By Umberto Bacchi
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Women's rights activists in Georgia have urged the country's Olympic Committee to pick a more liberal design for its female athletes, criticizing the official outfits for next month's opening ceremony at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games as archaic.
Inspired by the national costume, the outfit has been a major talking point in the former Soviet republic over the past few days, with many taking to social media to complain it projected the wrong image of the nation abroad.
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"It's very archaic and conservative," said Baia Pataraia from the Georgian Women Movement. "This is not how we perceive our society to be".
The uniform, made of an ankle-length gown and a dark red jacket with long sleeves and a high-necked top was unveiled last week ahead of the Olympic team's departure for Brazil.
"The Olympic uniforms depict a stereotypical approach towards women," Nana Pantsulaia, executive director of Women's Fund in Georgia, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
An online petition asking for it to be swapped for an outfit "suitable for a modern state" was launched shortly afterwards and has since attracted more than 7,000 signatures.
Some critics argued the dress was ill-suited to the festive spirit of the Games and Rio's hot weather.
"To the next Olympics, perhaps, we will go dressed directly as monks," quipped Facebook user David Paichadze.
One of the founders of Samoseli Pirveli, which designed the outfit, said it was chosen from their catalogue by Georgian athletes and followed a request by the Olympic Committee that the uniform be "as closed as possible" because of fears over the Zika virus.
Luarsab Togonidze said the company didn't intend to offend anyone but wanted to celebrate Georgia's proud traditions, lost during the Communist era. "[The design] is an expression of our national identity," he said.
The controversy came against the backdrop of an ongoing cultural clash between liberal forces and religious conservatives.
Georgia went through a period of radical reforms and modernization over the past decade, with its leaders working hard to westernize its image.
Part of the country's efforts have been directed at improving its record on women's rights.
"We are struggling for gender equality in Georgia," said Pataraia. "We have a serious problem with gender based violence, we have femicides and honor killings and very little female representation in political life."
Georgian athletes are to wear the uniform at the Olympics opening ceremony on Aug. 5.
Officials from Georgia's Olympic Committee were not immediately available for comment.
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Katie Nguyen.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)