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An Open Letter to the Feminists of My Life: Grandmothers, Mothers, and Sisters

I feel that all the activism that I have done during the last ten years, all the work that my feminist mothers have carried out during the past two decades, and the struggle that my feminist grandmothers have started almost two centuries ago in Georgia, has culminated in this one single day – November 25, 2014.

Today, feminists and their allies are demonstrating together in 24 cities of Georgia to stand up against the growing epidemic of femicide and to counter violence against women. Georgia has never witnessed such an effective consolidation of feminists to fight for the common cause that has resulted in such a large-scale campaign – the Georgian Women’s Movement. There is no place in the world where I would rather be today than in Georgia. But I am not there.

I now live in a country where cars carry the message “objects in mirror are closer than they appear”. Being in Georgia for me has been a lot like looking at myself, and other activists, in the mirror – close up. All the details visible, all the flaws exposed, but the actual image skewed, and the big picture missing. Being in the center of activism – engaged, embedded, integral – had its advantages and drawbacks. Even though I have always lived on the margins, both as a choice and as an inevitable consequence of my lifestyle and politics, I have rarely experienced being on geographical margins. A little bit over a year of my exile – both chosen and forced – has driven me not only to a spatial margin in relation to the physical location in which I used to live, but also to a political margin in relation to the symbolic space that I used to inhabit in the feminist movement. This highly symbolic relocation has given me a new perspective, and a new power; the power to observe myself from a distance, to stand by, to see through and re-examine. My gaze has never been sharper.

Has there been a women’s movement in Georgia before or after the 70 years of the Soviet inertia? Existence of either, especially the “after” one, had been questionable for me during my life in Georgia. When I started calling myself a feminist, I hardly knew any local feminists, past or present. Of course, I knew my mom who was working in the so-called “NGO sector”, focusing on “women’s issues”, researching the 19th century women who were doing “charity” and “spreading literacy”. But other than her and her friends, there was nobody.

Shortly after my first exposure to activism, my mom’s image had transformed in my head into a feminist. She was a feminist who became one before she knew it. She taught me more about activism than I had learnt from books and essays, and she learned about feminism from me more than she had learned from women’s organizations. I introduced her to feminist theory, and she showed me ways to translate it into feminist action. In this symbiotic relationship, we raised each other as feminists. We became each other’s feminist mothers, daughters, and sisters – all at the same time.

With time, I started to encounter other self-identified feminists, mostly young like me, but also a few older ones like my mother. Each one of them was a huge relief and an achievement. We celebrated joys and pains of feminism together, or separately, always far from the world of women’s NGOs. Many of us came from or existed in this world as well. Nevertheless, most of us despised it because of the sins we believed it had committed, namely the killing of grassroots feminist activism. We knew that women’s organizations mushroomed together with the general NGO boom of the early 90s in Georgia when western donors came in with the mission to introduce democracy, and facilitate Georgia’s transition from socialism to the market economy. We believed that there was no longer a space for donor-led NGO work in a 21st century Georgia, and that time had come for a different kind of activism – one that is deeply grounded in feminist politics and guided by feminist ideology. We created the Independent Group of Feminists with the aim to radicalize the women’s rights’ work and to finally start the feminist movement in Georgia.

We might have been naïve, but all of us (younger or older) agreed that the Georgian feminist movement had its roots back in the 19th century and that it had gone to sleep with the birth of the Soviet Union. Re-writing herstories of those feminist grandmothers – not as the noble ladies who did charity for amusement, but as the brave feminists who did philanthropy to change the world, not as motherly figures who spread literacy among the youth but as radical activists that advocated for girls’ access to education and women’s right to produce knowledge – was of paramount importance if we were to awaken the movement from its lethargy. Books were written, films were shot, lectures were held. My friends, younger and older, together and separately, brought feminism home to Georgia. Slowly people started to accept feminism as an undeniable part of both the past and the present of the country.

As I write this, my feminist friend from the younger generation of activists is telling me with much joy and enthusiasm that she feels that something new, something different is emerging today. Does she mean that the anti-femicide campaign, Georgian Women’s Movement, is finally bringing us closer to our dreams of movement-building? From this distance that allows me to see the actual size and shape of objects, I cannot help but see that the contemporary feminist movement does not start today with this campaign even if it unites the unprecedented number of people. It also does not start with the creation of our radical collective, Independent Group of Feminists, even if it makes alternative forms of activism possible. We are not the direct descendants of our feminist grandmothers from the 19th and early 20th centuries. We do not take off from where they have left. It is not us who have connected the dots, but our mothers.

Our feminist mothers – a lost generation. Their collective contribution to continuing the work of feminist activists of the 19th century has been mostly overlooked and ignored. It must have taken courage to start women’s organizations after the 70-year ban on any form of civic activism. It must have been an act of defiance to start breaking the 70-year-long silence on women’s oppression. It is no surprise for me that our feminist mothers have not been as bold as some of us are today. Feminists of my generation have largely fallen prey to a popular belief about the vices of the NGO sector, which labels all civil society organizations as “grant-eaters” and opportunists. This belief makes many feminists distance themselves from institutionalized forms of activism and fundraising – a trend that is not necessarily negative. However, it also creates a gap between activists who mostly belong to different generations and different “phases” of feminist organizing in Georgia. It is rendering the middle phase between now (2010+) and the past (19th century) irrelevant or even illegitimate. While remembering the movement pioneers and celebrating the newcomers, it is erasing those who came in between. Similar to the disappearance of the Second World from the geopolitical consciousness, this second phase of women’s rights’ organizing in Georgia has also vanished from our sight and our collective memory. This is a big loss for me because the kind of movement I want to see is the one that acknowledges and recognizes that which came before, which laid down the groundwork, created the connections and made today possible. I want a movement that refuses to define itself in negation to something else. I want a movement that draws strength from diversity of actors, strategies and experiences.

I observe the Georgian Women’s Movement campaign from the bird’s-eye view and see the history in the making. Today, 25 November 2014, is a culmination of the process that began almost two centuries ago, woke up from the deep sleep two decades ago after the collapse of the Soviet Union when women NGOs were first created, and finally spread its wings in the past couple of years. Today’s campaign is a good example of how successful movements operate – in unison, in partnership, in solidarity, led by diverse group of unaffiliated feminists, informal collectives, and non-governmental organizations, enriched by voices from state, business and civil society institutions, supported by individuals of various generations and genders, village- or city-dwellers, and uses all kinds of strategies and tactics: proactive, reactive, liberal, radical, conventional, innovative, and beyond. I also know that this is neither the beginning nor the end, but rather a phase that will someday give way to newer and different forms of activism and organizing.

I am musing with the idea of creating a feminist map of Georgia, not only a spatial map but also a temporal one to mark all the times and places where feminist activism has been happening. This map would document and retell stories of feminist encounters, sisterhoods and bonds created, tensions built up, challenges overcome, ups and downs, disappearances and reappearances. It would preserve past herstories and would seed future ones. It would be a roadmap, a guide, of all those paths that feminists from different times and generations have paved, taken, lost, discovered and rediscovered. This map would be a mirror, but the kind that allows you to zoom out, so that you can see the complexity, diversity, and beauty of the big picture.

Mariam Gagoshashvili is a queer feminist activist from Tbilisi, Georgia. Currently she lives in the US and works as a Program Officer for Europe and Central Asia at Global Fund for Women. Before this Mariam worked at Women’s Fund in Georgia as a Program Coordinator, managing the fund’s grantmaking and local philanthropy programs. Mariam is a board member of Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights and has served on the advisory committee of FRIDA – The Young Feminist Fund. In addition to her passion and engagement with feminist foundations, Mariam has been actively involved in grassroots feminist and LGBTQI movements in Georgia. She has lectured for the Gender Studies department at Tbilisi State University and has co-founded the Independent Group of Feminists, an autonomous activist collective led by young women in Georgia. Mariam holds BA in Social Psychology from the Tbilisi State University (Georgia) and MA in Gender Studies from the Central European University (Hungary). She has also studied at the European College of Liberal Arts in Germany, where her primary research interest was in the field of gender and sexuality. Mariam has authored several published articles, including her most recent contribution to Studies in Biopolitics (ed. Judit Sandor, 2013).

 

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