Armenia Needs More Women in Politics, But What Will It Take?

“A woman’s place is in the revolution” read signs carried by countless young protesters who helped oust Armenia’s autocratic President Serge Sarkisian (Photo: netgazeti.ge)

“A woman’s place is in the revolution” read signs carried by countless young protesters who helped oust Armenia’s autocratic President Serge Sarkisian. (For many of Armenia’s female political activists, the ruling Republican regime embodied the inherent condescension they face on a daily basis.)

A slogan like the one above may seem incidental, but it’s one that resonates in a deeply conservative country as Armenia, where patriarchal attitudes towards women see them as better suited in their roles as mothers, wives and daughters of the nation, rather than as agents of political change.

Despite forming less than half of the country’s population, men have overwhelmingly dominated the political sphere for the entirety of Armenia’s modern history. Under the Sarkisian administration, every single governor, and town mayor was male. The parties represented in the National Assembly were mostly composed of powerful men.

Pashinyan himself acknowledged “the major role” played by women in seating him in the Prime Minister’s chair. They made up a significant portion of the hundreds-of-thousands-strong mass of daily protesters. They participated in everything from confrontations with the police to setting-up roadblocks. Activists demanded that female voices be heard during the nightly speeches given by Pashinyan and his allies. One speaker, Maria Karapetyan, even framed the Velvet Revolution as a struggle for gender equality when she took the mic on stage one evening. This was why Pashinyan made a point to declare to the National Assembly that his new government would include a fair representation of women.

But despite these promises, the new 17-member cabinet contains only two women in senior ministerial positions. For some feminists, this was disappointing–but not surprising. Pashinyan, it seems, was never particularly concerned with gender equality. Could it be he is cut out of the same patriarchal cloth as the previous regime? Though some might argue this to be the case, immediate tactical considerations, certain political realities and deeper cultural particularities may also help explain the skewed gender balance in the new cabinet.

One popular complaint is that Pashinyan had no shortage of qualified professional women to choose from. Although this is technically true, it evinces a certain ignorance about how governments are formed. Ministerial portfolios are usually political appointments rather than technocratic ones. (Daily ministerial functions tend to be delegated to the deputy minister anyway, and as such, ministers are primarily chosen based on party loyalty or political expediency.) This is particularly true of the new, ‘transitional’ cabinet, which is essentially built on compromise.

In order to maintain a functional government, Pashinyan first had to promote qualified civil-servants from the previous administration to key portfolios such as Defense, Finance, Foreign Affairs, and so on. Other ministerial posts were sacrificed to Yelq’s new coalition partners, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) and the Prosperous Armenia Party. This left the new governing party with few positions to distribute amongst its allies.

It’s also unclear whether Yelq could have filled many of the vacant positions, even if they didn’t have to share them. A relative newcomer to the political scene, the Alliance lacks experienced membership almost as much as it does political capital. The grouping, which was announced only a year and a half ago to contest the 2017 parliamentary election, was itself an amalgamation of three newly-formed liberal parties centered around prominent political figures: Pashinyan, Marukyan and Sarkisian. Though the leadership had always claimed to be invested in long-term capacity building, in many ways, the party base wasn’t consolidated enough by the time the events of the Velvet Revolution unfolded. This left them scrambling for competent contenders for senior roles. As a result, some ministers may have been chosen simply due to their physical proximity to Pashinyan during his marches. In a convoluted political environment characterised by a fragile ‘cohabitation,’ where a minority party controls the executive branch, Pashinyan seems to value loyalty over qualification.

On top of that, given the Yelq Alliance’s unreadiness to challenge the Sarkisian government directly, many of the faction’s few female rising stars weren’t immediately available. Most, like Zara Batoyan, Ani Samsonyan, Tehmina Vardanyan or Ani Khachatryan had won seats in Yerevan’s Council of Elders the year before. Given the party’s already-stretched human resource situation, the lack of women is particularly felt.

The question seems to be, where are women in all this? And why have they been, and seem to remain, so absent from the political arena?

As it so happens, to interpret women’s absence from traditional politics as their absence from the political sector altogether would be to misread the entire story. They are present in politics, but just in a much different way than their male counterparts. They operate in a different sphere; grassroots (it’s this author’s guess that part of the reason for this is because that environment is much less guarded by patriarchy than the alternative, though there are likely numerous other reasons). Turns out, women’s voices, while stifled in traditional politics, were absolutely essential in paving the way for political change. The grassroots movements, in which which women have played an essential role, helped fuel the recent Velvet Revolution, which turned a new page for the country.

But as it stands, it appears many women who are vocal about gender inequality in the new Government have perplexingly eschewed a life in party politics themselves. Women’s Rights activists Lara Aharonian and Maro Matossian, both of whom have criticized the absence of women in Pashinyan’s new cabinet, were both on the Civil Contract Party’s board of trustees at its inception; yet their political participation is primarily based in grassroots movements and street protests. A co-founder, Marine Manucharyan, eventually left over platform disagreements, further reducing the pool of available female politicians in the party ranks. Curiously, even Lilit Makunts, one of the cabinet’s two female ministers, sits as an independent, despite having engineered her party’s merger with Civil Contract several years ago. It seems that the party, along with most other mainstream political groupings, have failed to attract and retain women in their ranks.

Manucharyan, whom the author contacted for this piece, offers a deeper perspective on the absence of women in party politics. In her view, male politicians simply do not know how to deal with their female counterparts entering what they see as a traditionally male-dominated sphere. For women, impeded by family responsibilities, overbearing social attitudes and a history of exclusion, politics can be an uphill battle.

Though some of the blame can be laid on internalized misogyny, and the lack of inclusiveness, women should take on agency in this matter as well. Opportunities are taken, not given. This is why the accusation that qualified women were simply not given the opportunity to participate in decision making should be so offensive, because it could also be argued that women who actively sought particular posts did, in fact, receive them. Case in point: Tatevik Revasian, an aviation expert, and recent repatriate from Denmark, for instance, became Head of the Civil Aviation Committee after she directly wrote to the Prime Minister expressing her desire to contribute to the country in the best way she knew how.

By and large, things are changing. Pashinyan’s most recent string of appointments seems to have begun to take into account the presence of qualified women for leadership roles. The deputy Minister positions for five key portfolios have been filled by women, while women have been appointed deputy governor in five out of the country’s 10 marzes (provinces). Echmiadzin’s first female mayor, Diana Gasparyan replaced the disgraced Karen Grigoryan. A number of agencies also received female heads.

The Velvet Revolution has created an opportunity for fresh leadership to emerge from the crowd, disappointingly, few of those faces were women’s. Though many may argue that participation in street protests should translate into political leadership, successful politicians aren’t picked off of trees. They are molded from tenacity and promoted through experience.

The Yelq Alliance finds itself in a precarious situation: it has been propelled into power and inherited a government despite having accumulated little in terms of political capital, ideological consistency and governing experience over its short existence. As most of its capable members are already pegged for important roles in the new government, the faction prepares itself to contest a new parliamentary election with a depleted roster.

For many of Armenia’s up-and-coming female activists, running for parliament could help thrust their grassroots campaign for change into mainstream politics. Armenia clearly needs more women in its politics, and so far, it seems like many are ready to take on the mantle of change.

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Raffi Elliott

Raffi Elliott is a Canadian-born entrepreneur and occasional journalist who likes to ramble on about socioeconomic and political issues in Armenia. He lives in Yerevan with his family. He also holds a masters degree in International Relations.

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