Here’s The Thing About Armenian Women
By Tvine Donabedian
It is an unspoken rule that when you are feeling unwell, the last thing you should do is research your symptoms on the web. The Internet has a tendency to exaggerate results, where a common cold can easily turn into a rare untreatable venereal disease native to that one uninhabited region in South America where you have never foot in your entire life. The resulting anxiety will only make you feel sicker than you actually are, at which point the only treatment available is the judgmental roll of your doctor’s eyes.
I like to apply a similar rule to gender politics in Armenia. When it comes to women, it is no secret that Armenia’s human rights record is far from perfect. Common knowledge on the topic alone is enough to leave a bad taste in your mouth. If you do not want to feel any sicker, avoid researching the subject on the web. Of course, in this case, the results are not exaggerated and have little to do with rare diseases. Indeed, there is nothing rare about the mistreatment of women that plagues the country and the lives of its female citizens. I am not preaching ignorance on the matter nor am I discouraging one from educating themselves, but rather I am suggesting that digging deeper into the issue might sour one’s quiet Sunday evening, as mine was several months ago.
It all became a little too real when I received the e-mail confirming my summer volunteer position at the Women’s Support Centre in Yerevan. Besides running shelters for victims of domestic abuse, the organization’s mission is to fight against a culture that tolerates domestic violence. Drowning in the stress of the winter semester, I hadn’t given myself enough time to dwell on the implications of the work I would be facing in the coming months. The truth of the matter was, while I understood that the situation was far from ideal, I knew close to nothing about gender discrimination in Armenia. The ensuing research, however, left me laying wide awake in bed that night. Somewhere between the alarming rates of fatal domestic violence and trends in sex-selective abortions, I was overcome with a sense of defeat. It’s bound to break your heart, when you realize the country you love must truly hate women.
But here’s the thing about Armenian women: they can’t really be defeated.
Starting from my first day at the Women’s Support Centre, I fell into my role as a research assistant. The purpose of the project was to determine the ways in which domestic abuse affected the long-term reproductive health of female victims in Armenia. The data would be collected through interviews with the victims staying at the shelter who wished to volunteer their participation in the study. Our very first task, however, was to review the existing literature. Here, there were two important things to note. First, there are very few legitimate sources that focus on domestic abuse in Armenia. Second, those few existing sources made me very angry. It wasn’t so much the large number of cases that astonished me, but the complete and utter lack of legislation surrounding domestic violence! I could not fathom how a democratic country did not have a single law pertaining to domestic violence and yet, this was the reality staring me in the face. Suddenly, it all made sense. How could this problem be solved if Armenian society didn’t seem to even acknowledge that a problem existed to begin with?
In the following weeks, one of my co-workers told me a story about one of the training seminars she coordinated for policemen. During the seminar, she was listing examples of acts of domestic violence that could occur to set up a situation. When she described the case of a man slapping his wife, one of the officers interrupted her: “What? Slapping your wife is domestic violence?” This police officer was attending the workshop of his own volition. His intentions were probably in the right place, but at the same time, he made me realize just how normalized household violence is in Armenia. It made me wonder just how often these acts occurred for this officer to be so unfazed by them, where slapping another person no longer qualified as violence. At this point, I was starting to feel discouraged. I would watch all the amazing women at the centre hard at work every day and wonder if they would ever see any significant change.
But here’s another thing about Armenian women: you can’t kill their spirit.
The interviews with the victims were the following step in the research project and they changed everything. My job was to transcribe and translate the recorded interviews conducted by my co-worker heading the study. The different stories I heard were, without a doubt, incredibly painful to listen to, but even more so, they were empowering. I do not wish to glamorize these women or the hardships they suffered, but I could not help but feel inspired by their strength. They all shared pain and they all shared recovery, but what amazed me the most was the way they spoke about the centre and the women who work there. Almost every woman talked about how much the shelter helped them in their journey through their struggles and how the support they received was integral to the achievement of their individual goals. One woman started a successful business with the help of the centre, while another worked towards completing her university degree. Other interviewees explicitly stated how the workshops provided by the centre helped them discover their self-worth and gave them the confidence to face what they had been through. With every interview, my admiration for these women grew, as I came to realize just how important the Women’s Support Centre is. The work these women do to help other women is not only significant in amount, but in terms of diversity as well. The resources and care made available to these victims are the result of unshakeable dedication on the part of the centre workers, whose collective impact is making all the difference in the lives of abuse survivors.
The purpose of this article was not to enumerate Armenia’s shortcomings in its treatment of women. Like I said, you are free to turn to the web anytime for that and ruin your Sunday evening if you so please. No, the purpose of this article is to share with you the strength and hope I found during my short time at the Women’s Support Centre in Yerevan. In telling this story, I want readers to understand that there are people out there doing incredible work, people who care and who are constantly building Armenian society towards a better future. This article is not an invitation to do the same, but perhaps to support those who do.
So, here’s one last thing about Armenian women: they are strongest when they are together.