I like to think we’re a good people. Our greatest poets are humanists, and our greatest heroes did not fight to create empires, they fought to preserve life. We have always been friendly to newcomers, and our church made it a point to be tolerant of other religions. There is, however, one group of people that we have oppressed: our women.
The story of our women’s oppression has a paradoxic narrative. On the one hand, they have been subject to backwardness at best and violence at worst, and on the other hand, the monumental role they have played in our nation’s life has always been applauded. This is why, in 1919, as we attempted democracy for the first time, we gave women the right to vote and voted women into parliament with little debate, while it took the United States years of advocacy to eventually (reluctantly) give half their population the right to the ballot. This is why a writer like Silva Kaputikyan rose to such fame and prominence, often went head to head and even more often surpassed her male contemporaries, all without a feminist movement or Feminine Mystique. And yet, there is another side to this story—one of constant beatings, betrayal, bigotry, and cruelty.
We are, arguably, a nation created by women. The last paragraphs (and the most touching) of Egishe’s History of Vartan and the Armenian War describe an Armenia depleted of its men and soldiers, and the feminine response. The bridal chambers of young girls became empty, the widowed became again “as virtuous brides,” and even the noble women of Armenia, “who had been brought up in luxury and petted in costly clothing and on soft couches, went untiringly to the houses of prayer, on foot and bare-footed, asking with vows that they might be enabled to endure their great affliction.” It was the principles and stories of our ancient mothers that the new generation of Armenian men were raised on. In the coming years, as Armenia’s Muslim population grew, Armenian men began to learn their languages, customs, and traditions. The Armenian mother, remaining pure and untainted at home, was charged with giving the future generation the gifts of our culture. Apparently, the lessons Armenian mothers taught their kids were not forgotten through the years. One community leader in 1919 told his fellow men, “Our manly pride will lose nothing of its strength if we have the magnanimity to confess that, before all else, it is the Armenian woman who has preserved our national existence, clinging to all the sacred relics left to the nation by our forefathers: religion and language, family and morals.” (*) And since then, the narrative has not changed much.
When the new diaspora communities of the Middle East started to shake off the trauma of the death marches, they were faced with an unparalleled task: rebuilding the Armenian nation. Today, we have the gift of retrospection and look at that period of heroism with a sense of inevitableness. At the time, however, most of the survivors thought the entire nation had indeed been wiped off the face of the planet. They never imagined that the diaspora would grow to number in the millions. Nor did they realize that their brothers and sisters on the other side of the Arax River were still fighting and still numerous. A sense of panic led to a sense of duty.
Due to the limited resources and obstacles they had, this often meant making painful decisions. For one, the women who had been raped, sexually molested, forced into prostitution, or had “married” Muslims were left out of the rebuilding process altogether. By 1919, Armenians had begun to seek their lost sisters and mothers. The search sparked great controversy, and the findings weren’t always the happy moments we often imagine them to be. Would a bride who had been forced to marry a Kurd or Arab for her life’s sake be allowed back? Would women who were forced to prostitute themselves in the streets of Aleppo feel at home amongst their own people, or would they be forever stigmatized? And what if traumatized women, who had spent years with Muslim spouses and bore them children, didn’t want to come back? Most of the young women who survived, in fact, were the beautiful Armenian women kept alive by Turks, Arabs, and Kurds as sex objects. Instead, Armenian leaders chose to concentrate on the “pure” orphans and su
rvivors who had not been “tainted” by the Turkish yoke. One writer, Yervant Odian, tried to help. He had survived as a translator for Turkish troops. On his way back to Istanbul in a railway carriage, he noticed a beautiful hayuhi, who was, surprisingly, familiar with his work. She had become a mistress for the singing and drinking Turkish veterans he was accompanying. When he tried to convince her to go back and search for her family, she replied: “It’s far too late. Things have gone too far. I have lived this life for three years now; who will look me in the face? You see, I’m the daughter of an honourable family from Banderma. Still, I don’t dare go back home now; I feel ashamed to look my relatives and friends in the face…”
Years have passed and we have recovered from that nightmare. Today, we must deal with another one: domestic violence.
The most conservative estimates suggest that more than half of married women in Armenia in the 1990’s were subjected to some form of physical violence at home. In December 2000, a group called the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights investigated the issue and prepared a brilliant report on the matter. The findings are horrific: “In [a] case recorded by one of the hotlines, a pregnant woman lived in a rural community and worked as a nurse. She called the hotline several times to say she was being beaten by her husband and sisters-in-law. Her husband had two children from a previous marriage and did not want additional children. The woman was told repeatedly by her in-laws that she had been brought to the home to look after the children rather than to work. Fearing she would have nowhere to go, the woman resisted seeking a divorce. This woman was ultimately killed by her husband.” Although cases like this are extreme, they underline the general attitudes older men have toward their spouses, especially the less educated.
The report also provided convincing evidence to suggest that all government institutions, whether they be the judiciary or the police, not only discriminate and make it difficult for women to feel safe from their husbands, but they often explicitly discourage women from speaking out altogether.
Since then, while conditions have gotten reportedly better with the younger generations, it is still nothing to brag about. Amnesty International’s latest report on domestic and sexual violence should be a wake up call for the diaspora. This is not a political or partisan issue, this is an emergency. One anonymous victim said it better than any of us ever could: “I put up with his beatings for 14 years because that’s what’s expected here in Armenia. In the Armenian family the woman has to put up with everything, she has to keep silent. The fact that I did something about it, that I went to the police and divorced my husband, people in my village point at me and say she’s crazy, look at what she did to her husband, she should have kept quiet. It’s a stereotype, a national stereotype maybe, I don’t know, that if a woman goes to the police or the courts, she’s destroying the family.”
Currently, despite the alarming state of many married women, there is no law specifically designed for domestic violence. The attitude of the police (who are often the first responders) is arguably one of sympathy for the husband and distaste for the woman. Yet the issue is not only one of law enforcement or a better, more just, and less corrupt judicial system (although that’s certainly a good place to start). The underlying issue is bigotry. While our views on family and marriage have been the bedrock of our survival, we need to weed out the more parochial elements in them. When I volunteer in Armenia, most of the local volunteers are almost all women. When I go to meetings and conferences, I pray that there are women present; all-male events tend to turn into fights between egos, not ideas. My experiences, I have discovered, are not different from many other Diaspora Armenians. The rise of women in Armenia is a pre-requisite to an Armenian renaissance.
One of my favorite poems (turned song) is by Aramyis Sahakyan, a Soviet dissident writer, properly entitled “Armenian women.” It reads like an apology on behalf of Armenian men:
You have burned our flame, you have raised our young,
You have protected our language, honor, and life.
While we haven’t cherished you enough,
And while we are still in your debt; that debt, we will repay.
Of course, the Armenian original sounds eternal and true (or perhaps my translation doesn’t do it justice). We wouldn’t have forgiven our grandfathers’ generation had they not preserved our nation. We wouldn’t have forgiven our fathers’ generation had they not seized the opportunity for independence. We shouldn’t forgive our generation unless we pay the unpaid debt to our women.
(*) Vahé Tachjian, “Gender, nationalism, exclusion: the reintegration process of female survivors of the Armenian genocide,” Nations and Nationalism 15, no. 1 (2009): 60-80, p. 69.
Henry Dumanian is a political science and history major at Hunter College in New York City. He was born in Armenia and moved to the United States in 1996. He recently completed his honors thesis on the fragmented nature of Armenian national identity. He contributes political commentary to the Armenian Weekly.