Special for the Armenian Weekly
By Sophia Moradian & Karine Vann
On Feb. 24, Hasmik Khachatryan, 27, stood in the courtroom of the Gegharkunik District in Gavar, Armenia, to testify against her husband, Sargis Hakobyan. She hoped that by doing so, he might be held accountable for the physical and psychological abuse he had unleashed for nearly a decade. Khachatryan is part of a growing statistic of women in Armenia who are speaking out about gender-based violence.
The case took an even more controversial turn on May 7, when the former leader of the Progressive Socialist Party, Robert Aharonyan, verbally and physically assaulted journalists and supporters following one of Khachatryan’s hearings. Video footage from the incident went viral and captured Aharonyan addressing a crowd of native and diasporan Armenians, as well as representatives of women’s rights organizations, in rather explicit language: “Get lost, go back to your country! Why have you come to interfere with Armenia? … The day will come [when] we will deport you, [and] close the border. I am a supporter of strong families… Don’t destroy the Armenian family with your European approaches.”
Commenting on the incident in an interview with Civil Net, Maro Matosian, a Diasporan repatriate and the founder of the Women’s Support Center in Yerevan, said, “Lately, a lot of marginalized small organizations [have been] able to change the mindset of people and spread out information that women organizations are trying to break up families in Armenia, that we do not support the ‘traditional fabric’ of an Armenian family, whatever that means.”
It is shocking that in certain contexts, the word “family” in Armenia has come to justify the violation of human rights. But in order to understand the attitudes of individuals like Aharonyan, which are so at odds with human rights movements of the 21st century, it seems that we must first ask, “What is the ‘traditional Armenian family’?”
How can we distinguish between the family as a social unit—so central to our psychological and emotional wellbeing—and the exploitation of the term as a driving force behind arguments from individuals like Aharonyan?
While recent events paint a bleak picture of women’s rights in Armenia, organizations such as the Women’s Resource Center,Women’s Support Center, Pink Armenia, Society Without Violence, For Family and Health, and the Coalition to Stop Violence against Women inspire hope. These organizations, many emerging as recently as earlier this year, have been critical in empowering Armenian women, like Khachatryan, to claim their right to nonviolence.
They also set an example for the emergence of other like-minded organizations. SheFighter, a self-defense training program designed to empower women and girls, was recently established by Nora Kayserian on March 8, International Women’s Day. Describing her program, Kayserian said, “Women who usually come out of self-defense classes, after a long period of time, feel more entitled to their body, more entitled to their rights. They have both a stronger body and a stronger mind, in terms of speaking up for themselves, making their voices heard, basically owning the fact that they are independent people, and they’re capable, and they have control of their lives and themselves.”
More and more women are becoming aware of their rights. And whereas before, domestic violence cases faded into anonymity, they are now seeing the light of day. Yet, it will take time for a patriarchal society
like Armenia to come to terms with the “new values” that are so at odds with tradition.
The most recent hearing for the Khachatryan case took place on May 20. The verdict, however, was delayed because Hakobyan’s lawyer ordered another medical examination to verify the physical abuse. Hakobyan denies nearly all of the accounts of physical violence against Khachatryan, including claims that he put out his cigarettes on her body.
In spite of these obstacles, as global citizens we know that nothing is specific to Armenia. Gender equality, along with many other challenges facing Armenia today, are global issues.
Concluding her interview, Matosian ended on a note of optimism: “That’s the challenge and that’s the beauty of being in Armenia.” Armenia has the advantage of being a small country with a strong collective identity and a progressive and committed diasporan network. We should embrace Armenia’s unique circumstances as the ideal environment for change to take place in the future. Diasporan or not, it’s perhaps one thing we can all agree on.