Defending what is right
Tinatin Khidasheli is the type of person for whom the use of “fighter” in the expression “freedom fighter” is well deserved. In her three decades of civic activism, she has gone from clashing with the Soviet-era militsiya (police) in the final year before the fall of the USSR to defending in court the basic rights of those ostracised by the new Georgian state, from advocating the need for EU integration of her country in Parliament, to reforming its military. And she has done all of this during a time when public life in her native Georgia has been dominated by men, but still holds no grudges against them. What is more, Khidasheli has thrived as a liberal in a socially conservative environment where defending the rights of the marginalized often gets you in trouble. But she doesn’t mind it, because she always knew why she was in the struggle. How did this come to be?
“I am not simply a conscious liberal,” she says. “I am an instinctive liberal – it is not just from the books, it happened to me naturally.” It all started with her joining the anti-communist protests in Tbilisi in 1989 as a teenager, when thousands of Georgians clashed with the army and police in the last days of the Soviet Union. "When I was at that age that determines your long term choices, I was on the streets fighting communists. This fight for freedom defined the whole structure of my life forever,” she adds.
What followed was enrolment in the law programme at Tbilisi State University, an unusual choice for a woman at the time. “I was a very good high school student and my teachers were really disappointed because they could not believe that a woman could have a successful legal career. They were begging me to go to medical school, where successful girls should go,” she recalls. Yet, she had little doubts about her choice, as there was a clear vision in her head about what she wanted to achieve. “Defending human rights was not an expression we used at the time, but instinctively that's what I always wanted to do — to serve the most disadvantaged, to help them go through the difficulties of life.”
What it means to be liberal
If there was a moment that can mark the start of the ‘liberal’ Tinatin Khidasheli, it must have been the first TV broadcast when she, as a young lawyer, defended Jehovah’s witnesses persecuted during the early years after the fall of communism in Georgia. “I was so different from the mainstream understanding of these matters in my country, despite being from a famous Orthodox family. It was unacceptable that I was defending such people. Then there was fight against the death penalty,” she remembers.
Khidasheli puts an important caveat – she does not consider herself a “leftist liberal”, as the term is often understood today. To her, the very use of the textbook definition of liberalism is problematic for those living in the post-Soviet space. “What does it mean to be liberal here? It is not about details of your political theory, but is more about answering questions: what is your opinion on gay marriage? Are you for adoption of children by gay couples? What about religious minorities — do you believe all religions should have the right to practice in the same way as the monopolistic Orthodox Church?,” she says. “So it is not about what kind of educational policies I defend or what sort of health or social care I want, no — it is still about the big issues we are discussing, the basics of freedom — mainly equality and equal access to life’s basic things.”
In any case, the fact she was always ready to swim against the tide helped her overcome the taboo that public affairs is not an appropriate field for a woman. Later, it got her into politics — against all odds. “I have been asked very often why women are not represented in Georgian politics so much. In social life, in public life, and in normal life, you don't really see women being discriminated against in most professions and most fields. If you watch TV, most of the political, business, NGO commentators are women. Statistically, a majority of Georgian judges are women, which was completely unimaginable a few years back. We have dominance in sectors such as in NGOs, and there is, accordingly, strong advocacy of women’s issues. These good examples of smart, outspoken women in public should be like a trampoline bouncing them into political life. And this is somehow not happening.”
Why Georgian women eschew politics
“My explanation was that women are looking for more safeguards in life, because in this country they take care of the families and politics is a very risky job, you are in and you are out, like that, overnight,” she concludes. “And if you are the one off the scene, it is really hard to find a job after that. For example, when I left my job as a minister, so many people asked me what I am going to do now. As if my life had ended. That's the kind of attitude that you get in a society dominated by post-Soviet mentality. People see politics as an endgame rather than as just one of the jobs that you have in your life.”
So, she went on to become an example of someone who can go into politics, do their job as best they can, and then go on to have a productive life after that. During her years in active politics, she went from being a city councillor in Tbilisi to chair several committees in Parliament, and then to the culmination of her political life – becoming Georgia’s first female Minister of Defence. “That was a mistake they would not repeat,” Khidasheli laughs, when she talks about her appointment. At the time, it was much more of a move on by the Prime Minister, Irakli Garibashvili, on behalf of his Georgian Dream party, which wanted to preserve its coalition with Khidasheli’s Republican Party, rather than a statement about Georgian progressiveness.
“Yes, after that everybody got excited that we will have the first women-defence minister in the region, not only in the South Caucasus but in the entire ex-USSR except for the Baltic States. The issue of me being a woman was raised, but it was secondary. Number one was the politics I had always followed,” she exclaims. It was her image as a leading pro-Western, pro-NATO politician that secured her the job, since post-2008 Georgia wanted to send a strong message to its Western partners and its domestic audience alike about the direction the country was taking.
The nasty side of public life (as a woman)
This is where the nice part of the story ends. “I say that my appointment was a big mistake by that government because they did not particularly understand what NATO is about and had even less understanding of why women should take stronger stands in public affairs,” Khidasheli remembers. Her appointment led to a wave of public attacks against her, based on the causes that she had defended during her legal career. “When I became Minister of Defence, the very first orchestrated and systematic attack against me was that I'd bring gays into the army,” she says. She also recalls moments when she was simultaneously “accused” of being Jewish, an agent of Jewish-Hungarian financier and philanthropist George Soros, a Jehovah’s witness, and a Satanist (“because I am for gay marriage,” she notes) who wanted to defile Georgian children.
Khidasheli laughed off all these attempts to break her psychologically because she had strong convictions, yet they were not the only problems she had to face as a high-profile female persona. “When I was Minister of Defence the only comments I heard were about the size of my earrings and what kind of lipstick I was wearing. It was funny, but for me it was not an issue — I didn't become Defence Minister out of high school or because my father promoting me. I fought in front of cameras with the most powerful men in this country, so I did not really care what those people said about me. But psychologically it damages you and you ask — don't you have anything to say about the policies I am implementing, the budget I am spending, about the projects I am approving?”
This sort of subtle misogyny, she believes, only happened because she was female. At the same time, she believes that the ability to endure such attitudes is probably the only strength that women politicians possess and men don’t – because they don’t have to. “I have never heard in my life, at least not in this country, somebody saying about a male politician — "oh, look what he is wearing” or what he looks like. When it comes to women, the very first reactions are personal.” Those like her who manage to endure this attitude come out much more resilient, she says.
Belief in equality always prevails
On the other hand, she would not go as far as to say that there is something intrinsically different between good male and female politicians. “I don't believe that strong, qualified, conscious leadership depends on gender. I think it comes from the honesty and professionalism of the person,” Khidasheli states. She has personally worked hard to encourage the more active participation of Georgian women in the country’s public life (“Nine out of ten women you see on TV today had my name on their CVs regarding their first jobs,” she says). But she definitely does not share the belief that women would be better at a job just because they are women. “I know it is important [to encourage women to join politics], I do it every day, but at the same time, I don't believe that we should get in this position and have this attitude that just because we are women, we can do a job better if we are given the opportunity. It's not like that.”
That’s why Khidasheli has a more nuanced view of the attempt by the country’s parliament to establish quotas for female representatives, saying that if she were an MP now, she would likely back the quota system of 25% women in each party’s candidate list, but only as a temporary measure. Because it is the culture of politics needs to change, not simply the numbers.
So how did she feel during her stint in the manly field of defence? Excluded, an outsider? Not at all. “I always believed that the most progressive part of Georgian society has been the military for the very simple reason that their profession is one that has travelled a lot. They've seen a lot, fought shoulder to shoulder with women soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. For them, more than for anybody else in our country, that is kind of business as usual. They've been in situations where women have saved their lives, they've been in situations where women showed particular bravery. And for them, it is absolutely normal.”
Her public image of a fighter also helped. “I was a human rights lawyer, fighting for the rights of tortured prisoners against police abuse and sort of doing a man's job all the time. I was fighting policemen in the streets, I was fighting for my defendants in the court, so in a way it made me a soldier to them,” she shares. The army, she claims, knew that in her, they had someone who would have their back.
As for who does have her back, Khidasheli is clear – her husband, also a lawyer and politician, and two boys. “The family I have made it possible for me to become who I am,” she says. The simple principle they follow is that they should be happy with what they do, be it in their personal or professional lives. “The only reason why nothing broke my family is that we always did what we were happy doing, regardless of all the pressures we had to endure because of our public lives.”
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