One of the attributes of our identity that I find intriguing is our sense of tradition. It’s intriguing in the sense that it drives incredible resiliency and cohesion, yet also at times prevents progress. When examining our connection to tradition, we sometimes lose sight of traditions that are at the core of our culture and are distinguished from behavior that we should shed as we move forward. This requires constant self-reflection which is difficult to sustain. At its very best, tradition enables us to bring the best of the past into the recipe for the future…similar to the way we make holy muron. Unfortunately, certain traditions enable behaviors that are either outdated or not part of our perceived core values. If it does continue, one has to question our core values.
Internally driven change is difficult for a tradition-centric culture. We struggle to maintain those traditions that our grandparents brought from the homeland. Some are retained, and others fade into the woodwork of assimilation. New traditions emerge as our culture continues to evolve. It is interesting to note that although we work diligently to retain certain traditions, our reality in the diaspora is a change agent itself. Each of our diaspora communities has taken on some traits of their host country. The Arab culture has influenced the Armenians in Lebanon and Syria. The American culture has impacted the Armenian communities in America. Our focus should be to position the Armenian community with traditions that reflect the best of our culture and are aligned with human values.
One of the most significant issues in the discussion of tradition and values is the role of women in the global Armenian nation. The current environment has thankfully exposed many of the discriminatory actions towards women. The challenge is not the presence of change but the rate and sustainability of our actions. The evolution of the position of women in Armenian circles tracks behind the emergence of women in western societies. It was just a generation ago that women in Armenian communities were directed towards the kitchen or targeted roles such as teachers (important, but stereotyped). Leadership positions were rare and usually in targeted roles such as secretaries. This is not to diminish the accomplishments of the women of these generations. They were capable of much more and limited by our systemic bias defined by men. It was considered “tradition” and slowly changed because of outside influences such as the role of women in the workforce and social revolutions. There is little credit that the Armenian community can take for this refreshing change, especially the male power structure, as it was driven by our host culture. When I served on the Prelacy Executive Council in the 80s, there were no women. Today, it is much more common. The same goes for the diocese. Look at the historical pictures of councils and boards. Think of all the talent that was never able to serve. Thankfully, this is a part of our “shedded” past. There is so much more work to do.
Quite often, I hear about the wonderful leaders in women organizations such as the Armenian Relief Society (ARS) or Armenian International Women’s Association (AIWA). This is true. We are blessed with many talented Armenian women in these and other women-based organizations. Armenian men, however, should self-reflect and realize their contribution was minimal. In one sense, AIWA was formed out of a void in our communities to promote the issues and values of Armenian women. The lack of equality and focus created the need. In other words, the mainstream organizations were not getting it done. What remains is for women to attain equal status in the traditional ranks. When it becomes a natural occurrence, then we clearly can celebrate permanent progress. Why is this a concern? I can think of two primary reasons. First and foremost, we must always stand for the human right of equality. Secondly and from a practical standpoint, when we are not gender blind, we deny our nation of precious talent. It is obvious at all levels that we do not possess an abundance of leadership. Similar to the issue of engaging our youth, we need to make room. In this case, that means that selectively, men need to move over and make room for Armenian women. It is happening but not fast enough. Time for more self-reflection. Are you helping as a catalyst?
Improving gender equality is an issue of basic human respect. The range of stereotypes vary from laughable (why are there no women on the kebab grills at churches or men at the baked goods table) to very serious such as glass ceilings and domestic violence. I find it sadly ironic that a culture that has cherished its women as our mothers, grandmothers, sisters and daughters struggles to advocate for their rights as human beings, as equals and as leaders. The underlying causes of our male-centric culture starts with our history, particularly the manner in which it has been written. A few years ago, I taught a unit at an Armenian summer camp on Armenian women in our history. Unless you are a scholar and have conducted research, most of our layperson history is void of the important roles of women. We proudly discuss the sacrifices of Sts. Hripsime and Gayane and then find very few references over the succeeding centuries. Even in modern times, we honor the Armenian freedom fighters of the 1890s into the 1920s, yet most Armenians cannot mention a female hero beyond Sosie Mayrig from the hundreds who fought and sacrificed. A colleague of mine, Judith Saryan, has waged a remarkable campaign to bring the life of early 20th century intellectual and human rights advocate Zabel Yesayan into our modern education. I am embarrassed that my knowledge was minimal prior to this effort despite the fact that Yesayan was the only woman on the arrestee list of April 24, 1915 that initiated the Genocide. I learned two things from that experience: it is never too late to update our history to tell the whole story, and we all have a responsibility to ensure this happens. We can advocate in many ways from sponsoring research and publication to promoting plays and films for the general public. There was an article published recently in the Weekly that focused on some of the women contributors to the Artsakh struggle. This not only places a value on the diverse roles of everyone but also the importance of women as an essential component.
The church has struggled with this issue for decades. As the role of women has been rightfully challenged in our society, the church has continued to limit their inclusion to lay administrative roles. Our church has a historical tradition of deaconesses with an ordination a few years back in the Prelacy Iranian diocese. I have witnessed diocesan assembly discussions where this noble tradition is devalued not on theological terms but on gender bias. This is not right. When we tolerate this type of behavior, we not only limit opportunities, but it sends the wrong message to our adherents. The solution to this challenge starts in the Armenian home and transitions into the community. There’s a strong perception in a traditional Armenian home that there is a double standard of men and women. The women are expected to conform to certain traditional standards, and the guys get a pass. A friend of mine once described to me that her brothers were the “pashas.” We joke about it, but behind all humor is an element of truth. It is very important for young men to see women in important roles. Whether this applies to your family or not, we can all help apply standards of equality for Armenian women in community life. We can all be advocates as decisions are made on leadership roles and resource optimization.
The Democratic Republic of Armenia (1918) granted the right to vote for women before the United States passed the 19th Amendment, yet today our social advancement is plagued by the stain of domestic violence against women. This is completely unacceptable in a culture that speaks of honor and respect yet carries this dark cloud of shame. Our response has been gradual but again very slow. It took years for a law to criminalize this behavior, but enforcement requires trust in the system. There are heroes in our midst who organize shelters and provide a safe environment for women to rebuild their lives. The problem is complicated to resolve, but our position should be clear. Yet, it seems to be inadequate. I don’t hear the church talking about a behavior that is both criminal and inhuman. We don’t help the defenseless women with our silence, and it certainly does not give the correct message to young boys. After the law was passed, the visibility of the issue in political circles has been minor. The law, in and of itself, will not eradicate this disgrace. Enforcement to build trust and behavioral education among the young men and women must be a priority. Our voices here in the diaspora are important also in support of women’s rights globally. Tolerance or complete disregard create an environment of hypocrisy. Building a democracy starts with human rights with a foundation based on respect.
We can all start by constantly asking questions that encourage dialogue. Why are most Armenian NGOs led by women, yet the government continues to be male dominated? The former is a critical institution of nation building and value, but has yet to move to the authority structure. When we think of contributing to the equality of gender rights, it must be viewed as a diverse subject that all of us can make a contribution…if we choose. Whether Armenian women choose to take advantage of an enlightened environment is not the point. We must all advocate an unconstrained society. There is no neutral ground on this issue given its wide ranging impact from family to human rights. Our actions each day can make an impact. Where are you? And where do you stand?