My impressions of women in Georgia were both surprising and in some ways, contradictory. Strong and proud are two words that come to mind first; fashionable, patriotic and vulnerable are others. Women and the different kinds of work they do serve as a backbone to the renewal of this beautiful country, and also the vibrant business community of Tbilisi.
During our first full day on the ground, we went on a tour outside of Tbilisi. Because there was a large demonstration planned, I think our hosts were concerned that we get out of the city—just in case. As we traveled toward Gori, another important city where IRD has an office, we went to some ancient churches, most of which were surrounded by the ruins of protective walls. Georgia is a country with a history of many occupations and invasions. The churches themselves always have the bell towers on the outside, and many graves of significant people on the inside. They tend to have beautiful frescoes and are mostly stone and very old wood.
An interesting beginning of how Christianity spread across Georgia is the story of St. Nino. She wrapped a cross in her beautiful long black hair to protect it from all enemies as she carried it on in horseback to establish the first Christian church. As we went from church to church, all had different expressions of this original Georgian saint, but in each depiction, the same image of the cross wrapped in her hair unifies the painting or fresco. One of the most common names for girls in Georgia is Nino, in her honor.
After we had seen the churches, we went to a cave city. This is just as it sounds—a whole city carved into the side of a small mountain of soapstone. There was a marketplace, many homes, and a meeting hall, which also appeared to serve as a court of justice, because it included a place for capital punishment to be conducted: a hole dug deep in the ground from which it would be impossible to escape, and in which one would have to stand. One home was quite grand, and clearly belonged to an important family. There were cooking pits, places to hitch horses and even a form of aqueduct, allowing water to flow naturally down the mountain, perfect for the townspeople to access.
In the valley below the cave city was their graveyard; during the Soviet era, attempts had been made to develop the ground for other purposes, but each time they would begin construction, a great storm would rage, flooding out the work, leaving devastation behind. The Soviets finally gave up, and so now the graves remain relatively undisturbed.
Georgia is a country in which women have played an important and acknowledged role at many turns in history. As I said above, St. Nino helped to establish Christianity here; somewhat later, there was a woman, King Tamara, who was so instrumental in creating Georgian culture in the twelfth century that the church canonized her, and her portrait hangs in many of the churches and other important buildings. She helped to develop a strong and proud Georgian identity, aspects of which can still be felt today. They call her “King” because the way that they understand gender here is more related to activity in some ways than simply biology. She is certainly acknowledged as a woman, but is honored with the title of “King.” The women in Tbilisi with whom I have interacted are very proud of her contributions to Georgian society and culture.
Women in Georgia today suffer from serious underrepresentation in government and make far less money than men for the same work (much like America), yet still have a strong presence in contemporary history as well as ancient: for one example, the only chess champion from Georgia was a woman. Probably the most significant ways that contemporary women in Georgia have helped their country and their people have been through two very important activities: holding together family under extremely painful and difficult circumstances, and being centrally important to economic renewal through small business enterprise after the wars.
As I walk down the streets of Tbilisi, I see all sorts of women who cover a broad spectrum of culture and wealth. For example, I might see an older woman with scarf, long dark skirt, woolen socks and worn-out shoes walking next to a younger woman wearing nothing but couture with the latest haircut and the perennial very high heels.
For me, though, the most compelling story of women in Georgia, is the story of the women and girls who have been displaced by war from their homes and farms both fifteen years ago and just this past year. The conditions under which these women have to help their husbands and children survive are really appalling. The older internally displaced persons from the war of Abkhazia have been put in old factory buildings, army barracks, and similar housing, which has fallen into deep decay. The buildings are desolate and dirty. The families live in tiny one- and two-room areas, with no kitchen or toilet. The communal toilet is simply indescribable by any standards of modern hygiene. The injuries run deep with these families; they have not healed from their losses, nor do they seem to have much hope for the future. We saw the kids playing around the buildings, creating for themselves through imagination and spirit, the toys and playgrounds they don’t get to enjoy. We were told by their proud parents of how the children walk far to school each day and take their studies most seriously.
A hopeful opportunity in this disaster is the work of NGOs such as IRD that try to alleviate the worst of the suffering. With medical supplies and renovations, some of the IDPs’ situations have improved enough to help the people feel at least some sense that the children may escape some day. IRD will be doing more work here to help more families, and continue to help develop a renewed belief in building a brighter future for Georgia and its poorest citizens.
One woman we spoke with showed us her tiny IRD renovated family room—there were two rooms total—with a new floor, clean and freshly painted walls, new and insulated windows and what most Americans would see as very modest furniture. She spoke in Georgian but her eyes filled with tears as she became more and more emotional. Our interpreter told us that she said that this had been a dream fulfilled. At first I was really wrapped up in her happiness; we met her daughters and their babies, all of the women beaming and proud.
But then the interpreter told us that she has liver cancer, and had been through several painful procedures. I noticed that she had a blanket wrapped around her middle, probably covering the dressings. Still, as she kept talking, telling us about how her daughter was learning English and was attending college, her eyes spilling over with tears, she finally—in English—blurted out in a loud voice, “I love you!”
I wasn’t sure if it was okay, but I felt so moved by her story that I allowed impulse to take over and gave her a big hug. I felt that she wanted to be able to really express our mutual humanity, and she seemed relieved by the moment of human contact and affection. Then there were hugs all around!
Another woman with whom we spoke, like the other people in these collective centers, seemed very distressed. She held a picture of her son who had died in the war fifteen years earlier, and it was clear that she had not experienced full healing from her loss. She wanted to tell me all about him, and I listened to her words, trying my best to feel the emotions and stay with her, even though I don’t understand her language. Then, her daughter-in-law arrived and handed grandma her baby. This finally brought some relief from her sadness and plaintive tones.
There are as many of these stories as there are families to talk about, but there is a wonderful spirit of hope, playfulness and, yes, anger here, that I pray will some day push Georgia to it fullest potential—especially with the help of organizations such as IRD.
There are lots of other aspects of my experience here so far, but these were the ones that seemed the most important to share immediately. There are all of the cultural aspects of Tbilisi, the food, the wine, the people—and the constant mission to find real (not instant) coffee! There are also many aspects to the work we are doing to help develop and, of course, help fund our new project. But a taste of our first days here seemed best.