Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Are Georgians Just Bad Feminists?

Two recent conversations led to this blog post...
My first conversation was with my Georgian friend and colleague Bacho. In my office, Bacho is a proud feminist - mainly because he has the English vocabulary to explain his view points, and he is open about discussing them (also is very smart and has lots of experience). Also, Bacho sits next to Amiran, compared to whom basically anyone would look like a raging, bra-burning feminist.
more recent Bacho
Bacho with friends
Our conversation started when Bacho had to work through lunch one the intern and also someone who had basically no work that day, I of course offered to pick something up for him on my lunch break. He politely declined and I didn't think much of it, but later it came out that he declined because
-"no, I never let girl's to pay for me. and do not start that I am sexist and etc."
well shoot. a) my office knows me really well lol  b) I know Bacho, I know he's not sexist...but he won't let a a woman pay for him? Taken in the cultural context of Georgia, what does this mean...? What is Georgian feminism? What is Georgian sexism? 
Of course the bigger question underlying it all is, are feminism and sexism relative concepts?
To be honest, I am somewhat of a moral relativist, probably because I'm just not that good at philosophy, but let's just agree to accept the premise of feminist relativity for the purpose of this post, because it is the basis on which Bacho, and most Georgians, work. 
There are Georgians who heavily criticize their perception of other cultures' social-gender structures - for example, villager and 40-something man Mito once told me that he hated living in Sweden because there the social hierarchy goes


I have found that most Georgians, however, understand or at least somewhat sympathize with western conceptions of feminism...they just reject them in Georgia. There is the idea that Georgia is different, Georgian women are different, and therefore it would be unfair to impose foreign concepts of equality and gender relations here.

This leads me to my second conversation, which was rather one sided...and was in fact more like an inner dialogue I had while reading this fabulous essay. It is an edited extract from Roxane Gay's book Bad Feminist: Essays, published in The Guardian. I found myself vigorously nodding my head; I wanted to point to every other line like "Yes! Don't you agree? This is me." But since everyone else in my office was actually working, I decided to write this post instead of trying to distract them. 

As I read the essay, I also realized how much it felt like feminism in Georgia. Men and women are equally valuable, equally good, but suited for different social roles, and are expected to act in vastly different ways.

If you don't have the 5 minutes to read Roxane Gay's essay, here are some lines that really jumped out at me,

"I want to be independent, but I want to be taken care of and have someone to come home to. I have a job I'm pretty good at. I am in charge of things. I am on committees. People respect me and take my counsel. I want to be strong and professional, but I resent how hard I have to work to be taken seriously, to receive a fraction of the consideration I might otherwise receive."

"When I drive to work, I listen to thuggish rap at a very loud volume, even though the lyrics are degrading to women and offend me to my core. The classic Ying Yang Twins song Salt Shaker? It's amazing. "Bitch you gotta shake it till your camel starts to hurt." Poetry. (I am mortified by my music choices.) I care what people think."

"I shave my legs! Again, this mortifies me. If I take issue with the unrealistic standards of beauty women are held to, I shouldn't have a secret fondness for fashion and smooth calves, right?"

"I put up with nonsense from unsuitable men even though I know better and can do better. I love diamonds and the excess of weddings. I consider certain domestic tasks as gendered, mostly all in my favour because I don't care for chores – lawn care, bug killing and trash removal, for example, are men's work."

"I worry about dying alone, unmarried and childless, because I spent so much time pursuing my career and accumulating degrees. This kind of thinking keeps me up at night, but I pretend it doesn't because I am supposed to be evolved."

"At some point, I got it into my head that a feminist was a certain kind of woman. I bought into grossly inaccurate myths about who feminists are – militant, perfect in their politics and person, man-hating, humourless."

So, are Georgians sexist? Or are they just "bad feminists"?

The basic premise of the Georgian social-gender structure is this:

-men and women are different in every way
-women are "special"
-men should treat women in accordance with their "special" value

Now, most Georgian men would agree with me when I say that men and women are equal, but it usually takes a lot of explanation on my part to get across the meaning of equality. It's probably partly related to the language barrier, but the word equality seems to immediately conjure up images of women working in heavy industry while men suckle babies, because the argument back is inevitably "but men and women are physically different! Men are stronger - women have delicate bones, and only women are able to carry a child!"
Sure. I don't dispute any of this (except for delicate bones wtf is that about). A+ for the Georgian public education system in the basic biology department (but actually not really, because apparently outside Tbilisi biology/anatomy/sex ed is absolutely abysmal). The problem for me ~let's tie these themes together~ is not when Bacho doesn't want a woman to pay for him or when a woman accepts a man paying for her solely based on gender, but when either of these people believe that this system must be. There is a problem when people believe that basic biological difference between men and women somehow make women incapable of making money or undeserving of being able to support themselves financially. 

Now let's dig a little deeper into the unbelievably complicated social context that I currently find myself stumbling through. 
Here's the situation: you are a girl at a restaurant with your girl friend, the only other table in the restaurant is two older, drunk-ish men celebrating something. Over the course of your meal, they make a few toasts to you, buy you and your friend a glass of wine, then eventually join you at your table, laughing and joking and drinking and toasting. One of the men keeps trying to hold your friend's hand during toasts to her. Finally you and your friend (very sick of these rambunctious men) begin to extricate yourselves. You go to the counter to pay and find out the check has been taken care of by these men...
(this is a true story)

What do you think? What does this mean? Why did this happen?

An American perspective: these men are lonely and you are two young attractive single girls alone...they clearly want to butter you up by toasting to your honor, using traditional culture as a chivalrous excuse for flattery. They buy you drinks to relax you a little bit, open you up to their advances. Then they pay for your you owe them something - time, company, ideally something sexual. These men are sleazy creeps and you should skedaddle as fast as possible.

A Georgian perspective: a toast to women is traditional in Georgia - not only expected, but as you are the only women there (other than the waitresses, I guess they don't count?) it would be downright disrespectful to ignore you. Women are the flowers of people, the beautiful garden of humanity - we should celebrate these things! These men have a special appreciation for the beauty of life, the cornucopia of the family structure. Women rock - that's why they are given this "special" treatment. Also, there is an additional layer of Caucasian hospitality - guests are a gift from God, blah blah blah, even if you were men they might have bought your dinner as a symbol of welcome to guests. You owe these men nothing and they expect nothing- you can leave any time without pressure. 


So maybe the Georgian perspective is correct, maybe I'm overly paranoid and mistrusting and cautious and unfair to all these lovely, considerate, welcoming men who only want to show their appreciation for the finer things in life - but it is very hard for me to discern who actually wants something from me and who is just being a "traditional Georgian man." Like the guy at the vegetable stand near my house who gave me some free rehani...was that a sign that he appreciates my high cultured womanhood (which sounds lovely, but also like code for he likes staring at my body), was it just a "welcome" gesture to a guest, or was it a sales tactic so I come back again and keep buying from him??
In America, we are skeptical of everyone's motives because capitalism has made profit the driving force of our actions. Authenticity is rare. Everyone is out for himself. 
In Georgia, I am skeptical of everyone because I have something they want (as a western woman I am usually perceived as wealthy and sexually promiscuous).

If it was just friendliness, wouldn't I get the same treatment from women? I don't. But maybe that's just Georgian social-gender expectations at play...

Maybe the default should be to accept discounts and free things and flattery without preconceptions, but I have found that that gets me into more trouble than a default setting of weary caution. 
And if you know me, you know that I am actually incredibly open and trusting of strangers, probably to a fault (as evidenced by the existence of this blog...). 

I have had and heard of too many examples of men taking this "traditional" thing too far for my own comfort. 
  • A taxi driver very cordially gave me a 1 lari ($0.47) discount when I accepted the price in exhaustion but sighed because I considered it too high. Then later when he asked for my phone number I was to worried he would revoke my discount to say no thank you.
  • A man befriended Kaley on the 6 hour marshrutka ride to Batumi (I pretended I didn't know Russian because I didn't feel like small talking aka invasive personal questions), bought us both coffee, and helped us figure out where we needed to get off the marsh. They exchanged phone numbers, but then he more or less stalked Kaley, calling her constantly just to chat, even when she was back in Russia, and tried to get a train ticket to Tbilisi just so he could ride with us and keep our company...
  • Me almost getting kidnapped in Armenia because I felt obligated to stay with my marshrutka driver after he bought me a coffee and comped my marsh ride...
  • I got a call from an unknown number. The voice on the other end said it was Giorgi (I know like 3-50 people named Giorgi, so this didn't narrow it down). Apparently we go to the same gym and he saw me and liked me so he somehow found out my name and phone number and thought it was appropriate to call me even though we had never met or spoken, and I had no idea who he was...
  • In Sighnaghi I asked the owner of my guesthouse for a restaurant recommendation for dinner and he invited me to a supra at his friends' house and it was amazing fun with many children and was very tame, then afterwards he doggedly insisted I come with him for a drink - I let him buy me ONE drink and then when we finally got back to the guesthouse I literally had to trick him so I could lock him out of my room because he wouldn't leave me alone and kept trying to touch me...
  • A friend and I are standing on a street corner waiting for a taxi near the street of clubs/bars late at night, speaking English. A man approached us, kept trying to talk, so finally I started replying and kind of messing with him. After about 5 minutes I asked him to leave us alone, and he got very angry, started insulting me, and right in front of a police officer (who did nothing once the guy bro-ed out with him in Georgian) pulled my hair, then followed us down the street and grabbed my ass. (this wasn't really a guy trying to be traditional and crossing some line, this guy was just a stupid jerk, but I wanted to share the story anyway, it somehow seems to fit...)
  • I could go on and on and on...

Is it acceptable for every single man I meet to ask me if I'm married and why I'm not and how old I am within 5 minutes of meeting me? Does it make it okay if he prefaces the question by "if it's not a secret, tell me.."?

Where is the line between respecting and exalting women, putting them on a pedestal, and restricting their role in society? Where is the line between traditional behavior and expectations, and silencing both men and women's voices by taking away their right to decide how to act towards each other? Where is the line between politely acknowledging tradition and implying acceptance of something more? I haven't figured that  out yet. 

When tradition dictates that men should treat women a certain way, that women should demurely accept such treatment, and emphasizes the separateness of men and women, there is a very small leap to make to disrespecting women, limiting women (and men), and minimizing women. 

At my office, it is acceptable (I suppose, because people do it all the time) to preen at your desk. It is normal to pull out a hand mirror and blot the oil from your face, or brush your bangs. Is this a sign of vanity? Of men oppressing women into standards of beauty so rigid than women feel the need to look perfect constantly, distracting them from their work?
I would argue, no...American women do the same things, just in the privacy of their bathrooms. Why wouldn't I apply lipstick at my desk in the US? Because it would make me seem too girly, less professional, less serious...why does being a professional woman mean we have to hide our femininity? We are still expected to look perfect, beautiful, clean, thin...but we are also expected to hide the construction process. Run to the powder room because we are serious women. In Georgia, women acknowledge social beauty standards, and those that accept them do so fully, in public, not hiding in the bathroom, and are not considered less professional for it - that's just what women do. Men and women are different - does this perhaps give women more freedom to be as they want? 
Unlike in Russian cities, where nearly all women conform strictly to high-fashion beauty standards, constantly in painful heels, full makeup, perfectly coiffed hair, plenty of women in Tbilisi rock fashion sneakers and screen t's a la 2009. While dark, heavy lipstick is on trend, it's also pretty common to forgo makeup altogether (particularly in the face-melting summer heat). 
Why does my colleague Vika come to work in flats, change into spiked snakeskin-print heels for her desk job, then change back into flats to go home? I don't know. Probably because she wants to, and no one thinks less of her for doing so. She is not a feminist (read below) and feels no pressure to be a "good feminist" accordingly...
Which system is more free? Which system is more equal? 

Bacho summarizes a common Georgian view: "my point is that: when you pay for a girl it does not mean that you are advanced [above women]. It is sort of expression of gentlemen's huge respect to woman. I absolutely agree with the idea gender equality. As for payment issues, it is like Our custom and great custom in my view point. In Georgia we [men] do not pay [for women in order] to get back anything. We simply pay as we respect Woman's phenomena and get pleasure with such kind of conduct" -B. Tortellini, 2016

Then Bacho asked Vika, if she felt her rights were violated in Georgia. She said that sometimes, yes, but not because she's a woman. She recognized that many Georgian women do have their rights violated, but not her personally. Bacho asserts that in Tbilisi and most of the cities women's rights are not violated.

Vika: "women's rights are not defended in Georgia. [but I don't consider myself a feminist because] I don't agree with any radical things. Maybe because I'm not violated, I don't know...there are so many other problems here."

So there you have it.
As much as I could write about feminism in Georgia in two hours (with a small break for birthday cake....). 
Bring on the pitchforks and torches.

King Tamar: a Georgian woman so smart, strong, and powerful
that they awarded her a male title.
Georgians tend to point to her as an example of their long-standing
gender equality and exaltation of women...

"No matter what issues I have with feminism, I am a feminist. I cannot and will not deny the importance and absolute necessity of feminism. Like most people, I'm full of contradictions, but I also don't want to be treated like shit for being a woman. I am a bad feminist. I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all." -Roxane Gay


  1. I've just discovered your blog and I'm really enjoying it. I'm newly fascinated with Georgian culture and am hoping to visit for the first time in the near future. I've heard a bit about the differences between Georgian vs Western culture (regarding women, in particular), but I'm learning much more from your entries than I'd expected.

    Do you also have a FB page, or another way I can contact you?


    1. Hi, Adya. So glad you like my blog!
      I would love to chat more. Feel free to send me an email at, and we can connect less formally.

  2. Hi Samantha! my name is Marta and I'm in Tbilisi too..I've been reading your blog recently and I'd love to chat about feminism in Georgia with you. if you're up for it, how can I contact you?

    1. Hi, Marta. So glad you like my blog!
      I would love to chat more. Feel free to send me an email at, and we can connect less formally.