Georgia has evolved in Western perceptions from being the ‘not-the-state-in-the-US’ country, to a place ‘off the trodden path’, and to nowadays a borderline mainstream destination. Despite some emerging interest in Georgian fashion designers, artists, and filmmakers, what continues to be lost on a large majority of commentators is the profound social changes that have occurred in the country in terms of the most widespread taboo in human history: sex.
Tbilisi’s counterculture has always been vibrant, enchanting, excessive, alluring, recklessly seductive and above all, extremely sensual. However, within more mainstream society there has been a subtly shifting sex culture rather than a full-blown sexual revolution, which is instigating a generational and ideological clash. On the one hand, there is the utterly patriarchal, conservative and religious segment of society that enforces a double standard: premarital sex is only a minor issue for men but it is completely unacceptable for women. For women to lose their virginity would entail disgrace, shame and violence. On the other hand, there is an emerging youth culture that is driven by a basic human desire to freely have sex and get rid of hypocritical and archaic sexual taboos. However, as can be learned from Mari Kanchaveli’s experience, fighting against the so-called ‘virginity institute’ does not come without a cost.
Owner of the Instagram account @not_so_virgin_mari, Mari passionately, proudly, confidently, and shamelessly fights for equality, body positivity and sexual freedom. Mari (short for Mariami) is a common name among women in Georgia, originating from the Virgin Mother – which prompted the drunken-night-decision to co-opt the reference to reflect a changing reality. At that point, Mari had already been subject to shaming and sexual abuse, and one day she “just simply stopped giving a fuck.” As she describes it, “it turns out this ugly system can hurt you much less after you publicly denounce it” – which she did during the Women’s Solidarity March in March 2017 in Tbilisi. Of course, the system can hurt you much less after the first wave of hatred is thrown at you. Mari recalls, “the initial reaction was like a volcano of insults erupting in my living room. I was bullied, my family members were bullied, even my friends. Suddenly I turned into someone with the plague, someone you had to avoid […] Surviving that first wave of attacks was very difficult, sitting alone on a two person seat in a crowded bus or having coffee thrown in your face sucks, but if you manage to swim through this, you can start enjoying that well-deserved freedom.”
The fight for female sexual liberation is a fight against the imposition of an oppressive female identity, a fight that can be embodied and approached in the same way that Mari has: as an activist, not only through Instagram, but also through her professional pursuits, clothes, even her dancing style. When the system is against everything you are, there are countless ways to rebel against it on an everyday basis. Mari’s strengths and motivations are based on identifying that, generally, men in Georgia and elsewhere tend to fear strong women and sexual liberation. As Mari recalls, Georgian women have historically played a very important role in situations of crisis; for example, becoming financial supporters of most households during the 90s or travelling abroad to work and sending remittances back. Consequently, Mari explains, “in this reality, women should be free of male dominance, but the societal restrictions and control is what keeps us ‘obedient’. It is clear that until we start controlling our bodies, every penny we make belongs to the closest male relative. So this fear and hate towards women who dare to declare that they are sexually active is a man trying not to lose their position of power. This is the main reason I do what I do, to show women around me that if they dare to, they can live their lives as they wish.”
Through Mari’s Instagram account, she utilizes her body to pose seductively and challenge prevailing norms towards body images. She does not attempt to hide her curves but embraces them as a key aspect of her identity and her sensuality. She looks to overtly challenge the sexual domination of men by alluring them with the open display of her body, while subverting the chauvinist power by celebrating a sexuality that demands autonomy. She is completely open, yet equally closed to male domination. Thanks to her Instagram account, she is creating a new power dynamic, fusing her desire to be both feminine and sensual, while challenging any attempt by men to control her.
Georgian male dominance conditions every aspect of daily life, exerting itself through implicit social conventions that have tainted every micro aspect of modern love life. While dating men, Georgian women are expected to be submissive. A mother on the outside, a whore on the inside. From Mari’s experience, “whenever I insist on paying for my drinks and talk about my career, men mostly vanish. I am often told to ‘tone my feminism down a little’, and that I should be more ‘welcoming’ so I don’t scare men away.” However, there is hope in the generational and ideological clash, Mari says. “Of course this does not apply to everyone. Georgia is a strange place, we have a part of society that is very accepting, understanding and tolerant, but we also have the majority, which is poisoned by our Soviet legacy and the church. However, foremost, as long as we live in a country where women are expected to get married before the age of 25, dating culture is reinforcing all the stereotypes I would like to see destroyed one day.”
However, the inapplicability of outdated stereotypes to current Georgian reality leads to women lying about their sexual behaviour for fear of not being accepted or being shamed. As Mari honestly puts it, “women in Tbilisi fuck, but most of them will deny it if asked. Why? Well, one day we were playing truth or dare, so one of my friends, while she was drunk, honestly said that she had had sex. The following night, every man, regardless of whether he was present or not at that party, called and harassed her, demanding sexual favours. That’s why women lie. Fear is a very strong motivator. We are scared of social isolation, public humiliation, and rape. In Georgia, you are either a virgin or a mother, if not you are submitted to daily sexual abuse.”
Despite the gravity of the situation, it is not easy for Georgian women to move away from being just “Mother Georgia” or “Virgin Georgia” to also become “Single Georgia”, “Queer Georgia” or “Just-Looking-For-Casual-Sex-Georgia”. Besides gender stereotypes, many other differential factors such as class, economic background and ‘Tbilisi vs. countryside’ come into the picture. “Ideally, I would tell women not to bend the knee to rules of systemic oppression, but reality is totally different,” Mari explains. “Yes, I am able to live the way I want to and say what I think is right, but I also grew up in one of the most exclusive parts of Tbilisi to a family of doctors. I am allowed to be whoever I want to be, because I was born with a specific social status. I would never ask a girl from a small village to do the same, as she would be put through daily sexual abuse. I think we should start with a bit more solidarity and understanding towards each other. We should become examples for each other, empower each other, defend each other, and step by step will achieve freedom.”
However, there is a long way ahead to achieve the well-deserved freedom, and “a long way ahead of us before we are able to smash patriarchy,” Mari admits. “Unfortunately, the institutions that are hell-bent on oppressing women and minorities in Georgia are still holding strong. The Georgian Church still has a ridiculously high rate of approval and the conservative Soviet mentality still lingers in the older generation’s minds, as well as the accusations that Georgia is becoming ‘Westernized’ and forgetting about traditional cultural values. To be honest, I don’t give two shits about what these accusations are. This ugly system has destroyed the lives of countless women, I could write a book on the tragic tales of women in my own family. Oppression is not a cultural value, traditions that are discriminatory have to disappear, period.”
It is not enough to be featured in the Lonely Planet ‘Top Places To Travel in 2018’, to enjoy a new visa regime or to have a more important role in the international community. Progress requires freedom, and there is no freedom without sexual liberation, which cannot be achieved as long as conservative ideals linger and reinforce the patriarchal society. However, as Mari argues, “women in Tbilisi are fucking.” Sexual liberation is on its way, and there are countless ways in which women like Mari are fighting and supporting each other in the quest for a truly egalitarian and free Georgian society that allows all women to be who they are.