I started becoming interested in Armenian poetry and literature when I was a teenager. As I am a Diasporan Armenian who has never attended an Armenian school, my mother taught me the alphabet and I tried improving my reading and writing on my own. That’s how I started collecting books in Armenian—from bilingual editions found in French bookstores to poetry collections brought from Armenia.
My shelves were soon populated with works from poets like Nahapet Kuchak, Yeghishe Charents, and Paruyr Sevak. It took me more than a decade, however, to notice one significant gap in my collection: I didn’t have one single book written by a woman. In fact, I couldn’t even cite one single Armenian woman writer.
Gender inequality is so pervasive that I and other women had mistaken it for the norm… I’d look at my collection of Armenian books and not notice that the voices of half of our nation were missing.
I wasn’t always aware of the problems this caused. For a long time, in fact, I hadn’t even considered whether it was a problem at all. But in recent years, the global conversations about women’s rights, catalyzed in particular by the #MeToo movement, have been of great help not only to denounce sexual harassment, but also, more generally, to raise awareness regarding the treatment and mis- or under-representation of women in different fields, from politics to culture.
It didn’t take long to see why I had remained so unaware for so long. Gender inequality is so pervasive that I and other women had mistaken it for the norm. We couldn’t see just how present it actually was, like when I’d look at my collection of Armenian books and not notice that the voices of half of our nation were missing.
One might think, why does it even matter? Regardless of the gender of the author, a book is a book after all, and there is some universality in the expression of love, suffering, or longing for the motherland that everybody can identify with.
The problem, however, is one of representation.
Often, when a female character appears in Armenian literature and poetry, she is either a loving and suffering mother, whose sacrifices we salute, or a young lover, whose beauty inspires the poet, a male. There is, of course, nothing wrong with loving your mother or with admiring your lover’s beauty, but using only these roles as representations of femininity does not do justice to what it is to be a woman, and the incredible diversity that entails.
This misrepresentation can also have harmful effects. When a mother’s experience is reduced to one of sacrifice, we normalize pain as an essential part of motherhood. And when we present women only as passive objects of love and desire, we promote unbalanced relationships where women’s own desires are erased. These illustrations of femininity are so ingrained in our collective imagination that if you dare distance yourself from them, your whole Armenian-ness can even be questioned.
When a mother’s experience is reduced to one of sacrifice, we normalize pain as an essential part of motherhood. And when we present women only as passive objects of love and desire, we promote unbalanced relationships where women’s own desires are erased.
When we don’t let women speak of their experiences themselves, it leads to situations like this 1917 conference in Paris titled “La Femme arménienne” (“The Armenian Woman”), in which writer and poet Archag Tchobanian, speaking of the—oppression of women—mentioned that in some villages they did not speak during family gatherings. Tchobanian went on to justify the practice by saying that a little bit of soft discipline could do a lot to maintain peace in big families. And through historic context, we can understand that “soft discipline” was a euphemism for the literal silencing of women.
So, I began searching for our voice(s)—and I wasn’t disappointed. Not only do Armenian women writers exist, they have been phenomenal advocates for gender equality and education of women and girls since at least 1855. Researching their stories and writings felt like I had found the key to the most beautiful, yet hidden, treasures of our nation.
I read words by Shushanik Kurghinian and I felt like a revolutionary. I learnt about Zabel Yesayan and I became an advocate. I translated poems by Vittoria Aganoor, and I understood that I could sing love too. After years of being upset of not having an Armenian first name, I also reconciled the fact when I learned that my name, Anaïs, was also the pseudonym of Yevpime Avedisian, a daring poet and short story writer.
I also realized I wasn’t alone in my search, and that other women had come before me to recover the past. MIT Professors Lerna Ekmekçioğlu and Melissa Bilal have taken the challenge of addressing this question, and are working today on the creation of a book and a digital archive aimed at improving access in English language to the work of twelve Western Armenian women writers from the 19th and 20th centuries.
By uncovering generations of Armenian women, I found validation of my own experiences and feelings. I felt as though I’d grown a pair of wings on my back, lifting me up and making me strong. But in addition to empowerment, I also felt anger.
Why hadn’t I heard about these women before? Maintaining patriarchal status quo might have been a reason to erase them from our common history. After all, if one individual (myself) could feel so inspired and emboldened by their words, what would have happened if they had reached all of us much, much sooner? What was at stake back then? And how much has changed today?
Women have been essential in the success of the Velvet Revolution, where they have taken the streets by thousands, not only for a change in power, but also for equality and the recognition of their rights. And as the Revolution was only the first step in building a new and inclusive Armenia, it will no longer be possible to ignore women’s voices, both of the past and the present.