In Georgia, a book with stories to empower women written by men garners criticism

“Books HD” by Abee5 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“Love yourself,” a book featuring 13 women's stories about the stigma they have faced over body image, may have been rooted in good intentions, but its publishers are being accused of tone-deafness and sexism. The publishers, The Body Shop Georgia, the Georgian branch of the international bath and cosmetics company, GrlzWave, a women's rights group, and Tbilisi City Hall aimed to empower women through the book, though they drew criticism and backlash for hiring seven men to write the book and not paying the 13 female contributors.

Presented on July 26 at Tbilisi City Hall, “Love yourself,” follows the stories of 13 women, each accompanied by commentary from a well-known Georgian male author reflecting on the women's stories or offering their interpretation of the women's experiences — at times inaccurately. The backlash only got worse when one of the men was publicly accused of sexual harassment.

The Body Shop Georgia, which originally defended the book, saying that male authors were simply trying to imagine themselves in the womens’ situation, later apologized amid the criticism. The book is no longer being sold, though a company spokesperson said it is still available free of charge for anyone interested in a copy. “We experience the most bullying and violence from the opposite sex. We wanted [men] to start talking about this. Because of the reaction, we realized we were going in the wrong direction,” said a Body Shop spokesperson in an interview with OC Media.

“Feminist history has long sought to present the perspective of women. When you do a women’s empowerment project and you publish male writers’ reflection — this is wrong, insincere, and ineffective,” Ida Bakhturidze, coordinator of a local initiative, the Georgian Women for a Common Future, told OC Media.

Speaking to openDemocracy, Georgian filmmaker, Elene Margvelashvili said she was shocked “no one realized that [the book] was not serving women empowerment” until faced with criticism.

But it was not just the faux-paux of having men retell women's stories that was poorly received. Several women spoke publicly after the book was published that they had been sexually harassed by Giorgi Kekelidze, one of the seven male authors featured in the book. Kekelidze took to Facebook to apologize for his past mistakes in a post which he then removed, only to replace it with another similar post.

Speaking to OC Media, the Body Shop spokesperson admitted the company did not do its due diligence. “When we selected the writers, our big mistake was that the information [about allegations against Giorgi Kekelidze] did not reach us and we did not research [the authors] well.”

According to OC Media, only four out of seven authors have spoken up about their involvement in the project, mostly unapologetically, dismissing the criticisms.

GrlzWave said in a written comment to OC Media that they disagreed with the Body Shop's decision to involve male authors in the project from the start.

In the meantime, the BodyShop told Radio Tavisupleba, the Georgian service for Radio Free Europe, that this was a good lesson and that they will be involving more experts in future projects.

According to UN Women, “gender stereotypes remain deeply rooted,” in Georgia where patriarchal traditions are still strong. Another study, released by World Bank concludes that despite significant progress in gender equality in Georgia, persisting challenges in areas such as education, employment, political participation and others, risk “stagnation and even reversal.”

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