Georgian feminists are beacons of light in a region darkening for women

The World
East Point mayor Teona Chikladze has come to symbolize a feminist movement in Georgia

Blooming trees and warm breezes inspired Sophiko Vasadze’s weekend plans. She pulled on her hipster sneakers and a black raincoat.

“It seemed the coolest, Berlin-style outfit,” she told me later. Saturday nightlife was calling — Sophiko and her friend dove onto the crowded streets of Tbilisi, buzzing with foreign tourists.

It was their decision what they would wear, how they would cut their hair, who they'd date and what they'd drink that night. The capital of post-Soviet Georgia has been taken over by a young and free generation of women, who are growing increasingly rebellious against all post-Soviet dogma.

Walking on Tbilisi streets earlier this month, I recognized a radical change in the appearances of young Georgian women. When I began to report from Tbilisi in the late 1990s, feminism was still an exotic phenomenon — unacceptable in traditional Georgian families. Tbilisi women wore elegant black clothes, often with good but conservative taste.

Just as in my favorite movie by Otar Iosseliani, “Once Upon a Time There Was a Singing Blackbird,” women continued to stick to traditionally long skirts, not revealing too much bare skin. Back then, nobody could imagine the freedom some young women celebrate these days.  

“The time when men dictated how women behave is long gone,” my friend Timur said, admitting something not many men in the Caucasus region are ready to accept. The traditional pride of masculinity still runs deep in the region. “Although Georgian men often misperceive women as not being good leaders, managers or decisions makers, this is the moment when they have to wake up, as women are taking over the steering wheel in many Georgian families."

The urbane lifestyle of Georgian women like Sophiko illustrates the stark differences between the increasingly liberal and progressive attitudes of Tbilisi and the rest of the region, which seems mired in authoritarianism, Islamic extremism and misogyny.

In nearby Turkey, the authoritarian president is imprisoning more journalists than anywhere else in the world. Repeated terrorist attacks across 2016 have shuttered many of the thriving nightclubs and tourist restaurants of Istanbul. In Russia, gay, lesbian and transgender people increasingly fear their freedoms. The upcoming French elections may add to the disintegration of Europe. And women’s rights seems to be shrinking along with many of these trends.

As many across the US and Europe bemoan a sense of hunkering down, turning backwards and increasingly traditionalism — Tbilisi seems to be going in the other direction.

Since the Rose Revolution of 2003, Georgia has been making progress in restoring freedoms and institutionalizing its political reforms. By 2006, it topped global lists for constructive business reforms, turning into the most business-friendly country, which explains its success in tourism that we can see today: Millions of people visit Georgia every year. Georgian women actively participate in politics.

Last October, Georgian elections featured several women candidates, including the most well-known, Tamar Chugoshvili, Nino Burjanadze and Helen Khostaria. I interviewed Khostaria at her headquarters in downtown Tbilisi, where her team members, young and thoughtful volunteers, sat around the floor on big pillows, brainstorming about the key points of their campaign.

Last year, East Point, a Georgian center of shopping, leisure and entertainment, elected Mayor Teona Chikladze. She has fascinated Georgians with her positive attitude and her radically bright pink hair. "My favorite color is always with me, bringing joy and elation not only to me, but to people who surround me as well," Teona told me.

The color makes her happy, the mayor says, as it reflects her inner life. "This is one of the most effective ways to convey your story, your message to people around you, and make your voice heard," Teona said.  "For years, dark colors dominated in Georgia, which was a relevant reflection of social, political and economic climate of that period — communist regime, perestroika, civil war. I am happy that recently brighter, more daring colors start to prevail. Younger generation have become style-conscious, which symbolizes the readiness for new challenges and reinvention."

Still, conservative voices have called on young Georgian women to respect Caucuses traditions and the Orthodox Church. Homophobia is still present.

But the hipster generation has its own plans for Georgia’s future.

“No matter how right-wing and conservative Europe is turning today, Georgia will be heading towards liberal values,” Sophiko told me.

During the day, Sophiko works as a journalist, covering the most acute social and political issues for international Internet, radio and television media. She’s soon headed to the US for an internship at CNN.  “Maybe our Tbilisi is 10 or 15 years behind Berlin, but my nephew will see us catch up,” she said with confidence.

This weekend, Sophiko was hanging out at Fabrika until 2 a.m., together with artists, designers, musicians, journalists, students and foreign tourists — it could be a hangout in any Western capital. 

Then the girls’ gang moved to Khidi, a nightclub under a bridge over the Kura River. Some of the visitors were gay, some transgender. They smoked, they had drinks, they danced their feet sore until morning. Here they were, the free Georgian girls — in hip outfits, with piercings, hair died the brightest green, blue, pink or lilac.

"My grandmother and even my mother could not imagine a punk haircut, or the kind of outfits I wear — there were probably no more than 20 or 30 hip girls in all of Georgia in my mother’s youth,” Sophiko said.

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