Georgia’s commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s operations in Afghanistan is helping a new generation of female soldiers break with age-old stereotypes about the role of women in this macho society.
After centuries of fighting foreign invaders, Georgians widely view men as the ones to be warriors and protectors, a role found in everything from folk dances to the question of who pays for a restaurant meal. The very word for soldier in Georgian, “jarisk’atsi,” literally translates as “army man.”
But, now, Georgian women are grabbing a gun and heading into war, too.
Thirty-three women out of a total of 1,561 Georgian troops have served in Afghanistan since 2009 when Tbilisi first took active involvement in the International Security Assistance Force. Ministry of Defense regulations restrict females to administrative, medical and humanitarian work, but the Georgian women who served in Afghanistan say that they went on patrols, defended bases and helped their military forge ties within NATO and with local communities like any male Georgian soldier.
Thirty-four-year-old Corporal Maia Pulariani was among that first deployment to Afghanistan and, like her American colleagues, saw the line blur between combat and non-combat officers. Although assigned to a medical division attached to the French army in Kabul, Pulariani and seven other Georgian female soldiers “went on patrols with the men,” she said.
“We looked after each other,” Corporal Pulariani recounted. “When silence was needed, we were silent. When caution was needed, we were cautious, and we stood like men.”
But soldiers like Corporal Pulariani are still the minority. Most of the 966 female soldiers serving in Georgia’s military work in administrative or medical departments, and never experience life in the field.
Unlike the US before January 2013, Georgia does not prohibit women from combat, but the military recruitment process makes it difficult for women to receive the training and experience necessary to gain senior ranks and assignment in the field, according to Justice and Liberty, a local non-governmental organization which specializes in military affairs.
Georgian women are not required to serve 18 months in the military, as are men, and, as a result, are essentially “deprived of the chance to start working in the security structures of Georgia” at a senior level, wrote Justice and Liberty researcher Nino Khelaia in a recent paper.
The “special training” which would allow them to compensate for this lack of experience is “relatively limited,” Khelaia continued, and contributes to women’s “lack of motivation” for a career in the military.
In the past, those women who opted for the military also confronted logistical problems. When Retired Captain Ketovan Tevzadze went through training for Georgia’s special forces in 2004, she was the only female in a class of 162 people. The facilities had no barracks or toilets for women, she said, forcing her to share quarters with male students.
Parliamentary Defense and Security Committee Chairperson Irakli Sesiashvili, founder of the Justice and Liberty NGO, maintains, though, that “the mentality is changing” about Georgian women serving as soldiers. Involving more women in the military comes down to insuring that there are “equal conditions” for both men and women, he said.
“If we would like to have, for example, a woman general, she has to have a career [to earn the rank]… we have to give those opportunities.”
Georgia has signed off on United Nations Resolution 1325, the first in a series of dictates from the UN Security Council calling for women to have an increased role in security missions, conflict resolution, and peacekeeping.
For Georgia, a country eager to join NATO, those recommendations took on extra weight when the Alliance in 2009 directed its members to follow Resolution 1325’s standards in their own militaries.
Today, in Georgia’s Aghmashenebeli National Defense Academy, about an hour outside of Tbilisi, there is a women’s floor in the barracks with separate rooms and bathing facilities for the institution’s unidentified number of female students. Plans also exist to adapt physical fitness requirements to match women’s physique.
The transition, however, has not been an easy one.
Capitan Tevzadze retired from the military in 2007, after years of what she described as being “sidelined;” forced to take office jobs, even in Iraq, despite her field training.
Like many Georgian men, her father, Retired Lieutenant General Davit Tevzadze, a former minister of defense, finds the issue of women in Georgia’s military a troubling one.
“Killing is not a woman’s job,” he said. “A woman’s job is creating life and caring for life.”
Nonetheless, given Georgia’s tiny size and precarious security situation, Georgians should not cling blindly to such notions, Ret. Lt. Gen. Tevzadze advised. Whether under Queen Tamar in the 12th and 13th centuries, during the 1921 war against the Red Army or during World War II, women have fought for Georgia’s survival alongside men.
“All the population should be ready because freedom and a free state [require] some sacrifices,” he asserted.
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist who also works as editor of Investor.ge, a monthly publication by the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia.