The recent constitutional switcheroo between the offices of the Armenian Prime Minister and President has caused trouble for many in the journalism community in keeping up with official title conventions for politicians. This lack of standard protocol is especially apparent with the frequent and widespread misuse of the title “First Lady” across the Armenian mediascape.
News. am, A1+, the Yerevan State University (YSU)’s press communiqués and even the Armenian Church are among the outlets that frequently refer to Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s wife, Anna Hakobyan, incorrectly, as the “First Lady of Armenia.” This embarrassing blunder in etiquette has become so common that Wikipedia even acknowledges: “[Hakobyan] is also unofficially called the First Lady of Armenia.” Other media outlets have instead reverted to the slightly-less inaccurate, yet equally boorish title “The PM’s wife” in press coverage.
This embarrassing blunder in etiquette has become so common that Wikipedia even acknowledges: “[Hakobyan] is also unofficially called the First Lady of Armenia.”
Armenia, it turns out, does have a “First lady,” but it’s not Hakobyan. According to the official naming convention of Armenia, the title rightfully belongs to President Armen Sarkissian’s wife, Nouneh Sarkissian. Perhaps as an allusion to his new ‘figurehead status’ and former British Citizenship, Armen Sarkissian has been affectionately dubbed ‘Queen of Armenia’ by the public, but he remains President nonetheless. Hakobyan’s official title, incidentally, is just “Spouse of the Prime Minister” (ՀՀ վարչապետի կինը).
This isn’t just a translation error either, with the misnomer appearing all across Armenian publications as well. For instance, a YSU press release covering Mrs. Hakobyan’s visit to the University refers to her as “First Lady” in English and also “Առաջին Տիկին” in the Armenian version.
To make matters more confusing, Wikipedia does not seem to maintain a standard either. The English versions of the two ladies’ biographies get the titles correctly: Mrs. Sarkissian and Mrs. Hakobyan are titled “First Lady of Armenia,” and “Spouse of the Prime Minister” respectively. Mrs Hakobyan is also correctly titled in her Armenian-language wiki-biography as “ՀՀ վարչապետ Նիկոլ Փաշինյանի կինը” (Spouse of RA Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan), but the same incorrect naming format is used for Mrs. Sarkissian: “Հայաստանի նախագահ Արմեն Սարգսյանի կինը” (Spouse of the President of Armenia, Armen Sarkissian).
This silly nomenclatural controversy persists despite the President’s Office issuing a formal guide establishing Nouneh Sarkissian’s official title as “First Lady of Armenia” in English, “Հայաստանի Առաջին տիկին” in English and “Первая леди Армении” in Russian. (Bizarrely, the President’s official website still lists Rita Sargsyan, not Nouneh Sarkissian, as the First Lady of Armenia)
To be fair, Armenia isn’t the only country where the title “First Lady” is incorrectly applied. This error is quite common in countries with republican constitutions where the Head of Government (usually a Prime Minister) has more public clout than a Head of State (usually a President); especially when their respective spouses fulfil the same functions. In fact, American media influence on Canadian political culture has been so pervasive that journalists have to be continuously reminded to avoid using the term to describe the Prime Minister’s spouse.
Conversely, despite France’s presidential system allowing for a First Lady, the role has been all but scrapped recently following some controversy over the use of public funds. Despite this, Brigitte Macron is still labeled First Lady by the media.
The role, and subsequently the title, of ‘First Lady’ originated in the United States (FLOTUS). Though Martha Washington, wife of President George Washington was posthumously regarded as America’s cardinal first lady, Dolly Madison may have been the first wife of a President to be addressed with the term in 1849. The position was gradually formalized until Edith Roosevelt officially hired the Office of the First Lady’s first staff member in 1901.
Since then, the role of the First lady has expanded from the hostess at the presidential residence to promoting social causes, setting fashion trends and even diplomatic missions. As developments in visual and later social media continued, the wife of the Head of State increasingly became a public figure. This new dynamic helped spread the function across the republican governments of the World.
With the Office of the Prime Minister of Armenia being bolstered, the role of the PM’s spouse is yet to be defined. Former First Lady Rita Sargsyan had supported various charities and foundations but rarely made public appearances given her husband’s avoidance of the spotlight. This tradition seems to have continued with her successor. By contrast, Anna Hakobyan has played a much more public role in her husband’s political career from the start. She was frequently seen standing with Pashinyan during the Velvet Revolution and adapted quite naturally to her new role as a public figure. Since her husband took office, she has launched a new foundation, made numerous official visits at home, and headed diplomatic missions abroad.
As Mrs. Hakobyan takes on every role of a First Lady but the name, maybe it’s time she got her own official title?