Khatuna Samnidze, 38, Batumi/Tbilisi
“This is one of those times when you’re not just making a particular decision, but you realize that what you’re doing, what you want to keep doing, is called Politics.
I was studying in Germany, and I had already reached a stage where I was able to take my child with me (she had been staying with her grandmother in Batumi until she was 2), and I had already found a job. At that time, the so-called Rose Revolution broke out in Georgia. Not long afterwards, Abashidze’s 13-year regime, the burden of which my family was unable to evade, was also overthrown, and this was exceedingly important to me. I always wanted to study abroad; I was enjoying my stay there, but I was still constantly thinking about returning home. Hence, as soon as my “revolutionary” friends contacted me, and as soon as I was convinced that these changes called for everyone with a profession and expertise to return to Georgia and support their country, I made up my mind to go back to Batumi. This was my idealistic view back then. I sincerely believed, or that’s how it seemed from afar, that from then on, the country would develop properly. It was with this same sincerity that I engaged into politics – I became a member of Adjara’s Supreme Council, a legislative body.
I cannot say that I could fully grasp the political issues, nor did I have relevant experience for serving as an MP. However, I wanted very much to contribute to this new process of development. This is how I perceived my role, I believed I could change many things. However, I was terribly disappointed – no governance style, no openness, no citizen engagement. I soon realized how superficial everything was and moved to the opposition. I could see that here the truth was spoken, bold truth against the ruling majority’s popular but false claims. In 2005 I joined the Republican Party – a party where people have been loyal to the ideas for decades.
Out of the thirty members of the Supreme Council, only five were women. I was a young woman, a newcomer in politics. It was then that I first understood what it means to be a minority – a young female politician in a male-dominated space. Unsolicited compliments, vague comments, inappropriate, sometimes indecent jokes – this is what we as women sometimes cannot cope with, because of a inexperience or awkwardness. No one teaches us to resist this – that’s how they raise us. For some reason, our society thinks that this is how it should be.
I frequently experienced discomfort – eventually also a feeling of protest; however, I didn’t know what to do. Having gone through all this, I always say that girls should be taught from an early age how to react in these situations; that this discomfort is not their fault and that this is where discrimination starts. I myself didn’t know that. Once I was giving a speech and I was harshly interrupted by a male MP – he pointed to the time limit (although he failed to restrict the male speaker before me). I did not back down and asked for the reason why the time constraints only came to mind when I was the one speaking. After the session, the MP publicly told me with a grin – ‘Do you really want to know what comes to mind when I see you near the microphone?’. I did not like the joke. And then he added that he could whisper it in my ear.
Never before had I experienced such an intense feeling of protest. Nevertheless, I did not know how to conduct myself around a man of my father’s age whom I had always addressed with respect. I left enraged, feeling a surge of protest, discomfort, questioning whether or not it was my fault or why this happened. No one told me that this was discrimination against women and that I had to fight back, not only to protect yourself, but to protect every woman! Naturally it was a woman who defended me. I complained to my mother, who, along with freedom, taught me modesty, but this time she advised me not to pay attention to age or rank, that it was not my fault, rather, it was the fault of the society we lived in, and that a stern response was my next step. Unfortunately, I had experienced this kind of treatment not only from elderly men, but also from my peers – ambiguous, sarcastic questions about my husband’s return from Germany, or interjections at protest rallies like – “What are you doing here? Don’t you have a child to take care of at home?”. Discrimination has no age, but the timing of when we teach boys and girls what discrimination is has a lot to do with age – in kindergarten, at school and in the family – this needs be taught thoroughly.
My harsh responses, loud self-defense, attacks to guard my position, were followed by new labels – “bitch”, “an aggressive woman”, etc. Behavior that is absolutely normal for a man “does not suit” a woman and she becomes an outsider, infringing upon the limits of established norms. This is the fate of women in male-dominated politics. But the situation is changing and I think that we, too, are encouraging this process – women in politics, as well as forward-thinking men without complexes who understand that there can be no development without equality. I was lucky to have found myself a member of such a party and to have had progressive parents and friends. This is a privilege, which many women in this country do not have and it is for their sake that we must not spare neither energy, nor time, nor efforts to empower them, to enable them to believe in themselves.
When I started working at the Heinrich Boell Foundation, where I was the Gender Programme Coordinator, everything started to make sense – I could finally put a label on everything around me. The protest that was part of my political work and every step that I took in life – including the way I raised my daughter, Salome – was what feminists experienced. I had always been a feminist without realizing it. Nowadays, I meet a lot of people like that, who have not yet thought about this. That is also true for the members of the party. I myself only realized that I was in fact a feminist at the age of 32. Stereotypes about feminism have yet to be broken and I am trying very hard to accomplish that.
Another stereotype which must not only be shattered but acknowledged by the Government as the result of its actions – the stigma of a single mother. A single woman who gives birth to a child, or a divorced mother raising children alone faces a multitude of problems – societal perceptions that set particular standards, and in everyday life, where it is two-three times as difficult to overcome this plethora of barriers. Our state has no support programs that assist single mothers in the development of their professional careers, that provide financial support or inner strength.
I had no need of such support when I moved to Tbilisi with my 9-year-old Salome. I had a job and I found a school where students could stay until 6 pm. Being single also defines your choices – what school to enroll your child in, where to rent an apartment, what activities to involve your child in, how much time to devote to friends. I used to cook at night and spend time with Salome or my friends after work. On the weekends, I tried to pay quick visits to the party office so as not to lose touch with fellow party-members. I craved the company of like-minded people. I managed to accomplish all these things with the help and support of my friends and parents, and I am proud of my achievements. However, I can’t stress this enough: there are a lot of single mothers, and there is so much that we should be doing for them, including the government. Unfortunately, it is not a priority for the authorities. And unless humanity is central, it is very difficult to talk about the protection of one particular vulnerable group.
Women have no obstacles in the Republican Party. I say this based on my personal experience. However, while serving as a Chairwoman, I discovered that it is far more difficult to persuade women than men to run for positions within the party. While voting in the party’s committee, especially in the regions, I quickly noticed that women refrained from nominating themselves or other women for key positions, and the men also refrained from nominating female candidates. At times like this, I always remember Heinrich Boell’s phrase: “Meddling is desirable”. And thus, we meddled and openly demanded the proactive nomination of women as candidates; we started holding conferences for women, befriending progressive men, more and more frequently encouraging female participation. There was resistance, attitudes such as – “You have no obstacles, why do we need special measures?”, or “They’ve started up with this gender thing again”, but as it happens, when you are loyal to an idea and do not let hard work wear you down, and if you are not alone in your struggle, you start to gradually see results. Now we have already agreed on gender quotas within the party. The discussion and debates on the subject within the party’s main body, the National Committee, were very interesting. It was one of the most memorable and emotional discussions.
It should not be considered a privilege or a source of pride for a woman to have independently achieved so much in male-dominated politics, that she is “the only one” among the numerous men. I have heard plenty of such rhetoric. The problem often lies within us women. As long as we believe that being the one and only in this field is a privilege, nothing will change. On the contrary, we have to see this as a problem, make others see it as a problem, and loudly defend our right to be just as numerous as men, to be equal, since equality is essential for making the right decisions. We, as women, have to raise the curtain on women’s problems. We have to stand in solidarity with each other, so that women and girls, for whom we set an example, feel the power of this support and believe in themselves through our encouragement and energy. Let us repeatedly tell the girls and the women around us – “You can do it!”, these words have great power, I can say this based on my own experience.”
Author: Nino Gamisonia
Photo: Nino Baidauri
Translation: Nino Nadaraia