“Males and females are attributed some specific roles and expectations,” said Dr. Lado Gamsakhurdia, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Tbilisi State University, when I asked him how gender is attached to Georgian mentality. “I have already mentioned, for example, that a conservative code of sexual behavior is placed upon Georgian women but not Georgian men. Further, the traditional distribution of family roles in Georgia has been the same as in other parts of Europe until recent times where men were the heads of families, working on their jobs outside of the home and women were mostly occupied by managing their households. However, this situation has been changing due to the dramatic transformation of economic and societal systems. A significant number of women are working and contributing to the financial subsistence of their families and so their position is much stronger now than it was decades ago.”
Despite the fact that women are increasingly assuming a stronger position and having a louder voice in society – there is no disputing this – it is also a fact, however, that the vestiges of the long-entrenched patriarchal system, conservative mindsets and sexism (all of this much more so in the high mountainous regions owing to isolation in all of its forms, but also here in Tbilisi) remain in Georgian society and are visible when you take a close look or start asking questions. There is also no disputing this.
Georgian identity is still strongly connected to masculinity. Men continue to be considered as defenders of the family and the homeland. Boys from their early childhood are taught masculinity. For many here, men are men and women are women and there is nothing more to discuss. One only needs to look at Tbilisi’s LGBTQ community and the verbal, psychological and physical threats it faces on a constant basis to know – even if you do not want to admit it – that this is a part of the local reality. One theory in social psychology purports that the trademark masculinity has been conditioned by Georgia’s historic need to defend itself from invaders from all sides.
“Yes, Georgian mentality exists,” said Zhana, age 26, “and it is something very interesting, for sure. We definitely have too much pressure from society because of our mentality. Men are supposed to be leaders of the family, make all the money, never cry, always be strong, never show their emotions. Women are housewives and baby producers. Men must be strong and aggressive, even violent sometimes because they think that women like it. But it is not only this. Gender issues in Georgian mentality also come up in terms of jobs and career choices. Our mentality also affects our work. My sister, for example, wants to be a surgeon. But my mother is against this because she said ‘it is a masculine job.’ She added ‘being a surgeon needs strength, surgeons work night shifts and it is a lot of hard work because women are weak.’ Things are now changing a bit. We have lady bus drivers now but even this is still bizarre for most people. Here is another thing. Many women want to become actors but they don’t, in the end, because their families think that they will become promiscuous.”
Dr. Gamasakhurdia also addresses the issue of gender and Georgianness in his research and study on socio-cultural processes and cultural changes as well as the connection between culture and personality. In particular, in his article, entitled “Making Identity, Proculturation in Between Georgianness and Westerness,” he highlights the Georgian social representing process of womanliness which sees females as wholly feminine beings whose sacred purpose is to be a mother and a wife. In his case study, he presents the example of a young Georgian woman who believes that European women are strong and manly, too independent, dominating and more oriented on their career than on a family. Tamar, the woman in his case study, said: “I think I am an independent girl and I want to be independent but not in the European way. I want my husband to be a strong man… I want to be close and rely on him. I am not that manly American girl.”
In parallel, the typical female Georgian life trajectory of daughter–wife–mother–mother-in-law–grandmother – family is more important than career for many Georgian women – is also underlined. In his case study, Dr. Gamsakhurdia also presents the example of another young Georgian woman, Nino, who stated: “I have a Master’s degree and am working now. I am quite successful. But I feel unhappy as I am single. My main goal is to have a family, that is what is most important in life… A career is secondary as compared to family… I hate those so-called feminists… European-type girls… who say that they can and should live without men… I want to have a normal family…”
An opposite trajectory is also seen despite the pressure from society.
“I am not getting married,” said Mariam, age 21, “and I am not having children. This is my own choice. But do you know how my family reacts? They are hurt, angry, sad, mad and every other negative thing you can think of. It is more important for them all that they have a married daughter with a husband and children because of what other people will say, of course, than to even consider my choice or my happiness.”
Gender, perhaps after the importance of family and friendships or maybe equal to it, is indeed one of the strongest attributes or markers of Georgian mentality. The lines between men and women, male and female, masculine and feminine are clearly drawn and remain strongly fixed.
“Yes, our mentality puts pressure on boys and men,” said Anna, age 20, “simply because they are boys and men. Look at our tradition of the supra [=festive table] and the tamada [=ritual toast maker]. Not taking part in this means that people, especially the older ones, will consider you as unmanly.”
Here are two additional examples:
Dr. Nino Makhashvili, Associate Professor and Head of the Mental Health Resource Center at Ilia State University and Director of the Global Initiative on Psychiatry in Tbilisi, told me that men typically do not seek mental healthcare because it will be perceived as something “not masculine.” She said: “Our men are too macho to seek the help they need like for depression or PTSD. For instance, approximately 32% of men (versus nearly 22% of women), displaced because of wars in Georgia, are suffering from sub-clinical depression which implies feelings of helplessness and despair, alongside other symptoms, but most of them have never approached anybody for their mental health problems. And this is despite the fact that depression is associated with high levels of morbidity and mortality, and is the most common disorder contributing to suicide.”
Paternity leave for new fathers is granted by law in Georgia but relatively few men take this opportunity owing to the prevailing opinion in society that childrearing is exclusively the women’s domain. “…Many men would go on paternity leave if it were not for the stereotype that this is somehow not a man’s affair,” said Giorgi Balakhashvili who took paternity leave after both of his children were born. “In traditionally-minded Georgia, childcare is considered a woman’s job alone and the ability of men to cope with the responsibility of raising a child is often cast in doubt.”
Out of my own curiosity, and stemming from a question I have been asking here for years and which I still believe is directly linked to gender and Georgian mentality, I conducted an informal opinion poll asking people to answer this: “Why don’t Georgian men use an umbrella?”
The answers were broad and varied, sometimes humorous, but almost entirely with a focus on gender. Here is a sampling:
“I use an umbrella. But most men consider it uncool and unmanly” (Georgian male).
“Georgian men don’t use umbrellas. That is all you need to know” (Georgian male).
“I used an umbrella but then a Georgian guy warned me that it is a sign for gay men to meet each othersecretly in public” (Foreign male).
“Umbrellas are for gays” (Georgian male).
“My husband has two umbrellas. My father has one” (Georgian female).
“Umbrellas are female” (Georgian male).
*Illustrations: Niko Pirosmani (Georgian National Museum)