I’ve had the privilege of celebrating International Women’s Day in Armenia on five occasions. It might well be one of my favorite holidays, second only to International Children’s Day on June 1 (also my birthday, for those of you who wish to note it in your calendars). The only hard part about celebrating women in Armenia is narrowing down the countless women to admire. But I want to take a moment to tell you about a few women important in my life.
Gayane was my first close friend in Armenia. We ended up friends by mere chance nearly 13 years ago, but have remained friends by choice. Almost the same age, but separated by countless cultural norms, not to mention language, we had to work to understand each other. She colored outside of the lines in comparison with most village girls, but never enough to cause a scandal. Together we raised the eyebrows of neighbors by picnicking with a bottle of wine on a rock in the river and having a leisurely conversation in the village square when only men did such things. It’s hard to pinpoint when a person decides to be utterly devoted to a friendship. My devotion to Gayane may have begun when we hiked up to a khatchkar on the side of a mountain and she insisted on wearing heels.
I should have seen then that her heels were indicative of a deeper resolve to achieve the seemingly impossible. After meeting and marrying an American man, she traveled with him to South Korea to teach English for a year. Now keep in mind that this was the same woman whose English skills during our friendship consisted of phrases like: “Is your armchair comfortable?” But we lost touch for a few years, so I didn’t hear about those experiences until they had moved to New York City to start a new life together. Ever defying the expectations of the world, Gayane was able to support her husband while he earned a master’s degree, first at a miserable telemarketing job and later at a major U.S. corporation. Today, the girl from the village can be found commuting to work or taking their son to and from day care. At breakneck speed. In her heels.
After living in Armenia for a few years, I met Gohar, the epitome of sincerity and wisdom that she is. In the early 1990’s, Gohar and her brother traveled to Greek-Cyprus to work in the tourism industry for a few years, earning enough to buy her own flat upon returning to Yerevan. Her apartment is cozy and comfortable, and it’s an honor to be hosted there. She takes great pride in putting her signature on it, painting her own door and walls, and renovating her bathroom. You appreciate it more when you remember that she does this as a single woman, unperturbed by the traditional expectations that some may try to impose on her.
Another girl born and raised in a village, Gohar represents humility and hard work and a willingness to take risks. One of the early adopters of volunteerism in its truest form (not the mandatory volunteerism of the Soviet era), she exemplifies service for native and Diasporan Armenians alike in her work at the Fuller Center for Housing in Armenia. Coming to the native homeland for the first time can be both exciting and stressful for many diasporans. She serves as one of those precious bridges that can help people understand where Armenia has been, where it is now, and where it can be. I wish for everyone to know someone like Gohar. She could teach the world that generosity, kindness, and optimism can bring only good things.
Just when I needed a dose of inspiration while living in Armenia, I met Rouzan and the wonderful people at the Manana Youth Center. Rouzan and her husband had founded the organization in the early 1990’s. While most people were focused on the basic necessities of food, they recognized that children’s hunger for learning could not be ignored. They welcomed me as a regular attendee of their journalism class for 12-year-olds. At the center, then lacking even basic amenities, I saw Rouzan challenge these kids—and me, for that matter—to think about how to improve their homeland without money, without people in power, without grown-ups. These kids asked tough questions about complicated issues. And they corrected my grammar.
Time and again Rouzan and her husband have invested their own resources for the sake of children in the community. There were times when it wasn’t clear whether the work could go on, but Rouzan is scrappy and her passion is contagious. Their efforts have blossomed into a center that profoundly develops the creative potential of Armenian youth, earning the youth dozens of international awards for their journalism, filmmaking, photojournalism, and animation projects. I can scarcely think of a better example of the potential for excellence in Armenia. And I can think of no one who is a stronger advocate for children than Rouzan (and I believe that her husband and children would quite agree with me).
It is with these few words that I want to celebrate the women of Armenia. There aren’t enough flowers in the world to express my gratitude for the inspiration they have been to me. These women represent the Armenian values of hospitality, strength, compassion, knowledge, and creativity. They are symbolic of what is good in Armenia, and what is good in the world. And they are what I think of when someone asks me about Armenia.
Kristi Rendahl lived and worked in Armenia from 1997 to 2002, and has since visited three times. She remains active in Armenian issues, and can’t wait to return during the summer of 2010.