Special to the Armenian Weekly
A little over seven years ago, Zaruhi Petrosyan met her death as a result of domestic violence. Her horrific demise brought to the public’s attention a problem that many knew existed but never confronted. I will not recount the physical violence and emotional abuse Zaruhi endured on a daily basis that ultimately led to her death at the hands of a man who should have been her protector and comforter.
Since her death, domestic violence in Armenia has continued unabated. It is endemic with a subset of Armenian men who disparage the woman they purport to “love and cherish.” There need be no rational reason, other than some unreasonable demand that is not met, for inflicting physical harm or emotional distress on a helpless wife (or female companion) to assuage his personal frustrations and inadequacies.
Domestic violence is behavior that is learned in the family, where the father may feel it necessary to “discipline” his wife or to demean her in front of their children. It is an abhorrent form of behavior that provides the perpetrator a sense of power.
Zaruhi’s death brought domestic violence into the public discourse. However, it was rapidly met with disbelief, denial, and countercharges that those combating it, such as local advocacy groups and international organizations, were attacking “traditional Armenian values” and undermining the Armenian family. Added to this misconception is the untenable comment that domestic violence is not limited to Armenia. Since when do we justify domestic violence in Armenia by comparing it against societies that routinely abuse women and deny them equal rights? That is a pathetic response as the old Armenian folk saying that compares a woman to wool: “the more you beat her, the softer she will become.”
Unfortunately, the seeds of domestic violence are ingrained in our culture. Female members of what some have called “traditional Armenian families” in Armenia are brought up to be homemakers, “good” wives, and mothers when married, and “extremely respectful,” even subservient “responsible adults.” They certainly are not allowed the freedom that their male siblings enjoy…
Unfortunately, it is not known exactly how many Zaruhis are in vulnerable situations in Armenia who endure beatings, sexual abuse, social and economic deprivation, or psychological degradation in their marriage. It exists simply because they are bound by mores that extol the woman solely as child-bearer and mother: requiring her to respect both her husband and his family; not complain; and conduct herself so as not to dishonor her parents. It would be the truly atypical woman who would muster the courage to not only question the social mores that imprison her physically and spiritually but also have the strength to rebel by seeking relief from what may be properly described as marital bondage. For her to think of leaving his home (not their home) to seek refuge, assuming that option existed, might occur only when her situation became intolerable. The decision to escape with a child or children to a refuge such as the Women’s Support Center in Yerevan could be dangerous and problematic at best. If apprehended by her husband, she would have no recourse but to return. Striking out on her own, with few skills, requires a difficult rehabilitation period. Should she for some reason return to her husband, how long and how brutal would her punishment be?
Seven years ago, I wrote that it was not necessary to read the graphic anecdotal records of women who had the courage to unburden themselves of the violence they suffered at the hands of their husbands if we are to understand the scope and the depravity of domestic violence and psychological abuse. Many of these women were stripped of their self-worth and their dignity as mothers, wives, and human beings. Many would believe that they actually merited the abuse because they failed to be a good wife. Any Armenian man or women who claims there is need for additional proof that domestic violence exists either prefers to accept this type of behavior as normal or is ashamed to admit that this type of behavior exists. Unfortunately, both mentalities still exist in Armenia.
Since Zaruhi’s death, too many other women have suffered similar fates. The Armenian Penal Code does not address domestic violence as a separate and distinct crime. As a result, it is difficult to determine the number of deaths attributable to domestic violence.
The difficulty with identifying domestic violence and abuse is that it is goes on, sometimes quietly and often without witnesses, within the confines of the home. Neighbors may surmise what is happening, but they will hesitate to act or they will assume it is acceptable behavior between a man and his wife. Especially is this true in the rural countryside of Armenia with its “traditional” values. The rural environment is a virtual prison without bars, where escape even for the most courageous is a daunting if not an impossible task. And if there are children, the mother is torn between leaving her child or children behind and trying to escape with them in tow. It is a decision no mother should have to make.
It has been seven years since Zaruhi’s death, and now the Armenian Parliament is seriously debating legislation that will address this issue. Credit must be given to the Women’s Right Center for their steadfast effort in crafting this legislation to criminalize domestic violence. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) supports this legislation, as does President Serge Sarkisian.
The criminalization of domestic violence is a necessary step in making the public aware of this vicious behavior as well as providing hope to abused women that legal recourse will be available (I add, hopefully). Domestic violence is learned behavior. Daughters should not grow up in an environment believing that physical and psychological abuse, and social and economic deprivation, are a normal part of married life. More importantly, sons should not learn life skills from fathers who rule the family through physical violence and intimidation. Unfortunately, the father’s dysfunctional behavior becomes the norm for the son. This cycle must be broken. Criminalization of domestic violence is a necessary first step.
A petition supporting the passage of the law against domestic violence is currently available via Change.org. Diasporan Armenians can signify their support. All names will be added to the petition to be delivered to Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan in Yerevan.
This is an opportunity for all of us to lend our support to the various women’s organizations in Armenia that have worked so long and hard to bring this issue to the Armenian Parliament for debate and, ultimately, adoption.