Women Leading Civic Activism — 3 Stories

Author of the article: Lana Kokaia

A new wave of civic activism began years ago in the cities and villages of Georgia, transforming communities, challenging established norms, and strengthening voices that had long been ignored.

In many cases, this was the first precedent for civic activism. Three women — Luiza Mutoshvili from Pankisi valley, Samira Bairamova from Marneuli and Ketevan Khidasheli from Guria — are examples of this movement. Their work sheds light on the challenges and triumphs of activism that challenges societal misconceptions and stigma.

Misconceptions and stigma about the Pankisi gorge and Kists became the main reason for Luiza Mutoshvili, a resident of the village of Jokolo in the Akhmeta municipality, to become an activist. All her childhood she also understood that they have no function in this country and whoever comes in power should be applauded because they are few and cannot influence anything. But Luiza didn’t think so, and she started participating in various projects from her student days.

Luiza Mutoshvili, Pankisi valley. Photo: Lana Kokaia

However, being a female activist in her community was not an easy task. He first had to gain the trust of the “head of the family”, her father. He had to be convinced that his activism could bring positive changes to the community, and then – the trust of the community. Without the support of the community, Luiza’s activism would have lost its meaning.

“There was pressure from family members and relatives that it is not desirable to engage in active public life, but activism is not a planned story. I have been an activist all my life, and this is non-partisan and the most honest politics for me,” says Luisa.

Luiza Mutoshvili, 2018. Photo from Facebook

She was a teacher at Duisi school for 8 years and at the same time worked in a local non-governmental organization, the Kakheti Regional Development Fund (KRDF), mainly on youth projects.

Two educational centers under KRDF operate in Duisi and Jokolo. Luiza has been working as a history tutor-teacher in this center for years and says that every student in the valley can be trained in every subject for free.

Educational center of Jokolo village. Photo: Lana Kokaia

“For the last 15 years, the graduating students from Pankisi Valley have not paid money for the tutor. 9 out of 10 children enroll in higher education… In addition, if we were completely closed before, the projects financed by the European Union and other Western funds gave Pankisi teenagers the opportunity to communicate with children from other regions of Georgia. The opportunity to break ideas, stigma, and stereotypes was made possible with the help of these funds,” says Luiza.

She also adds that with the help of the European Union and other Western funds, a number of professional courses are available in the Pankisi Valley: cutting and sewing, felting, cooking, nursing, accounting. Luiza worries that the community may be left out of these favors once the Russian law is enacted.

2022 year. Luiza Mutoshvili at the conference of the Center for Social Justice “Kists, Udi and Muslim Meskhs – the needs and challenges of small ethnic and religious groups”. Photo: Center for Social Justice

Samira Bairamova, a resident of Marneuli village Algeti, knew from her childhood that she was a girl and should become a teacher or a doctor, although Samira did not want to do that. She was in the 9th grade when a classmate girl was “abducted” from school in front of her and her classmates. The classmates could not help their friend. The friends studied well and had many dreams that they planned to fulfill together. She tells us that we most wanted to study at the same university. The “kidnapping” of a classmate made Samira decide what she would work for and fight for – at an early age and against forced marriage.

Samira Bairamova. Photo: Lana Kokaia

“She was crying, saying: this is the end of my life. It became clear to me that early marriage ends a child’s life. In 2009-2010, I started speaking and writing about these topics, which my community took as trouble. We hoped that she would achieve something and now fight against the community. By talking about early marriage, I seemed to be insulting. A normal “family girl” does not do such things, does not hold meetings, does not walk freely, does not register on social networks. I had lectures in the evenings, and they said, who knew that studying could be anywhere at such a time? They were going from Marneuli to TSU to check if I was really studying or not. However, when I was a student, my route was university-home,” recalls Samira.

Criticism of the persons responsible for working on forced marriage and women’s rights, government representatives followed, and then talk about other problems. Because of this, she became a target of the local government. She recalls that she did not start talking about problems only during the Georgian Dream and criticized the government even before 2012.

2024 year. Samira Bairamova after giving a speech at the rally against the Russian law. Photo from Facebook

She remembers the years 2010-2015 the hardest, when the clergy came out against her. She says they told a lot of lies and used hate speech.

“When I started driving a car, they said, who is this girl, studying made her go crazy. I bought the car with a bank loan, but they said that the majority deputy bought it. Then I took a photo of the loan document taken from the bank and posted it on Facebook. When I started working in an international organization, they said, the head is Samira’s lover and that is why she started working there. Then it turned out that my boss was a woman. I tried to commit suicide many times, I cried for hours, I was accused of such things. In 2014, when I went to America with one of the programs, religious organizations started talking that they should not let me back into the country. The news was written about me, that I was a terrorist. People said, if you see this girl on the street, kill her, she is a threat to the region,” Samira recalls.

In 2022, Samira became a target of radical, pro-Russian violent groups — after she put anti-occupation stickers on the office of the violent group Alt-Info in Marneuli, the activist was threatened with violence and death.

In July of the same year, during the #NewEurope campaign, when Samira was handing out leaflets in the Marneuli market, civic servants attacked her. They verbally insulted the activist and insulted the officials with message boxes.

Samira Bairamova in the process of painting the flags of Georgia and Ukraine at the Alt-Info office. 2022 year

Ketevan Khidasheli’s career began in 2007 with computer studies, after which she taught the use of computers to children living in the village.

2015 year. Photo from Ketevan Khidasheli’s Facebook

An engineer by profession, in 2008, in the village of Dvabzu, Guria, with the support of donor organizations, she founded the initiative group “Dvabzu Women’s Center”, and since 2010, the organization “Women for the Development of the Region”.

2011 year. Georgian Muslim women. Guria, Nasakirali village

Domestic violence, youth programs, improvement of the legal status of women – on these and other problematic issues, various donors were addressed and the victims of domestic violence were redirected to Tbilisi shelters. Victims of violence were also provided with legal assistance on the spot.

2013 year. Photo from Ketevan Khidasheli’s Facebook

With the help of “Taso” foundation, one room of Ketevan’s house, which was used as an office, was renovated. At first there were three, but in about 5-6 years they became seven.

Ketevan says that even under the government of the “National Movement” they were not pampered with good communication from government structures, and this approach did not change even after the new government – they remained “obstructive” subjects for the local government even under the “Georgian Dream” regime.

“We didn’t even say out loud that, for example, a garden in the village was built as a result of our advocacy, we didn’t want to annoy the government, but the villagers there called out that this garden should be named after this organization. Not only in the municipality, but also outside, when the representatives of the local government met me, they did not say hello to me. Even when we called on issues of domestic violence, there was aggression, because our behavior was unacceptable – how can you arrest a neighbor. They used to say to my husband, “Can’t you lock up your wife?”, Ketevan tells us.

According to her, the working environment has changed so much in recent years and the communication with the local government has become so difficult that they did not even allocate a space for meetings within the framework of the project.

“There was a democratic engagement center in Ozurgeti, where you could book a space, but you couldn’t always hold seminars in Ozurgeti – in villages, we mostly held meetings in the school hall or the board building. I fought a lot and finally got tired. There is no financial interest in this work, you love this work and put energy into it. What I received was compensation for the time spent, not payment,” she says.

2014, while working with Ketevan Khidasheli community

In 2017, Ketevan Khidasheli received the award named after Kato Mikeladze, which is awarded annually to defenders of women’s rights in Georgia.

60-year-old Ketevan, who spent 13 years in civic activism, had to migrate for work in February 2020. She has been caring for the elderly in the Italian city of Bollate for the fourth year. It breaks her heart that she left her favorite activity in Georgia. She says she could do a lot more. However, in her spare time, she works on women’s oral histories. She is saying that she is having fun with this.

Criticism of women’s rights organizations followed the cancellation of the gender quota system by the Parliament of Georgia on April 4. According to Luiza Mutoshvili, she is not in favor of the permanent existence of quotas, but she believes that it was a vitally important temporary mechanism.

“Without quotas, women will not be able to be in the parliament or self-governments. The reactions of female politicians are completely different, for example, on social issues. The problem of water will never be remembered by a man, because he does not consume it in the same amount as a woman. My husband doesn’t want me to work in the city council at all, and he’s been trying to change my mind and take me away from it for the whole 3 years,” says Luiza, who is currently a member of the Akhmet City Council.

Luiza Mutoshvili. Photo: Lana Kokaia

She took part in the local self-government elections for the first time in 2014, at the age of 24, but lost by 12 votes.

“There was so much opposition from within, they perceived it as such a shame, because in case of victory, I would have to work in the city council, where the majority of employees were men, and this was considered a very bad tone. My relatives are still convinced that there was a great shame then,” says Luisa.

One day after the cancellation of gender quotas, on April 3, “Georgian Dream” announced that it will again initiate the Russian law, which was withdrawn after mass protests in March of last year. The only difference between the project and the previous year is that the concept of “agent of foreign influence” has been replaced by the concept of “organization carrying out the interests of a foreign power”.

Although large-scale protests against the draft law continued in Tbilisi and other cities of Georgia, the ruling party approved the document, a law similar to which in authoritarian countries eliminated free media and all democratic institutions.

It is worth noting that the authorities repeatedly used brute physical force, as well as tear gas, pepper spray, and water cannon against the civilians gathered at large-scale demonstrations. Journalists and many participants of the rally were physically assaulted. In addition, citizens protesting the Russian law were called, threatened and cursed from hidden numbers. Several people were met by unknown persons near their houses and physically assaulted. Another method of scaring people was to make insulting and hateful inscriptions, hang posters near their homes or offices.

In fact, there was no area left whose representatives did not express a position against the draft law. The statements of the country’s partners are also critical, among them, the process of integration into the European Union is called into question. In addition, the United States of America has imposed sanctions, namely visa restrictions, on the representatives of the Georgian Dream and their family members. The US is currently considering several more sanctions packages.