This post is written in conjunction with the Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue project sponsored by Claremont School of Theology in the Claremont Lincoln University Consortium, Claremont Graduate University, and directed by Grace Yia-Hei Kao.
Katrina Myers is a MA student at Claremont School of Theology and is participating in the Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue project.
During the past two years, I had the opportunity to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in the country of Georgia, which is located in Eastern Europe. There I worked as a schoolteacher and lived in a tiny, homogenous, Georgian village in the Kakheti region.
I quickly learned the encompassing influence of the Georgian Orthodox Church, which upholds an ideal hierarchy: God, Jesus, Patriarch, Man, Woman. The church champions traditional gender roles; men are to be strong leaders and heads of the community and their households, while women are expected to be virginal, modest, obedient and subservient. In Georgian culture, the influence of the Church and the teachings of Patriarch Ilia II and his predecessors are indisputable.
I often learned about the rules of the Church through conversations, gossip or drama that was happening in my host family. During my first month in Georgia, a huge explosion erupted in my house. Only barely able to comprehend basic Georgian phrases, I caught onto the words “ცუდი გოგო” (pronounced: tsudi gogo), which means literally “bad girl,” a label that you do not want to attain and is usually not good even to hear it uttered. Confused at what was happening, I asked my seventeen-year-old host sister, who spoke some English, to explain. In a conversation of broken Georgian and English she told me that her mom was mad and was saying she was a tsudie gogo, because she and her female friend had been out walking with one of her male classmates. When I asked her why this was a problem, she told me that in Georgia she was not allowed to do this, because “here, girls have to be…” She paused and grabbed the Georgian-English dictionary, “Girls have to be… virgins.” When I inquired why, she gave me a version of “because the Bible tells me so.”
A year after that initial, but certainly not only, conversation about sex and virginity in Georgian culture, an article was published titled, The Virginity Institute: Sex and the Georgian Woman. This article explains the many phenomena I had been witnessing. The article describes the “The Virginity Institute” as a jesting-name that refers to the cultural taboo on sex before marriage for Georgian women. The article references a 2009 survey by the Tbilisi-based Caucasus Research Resource Centers, which reported that 77 percent of Georgian respondents thought that it was unacceptable for a woman to have sex before marriage. Georgians believe it is good for their culture and reinforces their value system, and, from what I understand from this article and my experience, the Patriarch upholds this tradition.
According to this ideal, women should not want sex, think about sex or engage in sex. If a woman does have sex before marriage and others find out about it, she will become an outcast in her community, a tsudi gogo, destined then to spinsterhood.
In contrast, Georgian men are encouraged and even expected to have sex at an early age. Of course, as the women are not allowed to have sex, the men often visit prostitutes. It is even a right of passage for a boy to be taken to his first Natasha, (prostitute).
The prohibition of sex before marriage also prevents dating. Yet, boys and girls are not ignorant of dating culture and have access to American, European and Russian television shows and movies, where sex is glamorized. In a country where sex and marriage may only exist together, this culture of abstinence prompts many Georgians to marry young. Marriage, then, becomes the necessary license for sex, and many young Georgians think is worth it. While I was there, whenever I saw a wedding parade in my village or heard about an elopement, my gut reaction was always, please don’t let it be one of my students, please.
One devastating consequence of teenage marriages, is when girls get married they are often forced to drop out of school. My first host sister told me a story about one girl in her class who had gotten married and chosen to continue to go to school. She told me, “It is bad she is at school. We are girls but she is a woman now. The boys look at her differently because they know she does that. She should not be allowed to go to school. I think she should stay home.” My host sister continued to tell me that peer pressure had eventually forced her classmate to drop out of the eleventh grade. Her husband was allowed to continue going to school and earn his diploma.
Additionally, many of these young girls quickly get pregnant (there is no sex education or readily available birth control), and once you are a mother in Georgia that is your sole role in life from then thereon.
As we have been talking about Mary Daly in recent weeks, I wanted to connect this to her work. Daly recognizes religion, especially Christianity, as an irredeemably patriarchal institute that must be abandoned. The existence of the Virginity Institute would seem to justify Daly’s claim. However, we have to consider that in Georgia religion and national identity are inseparable; being Georgian Orthodox Christian is synonymous with being Georgian. Also, in Georgia national identity is something you are born into, and, thus, this religion cannot be striped from a Georgian any more than the blood can be removed from one’s veins. Although I appreciate Daly and all of her radical-ness, her solution to abandon religion is not a practical or even viable way to alleviate this oppression. Instead, I believe that we must use the creativity Daly advocates to discover other realistic ways of addressing immediate issues such as the Virginity Institute.
Post-script: An ironic follow-up came from another Georgian news source a scant two weeks after the initial article I referenced. This one titled, Georgian women seek virginity restoration: Tbilisi doctors report an increase in requests for hymenoplasty. I’m out of space, but would love to hear your thoughts on this.