On 3rd March Georgia celebrates Mother’s day. Quite surprisingly for me as a foreigner, Mother’s day here is a national holiday and most of the people don’t go to work. On this Thursday of early spring the streets of Tbilisi were more crowded and colourful than usual: mimosas, tulips, violets were sold at every corner and even I was offered a bright yellow narcissus by two little kids hanging on the street with a bunch of flowers in their hands, who greeted me with an English “hello!”, confirming once again that no, I don’t really look like a local. If Mother’s day in Georgia seems to be such an important celebration - does this mean that motherhood and womanhood in Georgia are respected and sacred? Well, we know that unfortunately this is not always the case. Whatever the reason for establishing Mother’s day as a national holiday is, this occasion gave me the opportunity to reflect not only about mothers, but about women and about what being a women in Georgia means.
So, on 3rd March I attended an exhibition and a public debate entitled Women in art or Women’s art?, hosted by the Goethe Institut and the Heinrich Boll Foundation. The event was dedicated to gender issues and women’s representation in arts and the guest speakers were four women engaged in different artistic fields: Victoria Lomasko, a Russian graphic artist and activist, Lia Ukleba, a Georgian feminist painter, Sophia Kilassonia and Teo Khatiashvili, art critics. Participants of the event could admire a series of graphic reports produced by Lomasko during her travels and explorations of the post-Soviet space - in Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Dagestan, where women are the main protagonists.
“The series Feminist travels touches upon the sensitive topics of early marriage, domestic violence, abortion and childlessness, which are often similar in post-Soviet countries” - Lomasko explained. Mixing drawings and quotes from discussions and conversations, the Russian artist gave shape to catchy and powerful snap-shots, revealing to the observer the intimate life and thoughts of the people she met: sex-workers on the streets of Yerevan, Kyrgyz female peasants forced to go back to work on the fields right after childbirth, Dagestani female artists facing restrictions imposed by religion.
I didn’t know Lia Ukleba before this event, nor her works. She’s the author of a very controversial painting entitled The Virgin with a toy pistol: as the title suggests, the painting represents the Virgin Mary, pregnant, while pointing a toy pistol at her own head in a suicidal attempt. Interpreted as a “deviant” representation of one of the most important religious figures, Ukleba’s work was the object of a very harsh campaign of discredit led by the Georgian Orthodox Church. The artist herself endured unprecedented insults which were almost instigations to violence against her. During the debate, Ukleba dared to speak openly about her private life in order to explain to the public where the reason of the brutality and hopelessness of her painting lies.
Since her childhood, Lia dreamt of becoming a painter: she knew that this was her calling. However, her parents were strongly against her will and forced her to study in order to become a school teacher, which was supposed to be the only respectable profession a woman was able to get. As many other girls of her age, Lia respected her parents’ decision. One day, she was abducted by a boy whom she was then forced to marry, in order not to be regarded with shame by her own family and by society. As a married, adult women, she was told by her husband’s parents that she should not be painting at all. So, she gave up her passion and never drew again, not even to entertain her children. “I didn’t know anymore if I was really able to be anything else, apart from being a mother” - she said. Then, at the age of 36, a close friend pushed her back to art, and she finally started to paint actively. She realized that during all her life she couldn’t fulfill herself only because she was a woman. So, Ukleba’s works express her personal protest against traditions, prejudices and years of oppression.
Lia Ukleba’s story of marriage by abduction and forced choices is the story of too many girls of her age. Still in the 90s, kidnapping of young girls for marriage was widespread in most parts of Georgia. Although nowadays illegal and not condoned by many parts of Georgian society, especially in the capital city, this practice is still reported in rural areas of the country due to strong cultural beliefs and traditions. International organizations monitoring human rights, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, continue to denounce the persisting custom of bride-kidnapping and raping in Georgia. The absence of reliable statistics makes it hard to evaluate the extent of the phenomenon, since most often kidnapped girls don’t take their complaints to the police, fearing of being stigmatized by society for having lost their virginity. However, it is believed that each year several hundreds of girls are forced to marry against their will in different regions of Georgia.
I was amazed by Ukleba’s speech because she had the boldness to address such a terrible and personal issue in front of an unknown audience, in a context where nobody would expect such a confession from her. She wasn’t just speaking about her own experience, but on behalf of a whole generation of women who suffered from the same abuse. Too many times this kind of issues are overlooked in public debates, as if they concerned only their victims, and society wasn’t supposed to take a strong stand against those who still perpetrate such practices. “But why did you accept spending 36 years of your life in such conditions, why didn’t you rebel against this oppression?” - a Polish woman from the audience asked, with surprise and a barely veiled criticism in her voice. Lia Ukleba burst into tears while trying to answer. At that point, a Georgian girl from the audience took the floor and she was almost shaking while saying that nobody had the right to ask such questions to women who are victims of abuses and oppression; she stood up and went to hug the artist in a powerful demonstration of empathy and solidarity.
In her previous intervention, Victoria Lomasko said that “only women can speak, write, paint about women since they are closer to their problems”. However, sometimes even women can fall into the trap of easy judgments or ready-made criticism. Not all women all over the world share the same sensitiveness about issues like bride-kidnapping, simply because their societies are not concerned by these problems. And within the Georgian environment, openly discussing women’s issues in public debates is hard, as “society is very traditional and characterized by a general fear of change”, stated art critic Sophia Kilassonia. “But studying and debating gender issues should become part of everyday life”, she added.
Since my arrival in Tbilisi two weeks ago I’ve noticed how much work national and international organisations are doing in order to fight against silence and indifference surrounding women’s issues. Because they are not only women’s issues, but issues of our whole society. The story of Lia Ukleba inspired me for this article and hopefully it will inspire other women too to break the circle of oppression and get rid of the roles and stereotypes which are imposed on them.
This feminist stencil presented at the exhibition caught my attention. I guess that’s because it expresses a simple but fundamental truth, and so I want to conclude on it: women are no lovers, wives, mothers or slaves, first of all they are PERSONS who have the right and responsibility of taking their life into their own hands. My wish for Mother’s day - and for upcoming Women’s day - is that what may now sound like a feminist slogan will one day become a basic assumption for all societies in this world.