It was a sizzling summer day and the Tbilisi metro was sweltering. A woman in her fifties looked at me and shook her head. “Poor girl,” she said in Russian.
My headscarf was the source of her pity. I smiled at her. “I am fine,” I replied to her surprise. She smiled back and we emerged into the bright summer day together talking about freedom of choice.
I am a practising Muslim, wearing a headscarf is a conscious personal decision most people in Georgia, an avowedly Christian Orthodox country, do not fully understand. It took me a few years to come to terms with the innate suspicion towards the piece of cloth that frames my face. I am not the only one.
In late 2016, on a Friday afternoon I went to the mosque in downtown Tbilisi. It was busy, people were visiting, reciting their namaz as daily prayers are called, oddly using an ancient Zoroastrian word. I noticed Fatima as soon as I entered the women’s room - she was wearing a long, loose black dress, holding the Quran, the holy book, and softly praying. She would explain the namaz to newbies, while gently turning her rosary. After she shared candies.
Her head wrapped in the hijab, Fatima Asanidze lives a life that looks like a sequel of contradictions - on the walls of her house in Bolnisi, in southeast Georgia, are holy verses from the Quran, in the cellar sits wine barrels. An ethnic Lak from Dagestan, Fatima was born Orthodox Christian and converted to Islam later in life - she feels she struggles to remain Muslim on a daily basis.
“My family is Christian and through my childhood I lived as a Christian,” recalls the 63-year-old who has lived most of her life in Bolnisi where her family moved when she was a toddler. “I have always been interested in religion and when I was 18 I started to read religious books, searching for answers. The first was the Bible, but questions [about life] did not leave me alone. Something was not clear. Then I read the Jewish Torah and the Quran was the last. After reading the Quran I felt a deep happiness I cannot express in words. I felt everything was clear to me.”
At 34 Fatima finally embraced Islam - and it was not easy. Her whole family, including her husband and children, challenged and opposed her decision.
Wearing the hijab came as a natural consequence as per the Nur surah, a chapter in the Quran, which states that a woman should cover her body to prevent a man’s physical desire.
“My husband is constantly trying to turn me away from the path I chose, he makes wine at home, and keeps it in our cellar or pushes me to eat pork. I struggle everyday to avoid what is haram [forbidden by Islam]. I try to explain, but my family does not listen to me, they don’t understand. And my husband has tried many times take off my hijab.”
Outside the family circle she faces the same pressure - in all-Christian Bolnisi, people accuse her of betraying her Christian roots.
“People react to the headscarf, they ask why I cover my hair if I am modern. But I am determined not to take it off till the end of my life."
Fatima has two wishes - to come to fully understand the Quran and to convince her husband to convert. The latter does not seem to be happening anytime soon, and in the meantime she dutifully travels every Friday to Tbilisi to attend the prayers in the mosque.
"I do not interfere with the choice of my relatives,” she maintains as she keeps up with her own personal choices.
While in rural Bolnisi, Fatima struggles with her faith and her family’s different views, in the capital of Tbilisi, 32 year old Leyla Makhmedova does not feel at all different, nor uncomfortable.
“Georgians are mainly Christian, but people respect other religions. I never felt any discrimination. Right, sometimes Georgians ask me about the hijab and about my feelings towards it, but that’s it, there are no restrictions to wear it. I feel comfortable here."
In Georgia one out of ten citizens adheres to Islam - according to the 2002 census over 430,000 people, or 9.9 percent of the population, identified themselves as Muslim. The majority, however, are not ethnic Georgians but Azerbaijanis who live compactly in three districts in the southwest, on the border with Azerbaijan.
Leyla states that she never faced discrimination. However, in 2016 the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) reported that, “hate speech and physical attacks against some minorities, such as Muslims, are on the rise.” Rights’ groups based in Georgia claim that authorities fail to intervene when cases of discrimination are reported - and these include wearing the hijab. In March 2017 the Tbilisi-based Tolerance and Diversity Institute (TDI) denounced that an 18-year-old student was told that she would not be enrolled in the school unless she stopped wearing the hijab.
Wearing or not the headscarf remains a divisive topic, subject to variables like place and family history. Born as a Muslim, Leyla feels accepted in the Georgian community in the capital, while Christian-born Fatima has been struggling for two decades to get accepted even by her own family in the small community.