Armenia’s female activists are reclaiming space in public life. Can the wives, sisters and muses of protesters ever be seen as protesters themselves?
It is an ordinary evening in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. A man is in a taxi on Baghramyan Avenue, going down to the city centre. Suddenly, the street is blocked by protesters. Among the activists, a woman stands with a megaphone, reeling off the group’s demands. “They don’t have anything to do, that’s why they protest,” says the driver. “Look at her, I’m sure she hasn’t got a family or a kid.” The passenger smiles back: “Well, she does have children, not one, but three. And even a husband – me.”
This short story from the life of Zaruhi Hovhannisyan, a feminist activist, reflects the uneasy public perceptions about civic protests in Armenia — and female activism in particular. “It is very hard to be a female activist in Armenia. In a society where it is expected that women should stay at home and take care of the household, it is unusual to see a woman who gets out of her shackles, occupies a street and fights for a certain cause,” Zaruhi tells me .
In Armenia, public space is considered “dangerous for women”. Armenia’s police even has an official statement on “female security” that advises women on what to do to avoid harassment on the streets. “While walking alone late, ask somebody to accompany you,” “Try not to wear clothes that would seduce maniacs,” “Try not to overload your hands with bags” – these are a few helpful hints from the police that seemingly justify violence against women on the basis of their appearance and behaviour, instead of ensuring that public spaces are safe for everyone.
Male heroes, female supporters?
The claim that the “world outside” is not secure for women is a pretext for their exclusion and underrepresentation in Armenia’s civic and political matters. Despite these perceptions, however, female representation in Armenia’s civic movements is high. As Zaruhi highlights, “Women were the cornerstones of the emergence of civic movements in Armenia and are key vocal voices at most of our civil protests.”
That said, women’s leadership roles or high participation are easily forgotten by the public — and especially the media. “Women did groundbreaking work at Mashtots Park,” continues Zaruhi, referring to a three month-long protest in 2012 against new shopping pavilions in one of Yerevan’s central parks. “However, those taking the floor and speaking to the public with megaphones were generally men.” Despite its horizontal and decentralised way of self-organising, Mashtots park protesters were not free from misogyny and homophobia. On the one hand, the protesters’ claims of public ownership succeeded and the construction of the shopping pavilions was stopped. On the other, the behaviour of some protesters revealed the level of nationalism, sexism and transphobia that exist in such movements. “It was very sad to acknowledge that,” concludes Zaruhi.
In Armenia, it is still believed that women’s primary role is to get married, form a family and have children for the nation
Analysing recent events in Armenia confirms that female activists’ public and media images are still constructed according to gender-based stereotypes and expectations. In July 2016, women took part in the highly masculinised and militarised Sasna Dzrer (Daredevils of Sasun) protests, after a group of anti-government gunmen occupied a Yerevan police station.
One photo of a young woman hugging a policeman is one of the most famous images from these protests. Arine Sukiasyan approached a policeman, asking him if he would shoot her if the order was given. When the policeman answered no, Sukiasyan hugged him. The photograph portrayed the prescribed feminine role of an Armenian woman — modest, non-confrontational, the family caregiver — and it soon became iconic.
By contrast, the activist Ani Navasardyan did not perform her conventional female role during the summer protests. Navasardyan called for action; her tone was militant. Navasardyan took the stage at the Sasna Dzrer protest, playing an active role in the demonstrations. She was later detained by police on a charge of provoking mass unrest.
Soon after Ani was detained and then released, she was publicly accused of invading a “male space”. Social media boiled over with declarations such as “I am surprised by mature, educated men with life experience who are going to be led by this girl”. The view that “this movement needs real [i.e. male] leaders” quickly became dominant. Those defending Ani also used essentialist language, justifying her perseverance either by the fact that she acted as a “real man” or that “the tragedy of not having enough men had triggered women to take control of the situation”.
It seems then that the security risks female activists are experiencing are not a result of that “public space is dangerous for women” imperative. It is not space itself that makes Armenia’s female activists subject to harassment, pressure and violence, but what they do in it and how they claim their equal share of it. When women “cross the line” and become activists, when they deal with issues that lead to their emancipation, they become a threat – a real danger to patriarchy as they challenge the whole system of gendered power and regulation.
As a result, the security risks that women experience do not come from the “dangers” of public space, but the constant efforts to leave patriarchy intact.
The cost of convictions
Being a feminist activist in Armenia’s regions and claiming public space there adds up an additional, if not fundamental layer of challenges.
Ani Asatryan is a young feminist activist from the small town of Spitak, Lori region, where feminism is commonly thought to be a foreign concept. “In a city where there is no civic activism or public action, if you are a feminist, a women’s human rights defender or an activist fighting for general social and political issues, if you are a woman and dare to speak up, you are going to face many challenges and break lots of stereotypes.” She sees a huge gap between between feminist activism in Yerevan, and the space for it in Armenia’s regions. In Spitak, according to Asatryan, there is no opportunity for feminist conversations — change comes too slow.
Whether in the capital or in the regions, the more intense the struggle for female emancipation, the worse the backlash
Ani is actively involved in Civil Contract, an opposition political party that was formed in 2013 as a public-political union. In Ani’s political activism, when communicating with the public, the first question she is usually asked is whether she is married. People do not bother themselves advising Ani to get married soon while she is young. In Armenia, a women’s primary role is to get married, form a family and have children for the nation.
Whether in the capital or in the regions, the more intense the struggle for female emancipation, the worse the backlash. The risks are greater if female activists are overtly fighting for feminist issues. As Zaruhi points out, she was threatened several times both in person and on social media. “They started to threaten my children, too. This never stopped me from doing my activism, but it is is one thing when you’re responsible solely for yourself and your actions, when you’re not afraid of anything, even if they deploy a tank against you, but it’s a completely different level of responsibility when your children are involved.”
Not surprisingly, the security risks and pressures prevail not only among the public in large, but they also come from activists’ most intimate circles where psychological pressures are easier to induce. Gayane, whose name has been changed for security reasons, was subject to psychological violence and manipulations by her family members because of her activism around feminist and LGBT issues.
“People at my brothers’ workplaces were talking about me supposedly being a lesbian as I am highly involved in LGBT* activism,” Gayane tells me. Pictures of Gayane as an “enemy of the nation” were spread throughout Facebook. “I received so much hate mail, threats, accusations, my face became well-known and my family was ashamed of me.”
Gayane’s brothers periodically threatened her, demanding that she quit her job and activism and “return to a normal life”. One day they came home and forced her to choose between her work and her family. “I answered I cannot chose between you and myself, my activism is who I am.” They stopped communicating with her for a couple of years and hardly allowed her to see their children. “If I was at our family home, they wouldn’t even come to visit our mother. I was an outlaw.”
Anet Shamirian, my other interlocutor, on the contrary, never felt any family pressure in connection with her activism. Moreover, her family is quite supportive — her father is a former political activist himself. An ethnic Armenian, Anet was born in Tehran, and repatriated to Armenia when she was 16. Soon she joined the Women’s Resource Center, a grassroots feminist organisation in Yerevan, and got actively involved in feminist activism. “In Iran, women were more active in protests, especially concerning women’s issues. But in Armenia everything was so different.”
A few years ago Anet and several other activists from the Women’s Resource Center publicly buried a red apple as a protest against the “Red Apple” ceremony. Traditionally, when a woman gets married in Armenia, the bride’s family is given a bunch of red apples next day that symbolise the “the blood of the virgin” and her “purity”. “After this public statement, people got really furious,” mentions Anet.
Female activists are used to public pressure, Anet continues. In 2013, when anti-gender movements were on the rise in Armenia, many feminist activists were at risk as the ultra-nationalist groups were calling on the public to “burn them” and “bomb their offices”. These groups published a series of videos in a smear campaign against them and their activities, which including exposing feminists’ personal information to the public.
The security risks that women experience don’t come from the inherent “dangers” of public space, but the constant efforts to leave patriarchy intact
Anet admits that during protests or trainings the public notices her foreign accent and asks her where she comes from. She explains that some people treat her as a foreigner who believes she knows better and has come to educate them. “Many women say to me: it’s different in your case, it’s easier, here I can’t go home to my family and demand my rights.”
Anet finds that, to a certain degree, these women are right. She comes from a highly educated, politically active and privileged family where she didn’t have to experience the many challenges an average Armenian woman usually goes through.
Anet conducts trainings on the history of politically and socially active Armenian women. She also talks about Armenian feminists from the past – women like Shushanik Kurghinyan, Zabel Yesayan, Zabel Sibil Asadouror Srbouhi Dussap. When she talks about these figures, the public no longer sees her as a foreigner. The groundbreaking works of these women writers and thinkers deconstruct Armenians’ perceptions of feminism as a foreign western concept, one that has been artificially brought to the country to destroy the country’s cultures and traditions.
To remind the Yerevan public about Armenia’s feminist past and to reclaim and resignify male dominated public space, a group of feminists spray graffiti around the city with Shushanik Kurghinyan’s poems. “I wanted to sing: they told me I could not, I wove my own songs: quiet, you are a girl! […] But I kept singing endlessly, that’s when they started to cajole.”
Just like in Kurghinyan’s poem, Armenia’s feminist activists continue their endless efforts, and that’s when the system gets worried. Or should do.