How the March demonstrations in Georgia showed the importance of women’s engagement in public protest6 min read
The unprecedented protests which took place in Tbilisi 7-9 March highlighted the importance of women’s engagement not only in the organisation of protest rallies, but also as public speakers to voice the real challenges they face. This engagement resulted in the empowerment of women and girls to make public statements, and to be seen and heard.
On 7 March a Georgian woman waving the European Union flag while standing alone against the harsh surge of a water cannon became a symbol of resistance.
“Look Europe, when was the last time you saw someone carrying your flag like this?” was one of the powerful messages circulating on social media, making Georgian people proud and empowering them to participate in the protests. The woman in question was public servant Nana Malashkhia. In an interview with Radio Freedom, Malashkhia recalled her actions: “I did not have a feeling of fear, not then, nor after I got information about a rally participant losing his eye, despite [the fact] I could have [had] the same case.” Malashkhia’s photo was compared to the famous image of Mari Makharadze, who carried a flag on 9 April 1989, the day when the Soviet army dispersed anti-Soviet protests in the capital of Georgia, resulting in over 20 deaths.
The impact of the ‘foreign agent’ draft law on women and girls
A 2021 Public Defender report on the “Situation of Protection of Human Rights and Freedoms in Georgia” found there were 65 femicide cases between 2019-2021. That year, the number of reported cases of domestic violence or conflicts received by 112, Georgia’s emergency number, amounted to 18,007. Though the same Public Defender’s report emphasises the “significant progress in developing policies and responding to cases by law enforcement bodies,” NGOs are often the only possible help for female victims of violence. Local NGOs, and specifically feminist organisations, are some of the few allies of Georgian women, providing free legal assistance and representation in court proceedings, psychosocial assistance, and respectful treatment.
The “foreign agent” law generated unequivocal disapproval from the international community and national organisations. In a joint statement by various civil society organisations, it was made clear that the draft law could negatively affect vulnerable groups, especially women and girls. For one, the legislation could impact donors and decrease, or entirely cancel, the funding of NGOs. If the Georgian government clearly shows doubts over years of cooperation with foreign partners via this draft law, this surely would impact any future collaboration. As the United Nations noted in their own statement against the draft law, “If adopted, such a law is likely to impede the work of the UN to implement the Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework, the country strategy that we have co-signed with the Government of Georgia.” Similarly, the legislation was in direct violation of the country’s European path, contradicting the Georgian Constitution and incompatible with at least 2 of the 12 EU priorities. This would affect future EU cooperation, including in the funding and support of crucial NGOs.
The intersection of public protests and the women’s march
The violent and disproportionate response of the government, which used water cannons, pepper spray, and tear gas against peaceful citizens, started on the night of 8 March, International Women’s Day. The demonstration organised by the Georgian Women’s Movement in the context of this public holiday merged with the protests against the bill. The Women’s March united thousands of protesters around one single powerful message: “No to total control, no to Russian law.” The protest thus provided a platform for women to raise their concerns and highlight the problems that the draft law could bring for them.
Prevalent heteronormative and patriarchal norms in Georgia and elsewhere often impact women to refrain from making public statements. In different cultures where women are seen only as “caregivers,” it is often not culturally acceptable for a woman to give public speeches in front of thousands of people. Georgia is no exception. Sometimes, these stereotypes are deeply engrained into the unconsciousness of women, influencing their decisions on how to act and behave. It gets even more difficult when different determinants intersect. It becomes impossible to speak out for those ethnic minorities with a language barrier, or women with disabilities requiring accommodations. This might be one of the reasons why the voices of groups directly influenced by the state’s decisions were mostly hidden during the protests.
Protest rallies are a space that should attract more women, including those who are directly affected by civil society – related legislation. The global women’s liberation movements have proved to be instrumental for women to enjoy their fundamental rights up to date. Indeed, the Women’s March protesting this bill was organised by the Georgian Women’s Movement. But women should not only be seen on the public stage when the topics are stereotypically labelled as “women’s problems.” We often see womens’ protests regarding the rights to abortion, dignity, equal pay, and domestic violence. However, the challenge is that these protests are still portrayed as women’s issues, rather than a problem for the whole society. This causes these protests to lack the ability to gather and unite people of different genders.
Other protest rallies that generate general public attention avoid gendering topics and therefore do not equally represent women and their stories. Past protests in Georgia have typically been directed against police violence, election results or corruption. The discussion of these topics has usually lacked any meaningful inclusion of women’s voices, thus making it difficult for a wider audience to understand how these topics impact women. However, the current protests in Georgia demonstrated that the opposite is indeed possible: women were not only visible, but their actions had an impact on society.
We saw all family members present, in contrast to previous protests where women stayed at home with their children. Women publicly shared their conversations with their teenage children, encouraging each other to join the rallies. Female politicians from the Georgian opposition parties actively voiced the demands of society in parliament. Public protests became more visible because of the involvement of Generation Z and their response to the police riots. Although we have to acknowledge that women’s voices were still not equally covered by the media, current developments highlight how unity can dramatically impact the state’s decisions. The March 2023 protests again stressed the need and the importance of women’s participation and engagement in all settings, especially in public protests.
The ruling party lost by withdrawing the bill from Parliament, but this protest episode will carry wider significance in the medium to long term. The government unintentionally empowered different groups and united people in a way that made Georgians more attentive and resistant. A broad coalition of protesters efficiently used various tools to share information, including social media platforms and peer-to-peer conversations, and to call others to action to join the protests. Women’s involvement in this protest left its mark on the outcome, and we should not forget the lessons learned. There should be a platform for everyone, and especially for women, whose engagement brings a difference not only for a certain group, but for the whole society.