Tbilisi, Georgia: Women’s Studies Edition

To travel is to dive into the unfamiliar and the uncomfortable. We are left utterly vulnerable when we leave our comfort zones, so I decided to climb slowly down the ladder into the unknown, one rung at a time.

The first rung was studying abroad with the faculty-led program Issues of Gender Identity in Georgia. A city is much less daunting when exploring it with a group of 20 of your newest friends. Together we discovered a city painted in encapsulating murals and graffiti, a culture which survives on live music and wine and foods we will all be dreaming about until the next time we find ourselves in Georgia.

“For a country which gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Georgia is still defining freedom and equality — and the discussion is loud.”

My first impressions of Tbilisi have been constructed through the lens of the lectures and excursions we participated in. Each day we attended lectures discussing various feminist issues and then visited non-profit organizations to see what change is being made on the grassroots level. Some of the lectures were given by scholars while others were given by prominent figures in the community.

One day we met with the youngest minority woman to be elected to office. Another day we met with one of the most famous film critics in Georgia and discussed feminist film. To be frank, these three weeks of studying abroad have been much more exhausting than I was expecting. Somehow this jam-packed schedule cannot compare to any of my semesters at SDSU.

Between the city walking tours; bus rides to various cities, monuments and monasteries; puppet shows and traditional dances; and the hours of academic learning, there was an emotional component which exhausted me more than the rest. It seems that when you are engulfed by the unfamiliar, you are constantly at peak attention and heightened awareness — it takes a toll. There was no time to stop and reflect on or process the lectures, culture, or experiences.

What was particularly emotionally intense for me was the familiarity within the unfamiliar. The more I travel, the more I see that we are all in fact more similar than different. At this moment in time, it seems as if fear is the common denominator among us rather than humanity. This fear resides mainly within and towards minority groups and marginalized groups.

Spending time with the feminist community showed me how similar the struggles are in Georgia as in the United States; the extremes to which they are experienced is the biggest difference. For a country which gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Georgia is still defining freedom and equality — and the discussion is loud.

Perhaps it only seems loud to me since I was lucky enough to be in the middle of the action, as I learned about feminist strategies and agendas directly from the sources of resistance and change. Each lecture and non-profit visit we had was different from the last. There was always something new added to the discussion — one woman talked about reproductive justice, another about the informal labor sector and migrant women a third spoke specifically about lesbian women while another spoke specifically about trans women. Hearing the endless variations of experiences women and trans women experience in Georgia elicited an exhausting amount of empathy.

It is physically painful to hear the stories of domestic abuse, femicide, trafficking, bride-napping and migrant women mourning their family’s deaths over a phone call. It is physically painful to look at the women whose non-profit was raided by undercover police, resulting in the strip search, sexual assault and humiliation of 10 women simply because they are fighting for LBT rights. It is physically painful, but I realized that I would rather empathize with the grueling realities rather than blissfully ignore them.

Walking away from each lecture or presentation, I almost felt ill. It felt discouraging and nauseating to hear the truth. I even asked my professor, “How do you stop thinking about all of this? How do you stop re-hearing the terrible details?”

She replied, “You don’t. In the United States it’s easy to hear something like this and then get distracted by the millions of distractions we produce as a society — social media, our phones, television, alcohol and drugs. But here, there are no distractions.”

And she was right. Here there is no luxury to get lost in distraction. There is no distraction from the realities of this society, from the society in the United States, or even from oneself.

Traveling forces you to look at yourself with new perspectives, new lenses, and new honesty. Traveling is uncomfortable for this reason. It reveals truths that we are either too afraid or unwilling to discover — it takes away distractions and forces us into raw living.

I have found studying abroad to be unbelievably valuable – learning about the topics you are passionate about in a different country gives the topic a whole new flare. A different history taints the discussion. A different mentality understands the subject. Finding similarities between the underlying vulnerabilities which fuel the feminist movement in Georgia and in the United States brings clarity to understanding where the next steps of the United States’ feminist movement could lead.

This experience for me has been all about chasing passions — passion for social justice and passion for understanding the human experience. Chase passions and see where they take you; You may learn something you weren’t expecting to find.

I wasn’t expecting to end these three weeks with a better understanding of what it means to be a woman and what it means to create space for one’s voice. I am empowered by the tireless, amazing work being done by women in Tbilisi, Georgia. Their spirits are vibrant and burning bright regardless of the police retaliation and hate they receive for their work. Somehow they are not defeated; They care for themselves and care for each other while fighting a battle for all people.

Tbilisi has so far shown me the strength I didn’t know I was looking for.

As my study abroad has come to an end, and all the new friends I have met are boarding their planes and heading home, I am officially alone in Tbilisi. I am descending onto the second rung of my ladder into the uncharted waters of solo traveling. It is terrifying yet absolutely exhilarating.

In the coming weeks I will be interviewing internally displaced women in the Tserovani Resettlement to understand their experiences and resilience. It is quite surreal to finally begin the work I came here to do. All I can hope for is to provide a space for these women to be heard. I can hardly wait to see how this project evolves and unfolds.

I have a feeling it will be everything but that which I expect.

Tiana Hodzic is a psychology major and women’s studies minor. She is studying abroad at Tbilisi State University through the College of Extended Studies program Issues of Gender and Identity in Georgia.

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