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.