Zaruhi and Domestic Violence in Armenia Revisited

Her Horrific Demise Brought to the Public's Attention a Problem That Many Knew Existed But Never Confronted

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.

A scene from a 2014 Yerevan protest against domestic violence. The large banner displays the photographs of women in Armenia killed as a result of domestic violence. The bottom of the banner reads “Who is next?” (Photo: Michael Mensoian/The Armenian Weekly)

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.

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Michael Mensoian

Michael Mensoian, J.D./Ph.D, is professor emeritus in Middle East and political geography at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and a retired major in the U.S. army. He writes regularly for the Armenian Weekly.

8 Comments

  1. I have to leave my two cents because I have dealt with this issue time and time again.

    A law is a step in the right direction but the conversation has mostly devolved into arguments about patriarchy, culture, gender roles, etc. It’s disappointing. Mental health and alcohol has a lot to do with the domestic abuse. Many of the abusers have PTSD, are bipolar, schizophrenic, or have anger and alcohol problems. Poverty also plays a large role. Many people have little control over their lives and happily grasp onto whatever they can control, in some cases it is the wife, the children, the parents, and so on.

    I’m surprised in-laws have not been discussed regarding this issue. In some cases it is not the husband but his parents who abuse his wife. I was shocked at the behavior of some mothers-in-law in Armenia. I’m not too shocked it hasn’t been noted since a woman abusing another woman doesn’t fit the narrative many hold.

    Mental health professionals, economic development, and parents putting less pressure on their daughters to get married so early into families they barely know will solve the vast majority of the problem. I just hope the diaspora will wake up to this truth, drop the ideology and aid in objectively solving the issue.

  2. Heartfelt sympathies go to every one of those women victims (of cowardly husbands) and to their children who have been left motherless by their own fathers. Of course, this behaviour is not specific to some Armenian men only, but is prevalent in most if not all Eastern nations. It is all to do with ancient male-dominated traditions passed down the generations where the man is accepted as the ‘house ruler’ who must be obeyed at all costs and the woman is subservient in her own home. However, in this day and age this ‘norm’ of behaviour should have no place in today’s world especially in so-called modern and civilised nations. If our motherland Armenia is to be described as a civilised nation then all civilised Armenians must voice their strongest condemnation against the barbaric medieval mentality and deeds of all violent Armenian husbands, fathers, etc.

  3. Thank you Michael for this great overview of our fight to advocate for the passage of the domestic violence law. Also I much appreciated your explanations and information on how domestic abuse affects women and how difficult it is in Armenia’s society to get out from such a situation. Attitudes of men and women must change and men and women must understand that women are not possessions of men and that husbands are not entitled to everything with impunity. A DV law is so important because it points out that this behavior is not tolerated and is unacceptable. Please sign the petition.

  4. Nearly a quarter of females living in the US get beaten and sexually assaulted (and sometimes murdered) by their workplace superiors, spouses or boyfriends. Nearly a quarter of females living in the US become sexually active in their early teens. Nearly three quarters of females living in the US regularly use or are addicted to some form of drug. Half of all married women in the US end up divorced. Millions of young girls in the US either run away from their home or are thrown out of their homes by their parents, and they end up working for the country’s booming sex industry. Millions more of females in the US are encouraged to be sexually active, interracial and experiment with homosexuality.

    Is this the “liberation” of women the West preaches?
    Or is this is destruction of western women and thus the traditional family?

    Western countries are not a standard for anything that is good anymore. Western country’s have no right to impose their “values” on fledgling nations like Armenia. Yet, because of greedy Armenian politicians (this greed is the fundamental reason behind Armenia’s complimentary politics) and a thoroughly zombified/Westernized Diaspora, corrosive Western agendas continue seeping into Armenia.

    Relatively speaking, the situation of women in Armenia is better than what has happened to women in the Western world. Armenia is a young nation located in a very troubled region. Armenia is a fledgling nation going through growing pains. Therefore, Armenia naturally has many problems, and the mistreatment of women is merely one of them. What’s important to understand is that all of Armenia’s problems need to be solved internally by Armenian themselves. Armenians do not need “laws” written by Western powers. What Armenians need is socioeconomic stability and education. What Armenia does not need is more Globalist – Cultural Marxist – poisons being imported into the young country. What Armenia needs is an “Armenian” solution for its domestic problems.

  5. I am ashamed of the domestic violence behavior of my fellow Armenian
    people. The Armenian government is shameful if it does not make it a high priority to solve this problem. Such domestic violence is certainly criminal behavior.

  6. Indeed a horrible condition. Along with writing laws criminalizing domestic violence, Armenia should require appropriate classes in school for boys and girls age 12 and older. They need to know that the old mores no longer apply. Further, Norserunt’s diatribe against U.S. is another disgusting example why things don’t change in a timely manner. Suggesting that Diasporans keep their two cents to themselves is what’s keeping Armenia from evolving and thriving in the 21st century.

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