An Interview with Award-Winning Educator and Author Sona Zeitlian
Special for the Armenian Weekly
Throughout Armenian history, women have held various roles in the national reality—from Armenian queens and princesses ruling in the medieval period, to female participation in the national liberation struggle of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Women have been instrumental in the many successes and accomplishments of the Armenian people; after all, they represent about half of the population. So, why wouldn’t they be credited with an equal share of the recognition and praise that men receive?
Unfortunately, over the years, women have been largely ignored and overlooked—marginalized even—in our history books, leaving us with a national narrative that’s dominated by males.
According to award-winning educator and author Sona Zeitlian, women have not been treated fairly in our literary history for several reasons, and this is a problem for our people. Zeitlian’s latest book, On the Trail of Armenian Women’s History, was published by the Catholicosate of Cilicia and granted the coveted Kevork Melidinetsi Award. “You won’t find these stories in our history books,” she says. “If you do look hard enough, though, you will see that these are exemplary women.”
Zeitlian is changing this reality, though she claims she only wishes to “preserve memory.”
Zeitlian (nee Simonian) was born in Cairo, Egypt, where she studied social sciences and psychology at the American University. She later taught in community schools in Cairo and Beirut, and, since 1989, in Los Angeles. During the Lebanese Civil War, she reached out to women in the endangered zones to raise their morale and strengthen their resolve to persist in the defense of their quarters.
Zeitlian has received awards in recognition of her career as an educator, for her dedication to community service, and for her far-reaching educational work for the Armenian Relief Society (ARS). Her publications include The Role of Armenian Women during the War of Liberation, The Folktales of Musa Dagh, Legendary Armenian Braves (four volumes), The One and Only (Armenian/English folktale), and The Input of Armenians in the History of Early Medieval and Modern Egypt (in both Armenian and English).
The Armenian Weekly recently sat down with Zeitlian in Toronto, where she was giving the keynote address at the annual International Women’s Day celebration organized by the ARS.
Rupen Janbazian: Your latest book, On the Trail of Armenian Women’s History, received the 2013 Kevork Melidinetsi Award. Janet Kassouny in the Aztag Daily writes that “this book, which is a result of meticulous and continued research, acts as archival history and provides future historians with a wealth of archival material.” What was your purpose for writing this book? Did you have any intention for it to be a compilation of archival history?
Sona Zeitlian: I did not write this book with any major intentions or expectations. I just believed that it was important to introduce the public to the story of these women throughout our history. It has always bothered me that the story of Armenian women has been ignored and overlooked. Take, for example, the memoirs of our revolutionaries, or any other Armenian history book for that matter: You really have to read carefully to find one or two sentences about women. I soon realized that women have not been treated fairly in our literary history. So my only intention is to preserve their memory, something that has become somewhat of a mission in life. It is with this intention that I began researching the topic of Armenian women, and my interest only grew as I read on.
This latest book is a comprehensive volume. It begins with the start of Armenian history and concludes with our times, covering topics such as tradition, family relationships, and many other subjects pertaining to the history of Armenian women. The fact that it’s a comprehensive book is very important for me, since anyone who has some interest in the topic can benefit from the book. They can read about how Armenian women lived in the past, how they overcame numerous hardships over the years, and what the future holds for them. I did not have any intention to prepare an archival history. It was much more a personal objective to preserve memory. That is what was important for me.
It has always bothered me that the story of Armenian women has been ignored and overlooked. Take, for example, the memoirs of our revolutionaries, or any other Armenian history book for that matter: You really have to read carefully to find one or two sentences about women.
R.J.: You have written quite extensively about Armenian women. Your first book, The Role of Armenian Women during the Liberation War, focused on the lives of female Armenian revolutionaries. Why is there so little written about Armenian women in our textbooks and history books?
S.Z.: There is both a short and long answer to this question. The short answer is that all of our history has been recorded or written about by men. The long answer, however, is the following. In order to research, find, and bring to light the history of Armenian women, one must meticulously gather information from various sources. It is impossible to get a clear picture of the history if you don’t tap several sources. In order to do this, you must be patient and persistent. More importantly, though, you must believe in the work.
If your purpose is to value the work of Armenian women throughout history, then you must believe in your cause and continue to be persistent. Many have lacked the determination and persistence.
R.J.: You’re in Toronto to participate in the International Women’s Day celebration organized by the ARS as the keynote speaker. Why do you think these types of celebrations are important? Is it necessary to have designated days dedicated to celebrating women?
S.Z.: To be completely honest, these celebrations aren’t all that important to me. When the ARS first contacted me and asked me to participate, I immediately responded by saying that if I did take part, I would not focus on International Women’s Day at all, but rather on the role Armenian women had in the national reawakening of the Armenian nation, since it’s the Centennial year of the Armenian Genocide. Of course, I would still focus on Armenian women, but the holiday itself does not mean much to me, other than being another opportunity to shed light on the important work women have had throughout our people’s history.
They accepted and I am glad they did, since an important emotional connection was made between the audience and the women I spoke about. I am not trying to boast, but the entire hall stood up at the end of my address, not because they were blown away by my words, but since the stories I told about the women in our history spoke to them. It is vital for their memory and for the work they did to be remembered. Even if the audience remembers just one of the many examples I shared that day, I consider that to be a success. International Women’s Day is just another opportunity to speak about the issues that matter to our people.
R.J.: Can you give some examples of Armenian women who have been instrumental figures in Armenian history, but perhaps have been ignored in our history books?
S.Z.: I’d like to note two examples. The first is Zabel Yessayan. Of course, many things have been written about Yessayan over the years and continue to be written today; however, much of what is written focuses on Yessayan the writer. She was a great writer—I can’t argue that. However, I am much more interested in her efforts to help other women and protect women’s rights. This aspect of Yessayan’s life has been completely ignored in our history books.
For example, during the Cilician Massacres of 1909, the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul gave Yessayan the responsibility of preparing a report on the relief efforts of the Patriarchy and the Armenian Red Cross of Istanbul—of how they collected orphaned children, cared for the displaced and exiled population, and other efforts during the calamity—in order to evaluate how the Patriarchy could best help the dire situation. Yessayan’s work, which is an eyewitness account of the crimes committed, is not valued as such, but rather regarded only as a work of literature. In reality, her account provides a first-hand look of the massacres, and is probably the first modern eyewitness account in our history. But as I said, it has been never valued as such.
Yessayan’s account was recently translated into Turkish and published in Istanbul, something that should have been done a long time ago. As we approach the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide, people are now beginning to realize how important it is to educate the Turkish people about what happened a hundred years ago. Yessayan was the only one to provide an accurate and factual account of what happened in 1909.
Over the years, Armenians have been presented as an untrustworthy, enemy people in Turkish history books, so it is important to provide an eyewitness account of what really happened. That is why I greatly value Yessayan’s work.
Here’s another example. During the years of Armenia’s First Republic, we had several female members of Parliament, many of who became ministers. These women were involved in the development of Armenia’s first education system, were actively working to better the situation of the displaced and orphaned population, and were ultimately instrumental in the many successes of the First Republic. But there is an example that is rarely spoken about: In the history of international relations, Armenia appointed the first ever female ambassador, Diana Abkar. Unfortunately, this woman’s work has not been rightfully appreciated in our history books.
Abkar wrote several books about the First Republic; however, very little is written about her work directly after the Sovietization of Armenia. When the republic fell in 1920 and she was no longer an ambassador, she continued to bear the responsibility of serving her people. Since she had developed many important relationships during her time as ambassador, she was instrumental in helping thousands of deportees who continued to flock to Eastern Armenia during and after the genocide.
Years later, a man wrote his memoirs, and noted how helpful Abkar was in aiding him and his family during their immigration into the United States. If I am not mistaken, the memoirs were published in the Hairenik Weekly at the time. She would even provide rooms in her own house to deportees until their immigration paperwork was finalized.
You won’t find these stories in our history books. If you do look hard enough, though, you will see that these are exemplary women. Many people today believe that money can solve every issue, but these women did not have a single penny. They had the will and determination and were ready to sacrifice themselves for the wellbeing of the nation. It is for this reason that I wish to value and appreciate their stories.
R.J.: Throughout history, Armenian women have had various roles: from Armenian queens and princesses in the medieval period, to members of the national liberation struggle in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Where do women fit in our national reality today, both in Armenia and the diaspora?
S.Z.: This is a very important question, since about 70 percent of the Armenian people live in the diaspora, outside the Republic of Armenia. Globalization is taking an unprecedented toll on our diasporan communities. The ideas that we speak about in the diaspora, such as maintaining culture, customs, and language, are being transformed into one common denominator. The internet, of course, plays a big role in all this.
Although we face a crisis today, in regards to the plight of the Syrian-Armenian population, the Armenian people do not find themselves in front of the disaster they faced at the time of the genocide. There are, however, several issues we must confront.
One is the volatile situation in Artsakh [Nagorno-Karabagh]. There, you have an entire population who have exercised their right for self-determination, but continue to face threats and hardship from neighboring Azerbaijan. Armenian women can and must take an instrumental role in the struggle in finding a solution to this problem.
Another example: The First Republic of Armenia became one of the first nations to give women the right to vote. However, decades later, that right is not valued and appreciated the way it should be today. After 70 long years of living under Soviet rule, we finally had a new government, full of new promises and ideals; a new page was turned, but unfortunately, women’s rights did not progress and only took steps back.
I value the spirit and far-sightedness of the leadership of the First Republic, who were forward-thinking enough to emphasize the role women had to play in the restoration of our nation. It was that thinking that prompted them to give women the right to vote at a time when most countries around the world weren’t ready to do so.
I value the spirit and far-sightedness of the leadership of the First Republic, who were forward-thinking enough to emphasize the role women had to play in the restoration of our nation. It was that thinking that prompted them to give women the right to vote at a time when most countries around the world weren’t ready to do so. Think about it, this was at a time of struggle, famine and deprivation, only three years after the beginning of the genocide. If those people had the far-sightedness to value women’s rights at that time, what right do we have not to today?
Presently, women in Armenia are considered second-, even third-class citizens. Sex-selective abortions, domestic abuse, and several other examples show that gender inequalities are prevalent and increasing at an alarming rate. However, if we as a people learn to value and appreciate Armenian women and allow for them to bring their active participation in our national reality, I believe that things will begin to change. This is what I try to accomplish through my work. Much patience is necessary to accomplish this, though.
I have been researching, reading, and collecting information for decades; you can’t rush through and expect to change culture overnight. Culture is not something that can be changed overnight—it changes only through evolution, not revolution. That is why patience is so crucial to the evolution of our culture. This doesn’t mean we should be apathetic, indifferent, or sit on the sidelines. On the contrary, we must constantly speak up, write the truth, and stand up for what is right. We must do all this and remain patient at the same time, something that is much easier said than done.