Ani Tsitlidze, 29, Zugdidi
“You’re a Gurian traded for a dog” they say, but we have been living in Zugdidi for eight generations.
I graduated from high school in 2003. Back then university entry exams were still very corrupt. My mother is a teacher and my father is a former soccer player, now unemployed, earning his living by farming. I also have a younger brother. So I didn’t have a chance to go to Tbilisi to study. Now, looking back, after having lived in Europe independently for six years, supporting myself and getting an education, I know I could have made it to Tbilisi for my studies too, but I was very young and I decided to stay in Zugdidi. Back then there was a Zugdidi branch of the Tbilisi State University but enrolling, especially into the law department, was very difficult because of corruption. Due to my family’s strained financial situation the only subject I was receiving private lessons in was law.
I was an excellent student at school, but still, I was almost expelled a few times – I was always protesting against the problems there. I remember when my math teacher hit my male classmate because he didn’t have his homework. I left the class in protest and refused to attend the math class for the whole month. The funny thing though was that the boy settled everything with the teacher and I was almost expelled. We even held a demonstration against the teacher on my initiative. Can you imagine: my mom was a teacher at that school, and she was also the only provider in the family. But I believed that teachers should not treat students like that. I have also been in trouble for wearing jeans to school, which was not allowed. Once I wrote that I didn’t think that Shushanik was a hero and that while Abo was a hero for us, he was a traitor for the Arabs. This caused such an uproar that my mom was demanded to take me away. So I practically didn’t attend the last year of school. I was preparing for the university entry exams on my own.
The person who always supported me was my father. Dad always thinks that my opinion is important, be it on Shushanik or anything else. My political opponents have reached out to him several times, probably thinking that my dad would be able to silence me. He said: my daughter would not do anything against the state, I am sure of that, and I don’t really know exactly why she is criticizing you, but I trust her, and I trust that she’s right.
My family was telling me that the law department was so corrupt, I wouldn’t get in and would only end up heartbroken. So they were suggesting that I try the pedagogical faculty instead and not worry so much. I was very determined – I said that I would enroll in the law department. I did manage that, I got a 10 and two 8s, but I had to fight for each point. At the history exam I demanded to be examined by a committee. They were examining me for over three hours. The members of the examination committee were in panic because I was not on the list of those who had paid a bribe but they still couldn’t fail me. I was telling them that I wouldn’t give in and would bring in journalists and demand to be examined in front of the media. So in the end I got the perfect score of 10 and became a student. I was studying in Zugdidi for four years and I was very actively engaged in student life. We established an alternative student union at the university and had confrontations with the officially sanctioned student union.
In 2006, in my fourth year of studies, I got a grant to study for a masters degree in the UK. They were funding 80% of the tuition and I had to finance the remaining 20%, but it was still a lot of money. Then I found out that they had same program – European Studies – in Riga and I transferred myself there, but I still needed to pay the 20%. It was a matter of just 5000 Euros, but for my family this was a huge sum – they could at the very most sell their house and that was about it. So I met the then-governor of the region, whom I did not know, and told him who I was, where I was accepted and that it was his job to support and fund me, and that I would not be working for them and their party, but I would always serve Georgia. When he found out how much money I needed, he said OK. I told him I had to leave the country in a week to start my studies and that if they did not finance me, it would be a mistake and the region would be losing a professional. I really don’t know how it worked, but the next day I got a call saying that the tuition fee had already been transferred.
I found myself in Riga straight from Zugdidi. I had to work hard to support myself. The first thing I did was to get three different jobs including a night shift. I was also studying Latvian and French. Three months later I did something crazy again. I wrote a letter to the President’s Administration, telling them that I knew that they were about to open the Georgian Embassy in Latvia and that I wanted to work as an intern there. So, even though I didn’t know anyone, including the Ambassador, in the end I was hired as the Ambassador’s assistant. At the Embassy I worked from 9 in the morning to 8 in the evening. Then I went to the dorm to have an hour’s rest and started the night shift as a cashier or a waitress from 9 pm. That was my life for about three years. I finished two Master’s courses and passed a French language exam and the state exam in the Latvian language.
In 2012 I was accepted to a doctoral program in Political Science. It was an American program and I was supposed to go to the US. This was when I came back to Georgia after six years of being away and realized that this was the perfect time to come home – since I was supposed to go away for five years for a PhD, this was probably my only chance to visit.
Having returned home, I found myself in the center of the political and the party arena. I had to join the party in a difficult time. They were always saying that I wouldn’t be able to take the pressure and give up. No one took me seriously in the beginning. Even in 2014 – when I was number two on the party list for local elections – they were still saying – she won’t be able to handle the pressure, “because she’s a woman”, “because she’s young” and “because she’s too skinny”. These attitudes still persist. The hardest part was that I wasn’t taken seriously. Complete stupidity coming from a man could have been taken seriously and my good ideas were never even heard. But I found that you need to stand by your position, even if it means throwing a fit. After becoming a member of the local Council I frequently had to hear: “you’re a woman, how dare you talk so much!”, “you’re a woman, aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”. You know what’s the most interesting thing about this? Some of the critics were women themselves. So what did I do? I showed them that I could make a decision, hold my ground and talk better than any man in that Council. So yes, I constantly have to fight with the Council, with my party and with the public because of my gender.
I am always told to change my dressing style, so that I’m taken more seriously. But for me dressing comfortably is very important. I started going to meetings wearing sneakers and jeans, riding my bike. They said, “she can’t even help herself, how could she ever help us?”. Because the men were always driving big jeeps. Something very funny happened to me recently. The police called – an IDP man is threatening to commit suicide, and demanding – bring me Tsitlidze, only she can help me! I went of course. He was a big guy, 2 meters tall, and when he saw me, he turned to the police and said – “what can she do for me, she herself needs help! Look how skinny she is! She looks completely different on a TV screen!” By the way, with our assistance his rent subsidy has been restored. Since then he’s been saying – I did say that, but really, she’s better than 10 men taken together! So with examples like this people gradually understand that gender and body size don’t really matter in politics. And then the attitudes start changing.
At the Council they no longer dare to say that I should not be talking, that I’m not trustworthy or that I can’t do something because I’m a woman. Sometimes we the women also have to use masculine methods to prove that we are not afraid and we are not weak. I, for example, have demanded apologies from men for cursing at me, which is not something that women are “allowed” to do.
You know why women often refuse to go into politics? If they are mistreated or verbally abused, their husbands or sons will have to take revenge. Right now I’m looking for female majoritarian candidates and this is the problem I’m facing. They do want to be active in the beginning, but they are afraid of getting the male family members in trouble. Another major reason is the fear of the spread of dirty rumours and I always try to tell them about my own experience of that. During the 2014 elections they spread a lot of lies about me. This was very difficult for me and my family. But back then I was sure that if I stepped down and withdrew my candidacy, women around me would never even consider public activism. I talk to women about this all the time and I tell them that I was the first one to discuss the rumors openly the very next day. And on the third day no one even remembered any of it.
Afterwards some things changed in the party. I remember how one of the party leaders told me that I wasn’t even considered for the post of the regional chairwoman in Samegrelo. I asked why. “Because you’re a woman and managing the party in Zugdidi is not so easy. You are tough, but you are not being considered for the job.” My response was – all right, I’ll prove you otherwise! So time has passed and now I am the chairwoman of the party in Zugdidi. And yes, some of the party members were getting a lot of calls after my appointment: “are you in such trouble in Zugdidi that you had to appoint a woman?”
Right now I have two major challenges – (1) attracting more female candidates to the local elections, and (2) proving that we, women, can be much more efficient at organizing campaigns, protecting precincts and maybe even at coming up with campaign tricks – and also better at filling up the positions of majoritarians, mayors and heads of districts.
Author: Ida Bakhturidze
Translation: Mari Gabedava