Jewels of Devotion and Self-Sacrifice’: Ottoman Armenian Women as Teachers
The Armenian press in the late Ottoman Empire was the site of heated debates among writers and intellectuals, who would rip apart each other’s arguments and attack each other’s character with a ferociousness that might surprise even the most jaded, twenty-first century reader. The article above sparked a lengthy debate on education in the pages of the Constantinople-based newspaper Massis. While keeping its focus on the unique challenges facing young female teachers, the article also touches on thorny gender and class inequalities that inflamed some Armenian intellectuals and drove them to air their vitriol in a series of responses to the article.
But it all began with this article from 1903: Zabel Yessayan’s Mer Varjouhinerë [Our Female Teachers]. Although Yessayan would go on to become one of the most prominent writers in Western Armenian literature, and the most celebrated among women writers, in 1903 she was still relatively unknown, having only recently returned to Constantinople after an eight-year period in Paris.
This article is one of her first pieces of social criticism, and one of the first written after her return. At its core, the article is an appeal to her fellow Armenians to recognize the great contributions and sacrifices young women were making for the community. Yessayan writes that she was prompted to write this article after seeing how these teachers had become the targets of “unjust and senseless disdain” within the Armenian community. Before “showering them with insults and reproaches,” she urged readers to understand the burdens of these young women, who were often supporting their entire families, and be sympathetic to the constraints they faced within conservative school administrations.
While this article illustrates a commitment to activism, a contempt for injustice and a disregard for social convention, which Yessayan would continue to demonstrate throughout her life, it also firmly positions her within a tradition of earlier Armenian women writers and activists who protested against similar gender-based inequalities.
The influence of Serpouhi Dussap
, the first Armenian novelist to address the social struggles of women, can clearly be seen in Yessayan’s article. In the 1870s and 1880s, Dussap called for a restructuring of Ottoman Armenian society in which women’s rights to education, employment and social autonomy would all be ensured. Many Armenian literary elites of the time condemned her novels and saw her work as an attempt to destroy the Armenian family.
Dussap created female protagonists fully engaged in the society around them as a way to provide Armenian women with an example to follow. In fact, Dussap uses her 1887 novel Araxia gam Varjouhin [Araxia or the Teacher], which revolves around a young woman who becomes a teacher to support her family, to model the way young women can gain both financial independence and personal satisfaction from their work outside the home. Dussap’s revolutionary ideas laid the foundation for other women like Yessayan to continue the struggle for social change.
There were remarkable transformations in the sixteen-year period that separated Dussap from Yessayan. Within this short time, young women like Araxia were graduating in larger numbers each year, forcing Ottoman Armenian society to reevaluate its conception of womanhood. Yessayan sees these teachers as the embodiment of a new ideal of womanhood that values a strong work ethic and commitment to the community (For a fictional representation of the powerful role one of these teachers played in the life of an ambitious girl living in Anatolia, see Krikor Zohrab’s short story The Poturlı
Although by 1903 the basic challenges (i.e. access to education and employment) had been alleviated for the urban, middle-class women who became teachers, other challenges had sprung up within their field. The prejudice against women working outside the home that Dussap had fought against in the 1880s had lessened, but in its place emerged a widely held belief in the “insufficient educational and moral qualifications of the female teachers.”
It’s this assumption that Yessayan attacks in her piece. Rather than laying blame on the young women themselves, she holds the Armenian community accountable for the conditions under which the teachers were forced to work. In the article, she details the plight of these teachers—or “jewels of devotion and self-sacrifice”—who suffer from exhaustion, malnourishment, and unjustifiable attacks by the school board and parents all for the sake of the young minds in their charge. While “they enter the field with vigor and self-confidence to do good,” they end up “debilitated by disappointment” and “dried up [like] barren tree branches.”
Yessayan proposes a three-prong solution that resonates as much for us today as it did in the Ottoman Empire in 1903:
1) Reconceptualize education so that it’s less constricted by set lessons, rules and the reproachful eye of the school board and more open for teachers to express their individuality in the classroom.
2) See teachers as chief contributors to the moral and intellectual growth of a new generation, and accord them the respect that this invaluable role merits.
3) For parents: understand the teacher not as a rival but as a partner in the education of the child and realize that both parent and teacher are working towards the same goal.