Scholars, Lana Mushkudiani, Nino Tskipurishvili and Gvantsa Kvinikadze, look at the life of Babilina Khositashvili, a writer who wrote passionately about double standards regarding sexual conduct and showed great determination to complete her studies, despite facing barriers in publishing her research
Babilina (Barbare) Khositashvili was a Georgian feminist poet, researcher, publicist and labour rights defender in late 18th and beginning of the 20th century. Until recently, her feminist work was unknown to the general public and she was known only as a translator and a sister of a famous Georgian poet Irodion Evdoshvili.
Khositashvili was born in 1884 in the Kizikhi region, in the village of Bodbiskhevi. Her father was a village deacon and her mother, Evdokia Khunashvili, married at the age of 13 and gave birth to 10 children, only five of whom survived. As Khositashvili mentioned later in her notes, her mother was always busy with family chores.
Khositashvili’s father and older brothers educated their younger sister, teaching her how to read and write. However, as she later discovered, they had set a certain limit to her education because, in their opinion, women only needed it for one purpose – to create and lead the family successfully.
Khositashvili’s father taught her reading and writing at the age of six; after that, she went to school and later moved with her older brother, Ilia, to Kazan to live and study there. At the age of 13, she entered boarding school in Bodbe and, against her family’s advice, decided to become a nun. Then, she discovered for herself that there was no god and refused to be a saint.
In her autobiography, Khositashvili recalled her time spent in boarding school and noted that one of the only books she and her peers had access to on the shelves was the adventure story of Robinson Crusoe. The rest of the books at the school were about the lives of saints, and she believed this fact had an impact on students’ raw psychology: because of this exposure, they were attracted to the idea of becoming saint. Just like her classmates, Khositashvili wanted to become a saint too and her decision on this remained unshakable while her friends changed their minds; indeed, she thought that changing minds so quickly was mauvais ton.
Shortly after returning home, Khositashvili decided to go to the monastery and commit to monastic vows. Her decision caused various rumours in the village: ‘A woman fled the family!’. However, despite the surprise of the nuns, Khositashvili was accepted at the monastery with a great joy. Meanwhile, her desperate mother could not change her decision.
However, within a year, Khositashvili had changed her mind and decided to return home, where she wrote:
‘My decision was formed because I learned the monastery environment deeper and closer and because I was thirsty for education and knowledge.’
During her stay in the monastery, Khositashvili soon noticed the behaviour of the nuns, which did not completely fit their status and condition. For example, she very frequently noticed some of them consuming vast amounts of wine in the monastery cellars. Speaking about this, Khositashvili wrote that they used their own jargon to disguise their own conversations, calling white wine and red wine, ‘white thread and red thread’. Khositashvili quickly realised what those words meant; when she heard them, she would see a smile of pleasure instantly appear on their faces. She was also astonished to see petting among nuns and flirting between nuns and male teachers of the boarding school. This breaking of chastity vows was one of the things that led her to change her mindset regarding sainthood.
Khositashvili’s brother Irodion asked her to return home and asked, ‘What is your problem that keeps you tied here? Don’t tell me that it is god or icons! Don’t you see that all they do is kiss painted wood!’
In her memoirs, Khositashvili said:
‘So, my “Saintliness” ended. It had been a fantasy of my adolescence, and I duly corrected it. So, as the holy Bible says: “there is no man in flesh unmistaken at least once in his life”’ (Khositashvili, 1964, p. 74-87).
Later, in her memoirs, Khositashvili wrote that she had tried to find a work in the village or a neighbouring area after leaving the monastery. She asked her parents for help and, as her father was a deacon, had visited some of her father’s acquaintances to ask for a job at a local school. (Education was disseminated mostly among people serving at the church and at the army.) However, having gone to the monastery and then changed her mind so quickly, she felt awkward. Her memoirs detail a moment when she met the group of nuns she had lived with at the monastery:
‘[They asked] “Why did you leave the monastery? Why? Will you return ever?” [In] my innocence and naivety I answered: “If god doesn’t exist, to whom shall I pray?”‘ (Khositashvili, 1964, p. 105).
Khositashvili came to Tbilisi in 1901, but could not continue with her education as she was not rich and could not afford tuition payment. However, she did spend days and nights at the library and observed the cultural life of Georgia, where she constantly tried to obtain new knowledge and information, as far as it was possible.
Khositashvili started to work at the publishing house to get to know an ordinary worker’s life. She was employed in an editorial office, as well as at a print-shop that served as a meeting place for revolutionaries. She also wrote poems. The very first of these described the condition of the working class and their struggle. Later her poems were about love and women’s problems (for example: ‘omen’, and ‘Mother at work’, amongst many others). As Khositashvili herself said, the main idea of her poems was women’s endless striving for intellectual enhancement and global ideas.
Together with writing poems, Khositashvili translated poetry, plays and prose (for example, Lermontov, Pushkin, Lesia-Ukrainka, Victor Hugo and Henrik Ibsen). In 1921, she entered the Tbilisi State University’s department of History and Philology but, again, had to quit because of poverty, not returning to the University until 1926. She completed her studies in 1929. Simultaneously, she had to take care of her children and also work.
In her diary, Khositashvili recalled when the university in Tbilisi was opened in 1918. According to her, she was discharged from a maternity ward ‘with new cuffs on her hands’ and was as thirsty to study as she had been in her early years. From 1921, Khositashvili’s child had grown enough for her to begin to study at the university. In the beginning, her husband encouraged her. However, when he saw that she attended all the lectures and was very engaged in her studies, he stopped liking it and looked down at her; in return, Khositashvili answered blatantly: ‘What I have begun, I have to complete.’
After her university graduation, Khositashvili worked at the library and simultaneously started studying the authenticity of the author of the Georgian hagiography, ‘Sufferings of Shushanik’. She aimed to research falsified ‘facts’ in history on order to eliminate antagonism between the two neighbouring nations, Georgia and Armenia. Khositashvili was actively involved in the study but after four years, called it ‘torture’.
In her diary, Khositashvili described the difficult four-year process of trying to conduct her research and publish it. During this period, she spent numerous days and hours at the Writer’s House and different publishing houses, such as the Central Executive Committee, waiting for the responsible people to meet her regarding her research paper. She even sent two letters to Stalin, but all this was in vain. Some of these people considered her work to be practically useless, while some saw as driven by narrow national interests; others, on the contrary, viewed it as a threat to national interests and some assessed it as not academic enough. Khositashvili was critical about her own work and revised it constantly. She was often refused entry to the archives and other historical sources. She decided to go to Armenia, study historical material and the old Armenian language, which would complement her research, but she did not receive any support. Quite the opposite: her efforts were often met with disdain.
To be met with refusals to publish her work was not unexpected for Khositashvili. She was desperate because she had wasted almost four years of her life. She was also not allowed into postgraduate education and, after all this, she lost incentive to work on new things, as she had neither the financial resources nor moral support to do them. However, she thought that the issues [she had sought to study] were very important and she wanted to transform her work into featured material. In her diaries, she recalled her first impressions of the university, especially her excitement during her first days there, and how thirsty she was for education, knowledge and research:
In 1925, Khositashvili recalled how she was first introduced to illegal literature by a friend between 1903 and 1904. At that time, some of the participants of the worker’s movements used to gather at her brother’s house and she sometimes witnessed their conversations.
Khositashvili wanted to continue her study abroad but could not afford to. So, her brother advised her to begin working at a printing shop where she would be exposed to a worker’s life. At the printing shop, she soon discovered that her male co-workers were members of the illegal revolutionary movement and bravely stated that she wanted to join them. In her memoirs, she described the convent house where the workers used to gather. Khositashvili had to act as their sister, should anyone would come to check. She attended underground gatherings where the ’Bolsheviks’ and ’Mensheviks’ held their debates. According to her memoirs, uneventful words of one of the male friends made her decide to quit working at this printing shop and return to a law-abiding life.
Scientific work and feminist observations
Between 1931 and 1932, Khositashvili conducted two research projects about Georgian literature and planned further work on anti-religious and anti–chauvinistic issues. However, the university and publishing house refused to publish her work because they considered her research on old Georgian literature as off-topic.
Khositashvili studied literature and tried to re-think it in a critical way. In her opinion, when studying religion and the past, it was necessary to undertake more accurate analysis, since many accepted ‘facts’ of the past were falsified. She also discussed the problems of Armenophobia, chauvinism and religious fanaticism in her works.
In her own words, Ms. Khositashvili devoted many of her efforts to ‘women’s issues’ and feminism. She tried to find an explanation for men’s dominant position in society by focusing on the oldest literary works. She studied ancient Greek and Persian sources, where women and men’s equal military upbringing was described. From these examples, it was obvious that equal physical strength could be achieved under equal training. According to Khositashvili, women’s subjugated position is not defined by a natural condition or physiology.
It is evident in the manuscripts of Babilina Khositashvili that she was actively observing three ongoing processes in the world: the feminist movement, suffragism and general trends related to women’s emancipation. She tried to compare these processes with those taking place in Georgia. She positively evaluated the attempts of the Soviet Union to differentiate family and the public sphere but, in her view, the country’s legislation had not sufficiently strengthened women, who needed to design or participate in the creation of economic policies to help them break free from male domination and control.
Speaking about this unfair reality, Khositashvili noted:
‘Women’s minds are no less thirsty for knowledge than that of man! An aesthetic feeling would no less excite womaen for creative blazing! Women’s equal participation in [the] steering of the country would have freed the humanity from two horrible pains: 1) it would replace the horrid battles, bloody wars with argumentative spats; and 2) it would end prostitution by [the] means of free love.’
One important issue Khositashvili discussed was sexuality. She spoke about make-up, free love, reproduction and predefined active and passive roles of men and women when it came to sexual intercourse and issues of pleasure. The double standard regarding sexual conduct and rules was a concern for Ms. Khositashvili: ‘Men are proud [of] behaviour for which women are criticised.’
Khositashvili’s way of life presented her with many obstacles and struggles but she did not surrender because of them. Despite some recognition and acknowledgement of her translations, poems and other works, Khositashvili stayed unknown to the public as a writer and was only known as Irodion Evdoshvili’s sister. However, when we learn about her life and the path she followed, we see a very strong woman who had a passion for learning and who tried hard throughout her life to remain loyal to her inner self. She followed the call of her mind and heart until the end of her life.
For us, as gender researchers, it is very important to discover the stories of women who were fighting for women’s rights and wrote about taboo issues in the 19th century. These stories are only kept in the archives as oral stories. So, we believe that telling the stories of women will serve the purpose of restoring justice and will contribute to completing a more accurate overall picture of history.
The black and white image of a young Khositashvili has been sourced from the Digitize Women’s History section of the Orbeliani site.
A translation of a piece written by Khositashvili in 1925 can be found here: ‘Painful Matter’ by Babilina Khositashvili.
My name is Lana Mushkudiani. I became a Gender Researcher two years ago and I graduated from the Gender studies master’s Programme at the Tbilisi State University in 2016. It is important for me to raise public awareness on gender equality issues in Georgia and this is why I am trying to contribute to this field. My colleagues and I are trying to implement different projects aimed at women and their empowerment, and the research and digitisation of Babilina Khostashvili’s personal archives is one of our notable projects.
My research interests include women’s empowerment, domestic violence,19th century feminists and women’s role in Politics.
My name is Nino Tskipurishvili. I graduated with a bachelor in Journalism and Scandinavian Studies (as a minor programme) from the faculty of Social and Political Sciences at Tbilisi State University in 2011. Following this, I took a one-year course in Norwegian Language and Literature at the University of Oslo. In 2014, I started a master’s degree programme in Gender Studies at Tbilisi State University, where I was introduced with the archives of first wave feminists in Georgia and working with their manuscripts was especially interesting. It was surprising to discover that feminists a century ago wrote about the same issues that are still important now. It was also surprising that these women were either totally forgotten or known only as a children’s writers, translators and/or as male public figures’ sisters, daughters and wives. I found great joy in digitising these women’s stories and making them public as far as it was possible.
My research interests include 19th century feminists, women writers and female public figures.
My name is Gvantsa Kvinikadze. A few months ago, I graduated with a master’s degree in Gender Studies. This was the only programme of Gender Studies from Tbilisi State University in the whole Caucasus region. Those two years that I spent at the university were very inspiring and empowering for me. I hope I will be able to pass that power on to other women in need.
Looking into archives and digging into the past of Georgian women from the early nineteenth century has made me realise that we have a lot in common and that their dreams and goals are still relevant. Their strength and courage mean they are a great example for all of us and this makes me feel proud. Babilina Khositashvili was one of the first feminists from the 19th century. Her entire life was a struggle for survival and education. Her memoirs are full of attempts to deconstruct the norms and values that prevailed in those times and created an oppressive environment for women.