WOMEN IN ABKHAZIA BEFORE AND AFTER THE WAR

Rita KUZNETSOVA


Rita Kuznetsova, Research associate, The Pontic-Caucasian Studies Center, Kuban State University (Krasnodar, Russia)


Normally both outside observers and Abkhazian researchers themselves describe gender inequality and discrimination of women as two inherent cultural traits of the Abkhazians. This is not absolutely true: one has to bear in mind that information about the position of women in Old Abkhazia came from 19th-century enlighteners and local lore studentsN.S. Derzhavin,1 M. Djanashvili,2 K. Machavariani,3 and others. True to the colonial era spirit they served the idea of progress and denounced the remnants of the dark and unenlightened past that remained outside history.

On the whole, both for Georgia and Russia Abkhazian women and men comprise an ethnic minority. Today, more and more people become convinced that men from the Caucasus are especially aggressive: they borrow this racist prejudice from the media as well as academic publications. In fact academics when felling prey to the fairly popular idea about discrimination against women being a primordial feature in the east wittingly or unwittingly become racists. This should be borne in mind when analyzing the gender situation in Abkhazia; one should take care, at the same time, not to side with the idea supported by the Abkhazian men, according to which Abkhazian society has created special mechanisms that make women free and independent.

Female Economy

The status of women in traditional Abkhazia was a very contradictory one; the issue has been made even more complicated because all descriptions concentrate on the results of opposite processes. The position of women deteriorated under the impact of newly introduced legal systems (first Muslim and later Christian Orthodox and, still later, state-supported laws). Little by little Abkhazians were acquiring a more complicated social structure; from their neighbors they borrowed a hierarchical system of gender relationships. On the other hand, Abkhazian society insisted on the old order of things when men and women, masters and servants, etc. had no clearly identified rights and duties. K. Machavariani wrote in his time: All attempts to liquidate the rights of women that existed for centuries caused disturbances that invariably ended in a triumph of womens influence.

With the 1917 revolution and disintegration of the Russian Empire the colonial period in Abkhazia came to an end; it was transformed into an autonomous republic within Georgia. The Soviet Constitution guaranteed women equal rights with men to labor and equal remuneration for labor, to rest, social security and education, state protection of mother and child, assistance to families with many children and single mothers, paid maternity leaves, and a broad system of maternity hospitals, crèches and kindergartens.

Different books give different descriptions of female labor in Abkhazia. Some of the authors insist that women never did hard jobs: It is for the slave or, in their absence, the husband to do dirty jobs. Others give a different description: The Abkhazian looks at his wife as a laborer to do a larger share of domestic chores and even work in the field. It is impossible to discuss the Abkhazian womans duties without taking into account her social status. One thing is absolutely clear: at no time did the Abkhazians treat their women as draft animals.

Kessler-Harris in her Women, Work and Social Order has investigated female labor within the context of the changing economic requirements as well as the correlation between work outside home and the changing functions of the family.4 She has concluded that women form a reserve army of industrial labor to be used when needed and withdrawn according to current demands.

While Soviet power formally proclaimed complete equality between the sexes it never stemmed an open economic exploitation of women. In Abkhazia the idea of female participation in socialist construction and the use of female labor was a new one. The Abkhazian women themselves were not ready to embrace the freedom (that the Russian women had already won) and use it, they never wanted emancipation and did not know how to apply it to their advantage. It was not an easy task to shake the foundations of society in which women were regarded, first and foremost, as mothers and wives. Her childbearing function was even more important to individual families and the society as a whole. The government had to use varied methods to convince society and women in the first place that they should leave their homes, families and children to work for the state.

In 1929, a Commission on Improving the Labor and Living Conditions of Working Women appeared in Abkhazia to set up agricultural communes and brigades, factory shops, training courses, and crèches. It was at that time that a Committee of Working Women was organized that survived till 1938: it created better living and labor conditions for female urban and village dwellers; carried out enlightening and cultural work among them and set up womens organizations. In this way the government exploited the slogan of emancipation of women to increase pressure on them. When passing the laws on the position of women in the family (on marriages, divorces, and alimony) the state tried to detach the women from the family and the traditional way of life so that to involve them in socialist construction.

By 1935-1936 when local agriculture was collectivized the Abkhazian women had already acquired the skills needed to grow tea and tobacco. Gradually, the weaker sex became the main labor force in agriculture. It was especially important during World War II when women headed brigades in collective farms and were shift foremen in industry. The men, however, never wanted to grant them equal rightsthey treated women as their inferiors. In fact, there were few women among the brigade heads and foremen. In 1941-1945, they replaced the men who were fighting at the front and coped with the jobs perfectly. Many demonstrated good organizational abilities.

While working in the collective farms women had to look after their children, keep the house in order, cook and tend the kitchen garden. Collective farms opened crèches for the younger children during seasonal work yet few mothers dared to leave their children there. At all times, children have been the main duty of the Abkhazian mothers yet nearly all of them had to return to their workplaces when the maternity leave expired. The children were left to the care of mothers-in-law or other female relatives. Mothers looked after their children out of hourslife was becoming more and more complicated.

Industrialization brought women to plants and factories; from that time on they had to bear a double load of a mother and a breadwinner. The majority of the Soviet families could not survive on one wagewomen had to bring in their share.

While trying to involve all women in industrial production Soviet power gave them a chance of acquiring education so that they could feel themselves equal members of Soviet societyto an extent men were determined to allow them. There were many women with secondary specialized and higher education: by 1937 there were 775 female teachers, 131 female doctors, 167 trained midwives and doctor assistants, and 370 nurses in the towns and villages of Abkhazia.5

As a result family traditions were partly neglected: young mothers visited their mothers-in-law together with their husbands a year after having given birth to a baby; later the period of mother-in-law avoidance became even shorter. Young mothers acquired the right to start talking to their brothers-in-law and their husbands in two or three months yet they could talk to their husbands in presence of their mothers-in-law not earlier than in three or four years. For women with higher education the period of bans was much shorter.

Emancipation allowed women to demonstrate their abilities and succeeded in the spheres where men never interfered: textile, garment, food industries and the services. Economic changes increased the number of jobs for women in offices and shops. Teachers were nearly all women; there were women in the academic community, among journalists and lawyers (mainly advocates). Politics, economics and literature remained the male domain. Therefore while everything had been seemingly done to involve women in public life and while society seemingly treated them as equal to men reality was different.

Nothing changed when the Soviet Union fell apart; Georgia left the Soviet Union while Abkhazia left Georgia. The conflict between them forced the Abkhazian woman to become worker and mother once more. During the time that elapsed since the Soviet Unions downfall and until 1998 the role of women in the republics economic life became hypertrophied. Blockade does not allow Abkhazian men to go outside the republictheir sisters and wives became the main traders and migrants regularly traveling to Russia. According to Zurab Margania, commander of the border guards of the Republic of Abkhazia, during the tangerine season 12 thou women and children cross the border with Russia at the Psou checkpoint every day. (The republics total population is about 100 thou.)

Women are allowed to export fruits and vegetables outside the republic, open small food stores in Abkhazia, work in the fields and vegetable gardens; they have to do hard and poorly paid jobs that men do not want; women with higher education can work in schools, universities, hospitals and academic institutions. At the same time, women cannot move higher than secretaries, clerks and office managers in politics, state administration, banking, big business, and in hotels. There are few women-writers in the republic.

When Will Women Come to the Fore?

Unlike women in the West the Abkhazian women gained nothing of their invasion of the male world. While in economy they have gained advanced positions ideology still serves men. I have already written that writing is a male occupation while the authors continue creating traditional female images: D. Gulia, B. Shinkuba, G. Gulia, F. Iskander, and others are still devoted to the traditional stereotype of a mother and worker.

It is particularly interesting to see how Fazil Iskander, an author with a contemporary way of thinking and no inkling of traditionalism, writes about women. He often describes them with a touch of irony, thus showing that there is nevertheless pragmatic interest behind the pleasure men derive from female beauty. The main question being: just how good a housewife is this woman?

On the whole, thick well-shaped eyebrows, large expressive eyes, and a long thick plait of hair hanging down the back were the epitome of female beauty where I lived back in those days. Whatever the case, such an exotic tidbit as dimpled cheeks, the praises of which were lauded in songs, stories, and legends, did not feature on the aesthetic menu back then.

But it is interesting to note that at that time and to this very day the degree of ease with which a woman went about her household chores and tended to her family and, particularly, to guests was considered a female quality of the highest caliber. And when appraising the various attributes of a particular woman or girl, Abkhazians in general, and Chegems in particular, value this quality above all else. A woman who not only performs all her duties well, this is not enough to satisfy our discriminating connoisseurs of female charm, but with joy, even with gratitude that the people around her are giving her reason, or even better, many reasons to show her care and concern for them, is at the top of the female echelon.

She has a pretty face, Chegems may say of a particular woman, but whats the use of that when shes slow and sluggish.

And this is where her beauty ends, a total fiasco.

Or on the contrary:

Shes not much to look at, but see how she flies!!!

And this rapturous definition entirely makes up for natures lack of generosity in the physical beauty department and somehow throws wide open all the beauty of her winged soul.6

But if a woman does not behave in keeping with the accepted ideas, Fazil Iskander describes her in an entirely different way. In no uncertain terms and with no tongue in cheek, he writes: Her eyes aflame with hatred and her hackles up, the tousle-headed girl stood looking belligerently around...7

Contrary to the male ideas, some of the Abkhazian women acted like the Amazons of Classical Antiquity during the war with Georgia. I personally know a woman who rather than staying at home (like the majority of local girls and women) went to the front where she was a nurse. This was not her main occupation either: she was fighting together with men, took part in numerous operations and was seriously wounded; today she works at a checkpoint on the Russian border.

A young woman who wanted to fight was frowned at: it was commonly believed that her moral qualities deteriorated. At the same time, nobody dares to openly demonstrate disapprobation: the girl is considered a hero equal to men.

After the war the women started forming NGOs. In 1995, there appeared an Alliance of Nurses, an NGO that united nurses serving in the army during the war with Georgia. Its 185 members are headed by Liudmila Margania, assistant professor of the Department of the Russian Language of Abkhazian State University. There are also several doctors among the members: Gunda Djenia who graduated from the Nalchik Medical Institute, Liana Pachulia, and others. Recently, the number of womens organizations the members of which had been connected with the front increased: they are AZHA, Mother for Peace Movement set up in 1997, Mramza (set up in 2001).

On the other hand, the trend toward solidarity with the Abkhazian people, i.e. its male part, is stronger than the urge toward female independence. The article The Womens Peace Train in Georgia tells of a highly illustrative case that took place during the military conflict. The author, convinced that in Abkhazia, as in most of the Caucasus, honor should force men in combat to put down their weapons if women got between them, especially if they removed their white headscarves and threw them between the men,8 wrote about the train organized by Georgian women to shame Abkhazian men and persuade them to lay down the arms. This action had nothing to do with the Georgian troops: all that was needed of them was a permission to protest close to the zone of fighting. Abkhazian women, on their side, organized marches of peace in Sukhumi; they attacked Georgians and demanded that they stop fighting.

The majority of women-writers and members of the academic community (there are few of them) as well as activists of women organizations are still looking at the world as a male place; they are dedicated to the national idea and nearly never formulate specifically female demands. My contribution On the Studies of Gender Relations Based on Abkhazian Material (1900-2000) to the Fourth Congress of the Ethnologists and Anthropologists of Russia that took place in Nalchik invited an unexpected response. (I spoke at the session Shaping Gender Stereotypes attended by my Abkhazian female colleagues.)

I wanted to say that men eagerly shifted onto the female shoulders all everyday and economic problems, as well as bringing up children while the status of man as the head of the family and the breadwinner was rather doubtful: his unwillingness to assume greater responsibilities could be justified some 5 or 6 years before by the war and the blockade while after the war this position was inexcusable. My words invited an inadequate response from my colleagues: Marina Bartsits who had spoken about the gender aspect in Abkhazian culture declared that the men shocked by the war still had to retain their combat readiness therefore they could not shoulder more responsibilities.

In my report I mentioned the article Women and the Holocaust, which calls on all researchers to study female experience in greater detail; it calls for an approach that will overturn the historical male-oriented models.9 My studies have confirmed that neither during the war nor after it female experience was taken into account in Abkhazia; what is more it was downplayed; womens obvious services to society (in the capacity of nurses, for example) were nearly ignored. My opponent did her best to explain that men had lost centuries-old traditions and that they found it hard to find their place in the new conditions.

Marina Bartsits is not alone: her views on the Abkhazian culture and womens place in it are shared by a group of young women researchers from Sukhumi. They share an idea that the Abkhazian culture has not changed, that social relations have been balanced by its long history and that there is a harmony between men and women. Everything that took place in traditional Abkhazia is presented as wise and kind phenomena to be preserved granted there are favorable external conditions.

In Lieu of Conclusion

So far we can presuppose that in the 19th and 20th centuries the level of male domination in Abkhazian society did not diminish. It was rising. At first, the status of women was rather contradictory and vague. It seems that at first male power was increasing because of active Christianization and Islamization that followed the Caucasian War and Russias coming to the region. Later, the male status was supported by Soviet power, the Abkhazians subordination to the state and their involvement in the socialist (state) economy. Finally, after the tragic developments of the early 1990s it was supported by the republics female economy.

One should bear in mind that the image of gender relations in Abkhazia currently accepted by the academic community and the public at large has been formed by what the majority (Georgians and Russians) thought about the Abkhazians. The local ethnic majorities were convinced that the Abkhazians were a backward people biased toward violence especially in relation to women. On top of this the dominant (male) gender wanted to convince everybody (and itself in the first place) that the traditional order of things was perfectly acceptable.

My thoughts, facts and materials presented here are the first, and so far timid, step toward gender studies in Abkhazia. I hope that in the nearest future other aspects of this far from simple issue will be discussed while the female part of the republic will finally come to the fore.


The article is based on the RSS#1002/2000 project Woman in a Male Society: Cultural Conflict in Traditional and Modern Abkhazia.

1 See: N.S. Derzhavin, Abkhazia v etnograficheskom otnoshenii, in: Sbornik materialov dlia opisania mestnostey i plemen Kavkaza, Issue 37, Tiflis, 1907.
2 See: M. Djanashvili, Abkhazia i abkhaztsy, Zapiski kavkazskogo otdela Rossiiskogo imperatorskogo geograficheskogo obshchestva, Issue 16, Tiflis, 1894.
3 See: K. Machavariani, Nekotorye cherty iz zhizni Abkhaztsev. Polozhenie zhenshchiny v Abkhazii, in: Sbornik materialov dlia opisania mestnostey i plemen Kavkaza, Issue 4, Tiflis, 1884.
4 See: A. Kessler-Harris, Women, Work and Social Order, in: Labor Market Segmentation, ed. by David Gordon et al., Lexington Books, Mass., D.C., 1975.
5 See: Ia.S. Smirnova, Semeyny byt i obshchestvennoe polozhenie abkhazskoy zhenshchiny, in: Kavkazskiy etnograficheskiy sbornik, Moscow, 1955, p. 168.
6 F. Iskander, Bolshoy den bolshogo doma, Sukhumi, 1986, pp. 143-144.
7 F. Iskander, Put, Moscow, 1987, p. 150.
8 T. Dragadze, The Womens Peace Train in Georgia, in: Post-Soviet Women: From the Baltic to Central Asia, ed. by Mary Buckley, Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 250-260.
9 See: J. Ringelheim, Women and the Holocaust, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 10, No. 4, 1985.

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