I had something of a revelation today. I was reading a blog that talked about this blog – specifically about my sex and gender related posts – and the author had this to say:
There is a TLG (Teach and Learn Georgia) teacher who does write about all the little cultural nuances and tries to explain and rationalize them. I don’t necessarily think he always does a very good job of it, and is sometimes culturally insensitive; making blanket comments about Georgian customs and traditions. His beliefs about Georgian women, sex, and pride are extremely anachronistic. I’m not exactly sure if he lives in a city, town or village (which I think makes a difference). I’ve never met the guy before, but his blog is nonetheless interesting, and he discusses controversial issues that I’d never be allowed to touch being a PCV. I really applaud him, too, because he writes what many of us are thinking and feeling. It takes a lot of courage, especially when Americans and Georgians alike attack him in blog posts.
I’m assuming this refers to my blog – I’m not aware of any other blogs that fit this description – but I could be wrong, but anyway, let’s continue as though this were a description of my blog. I want to focus on the following statement: “His beliefs about Georgian women, sex, and pride are extremely anachronistic.”
This relates back to my post about International Communication Hiccups as well as to a few conversations I’ve been having lately with my Georgian associates. Basically, the unifying theme, I believe, is that I am doing a poor job of communicating my basic values and ideas when it comes to sex and gender. I have lost sight of the fact that most people who read this blog did not minor in gender studies in college and have not been involved in twelve years’ worth of internet conversations about gender politics and feminist theory. In other words, people don’t know where I’m coming from and up until now I’ve been reticent about explaining my background because that is a difficult task that doesn’t really relate to my experience in Georgia.
But now I think it’s important to go over these things explicitly.
First, let’s establish some indisputable facts about Georgian society. Georgian society has strong gender roles. Many jobs in Georgia are almost exclusively performed by people of one gender and not people of another gender. Teachers and bank tellers are almost exclusively female. Taxi drivers are almost exclusively male. In the police force, patrol police are almost all male while phone operators are almost all female. I don’t feel the need to enumerate every profession here – suffice it to say that there exist a large number of jobs or professions in Georgia that are strongly gender biased and many jobs or professions that are almost completely gender-graded.
In the household, Georgian women do all of the cleaning and household chores. They do almost all of the cooking – the exception is that Georgian men are in charge of cooking meat during a barbecue. Georgian men are expected to be the providers.
When dating/courting, Georgian men are expected to pay for all dates, including taking out his girlfriend and her friends and paying for all of them.
During supras, the Tamada is supposed to be a male. I was at a supra last Saturday with a female Tamada and one of the Georgians – a young woman of about 25 who lives in Tbilisi – remarked on how strange and unusual this was. During supras, there are different roles and expectations for men and women. Men are expected to drink more. During some toasts, men stand and women sit.
Now, what I just described is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of Georgian gender relations – it’s the most superficial and obvious stuff that leaves little room for argument. Many people – in Georgia and elsewhere in the world – would argue that the above system of gender roles is right and true and ordained by God or determined by the biological differences between men and women. Many people would argue that deviating from the above system creates social dysfunction and interferes with the development of moral adults.
My opinion is different. My belief is that a society with such pronounced gender roles is completely dysfunctional. There is no reason to restrict men to certain behaviors, roles, and jobs and restrict women to other behaviors, roles, and jobs. Doing so interferes with a person’s basic human rights, which include self-determination, and also interferes with the ability of the individual to attain enlightenment, self-actualization, or whatever other goal he or she may set for his or her life.
Many people would argue that people in Georgia have equal rights, that if a woman wanted to become a taxi driver no one would stop her – and that may be true from a legal perspective, but socially, people who step out of line are shamed and ostracized. In Georgia, family is considered one of the most important aspects of life, and friendship is another. In Georgia, family and friends are quick to voice disapproval with people who step outside the bounds of social strictures. Women don’t become teachers and bank tellers in Georgia because their nature inclines them towards education and finance – they do it because their families present them with a limited amount of acceptable options and if they do not choose one of these options their families inflict severe emotional damage upon them.
This is real and it’s happening now. The enforcement of gender roles in society is a brutal and alienating process that harms men and women alike – and I’m not even talking about things like domestic violence, sexual violence, the mother/whore dichotomy, the ridiculously high rates of prostitution, abortion, and hymen reconstruction surgery that goes on here, the stuff that’s hidden and not talked about in polite circles – I’m only talking about the very obvious clear superficial stuff like who participates in what activities in the workforce.
Now, one could argue that the deeper and more hidden and more private issues are more damaging in the long run. But of course the issues are related, and in most places, the liberation of women from socially-imposed gender roles preceded, and laid the groundwork for, the struggle for equality and human rights in private life.
I spend a lot of time focusing on the edge cases – on women I know who have been egregiously attacked or harmed or damaged by Georgian men in overt ways, like being beaten or kidnapped or raped (and yes, I do know women who have experienced these things, and not thirty years ago, either) – but that allows people to point the finger elsewhere and say “well a few bad apples don’t spoil the bunch.”
But even in the average case – even in the case of the every day Georgian person who thinks that everything is just about as it should be – everyone in Georgia participates in the enforcement and promulgation of gender roles. And you have to ask yourself the philosophical and psychological questions that this process brings up: What does it to do a person to be forced into a particular gender role? What process does it take to turn someone into a gender enforcer? What effects does living life in a constant fear of shame have on a person’s soul/psyche? What are the characteristics of a society built on the strict enforcement of gender roles, and are those the characteristics of a society you would like to live in?
Because when I look around at Georgian people – people in Tbilisi in the year 2011 – I see people victimized and oppressed by gender. I see people who live entire lives in hiding, ashamed of themselves for wanting to be themselves, people who tell friends one thing, family another thing, strangers a third thing, and themselves something completely different.
And yes, I do tend to hold Georgian men in contempt – I consider the way they relate to women to be less than barbaric, among other things – but I also recognize that they’ve been harmed – they’ve been stunted – by the gender system in Georgian society. Every day I work with Georgian boys who have the potential to turn into truly excellent human beings, but their society offers them no real avenue to accomplish this. Their society tears them down before they can really find out who they could be. I think it’s tragic.
I’d like to talk more about my views on gender roles and society, but my time is running out for today. In the future, though, I intend to explore these ideas and the reasons for them much more deeply. I feel I owe that to the public if I ever expect to be truly understood on this blog.