From Genocide to War: How Western Feminism Failed Armenian Women

Armenian women fedayi

Outside Parliament House, women clenched their banners close to their chests like shields as they rallied against the violence inflicted upon their sisters.

It was question time. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison pushed past the scrutiny to assert that “not far from here, such marches, even now, are being met with bullets, but not here in this country.”

There was uproar, yet he was right.

While Australian women were not met with bullets, their bodies were still weapons used to push policy and political agenda. A familiar notion, it quietly appears in even the smallest of countries in the most complex of ways.

Between September and November 2020, the outbreak of “cross-border and territorial conflict” between Armenia and Azerbaijan reignited the existential fear that lay dormant in Armenians for over a century. Commentators considered it a “flare-up” – a product of the states’ shared Soviet past – but Armenians correctly assert that the issue tracks deeper. As a nation that has suffered intergenerational trauma, recent confrontations of conflict by Turkish-backed Azerbaijan are a more-than-perceived continuation of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. 

Stories of Armenian women are rarely accounted for even in the footnotes of this history, nor are they discussed when considering recent clashes. Yet, they offer the most meaningful part in safeguarding survival.

Following the Genocide, Armenian women were pledged with the unique role to sustain cultural memory and collective action. They were to pass down the identity markers that preserved nationhood.

Today, they sit in a complicated maze of gender relations shaped by cultural practice and historical circumstances. Still, they remain central to the nation-building project. Their maternity serves as an indispensable weapon of war for the patriotic socialization of the next generation of soldiers.

Western feminism is the dominant tactic to consider the woman’s plight. Yet, it crucially falls short in locating the agency and intricacies of women in the non-West. Just as Australian women show agency by protesting institutional wrongdoings outside Parliament, the agency of Armenian women resides in the state’s broader historical and political circumstances.

Women in Armenia represent the meeting point of militarism and identity maintenance to secure national peace. Serving as the soldier-making apparatus, Armenia’s militarization of its reproductive economy fascinatingly operates on conflicting premises.

It relies upon two distinctions of femininity that must be abided by: a woman’s obligation to her nation and the obligation to her gender. The former is asserted by political leaders and state policies. The latter is informed by religious leaders, educational curricula and the media.

As violence endures along the Armenian border and men engage in military work, the obligation for regional women to informally lead the everyday lives of their communities has increased. What is meant by informal? These women rise to positions of leadership that they were not elected to by any formal institution. 

Whether institutionally recognized or not, these tasks cement women’s position to securing the home front by maintaining families, schools and the broader citizenry through, for instance, educating their national consciousness.

Herein lies the contradiction. A woman’s obligation to her nation has increased. Yet, a woman’s position in society remains restricted to traditional notions of worth.

In Armenia, you can choose your army from birth, and many do. Strikingly, over the past 10 years more than 4,000 girls were not born purely based on sex. The country faces one of the highest rates of gender-biased sex selection in the world. In 2018, 111 boys were born for every 100 girls.

Gender-biased sex selection is a shocking practice of violence against girls, and the loss of 4,000 female lives is a loss of potential, opportunity and dare I say, even survival. 

Gegharkunik Province, located in Armenia’s east, is a region with the highest observed sex ratio at birth in Armenia. Still, it is a region that heavily relies upon the informal guidance of women.

Since May 12, Azerbaijani forces have occupied several sections of Gegharkunik. One Armenian serviceman was killed while six were captured on May 27; four soldiers returned home on June 15. Russian border guards are expected to be deployed along Gegharkunik’s Armenian-Azerbaijani border to begin the process of military withdrawal.

Women inhabiting these border provinces experience conflict more intimately than those in the capital, Yerevan. With limited access to essential provisions, they are the ones who guide community operations in the absence of men to the frontlines. Yet, it is in these regions where sex-selection is most blatantly apparent. Why?

In short, patriarchal politics and gendered nationalism collide to uphold political structures that fail or refuse to recognize female contributions.

The gradual disappearance of women in Armenia is an even greater threat to Armenian statehood than the hostility of their regional neighbors. The social principles that frame the expectations of an Armenian woman is an unsustainable project.

Suppose Armenia continues to politically favor gendered nationalism as an institutionalized method to combat adversaries. Yet, women continue to be undervalued, bound by traditional notions of what is socially desirable. In this sample case, there will be no one left to drive and support the survival of the country.

Tensions across notions of gender, nationhood and the everyday lived experience will be the demise of a small but persevering David amongst Goliaths. Not because the state cannot form a balancing act, but generationally speaking, there will not be enough women left to do so.

It would be too simplistic to say that it is time to value female investment. Western feminist beliefs are not a solution to the cultural revolution needed to engage Armenian women in decision-making processes. Exported visions of Western feminism fail to apply to women beyond developed, industrialized countries. It will never be able to evaluate the experiences that remain foreign to the global status quo. 

Yes, women’s issues are universal, but you cannot universalize women’s issues. Ethnic identity matters and complicated historical circumstances must be considered.

Western performative acts of gender empowerment will never fit the mold of Armenia. In what was considered breaking the glass ceiling for Armenian women, Anna Hakobyan established the first all-women military unit. It is a step, but one that – again – deems that women must play by men’s rules to play at all.

Gender equity is necessary everywhere, but there is a genuine chance that dominant principles of feminism will not get us there.

Eight months have passed since the signing of an anti-Armenian ceasefire treaty. Political turmoil and a polarized citizenship continue to occupy Armenia, with only a semblance of democracy now surviving as a distant memory of the “Velvet Revolution.”

The Pashinyan government is under-resourced, overstretched and reluctant to prioritize the everyday practices that constitute women’s work. The war is lost, the land is gone, and the mothers who dedicated themselves to instilling national consciousness have over 5,000 fallen sons and spouses. As history repeats itself in the footsteps of 1915, women must heal and rebuild their fractured villages. Yet, they lack the institutional support to create a formal, localized agenda to effectively do so.

The Armenian government, specifically the Ministry of Defense, has a vested interest in protecting what territorial integrity they have left. To support women in the border villages like Gegharkunik is to secure a line of defense for the region. It is only then that the state can begin to find the missing women lost to sex-selection. An inability to recognize and support the legitimized role of women in securing the nation could heighten the risk of further armed conflict. 

In the words of Australia’s Prime Minister, it is a “triumph of democracy when we see these [protests] take place.”

It is not a triumph of democracy to allow public protest.

It is a triumph to act on their calls.

Near or far, women are born with bullet holes.

Sarine Soghomonian

Sarine Soghomonian

Sarine Soghomonian is executive administrator of the Armenian National Committee of Australia and a member of the Armenian Youth Federation of Australia. She is studying politics, philosophy and economics at the University of New South Wales.
Sarine Soghomonian

Latest posts by Sarine Soghomonian (see all)

1 Comment

  1. Wow.

    I only have come to read this because it was posted on social media by a female friend of Armenian descent; and my opening statement of ‘wow’ is close to the only honest reaction I can make.

    Myself bring a male of extremely mixed ancestry, writing from my home in a Western industrialized nation (and whom has never travelled despite being concerned for the planet as a whole, given inter-connectedness of systems, etc); I can freely admit that I cannot speak with even a pretence of authority about any of the specific points within this article, there is simply too much that I do not know and do could not be expected to understand.

    However, as someone who has spent the bulk of his life wrestling with questions regarding what things, if any, could be considered as universal human values, and how to examine things with as few conditioned illusions as possible; I do feel a need to express my opinion of a few points and the overall situation as conveyed within the article.

    The first and overarching opinion, based within the terms of the article, is that the masculine component of the Armenian bio-memetic complex needs to wake up and start adapting or “it’s all over”. Kaput.

    In all instances, separated groups of humans have always evolved some form of distinction in non-reproductive function and abilities according to intrinsic gender differences in capabilities and according to the environment and conditions.

    This process slowly affects and is affected by genetics, and likewise with culture and traditions.

    Ideally, the better part of both continue and propagate, but in a pinch it is generally better to choose not dying than to write down a story, culture without the people who identify with it is something that is kept in museums or hung on the wall of a conqueror as a keepsake.

    In a dire set of circumstances, anything that impedes the willing ability of any members of a group to contribute to the continuance of the whole is the first enemy that needs to be faced, because it is present in all battles with every other adversary.

    That is fact, as is that the females of any species form the absolute boundary on continuance. While in some cultures historically a default protectionism has been a rational policy (even while in some cases becoming more a mechanism of convenience for men who wish only to have more (mostly) sons, there are examples from all continents and times where the sole reason the examples are known is because women stepped up to be warriors or leaders when needed.

    In many cases, this represented an evolutionary stage for the original culture, life is inherently dynamic and requires novelty.

    In many other cases there was a reversion (mostly) to the status quo, which for any given culture at any given point could itself have any of a wide variety of divisions of gender roles.

    Whichever way, to hamper the abilities of about half of the population is not the way to survive the modern era.

    To do so, AND selectively restrict in numbers the gender who for any species IS the survival of the type, and who in a sentient species have a stronger vested interest in future generations than the males and on multiple levels?

    That is an expression of a drive towards extinction.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.