make it easier to see what is worth fighting for.

Elene, me, & Khachapuri

Elene Kvernadze with author.

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5 responses to “Tbilisi, City Of Contrasts

  1. I have been writing about the issues looked at in this piece for several years. I am heartened to see that people believe things are changing. I saw no such change, indeed, I saw more evidence of the backlash against the changes when I was there last summer. May of the issues raised in the piece are looked at deeply in my blog. A good place to start is with The Georgian Witch. Here in the UK I highlight the issues facing Georgian society and women in particular at public Performance Poetry events. http://sarahcobham1.blogspot.co.uk/2013_10_01_archive.html

  2. “More strict laws need to be in place to battle gender based violence.”

    Or, they just need to enforce existing laws. Georgians have an Arab attitude towards the home – I lived next to man who violently beat his wife every other day.

    I asked many Georgians I knew why no one ever called the police, and nearly every single one asked why anyone would call the police over that kind of issue.

    It’s already against the law, but the Soviet-era created and total and utter corruption of Shevardnadze created a situation where people are still very reluctant to ever involve themselves with law enforcement.

  3. Never witnessed hard sexism or what so ever in Georgia personally, as I travelled there as a tourist. Even from the behaviour or words of my local friends !
    I read this article with high astonishment ! Georgia is a very European-oriented country, women are valued there. Living in Azerbaijan for 5 months now, I can tell the difference !

  4. This is an important article for the people of Georgia, as well as citizens of most former Soviet states and Islamic countries. Thank you for writing this.

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