Continuing the discussion of women’s participation in the Armenian revolutionary movement, this second installment will address underground insurgent actions, the limitations of women’s participation and the impact of the transition to Diasporan life.
A myriad of women were involved in the field of secret subversive activities, including creating and storing firearms and building explosives.
Roubina Areshian was one of the main planners of Operation Njuyk – the Yıldız assassination attempt on the life of the Sultan. This great endeavor to eliminate “Bloody Sultan” Abdülhamid II in retribution for his authoritarianism and role in the massacres of Armenians was initially led by Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) founder Kristapor Mikayelian. When Mikayelian was martyred while building explosives, Areshian assumed joint leadership of the operation and pushed to move forward with the attack.
In fact, it was Areshian who activated the timer for the explosive. Unfortunately, because of the timed nature of the weapon and an atypical day in which the Sultan was caught up in conversation with an Imam, he was not harmed by the explosion. As a result, this operation – which would have doubtlessly ameliorated the conditions of Armenians across the Ottoman Empire – was unsuccessful. Unfortunately, one of the other planners, Safo (Martiros Margarian), attempted to shift the blame for the failure onto Areshian, when it was his own cowardice and insistence on refusing to implement secondary measures that led to the failure of the operation. His baseless accusations and gendered attacks, however, at the 1907 World Congress did not achieve the result he sought; the Congress sided with Areshian’s account of the events and expelled Safo from the party.
Zhenia Adamian is another key figure in the ARF’s history. Her involvement in the organization began before many of her contemporaries and precedes even the creation of the ARF. Adamian was a member of the Russian revolutionary party Narodnaya Volya (of which Mikayelian and Zavarian were also members) and Mikayelian’s precursor to the ARF “Young Armenia.” After 1890, she was involved in almost every sphere of the ARF’s activities. Initially, she was invited by party co-founder Simon Zavarian to teach at a school in Turkish-Armenia where he was serving as director. Turkish-Armenia was viewed as unsafe and full of criminals. That’s why her Tiflistsi parents forbade her from leaving; she left home regardless and arrived at the school in Trabzon. The Turkish government, however, suspecting her of being a revolutionary, did not even allow her to enter the school. Returning to Tiflis, she dedicated herself to the activities of the party.
Adamian used her home to store both revolutionary material (leaflets, newspapers, etc.) and weapons. In fact, she operated the first printing press of the ARF, publishing the first party leaflets and issues of Droshak. During the Armenian-Tatar Wars of 1905, Adamian’s house functioned as the ARF’s central armory; she received and stored hundreds of rifles and thousands of bullets, which would then find their way into Armenian villages and self-defense brigades in Artsakh, Nakhichevan and Syunik. Historian and ARF Eastern Bureau member Abraham Giulkhandanian wrote of Adamian: “Zhenia, being very used to secret work, received important assignments from the Eastern Bureau innumerable times, and it can be said that she completed all in good faith.”
Isgouhi Baljian, a member of an ARF khoump (group) in Constantinople, played an instrumental role in the takeover of the Ottoman Bank. Planners of the operation met in Baljian’s home, which was also used as a weapons storage facility. Baljian, along with Hrach Tirakian and Armen Garo, also worked on creating the bombs and grenades used in the occupation, filling each device with explosive powder by hand. Of the 10 main organizers of the operation to occupy the Ottoman Bank, three were women; one of these was likely Yousdig (Isgouhi) Tiulbendjian, a member of Baljian’s khoump, whose home was also used to store weapons and explosives. After the Bank Ottoman operation, Tiulbendjian was unable to return to her home due to crackdowns by the Turkish state; interestingly enough, however, Tiulbendjian does not appear in Armen Garo’s memoirs surrounding the event, though Baljian is prominently featured.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to say that revolutionary activity eliminated the role of societal sexism. Even in progressive circles, there were some limitations on the revolutionary work of women. Mostly, this came down to two often synonymous activities: entering the Ottoman Empire and engaging in military combat. Crossing over into Turkish-Armenia or the yergir (“homeland”) as it was often known, was considered by some to be “too harsh” of a journey for a woman and a few fedayee groups were hesitant to bring female revolutionaries with them to the yergir. The bigger concern, however, was to involve women in military combat. Besides notable exceptions (like Sose Mayrig) and extreme cases (Sassoun Uprising; Genocide era), women did not typically fight in self-defense resistance battles, though in some cases held auxiliary roles – resupplying ammunition to fighters, treating the wounded and so forth.
Female ARF members, while absent on the battlefield, still engaged in dangerous work (e.g. weapons-making, explosives creation). The storage and transportation of weapons was also incredibly perilous. One unannounced entrance or break-in by state authorities could mean life in prison or death at the gallows.
Despite some of the aforementioned limitations on women’s participation in the Armenian liberation movement, secret revolutionary activity actually elevated and emphasized the role of women, rather than minimized it. One explanation for this phenomenon is the fact that revolutionary operations were not carried out in the public sphere, where women were marginalized and brushed aside, but rather, in the private sphere, where they would not have to deal with the conservative backlash of community institutions and societal expectations. This launched them to great heights within revolutionary parties where all comrades were equal and where their work, not their gender, determined their status in the organization.
Furthermore, female revolutionaries were naturally less suspicious, due to the sexist societal organization of the time. The Ottoman state was predominantly looking for two identifiers within their profile of the komitadji (revolutionary subversive): Armenian and male. Papken Siuni and Zarouhi Deroyan wore non-Armenian (Turkish and Kurdish) clothes when gathering intelligence to bypass the first identifier, but women, to some degree, automatically avoided the second factor of state suspicion.
Ultimately, however, there is nothing that separates men and women in their aptitude for revolutionary activity. Women are equally capable of firing weapons, cutting throats and creating explosives. Indeed, throughout the history of the ARF, there were many women engaged in manufacturing firearms and explosives. When given the chance to be free of their patriarchal households and lifestyles, women could be and often were just as patriotic, ruthless, ideological and courageous as the male fedayees that we find in our books and songs.
Unfortunately, the Diasporization of the Armenian people and the ARF contributed to a foreign gendered conception of societal and organizational structuring, which pushed women to the sidelines. One example of this is the Armenian Red Cross (known today as the Armenian Relief Society), which was founded in the Diaspora as a women’s alternative and auxiliary to the ARF. This ARS-ARF dichotomy only increased over time, creating a gendered matriculation process: young men engage in political activities by joining the party, while young women do apolitical or less political work by joining the ARS. Thus, the crucially important, yet non-political task of supporting and maintaining the local community and engaging in humanitarian activities became unnecessarily gendered.
In addition, the transition to peaceful Diasporan life saw Armenians acclimate to western gender norms, which increasingly limited women’s voices in the public sphere, even in spaces and bodies that formerly encouraged and celebrated them in the Old Country. This uprooting and exile from the homeland followed a period when, on both sides of the Russo-Turkish border (Eastern and Western Armenia), more women were getting their education and becoming active in the public and political sphere; they began to not only carve a place for themselves in the national liberation movement, but at the same time, push forward the cause of gender liberation.
However, after the Diasporization of the Armenian people, the sexist and patriarchal attitudes in places like the United States and much of Western Europe only served to reassure conservative Armenians that their beliefs were well-founded and that it was the social revolutionaries who were wrong; even for progressive Armenians, many of whom were ignorant to the insidiousness of assimilation and were enamored with all aspects of the countries which welcomed them with open arms, the anti-female prejudices in their new countries, combined with a lack of the revolutionary private sphere, caused them to push women to the sidelines: as homemakers, caretakers, church women’s guild members, and so on. And all at once, the generation of Matinians, Areshians, Baljians, Deroyans and a number of other fearless and coldblooded female ideologues and revolutionaries – without whom the ARF could not have functioned – seemingly disappeared.
Today, we see the consequences of the end of true revolutionary activity. It was the conditions created by total struggle against Turkish, Tsarist and capitalistic oppression that allowed women to flourish and make their imprint on the history of our people. Now, after more than 100 years in the Diaspora, we have higher organizational bodies which are completely disproportionate to the gender makeup of their constituent bodies, reflecting little advancement as a people, despite great social leaps forward in the world around us. And as long as we continue to live in the Diaspora and continue to be at peace with the conditions of our people and methods of our Cause, this reality will also persist. It is only through revolution (intellectual, militant, socio-cultural, etc.) that we can free ourselves of both the political and societal shackles that have long enchained our people.