#WeAreSakartvelo: Taking Steps Toward Solidarity

Speeches Shim

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Lia Dekanadze and Nestan Ananidze are from the ethnic Georgian Muslim community in Khulo, Adjara. After graduating from university in Tbilisi, both Lia and Nestan returned to Khulo to help address challenges facing the community. They stand up for the rights of all Georgian citizens, regardless of religion or ethnicity, viewing civic integration as necessary to build resilience, strengthen democracy, and advance prosperity in Georgian society. 

Lia Dekanadze and Nestan Ananidze are almost the same age. They have a lot in common -  both recently graduated from university, both are activists who have returned to their native municipality of Khulo, and both plan to contribute to changes in this region.

Lia’s and Nestan’s social activism started during student life. They worked to protect the rights of Muslim members of the community and help them become more aware of their rights in Georgian society. 

Together with their friends, they recently established a civil society organization called The Solidarity Community. 

The Return 

Lia Dekanadze, activist:

I am a graduate of a bachelor’s program in political science. Due to Covid-19, I had to study remotely from Khulo for a year and a half. After graduating, I stayed here. I work at an international company as an interpreter. I also do different work aside from my regular job. Together with my friends, I established The Solidarity Community.

Through our efforts, we want to support protection of the rights of members of our community - the Georgian Muslim community. At the same time, we want to raise awareness about the Adjara region, focusing on Georgian Muslims’ cultural heritage, including the ancient mosques in the region. 

We believe that we can support the establishment of an equal, democratic, and fair environment and society. [We launched The Solidarity Community because] we wanted to do our share in this process.  

Women and youth are the groups we intend to work with because we believe that strong women and youth in society are the main drivers of the community’s rapid development in the right direction. 

Nestan Ananidze, activist:

I was born and raised in Khulo. I graduated from high school here. I left for Tbilisi to receive higher education. I am a lawyer. The pandemic certainly influenced my life plans and future developments. I returned to my municipality toward the end of my final years at university. I thought it was necessary to use the knowledge I had received at university here. When I returned to Khulo, I wanted to use my knowledge to help the community in which I grew up. 

Vision on Muslims

Lia Dekanadze, activist:

Practically everything related to the Georgian Muslim community - their achievements, their past, and experience - has disappeared from history and collective memory. I did my bachelor’s thesis on the Muslim Georgia Liberation Committee during the First Democratic Republic, and [during the research] I found information regarding cases they raised 100 years ago. Before that, I didn’t know that the pages of history recorded the story of Georgian Muslims and their contribution to the development of this country.

The Solidarity Community is necessary in this regard, because on the one hand, we openly state that it will work to protect the rights of the Georgian Muslim community, and on the other, it [the organization] is not closed but rather open for dialogue. 

We recorded and disseminated a supportive video regarding the May 17 events and Tbilisi Pride, which was not necessarily acceptable to certain members of our community. This even caused a conflict within the community. But we believe that what we do is not only to protect the rights of Muslims, but the overall rights of the community, including those of women and poor people.

Our approach is a little more holistic. If we want to fight for a fair and equal society, we don’t think that it’s right to speak only about the rights of the Muslim community.

Lia Dekanadze:

I learned that the missionary attitude while working in the community is very dangerous.

On the one hand, the community should maintain its dignity and achievements. On the other hand, you should not start with top-down changes. If you want to do something important, you should do it with people and not for them. 

However, while working with the community, I realized that we [members of the Georgian Muslim community] are not self-critical at all. We are critical of the dominant discourse, but internally [within our own community, when we come across oppression at the [intra-community level], we are not loudly critical of that.

When I returned [to Khulo], I encountered in practice that the existing patriarchal society [in my community] was even more complex than [in the wider society in Georgia].

When you are in Khulo, the poison of ethnonationalism does not concern you a lot, but the patriarchal society, the fact that you do not own private property, you do not have access to a quality education here, you do not have access to social and cultural life. This has become intolerable [in Khulo and in many other communities across Georgia]. 

I have put considerable effort toward becoming a female activist. This was also a huge challenge for me, and I learned that we have to fight on multiple fronts. 

Women are working hard here. This is [mainly] household work which does not bring any financial benefits. 

It is troubling when hard domestic work is romanticized. It should be called what it is in reality, it is economic exploitation when you work so hard but you do not have the right to manage your earned income independently. It should not be romanticized. Instead, we should create platforms where this issue can be raised and discussed.  

Nestan Ananidze:

There are many problems that are hidden in the community and in families, and it is difficult for people to admit the reality. For instance, the fact that they [many women] are victims of violence and their rights are violated. When you are working from dawn to dusk, this is not decent work.

Above all, it is essential to understand and analyze these issues for themselves, that there is another alternative, another situation. 

I, the Muslim Woman

Lia Dekanadze:

There was a period in my life when, unintentionally, I found myself involved in identity politics. I was positioned [only] as a Muslim girl. This happened suddenly; it was unplanned. Then, I came to better understand how I wanted to be known publicly. I came to realize that Islam, my religion, no longer had political significance. It has become a truly religious and social issue, which I transferred into my private space. I want to have a different identity in the social world [that is not defined only by my religious identity].

There are issues that may concern me dramatically and more politically as a Muslim girl, but I do not want to be considered a “poor Muslim girl”. I also want to become stronger professionally and wish people to see me differently beyond all this.   

When a person in Georgia speaks and says, “I am a Georgian Muslim,” I consider this an act of great bravery and courage as a majority of our society is not yet ready to accept Georgian Muslims as full-fledged members of this family.  

Nestan Ananidze:

It is essential for us that people living here regard us as citizens of this country because we live the same way, we work and receive an education like others. We want to be involved in the development of our country and pursue this path just like others. Religion is a private space for every person.  

We are currently working on a photo album of women living in Adjara. From the beginning, we agreed that we should not emphasize that these women are Georgian Muslims. We have already gone through this phase, and we do not need to affirm our faith and religious identity anymore.

Changes

Nestan Ananidze:

Maybe we have not done a great thing, but my friends and I made a little contribution to raising public awareness about the Muslim community. For instance, my friends and I discovered ancient wooden mosques. We share this and always highlight that this is a part of Georgia’s Muslim heritage and thus a part of national cultural heritage.  

We are not doing big things yet, but it is a great thing for me that we are stating that our cultural heritage should also be part of a common national heritage.

Last updated: May 13, 2022

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