Thursday, 11 April 2013

GEORGIA Where do I fit in?

Now that I know a lot more about it, do I actually want to?

In Georgia, 'traditional(gender)attitudes still dominate. And workers on one building site in central Tbilisi were clear about what they thought a woman's role in Georgian society should be.
'In an ideal family, the man should be the head of the family, the breadwinner. And the wife should care for the family. That's how a household works harmoniously' said one man.
That is a view shared by the country's powerful Church. At a Sunday sermon at the main cathedral in Tbilisi at the end of April (2012) the patriarch, head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, got involved in the debate.
'Men are in charge of the family' he said, 'and women should be waiting at home ready to wash their husband's feet when the get in from work.' (1)

He omitted to mention the extremely high rate and well documented evidence of domestic violence against women by the ‘head of the family’.  By imposing gender roles within the family he is attempting to break the women’s movement currently gaining momentum in Georgia. Women are trying to speak out against issues of violence and are being proactive in an attempt to empower themselves within this patriarchal society. By stating such ludicrous expectations of both male and female behaviour, the patriarch seems to be positively encouraging these gender stereotypes and would appear to be endorsing and  perpetuating a cycle of domestic subjugation .  *(2) As the popular Georgian saying goes, ‘Women know their place’.  Not, Women SHOULD know their place… no, women are very clear about their place and it’s not on an equal footing with men. (Excuse the pun) 

Can I respect the patriarch for saying this about women? I can give him about the same amount of respect as he has afforded me. On the acceptance of domestic abuse and utter female subservience, I have no intention of complying. The question of women’s subservience is not entirely unique to Georgia so I need to look a bit deeper into the society and its traditions to see if I fit in anywhere.

It’s funny how anniversaries spark re-connections with old adversaries.  As the apparent death knell from Ilia II issued a year ago this month coincides with a year of grieving and mourning the loss of my own intimate relationship with Georgia, I find a need to reason and understand where I did or do (still? )fit in. The loss was the result of a series of betrayals and emotional abuse from a whole group of people who had professed to care about me.

I have just returned from a week singing Georgian song at the Findhorn Foundation which is in the Scottish Highlands.  At Findhorn, participants were invited to experience, some for the first time, other’s, like me, for the umpteenth time, the joys of singing and vibrating within Georgian song. Connecting with the internal cat purr of healing is a hard thing to do for us folk in the west but it is what essentially makes Georgian song so unique. By harnessing the inner vibration and sounding to the self, to the me, the resonance of energy can, like a sonic boom, be heard, and felt much further away than by purely using the voice. Using the voice alone is the way we traditionally approach singing in the West. Conversely, this is the energy connection which Georgians refer to as the ‘natural’ state and not the stereotypical image of a ‘natural’ new age traveller romping about naked up in the north of Scotland getting in touch with themselves and doing a lot of naval gazing.  The sorts of harmonies this internal vibration creates  is also very energising, opens the heart, heals the mind and  gives a feeling of ‘flying’ especially if enough head vibration singing is done.

Where does this vibrational experience fit into the archaic (and let’s face it, outrageous ) and assumptive statement made by the patriarch of Georgia? In my experience many women, both those who walk the path of feminism as well as non-feminist Georgian women agree with the basic principles being put forward by the head of the Church on some level because it seems to help to define roles in a society which has essentially lost its way with regards issues around gender.

Also, because the Georgian experience and understanding of the purpose of vibrational connection is different to ours we find it difficult to see the benefit.  The problem comes when the vibration connection is presented as an integral part of societal roles that are convenient to the male. That is, it suits the man to let women believe that this connection is unique and part of a cultural heritage, and therefore ought not to be questioned or challenged. Many Georgians rely on this inner vibration to connect them to their fellow Georgians. Many see it as a way to maintain a sense of safety and cohesion (that may or may not be an illusion) a gender identity (also possibly another illusion) which, before the fall of the Soviet Union was in actual fact pretty equal with regards the equality of the sexes. *(3)

Is it  possible for women to believe that they can exist outside of the vibration whilst still experiencing it? Having been (invited to go) to Georgia (at last count 6 times) must count for some kind of commitment on my part to at least try to understand the maelstrom that surrounds these issues.

Apart from in church the most traditional place for Georgian Folk and (often church music until it was no longer banned by the Russians) is at the Supra which is generally perceived as a microcosm of the larger Georgian society. Foreign guests are welcomed with open arms *(5) into this tradition so as far as I am concerned it’s an excellent place to look at these issues.  Where do women fit into this microcosm?  Not just me, a woman from the west, but Georgian women themselves?

The differences between the way we, in the west look at, study, marvel and re-create the Supra to the actual Georgian supra was  never  more pronounced than on an evening last week when I attended a traditional Georgian supra as part of the Earth Sings Conference at Findhorn. It was traditional in that it followed a series of toasts proposed by the Tamada or Toast Master and was hosted by the artistic director of the Foundation. People responded respectfully and gave the deepest accord to the Tamada who was poetic and knowledgeable about both Georgian and English customs.  It was traditional in that Georgian songs were sung after each toast and that everyone was invited to speak what was in their hearts as long as it was linked to the initial idea proposed in the toast. It was traditional in that it took a long time to get to the end of the evening and that there was red-wine which was drunk, as a mark of respect, after the end of each toast and not before.  

That was where the idea of a traditional experience of a supra ended and I think a very English/European ‘take’ on things began to appear. For a start, at all the Supras I have been to in Georgia, and I have been to many, hardly anyone takes any notice of the Tamada – the guests are often on mobile phones or chatting, or singing and there are often  raised voices and heated exchanges with lots of gesticulating. It is my understanding that if this sort of behaviour is allowed to continue it is the sign of a bad Tamada.  Conversely, at our Scottish Supra everyone listened and supported, learnt something new and sat in awe at the skill of the Tamada, Frank Kane who, in my opinion did an outstanding job in showing us what a supra could be like, ought to be like, should be like. Women contributed on every level with the co-Tamada being a woman, and a very articulate and sensitive woman she was as well. The microphone was handed around to anyone who felt they wanted to contribute and women contributed just as much as men.  There  were white women, black women, tall women, short women, women from a gospel background, from a Celtic past, from America, from Japan. Scottish Margery Bray sang a sacred Georgian woman’s song accompanied by a mixed voice drone and all the women did these amazing things with no fear of intimidation. I definitely felt part of something really special and wanted to be there.

This was unlike at a ‘traditional’ Georgian supra where women neither sit with the men or contribute to the toasts. Unless you are a guest, women have more often than not spent all day preparing the food. The role of the Georgian woman during the supra is to keep bringing food out, to keep things fresh and to remove plates and generally be a dogs-body. I have never heard a woman speak at a Georgian supra and when I tried, I was dismissed and admonished even though I had been told it was normal and was even encouraged to do so. *(4) Where did I fit in to that double standard?  I felt  negated and ignored which in turn made me question the reasons I was even attending such an event.

The Supra at Findhorn was supportive, convivial, inclusive, celebratory and courteous to both sexes. The food, whilst not attempting to follow any form of complex table organisation was lovely and had been prepared and served by kitchen staff (of both sexes) who were recognised and thanked publicly  It was a testament to the attitude and approach of the Findhorn Foundation that such deep rooted respect existed in the first place and I felt very comfortable being a part of it. The biggest difference between the Findhorn Supra and one taking place in Georgia was that there were no language barriers as everyone spoke English.  

Having said that one of the most traumatic Supra’s I have been to and was made to feel very uncomfortable at was one which took place in the UK where everyone but the  Georgian guests spoke fluent English. (the Georgian guests on the whole had a good grasp of English however)  It was there that I felt that something was not what it ought to be, but not speaking Georgian I had no idea what was wrong. I just did not feel as if I fit in. Everything was working on the surface but the company I was keeping seemed to be doing a lot of extra smiling and the laughter was devoid of warmth. I have since been told from more than one source that the conversation by the Georgian (men) present included making derogatory and sexual comments about me. This happened whilst looking me in the eye, smiling, laughing, toasting and celebrating the success of their tour. I don’t want to be part of that. (This says everything about these particular Georgian men and nothing about me – the defining of women as either virgins or whores is a recurrent theme in Georgia)   

In the company of visiting Georgians, in my own country I was made to feel uncomfortable but in the company of a mixture of cultures, races and creeds at Findhorn who were being true to and respectful of the Georgian culture and traditions my voice soared in song, my spirit flew, my heart opened and my eyes shone. I loved being part of that.

The patriarch of Georgia may want women to be defined by ‘traditional’ roles so that they are unable to genuinely shine within their own society. He may well want them to be at home, passively waiting to wash their husband’s feet. Maybe too many women accept as the norm that they have no voice, have no right to a voice and that nothing will ever change. Right then.

If the reality of a Georgian supra, hosted in Georgia, dominated by men who negate women, assume and expect  they will break from the drudgery of endless food preparation  to wash their  feet as they come through the door represents all that is supposed to be noble and good about Georgia then I really don't want to be part of it – thank you.

If I can find a place among the women who refuse to be seen as either  domestic slave or the voiceless teenage virginal bride  and who are pressing forward in the struggle to establish and flourish within  their own identities, find their own voices, open their hearts and sing their own songs… then count me in.

*(1) Has feminism arrived in Georgia? By Damien McGuinness BBC News Tbilisi
*(5) A Guest is a Gift from God Coner McKeever


  1. Sarah,
    When I read your writing, I feel as though you are telling my own stories. Thank you. I have been spoken about in Georgian language at the table by men claiming to be grateful for the guest in their midst while laughing at my sexuality and politics. Frank is a wonderful tamada, but also, a very different experience than a typical male-centric supra in Georgia. I love your last two paragraphs. Thank you, again.


  2. Hi Sarah --
    I know exactly what you mean. I too have experienced a magical Findhorn supra and have wondered how it relates to my experiences in Georgia. A female friend of mine reflected after her attendance on a singing/cultural tour to Georgia that she had a wonderful time, because as a foreigner/guest, she was treated like a man. She was very aware that she was singing and toasting and acting as an equal while the women were slaving in the kitchen. The closest thing I've experienced to equal representation at a supra was this past year, when about 50 of us (foreigners from the UK, US, Sweden, Australia, etc) and Georgians (young folks from the Conservatoire) had a supra together at a restaurant. We ate and sang and toasted equally. It probably helped that most of us were under 40 and shared a common language (song) as well as mixed Georgian/English, and that were all in a restaurant together in a city. I have definitely experienced supras out in the villages that were not this way. I did have a wonderful experience in Guria when all the men left on an expedition with the foreigners and a few Georgian women (hosts) and a few of us sat together (just women) and had our own toasting, discussing, and singing. It was wonderful, and also still very separate. I'm happy I found your blog and look forward to reading more! ~jen

    1. Dear Jen,

      Thank you for your comments. I too have found that once the men leave there is a whole 'sub' culture of women's things going on around the table and within the society which is a)not acknowledged by men and b)not cherished by the women. It is my intention to explore why this is through further study, trips and writings about Georgia so I can actually try to understand what it is all about. It is always good to hear about others' experiences - I cherish every single story. Thank you again. Sarah

  3. My Georgian supra highlights (all occurred in Russian):

    1. After the tamada said a toast "za milix dam" (to lovely women), he said to me that he hoped I always remained as beautiful and young as I am today. Then, a Georgian man to my left said "and may you always respect men."

    2. After being told to respect men, this same man asked me, "Do you know how God created woman?" "Yes... from Adam's rib." "And why?" "... to be his helper." The reaction from the men at the table when I said this was like a collective orgasm of approval. They were beaming. If there hadn't been a priest at the table, I'd have answered differently. (Or would I? Easier to say that now, I guess...)

    3. At a supra with 20+ people, the tamada said a toast to me, the only foreigner. He said "We hope you become Orthodox Christian. And that you become a good girl. You want to become Orthodox? Ok, good. You don't? Goodbye." He made a gesture as if wiping his hands clean of me.

    4. A Georgian man explained to me at a dinner why men should marry virgins (he told me this story MUST be true because he saw it on Georgian television). Once, there was a purebred mare who was intended to be bred with another purebred. However, somehow, a male zebra managed to mate with her before then. A year or so later, the mare was bred with the purebred male, and their offspring showed some evidence of stripes. This proves that a woman absorbs the DNA of every man who has sex with her, and her future children will be impure hybrids of all those men. If a man wants pure children, he has no choice but to breed with a virgin!

    Good times, Georgia... good times.

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  5. Thank you thesoulshines for your anecdotal evidence. I worry about Georgia - I really do.