Women’s groups in a conservative Caucasus enclave are making inroads in male-dominated local structures.

Lia Kavterashvili’s small guest house in the Pankisi Gorge village of Jokolo has thrived throughout the coronavirus pandemic, unlike many similar businesses in Georgia.

“Some of my guests were here, and because of the travel ban they couldn’t go home. So they were forced to stay here for several months, which is sad for them but is good for me,” Kavterashvili said with a smile.

Kavterashvili, 45, fled from Chechnya to the Pankisi with her husband and son in 1999, during the second Russian-Chechen war.

“We lost everything in Chechnya,” she said. “We started a new life from zero in the Pankisi Gorge. It was hard because my husband got sick on the road from Chechnya. He died five years ago.”

Lia Kavterashvili’s guest house.

Kavterashvili taught history to children of refugees from Chechnya until she and other school staff were laid off in 2013. She then began attending events at a Women’s Club under the auspices of the Kakheti Regional Development Foundation (KRDF), a local NGO, and took part in KRDF training sessions. It turned her life around.

“They helped me a lot. I learned how to write proposals and studied social entrepreneurship,” she said.

By Women, for Women

Women-run businesses and activities have become increasingly visible in recent years in the Pankisi Gorge, an area mostly populated by Chechens and Kists –Chechen-speaking descendants of Chechens and Ingush who settled here in the 19th century. In the higher valleys, Kists, who number around 9,000, make up three quarters of the population. It’s a conservative, mainly Muslim enclave in majority-Christian Georgia.

The gorge is linked by mountain passes to the southern Russian region of Chechnya, where many have relatives. Family traditions are considered sacred, and extended-family bonds are strong. Traditional local values and Islamic practices characterize the region, but in recent years women have made inroads in challenging some of the old mountain laws and traditions.

After Kavterashvili built a house – with financial help from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – her business idea germinated. She took part in several KRDF projects and then applied for and won funding to open her guest house.

“That was two years ago, and everything is going well,” she said. “This year I also got a new grant [from KRDF] and that allowed me to invest in the business.” That enabled her to buy new furniture and other items for the guest house, which hosts both domestic and foreign tourists, Kavterashvili said.

Maia Kavterashvili, 52, Lia’s cousin, received a grant from KRDF to support her own guest house, in the nearby village of Duisi. She is now renovating the house.

“It’s not enough just to have an idea,” Maia Kavterashvili said. “You need to write the proposal, which is very important for starting a business. Even if you know how to write the proposal but don’t write it well, you will not win [a grant]. If it were not for the training and workshops and the help from KRDF, I wouldn’t have achieved all this. When they gave me funds for raising and taking care of my cows, it helped me a lot. And it’s not only financial support, but also psychological support.”

Manana Margoshvili raises bees and makes honey.

Another beneficiary of KRDF assistance is Jokolo resident Manana Margoshvili, 53, who raises bees and makes honey. She first tried raising bees 15 years ago, with little knowledge of the craft. “So the bees got sick and they all died,” she said. “But I didn’t give up. After two years I bought two new hives. In 2012 I got a grant from KRDF. … I learned a lot from seminars about honey production. Practice is interesting, but it’s better to know the theory first.”

Respecting Traditions

The organization is the brainchild of Iza Bekauri, who grew up in the area and is half Kist and half Georgian. She was working with Chechen refugees in 2008 when “it became more obvious to me that I needed to take steps to empower women in Pankisi,” she said.

That year, KRDF opened a community education center in Duisi. In 2014, the Women’s Club opened in Jokolo, and another opened last year in the village of Omalo. Before the pandemic struck, Kist women would get together at the centers, read newspapers, and discuss problems in the gorge. As pandemic restrictions ease, the centers are gradually returning to full activity. Women come to the centers for classes, vocational courses, meetings, and consultation on legal and business matters. The centers also serve as gathering places where people can meet with government representatives.

Progress by KRDF in Pankisi came step by step, as both women and men gradually warmed to the organization, Bekauri said. It helped that she knew the local language and traditions. “In addition to this, people saw that we were doing a good job and not harming their traditions.” 

The road through Duisi.

Before KRDF was established, local customs barred women from most jobs. Those with jobs outside the home typically worked in schools and preschools. “But nowadays if they work for an NGO, this is OK and it’s not considered a bad thing,” Bekauri said. “Now husbands trust our organization.”  

Several hundred women participate in training sessions and KRDF projects each year, Bekauri said. The organization employs 34 salaried women and has awarded grants and other support to at least 550 women, she said.

A Chance to Be Heard

The group also works to foster women’s rights and giving women a voice. Decision-making in the gorge is largely in the hands of men, who act through the Council of Elders, the traditional mediator of disputes.

The council is the valley’s local court and leading legal institution. Its members govern the affairs of residents according to Muslim family law. The council also deals with more sensitive issues, such as blood revenge. Only the most respected men are elected to the council, selected from the local clans; women are not allowed to join.

In 2011, Bekauri and other influential and respected women of Pankisi formed an alternative body, the Council of Women. For any such initiative to succeed the approval of the men’s council had to be secured. It was not easy, but Bekauri managed to gain their trust.

“I knew the language and I started to walk around the villages and talk to the female leaders of their communities, those whose words would carry weight and force in the gorge.

Lia Kavterashvili and her niece prepare dumplings for her guests.

“We found 25 women and presented them to the elderly men. In the beginning it was a hard decision for them to agree even to discuss it, because in Kist culture women can’t even sit next to men at the table. The creation of a body consisting of women and raising women’s concerns was something unprecedented for men. Initially they resisted, but the women could be flexible during the negotiations. They managed to persuade the men that they would also benefit from the presence of this council,” Bekauri said.

The Pankisi Council of Women is the only body of its kind in any Georgian Muslim community, she added.

“This is a community where everybody knows everybody. Women now don’t have to go to men for help. Now they directly go to the women’s council. … The Women’s Council is not the decision-maker, but they participate in the process. Otherwise women wouldn’t have a chance to be heard.”

The Council of Women, along with community groups, youth activists, KRDF, and the community radio station Radio Way have grown into important roles in the gorge, said Maya Kurtsikidze, spokeswoman for UNICEF Georgia.

The groups are working “to shift the mindset that directs the patriarchal society to mainstream human rights-based approaches,” she said. “We have been working with these organizations to develop child rights-based approaches in the region.” 

Kurtsikidze credits the Council of Women with playing a key role in the joint decision by the councils to rescind religious approval of marriages between youths under 18. According to UNICEF Georgia, studies show that marriages of girls aged 16 or 17 remain frequent.

‘In Everyone’s Interest’

Before the creation of the Council of Women, the Council of Elders was the only local mediator of disputes. Its decisions tended to favor men, for instance in divorce cases, when custody of children inevitably was awarded to the father.

The women councilors are over 45 years of age, to reflect the traditional respect for older people. The body functions in much the same way as the men’s council. Members deal with issues such as domestic violence, forced marriage, inheritance, child custody after divorce, and polygamy.

The Council of Women acts as a mediator between women and men. It helps women present their problems before the Council of Elders, which makes the final decision.

The two councils also work together to close the gaps between local law, which incorporates elements of Muslim Sharia law, and secular legislation. Georgian police operate in the gorge, and a court hears cases in the nearby town of Akhmeta. However, people rarely seek redress from formal law enforcement institutions, preferring to resolve disputes according to their traditions.

In 2016, without input from Georgian authorities, the two councils agreed on changes regarding women and family life.

Guliko Khangoshvili with her grandchildren.

Women’s Council member Guliko Khangoshvili said the revised code gave women significantly more say over their lives. The code now allows divorced women more access to their children, for instance.

“We had a case last year where we made an agreement that a child [of divorced parents] can see the mother several days a week,” she said. “Before, this was not possible under local law.”

Previously, fathers, husbands, and brothers made all decisions on a woman’s behalf, she said. “But we have improved it so women also can have a voice in some situations. Another change affects inheritance. Before, women couldn’t inherit anything from their family. We changed this and women can now get something from their family.”

In addition, the two councils agreed to increase the amount men must pay their wife’s family before a marriage can take place. “We also updated the law to say that if the man is not local, he should pay more, and also sign the marriage contract. Because there were many cases of girls being the third or fourth wife without knowing it,” Khangoshvili said.

Khaso Margoshvili, a member of the Council of Elders, said there are limits to Kist women’s involvement in decision-making. “There are a number of issues where we will not give women the right to participate. It comes from ancient times: Woman has her own corner in social life, man has his own. Man has his own obligations; a woman has her own obligations too. Discussing serious issues is a man’s job. … We delegate the rest of the issues to women.”

But he approves of the Council of Women.

“We realized that sometimes men don’t understand women’s issues,” Margoshvili said. “Women understand each other better and solve their problems themselves. So I think the creation of the Women’s Council is in everyone’s interest.”

Astghik Gaudyan (LinkedIn; Facebook) is a freelance journalist based in Armenia. She holds a master’s degree in journalism and media management from the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs.