Although a much lengthier post on my thoughts about gender issues in Georgia is pending, here is a list of things that I personally have experienced and noticed as an expat woman (21-year-old American) living in Tbilisi. Some of these have been experienced by other female American and/or female expat friends here, but the nature of the Internet means I need to qualify that these have been my personal experiences. I should also emphasize that Tbilisi is a very safe city–taking obvious precautions, I feel safer walking around here than I do in most American cities. So these problems are certainly not dangerous so much as irritating at times.
- Thanks to disturbingly unrealistic depictions of American women’s sexuality in the media, certain men (around the world, not just in Georgia) have the impression that simply by following you around, you will eventually offer them attention and/or sexual favors. Actually, I’m not even sure what they want, because I’m not sure in which country one can expect to pick up a girl by sullenly following her around a marketplace while she looks for deals on secondhand kitchenware. I should also clarify that this class of men is in no way representative of the vast majority of Georgian men–they are simply a tiny yet annoyingly persistent minority. Note that this generally only happens when you are alone; even one friend is apparently enough of a deterrent.
- Thankfully, groping is not so common here. I have been on three separate trips to Georgia, and have only been groped once (in Freedom Square; I emptied my water bottle on the guy and he ran off to the amusement of several nearby news stand vendors). While blatant stares, rude gestures/noises, stalking, unwanted photos, and verbal harassment happen from time to time, Mediterranean-style public transport/bar groping has not been my experience and does not seem to be altogether common in Tbilisi.
- Your relationship status, specifically your marital status, is of interest to everybody. I hear it’s more pronounced in the villages, but it’s still common here in Tbilisi. It’s one of the first things most older people ask you, before they even ask where you’re from or what you do for a living. For example, a recent conversation [in Georgian] between myself and an elderly female shopkeeper: “Hello, how much is this?” “5 lari. Oh, do you know Georgian?” “A little, I am studying.” “Are you married?” “No.” Then she nods thoughtfully and gives me my new teapot. Marital status also comes into play when the sort of man I mentioned above targets you–it does not matter if you have a boyfriend, or sometimes even a fiance. They do not relent unless you’ve got a ring and/or a child and/or your husband shows up.
- Many expat workers, male and female, have remarked that when you work in Georgia, there is no difference between your personal life and your professional life, which is often sharply divided in the US. When I was in school, dubious after-hours activities had no impact on one’s standing as a good student, EMT, secretary, lab tech, etc. Unless it directly interfered with job performance, one’s extracurricular reputation did not carry over into the workplace. Many expat workers, in this case women (especially those living in villages), have found that if you get a reputation as a ცუდი გოგო (“tsudi gogo”–bad girl) by dressing inappropriately, going out drinking with men, having guys over, etc. then your reputation at work and in the community as a whole will suffer. Parents will not want you teaching their children. Bosses will not trust you to be responsible. Your neighbors might not want you over for tea anymore. It can feel like a lot of pressure at times to be judged holistically on everything you do.
- Female Georgian friends accuse me of overreacting and of being too critical of Georgian men, and often defend their menfolk with one of these statements: “he wasn’t really Georgian, he was probably Armenian or something,” or my personal favorite, “he was only joking.” Really? Because being stalked for two hours and then proposed to in order to get a green card is hilarious. In my opinion, there are three reasons Georgian women defend misbehaving men: 1.) Georgian men are more likely to treat foreign women this way, so Georgian women are usually insulated from these problems, 2.) Georgians are known for their deep-seated national pride that sometimes drives them to gloss over social issues, and 3.) as in many paternalistic societies, social norms surrounding gender relations encourage women to be complicit in supporting misogyny (which is certainly not unique to Georgia). In short, don’t expect much sympathy.
- There is also a frustrating double standard about modest dress as well. God forbid you complain about unwanted male attention, and the old “you were asking for it” based on your wardrobe comeback rears its ugly head. This blame-the-victim argument is obscene to begin with–not only is it blatantly false (sexual harassment is just as common in regions where women are fully covered), but it completely misses the point. The mere fact that a woman is more likely to be assaulted if she wears certain types of clothing does not make it right. In any case, as an American, my street clothes are not even up to what the average Georgian woman my age would consider bumming-around-the-house attire. Dressing “a certain way” supposedly sends a message of sexual availability, but in Tbilisi (unlike in the villages, where things are a little more black and white), it can be difficult to determine what that “certain way” is, when locals wear ripped jeggings, cutoff jackets, and stilettos to pick up the groceries.
- Don’t rule out your fellow foreigners, also largely here on temporary grants or contracts conducive to flings.
Even though I came here knowing that I would have to tone down my habits and customs, it can be frustrating when these limitations infringe on how I socialize or express myself. When any prompt to certain men, even one as diminutive as a head nod or wave of the hand, is seen as eliciting their latent sexual desires…well, to have my friendliness constantly misconstrued as a come-on is an exasperating and unwelcome intrusion into my day. Here are the methods I use to deal with unwanted attention:
- Ignore. Creepers are stalking you in order to feel you out by gauging your reaction to their presence. If you don’t react, they have nothing to go off of and tend to leave you alone. Do not make eye contact or answer any of their questions, even with “I don’t understand.” However, this method is only really effective in places where you feel safe–shops, markets, parks, bus stops, etc. during the day and/or where there are a lot of other people who can back you up if the guy doesn’t leave. This is also your best bet for Facebook “friends” who bombard you with unwanted messages.
- When ignoring doesn’t work in the face of persistence, call them out on it firmly in whatever language necessary. Being playful does not work. You must be completely unequivocal so as to not leave any room for the “no means maybe” interpretation. If you are in a public place with other people nearby, make sure you say it firmly enough so that other people will overhear. Make the honor culture work for you – even the sleaziest stalker has a strong incentive to avoid public shaming. Once again, this method is also only really safe if you are in public or have someone nearby to back you up. You are walking a line between calling someone out and totally pissing them off.
- As a general rule, assert your strength and capability. It is difficult for me to feel like a competent adult with only a toddler’s command of the language, but it is important to appear independent–especially in a society where chivalry is alive and well, and any show of fragility can be interpreted as a cry for male attention.
- Some expats recommend that women buy a fake wedding ring and wear it to deflect attention and nosy questions, but this is one cultural concession I will not make. It represents a way of thinking that makes me livid, because it advocates caving into the belief that a woman here cannot be independent, and if you aren’t attached to a male “protector,” you’re fair game. I like to think that I don’t need the protection of a fictitious husband to go about my daily life and have my privacy respected.
- That said, pushing the boundaries or trying to make a point about how wrong it is that women are held responsible for the urges and actions of men should be left to the women who come from within this society–not attempted by foreigners. Paternalistic cultural attitudes have persisted for centuries, and need to evolve from within. Sometimes these limitations can be frustrating, but they need to be minimally respected. For example, I do not host male Couchsurfers at my courtyard-facing apartment. If I did so, it would not be some progressive statement of independent womanhood–it would only offend my neighbors, propagate negative stereotypes about American women, and unnecessarily undermine my reputation.
Part of what has made me feel better about dealing with gender issues here is that I’ve realized I can’t hope to fully integrate, and that I don’t necessarily want to. Total assimilation is not the goal of living abroad, because it means you never adapted–you just adopted a facade of local customs and bypassed an actual learning experience. The periodic confrontations I have with gender issues in Georgia can be annoying, but I still love this country, and dealing with complex social norms that really hit home is also an opportunity to work on drawing my own ethical, personal, and cultural boundaries.