Leila Bekauri, 62, Pankisi Gorge

I am a philologist, I teach the Georgian language and literature both at school and the Duisi Educational Center. I am not sure whether you find my story interesting but as I am a teacher and I teach at school I would like to talk about the problems related to young people in the Pankisi Gorge. I have been a private tutor of children and know all high school students of the Gorge. Therefore I am aware of their views, opinions and goals. I am aware of the obstacles and limitation they face, things they can dream about, things they have access to and so on….

I studied at school here up to the fifth-sixth form. People in those times had radically different views compared to contemporary youth. There were no religious boundaries. Nobody asked you who you were, what your religious faith was, it did not matter. There is no denying the truth, people were friendlier and Kists were considered Georgians by my fellow-students and those people I used to live with. For some reasons a great wall has been built between us.

We all went through hardships and many disasters in the 90s. You should remember that the Pankisi George did not fell within Georgia’s jurisdiction during Shevardnadze’s presidency. They traded with drugs, people, arms, illegal money, as a consequence a radical religion, the so-called Wahhabism gained a foothold. Initially there were just a few followers, now most of young people are involved in this movement. This makes young people rather reserved. They think that they should rely only on God and look to God for salvation. Therefore they think that it is not necessary to have a diploma and to study. God, God, God…. But they lapse into fanaticism; we know already well why these guys go to Syria. They do not have any idea who is wrong and who is right, who is fighting whom and who is doing what but they go there anyway and more than 23 young men aged 17 – 30 have already died there. This is a rather big loss for small Pankisi.

Moreover, the radical religion has imposed some restrictions regarding clothes, especially on girls. They wear head scarfs in winter and summer. Most of them do not say that they do not want to do that (with a couple of exceptions, who have said that secretly). On the contrary, they claim they do that voluntarily. As for their family attitude, many say that they tried to prevent them from dressing like that but they would not listen. I think it is alarming when children do not even listen to their parents. Of course, it depends, they might accept some things and do not accept other things, they should develop an identity independently from their parents and families, but young people do not accept anyone’s arguments in this respect. There are many girls who blindly copy others and view religion as a fashion trend – they dress this way because others do … they claim that they dress like this not to attract any attention. In fact, they draw more attention this way, which they find rather delightful.

Even young unmarried women did not wear head scarfs in Pankisi, let alone school pupils. Only married women used to wear them. Now the situation has got worse. Initially, when a couple of students started wearing it, both the school principal and teachers advised them very cautiously and calmly that they would have sufficient time for wearing a head scarf later if they wished to. We pointed to hot weather and told them black clothes were bad for health and so on. A couple of them took them off and did not wear them at school any more but as soon as they left the school, they slipped head scarfs out of the bag and put them on again. Then their number increased to ten, twenty, thirty and it did not make any sense to talk them out. The government interference is required to handle the problem we have not been able to resolve in our school. Yes I understand freedom of faith and freedom of a person to practice his/her religion but what should we do if this type of religion contributes to people’s regression?!

I have talked a lot about the topics. I have told them how women fight in Arabic countries to get rid of hijabs. I explained that they would not like that later. Now it is kind of fashionable, they copy each other and that’s why they like that. I tell them their freedom will be restricted and their children will also have to live like that. To put it shortly, I have said many things but nothing seems to persuade them. I have noticed that because their number is increasing day by day.

We may think that this is a form of protest but what is that they protest against?! How can we consider it to be the expression of protest when they are not aware of the things they oppose to?! No, this is just something inspired, tossed into the Gorge, which has gained a foothold; and who knows where we are heading to. This people are prohibited from doing many things. For example, they cannot choose their specialties and professions freely. I know that some relatives have literary revolted against the families who let their children sing. The school has extracurricular singing and dancing classes and none of the children going there wear head scarfs. You know how absurd thigs are prohibited in painting?! For example, children are not supposed to paint anything that have eyes.

Children voice their protest in the presence of teachers as well. We all remember what children study at school, for example, hagiographic novels as well as history of wars, battles of Muslim countries against us. Even if you tell them mere facts without showing any bias and emotions they do not like that. They do not necessarily argue but say quietly things like „That served them right!“, or comment on Tamerlane’s eight invasions, „He should have come for the ninth time to invade Georgia!“. They are not evil children, this has been indoctrinated into them. There is little confrontation among children, do you know why?! There are only Muslim children here. If there were some Christian children they would really confront each other. For example, when some terror attack takes place, and someone expresses unfavorable views about it, s/he is frowned on and forced to stop. Even though some of them would like to express protest, they know that the majority will hush them up, so they keep silence.

They often visit us from the Ministry of Education. Once I even handed over a letter to Lia Gigauri. I wrote about these problems in the letter suggesting to think about the possible solution together. However, no response has followed. They do not give us any assignments or ask us anything.

There is one thing, the Ministry of Education has opened extracurricular dance, soccer, singing and other classes here to give incentives to students to take up something. Moreover, every year the President’s Palace hosts a photo exhibition. But some children said that only the girls wearing hijabs got attention and were taken there (I do not know whether this is true or not and I do not claim anything). “They are in the pictures, calendars and TV, they draw everyone’s attention, which is why we are also thinking about wearing a hijab”. This had never occurred to me but when I heard that from children, I thought, maybe this was also a wrong approach?! I remembered then that last year, when I was visiting the photo-exhibition in the President’s Palace, there was a one girl with a black hijab. Everyone, including journalists and visitors took a picture with this girl, she drew everyone’s attention. Other children wearing ordinary clothes stood aside, observing her from a distance. Perhaps this has also prompted girls to get interested in wearing a head scarf?! I had never thought about it until children said that. I remember the mother of one girl saying she almost “killed” her daughter as she wanted to wear a hijab because of all the attention the girls with hijabs get.“