It is sad to think that there are so many brilliant Armenian women we will never know about. So many have been left out of our male-dominated history. For instance, I’m sure Armenian women were active and creating art during the time period covered in the Armenia! exhibit currently on display at The Met, but in spite of this, the exhibit features not a single female artist. So who writes Armenian history and why are women so absent?
Every Armenian woman’s herstory has value, but unless they were a queen, extremely wealthy, or married to a famous man, they have not yet been given the proper attention by historians. Fortunately now, thanks to the Internet, we can access the herstories of Armenians from all social classes and professions—environmental activists, healers, scientists, judges, young punk artists and many more.
This is a very good thing, because in my entire public school education in the U.S., I never encountered a single Armenian name. There were no Armenian women role models in the Women’s Studies programs I was involved with. I felt invisible and disconnected. I was always searching for a name I could connect to in my texts. First, I looked for names ending in -ian, but I soon found that this was not always an effective method, as many Armenian names have been assimilated and changed, once they enter a foreign situation.
With all this in mind, preserving Armenian names soon became very important to me and I was consumed by the mission to reclaim them, even in the throes of war. In 1992, while taking cover in an underground bomb shelter in Stepanakert as Azeri bombs dropped outside, I started looking through a book of Armenian names that I had brought and helping Artsakh-Armenian citizens slough off the colonized names they had been assigned at birth—names like Hamlet, Vladimir and Svetlana—and help them rename themselves with indigenous names like Hayk, Vrej and Salpi. During this time, I also made sure to document the names and herstories of the Artsakh women soldiers I was with.
To this day, I remain passionate about reclaiming Armenian names and visibility for Armenian women’s herstories. In fact, there is one untold herstory I would like to share today.
One day, as I was researching Armenians in Singapore for a poetry group, I came across the inspiring story of Ashkhen Hovakimian. Though there is an entry in Wikipedia about her, no Armenian I knew had ever heard of her. She was born in Singapore in 1854 and had, like me, New Julfa ancestry. An avid horticulturist, she conducted many scientific experiments that resulted in the creation of the world’s first hybrid orchid in 1893. Her orchid helped create the cut flower industry in Singapore. Cutting from her one original plant resulted in millions of flowers. In 1981, her beloved flower was chosen as the national flower of Singapore and images of it can be found on coins, emblems, paintings, clothes, tattoos, souvenirs, buildings and gold bars. It’s even on a Central African Stamp. Her family has never received any compensation from the hundreds of businesses profiting off the image of her flower.
Hovakimian’s hard work as a successful pioneer horticulturist was often cast in doubt by many men who perpetuated lies about her finding this flower. They just couldn’t believe that a woman found this flower in her garden. Later, the historian Nadia Wright and Hovakimian’s great-niece Linda Locke uncovered evidence from Henry Ridley, director of the Singapore Botanical Gardens, who recorded her crossbreeding Burmese and Malayan orchids. Following this discovery, she was finally credited for her contribution to horticulture.
She died of cancer at the age of 45 and was buried in the Garden of Memories at the Singapore St. Gregory Armenian Church. In 2015, she was inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame. Yet despite her central role in their history, many Singaporeans don’t even know she is Armenian, as her orchid is listed under her anglicized name, Agnes Joaquim, as under British colonialism (which resulted in the oppression of many people), many Armenians took British names. The official listing for the flower is Vanda Miss Agnes Joaquim.
I wrote the following poem to encourage people to change the name of her famous orchid from Vanda Miss Agnes Joaquim to Vanda Miss Ashkhen Hovakimian to value and respect her indigenous roots.
Vanda Miss Ashkhen Hovakimian
Moist sun-air sweet purple
Pink white outstretched petals
Bright yellow column cap
Created by a descendant of
Garden loving Julfa Armenians
Exiled by Shah Abbas
Hybrid Armenian Persians
Flung across the Silk Route
Armenian Ashkhen Hovakimian
Transplanted in fecund soil of Singapore
Created first hybrid orchid.
But, Doubters said “A Woman Couldn’t Do This!
She must have found it
Bending her reality into mudslides!”
Yet, with the scent of vindication
Cuttings from her hardy plant
Flung millions worldwide
Stamps of Central Republic of Africa
Bear her global blossoms simultaneously
Nourished by sun and moonlight
Her indigenous roots push up beyond
Her colonial name Vanda Miss Agnes Joaquim
To rename her famous orchid
Vanda Miss Ashkhen Hovakimian.
Her flower rises up between
Fiery orange crimson lips
Fans down to brilliant
Rose violet tongue