CAMBRIDGE (A.W.)—Throughout the last couple of decades, Feminist as well as Armenian Studies have developed to become two distinct fields of inquiry. Nevertheless, few efforts have been made to see them in juxtaposition and apply the theoretical insights of the one to the other. Among such attempts was the conference “Feminist Interventions in Armenian Studies/Armenian Interventions in Feminist Studies” organized by Lerna Ekmekcioglu (MIT) and Melissa Bilal (University of Chicago) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on April 7. With the participation of senior and junior scholars, all women, the conference purported to bring together experts in various fields and generate critical and theoretical debates regarding Armenian Studies and the contributions of feminist thought to it.
The conference sponsored by the McMillan-Stewart Biannual Lecture Series of the MIT Women and Gender Studies Program; the Institute of International Education Scholar Rescue Fund; the MIT History Department; the Armenian International Women’s Association (AIWA); The National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR)/Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Series on Contemporary Armenian Issues; and the John Mirak Foundation, in memory of Alice Kanlian Mirak (1940-2000)—feminist and co-founder of AIWA.
Lerna Ekmekçioğlu welcomed the participants and the attendees on behalf of the organizing committee. The first panel of the program titled “Feminist Armenian Studies: From Margin to Center” was opened by the chair, Anna Aleksanyan (Clark University) who thanked the organizers for this unique endeavor. Later on, Melissa Bilal and Lerna Ekmekçioğlu delivered a speech. They paid tribute to the earliest Armenian women scholars such as Nina Garsoian and Sirarpie Der Nersessian. They introduced their collaborative project “Feminism in Armenian: An Interpretive Anthology and Digital Archive” on Armenian feminist writings of the 19th and early 20th centuries. They emphasized the need to reconsider conventional narratives of modern Armenian history and demonstrated the various ways in which this history has been dispossessed of its feminist component. They defined the conference as an attempt in the transnational production of feminist epistemology as it relates to the field per se, and Armenian Studies. They highlighted how feminist writers and scholars have been hitherto marginalized from mainstream historiographical works. Thus, they added, the time has come to situate them in their proper socio-political context.
The second panel, “Across the Linguistic Divide: Translating a Century of Armenian Feminist Thought” was chaired by Lisa Gulesserian (Harvard University) and had four Armenian translators-scholars, Shushan Avagyan (American University of Armenia), Maral Aktokmakyan (University of Michigan), Jennifer Manoukian (UCLA) and Deanna Cachoian-Schanz (U Penn). As the title indicates, the four panelists discussed the significance as well as the challenges of translating feminist and particularly Armenian feminist literature. As translators-contributors to the project “Feminism in Armenian”, all the four participants emphasized the critical value of deconstructing a language during a translation as a reflexive exercise to understand the power dynamics embedded in it. They argued that translating involves the making of choices and is thus a process of revealing the multiple sovereignties of the language and identifying its gender-blind spots. They explicated through examples of Armenian-feminist texts.
The third panel of the program, “Unblocking Memory: How to Rewrite Armenian History” chaired by Ekmekcioglu, was a personal reflection on the practical and technical difficulties women face in academia. Thoughts were offered by Isabel Kaprielian-Churchill (Fresno State University), Barbara Merguerian (Armenian International Women’s Association – AIWA), Elize Sanasarian (USC), Houri Berberian (UC Irvine) and Christina Maranci (Tufts University). Bringing into the discussion some personal accounts, all the scholars offered a critique of the often-misogynistic conduct of the American academia. Thus, through personal narratives, they explained the challenges that women scholars encounter, whether in community organizations or the broadly defined field of Armenian Studies. Restraining the academic freedom of feminist scholars and marginalizing them from the larger discussions is what accounted for the silencing of their voice in conventional histories.
Melissa Bilal chaired the final panel of the day called “Voicing out the Critique: How to Generate Countering Expressions”. Susan Pattie (University of College London), Hourig Attarian (American University of Armenia), Talar Chahinian (California State University-Long Beach), Arpi Hamalian (Concordia University) and Mary Papazian (San Jose State University) argued the importance of multidisciplinary approach to works on Armenian and Feminist studies. Such a method, they believe, unravels the silences in the performative languages. In the post-genocide reconfiguration of gender roles and values, the panelists emphasized the need to read into the absences in the literature and offer counter-expressions. The panelists brought about examples from their own works in order to show the possible ways of detecting and hearing dissident voices.
All the panels were followed by question and answer sessions.