I think it is easier to move a mountain in Armenia than talk about female sexuality.
How can you talk about something that does not exist in the first place? Yes, women in Armenia are “walking heads” and “working hands,” with no bodies of their own, no vagina, not even a clitoris (what’s that?). Pleasure? Female orgasm? Cunnilingus? Yuk! Nope never heard of it. Is that healthy? Isn’t that a “dirty” thing to do? Should “good” girls know about this?
We don’t talk about sex in general. We don’t hear about it in the classrooms since most of the teachers are too embarrassed to cover the issue—which is, ironically enough, part of the school curriculum. At university, awareness campaigns on healthy living or “how to protect yourself during sex” are almost non-existent since you are not supposed to have sex before marriage in the first place, especially if you are a girl. So why talk about something that is against the rules of the society? Better keep everyone in the dark…and well protected! Protected not from STDs, unwanted pregnancies, or violence, but from the threat of collapsing the Armenian nation and threatening the security of the country. Interestingly, that the control focuses on women’s sexuality.
Oddly enough, it seems that what I do with my own body as a woman—if I engage in sexual acts or not, when and with whom I decide to sleep with—is closely linked with the nation’s faith. For that purpose, the nation’s defenders and perpetuators of Armenian values (the leaders, authorities, health workers, teachers, priests, fathers and mothers, brothers and uncles) take the liberty to decide in my place how I should act and how I should use my own body, so that I don’t harm the nation’s reputation by thinking about my own pleasure and wellbeing.
One of the first words a child learns is “amot” (shame). So whatever you do that transgresses the limits of “predefined” and unwritten laws, the word falls on you like a slap in the face: “Amot eh”(Shame on you!). A small child runs in the house wearing only underwear. “Amot eh.” Innocently exploring your body while taking a bath at age four. “Amot eh.” Asking questions on anything related to anatomy and sexuality. “Amot eh.” Two people kissing each other in public. “Amot eh.” And the word stays with you—especially if you are a woman—throughout your life. Even if there is no one around to remind you out loud, it still resonates in your ears.
During our monthly “My Body, My Right” workshops at the women’s center, young women talk about all kinds of myths they’ve learned to believe: Men are more sexual than women. It is OK for men to have extra-marital affairs since there are things that they can’t do with their “good” wives and the mothers of their children (like oral sex). Men can’t control their sexual urges but women can. The important thing is that men have pleasure during sex; women can live without it, etc.
For a man to cheat on his wife is considered normal and very much tolerated by the different spheres of our society. As for a woman cheating on her husband? She is labeled a “slut,” “whore,” not worthy of being called an “Armenian woman.”
Men can have sex before marriage. It is awkward if they don’t. Young women who have sex before marriage are pjatsadz (damaged). They thought of their own sexual pleasure and are not fit to become housewives or mothers.
Even oral sex is mostly for men. Most of the participants in our workshops will never consider doing that even with their husbands. They are taught to believe that it is “dirty,” “unhealthy,” and “amot,” that only prostitutes can engage in such acts.
Meanwhile, young women are having sex, secretly and dangerously. But nobody is talking about it openly. Nobody is acknowledging it. AIDS/HIV is on the rise, as is abortion and several other diseases. But, hush! The nation is safe!
Lara Aharonian was born in 1972, in Beirut and lived in Montreal where she studied educational psychology. In 2003, she moved to Armenia and founded the Women’s Resource Center of Yerevan and its sister branch in Shushi. She publishes a journal called “Feminist” and has initiated the Women’s Coalition For Peace in South Caucasus. She is also one of the co-authors of the book In the (Un)Space and the co-director of the documentary film Finding Zabel Yesayan.