What do the residents of Yerevan do when a man beats or screams at a woman or a child on the street? They simply cross the street and continue on their way, because it’s not their job, and they don’t want to invade someone else’s private life.
Last week, my friends and I were walking through the streets of Yerevan. On Friday evenings, the city is filled with groups of people, always on the move and always with something to say. The area around Swan Lake in central Yerevan was crowded as usual. From the noise of the buzzing city, a woman’s scream suddenly stood out: “I said no, leave me alone,” followed by the threatening, thundering voice of a man. His voice was so terrifying that it created panic among the people walking on the street and sitting in the garden. One group of people changed their path, while others walked away with evasive glances in the direction of the screaming voices.
“What’s going on?” I asked, startled by the threatening voice, and I rushed forward. “Wait, aghchi (girl), it’s dangerous,” my friend said, managing to grab my clothes before I could move closer to the commotion.
As the noise grew louder, a small woman emerged from the bushes, holding the hand of a child who clung to her. A burly man was walking towards them with his hand raised in a menacing and intimidating manner.
My friend and I approached them with uncertain steps. She held onto my shirt to prevent me from going too far. A little ahead of us stood a man with an uncertain look, seemingly hesitant about whether to intervene or not. His legs swayed from side to side but never forward.
Suddenly, the man grabbed the woman’s wrist. She managed to break free from the man’s grip and ran towards a row of taxis while clutching the child’s hand. The little girl looked terrified. The woman, presumably her mother, was practically dragging the child behind her. The little one would turn around every few seconds, looking in the man’s direction with big, tearful eyes—he was following them.
This time, I was the one pulling my friend’s clothes. We positioned ourselves between the abuser and the woman, attempting to act as a barrier. Approaching the woman, we offered to order a taxi since she had no money. While we were negotiating with a taxi driver, the man appeared beside us.
My hands began to shake as I witnessed him forcefully seat himself next to her in the back seat of the car. The woman started crying loudly, her lips trembling as she repeatedly begged, “Get out, get out.”
The driver sat with his hand on the car keys, unsure of what to do. The man shouted imperatively, “Drive, I’m her husband!”
At one point, I lost all hope and didn’t know what to do. It was my friend’s voice that snapped me back to reality. “Hopar (uncle – a term for addressing older men in Armenia), please don’t drive.” Hopar hesitated, torn between the pleas of three women and the demands of the one man.
I instructed my friend to open the front door of the car to prevent him from driving while I asked the abuser to get out of the car. Asking, of course, was not a way to change a person’s decision who probably solves all of his issues with the help of his fists.
I decided to take an extreme step. “Get out now, or I’m going to call the police,” I yelled, feeling ridiculous even as I confronted him.
I recalled a domestic violence incident I encountered a year ago. A man had been abusing his wife for years, and the police had only imposed a one-year probationary period. I also remembered the many cases when women turned to the police to report their husbands’ abuse, and instead, the police persuaded them to withdraw their complaints and return home to keep the family together, not leaving the children without a father.
I was jolted from my thoughts by the man’s menacing gaze in my direction. I swear, I was anticipating a huge chapalakh (slap) on my face. I stood my ground, fully resolved not to retreat. To my surprise, the expected slap never came. “Call the police or whoever you want, I don’t care. This is my child,” he shouted, turning his attention back to the terrified child and woman.
The driver represented the collective image of our society, the prevailing public mentality that one should not intrude into the family’s personal life, the pervasive idea that a wife and child are the husband’s property, and he can do with them as he pleases.
“Ara (a slang form of address in Armenian), let it go. It’s none of your business. It’s his wife and child,” the driver intervened. The driver represented the collective image of our society, the prevailing public mentality that one should not intrude into the family’s personal life, the pervasive idea that a wife and child are the husband’s property, and he can do with them as he pleases.
The proprietary attitude of the abuser and the driver’s supportive words pushed me over the edge. I started yelling in a confident tone, reciting curses I had heard in various movies.
Suddenly, the man got out of the car, looking bewildered. “I will call my father,” he declared and walked away with unsteady steps. I couldn’t believe that we had managed to rescue the woman and the child from the abuser. I had mentally prepared for the worst-case scenarios.
After the man left, two young men sitting on a nearby bench who had quietly observed the entire incident approached us. Their eyes were fixed on the woman. “Who was he, and what does he have to do with you?” they inquired. “He’s my ex-husband,” the woman replied, trembling. There is no “ex” in Armenia; if you were once his wife, you forever belong to that man. That’s why the man told the driver, “She is my wife.”
“What did you do to provoke him like that?” one of the boys asked, reminding me of the policemen who try to find the guilt of the victim in all cases of violence. It is common to hear questions like: “What were you wearing when you were raped?” “What did you do or say when you were beaten?”
“Guys, what business is it of yours who this man is or what he wants from this woman? Go sit on the bench and continue observing the world from your vantage point,” I said in a rude tone.
“Kooyrik jan (sister and a slang form of address), we wanted to help,” one of them said.
“Seems like you’re too late, guys,” I replied in the same grumpy tone.
We sent the two young men on their way and exchanged contact information with the woman and her child for further assistance. We continued our walk, constantly looking around, fearing that perhaps that man was stalking us.
People in Armenia prefer to turn a blind eye; it’s easier to live that way. It’s simple to cross the street, change your route and pretend not to witness violence. It’s straightforward to pretend not to hear a man beating a woman with a hot iron next door. It’s easy not to hear or see a man murder his ex-wife’s mother with an ax in the hallway. It’s convenient for a police officer to send a woman with broken bones back home to their abuser, because that man has influential connections with high-ranking officials in the local police department. It is convenient to label their actions as “protecting the holy family’s completeness.”
It’s simple to talk in numbers, saying that the highest rate of violence against women in recent years was recorded in 2022 or that at least 10-15 cases of femicide are recorded in Armenia every year. It’s easy to pass laws without considering the practical effectiveness of their implementation. It’s straightforward to label people who speak out against domestic violence, hold protests and declare the presence of pedophilia, femicide and rape in Armenia as “Soros’s bastards.”
It’s simple to pretend that you don’t hear, don’t see, don’t know…but is it easy to carry that guilt throughout your life? I carry a heavy burden that will stay with me forever. I was 17 years old, having just moved to Yerevan to study at university. One night, I heard a noise from the window – a woman was shouting, “Help me, he’s killing me.” I was too afraid to step outside, to move a single step or to call the police. I don’t know what happened to that woman; I don’t know the outcome. That woman’s screams cover me at nighttime. That cry will always be with me, serving as a guiding light, always urging me to stand up against any form of violence.