More than 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, women in many parts of Georgia have become more outspoken on gender issues. But in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, a three-kilometer-wide, 30-kilometer-long valley that borders Russia, change is complicated.
As part of a photo project called “What Will People Say?” I traveled to Pankisi, one of Georgia’s more remote areas. There, I documented the challenges women face as they try to reconcile their own ambitions and desires with long-standing cultural traditions that do not recognize women as independent decision-makers. [Note: the project was funded by the Open Society Georgia Foundation, which is part of the Soros Foundations Network. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of the Open Society Foundations, a separate entity in the network].
Inhabited largely by Kists, ethnic Chechens who have lived in Georgia for more than 150 years, the Gorge is situated about an hour’s drive northeast of Tbilisi. It is a predominantly Muslim area, where strict traditions govern family conduct and the role of women.
While Pankisi long ago shed its reputation as a haven for bandits and Chechen rebel fighters, jobs are scarce and access to higher education requires travel. And since the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia, it’s no longer easy for Pankisi residents to get to the nearby Chechen capital of Grozny for work or education.
The lack of career and educational options has stymied the entire community, but it has proven particularly damaging for the Gorge’s women. Watched closely and judged severely by family members and neighbors, they live in an even more closely confined world than do Pankisi’s male inhabitants. They are judged mostly in terms of whether they act as upstanding wives and mothers. Little attention is paid to their own psychological needs. Little thought is given to self-fulfillment.
“Always, you have two choices to follow: your traditions and, of course, not to lose yourself as a person,” commented Shorena Khangushvili, an English teacher and the single mother of a 15-year-old girl. “Sometimes I think I can overcome that barrier, but I always keep in mind that I am a member of this society, and if you have no authority in this society, it means you are lost. So, I have to be very careful.”
For many of these women, the opinions of their family and the local community are their guide for making any decision in life. As Lia, the manager of a local English-language school, phrased it, the thought is “what would people say if I do a certain thing?”
The project’s title was inspired by that comment, but its relevance reoccurred in later stories for this project, too. As Georgia pushes ahead with attempts to build a more integrated society, perhaps one day it will be a question no longer asked.
Justyna Mielnikiewicz is a freelance photojournalist based in Tbilisi.