Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Armenian Woman: From Progressive Emancipation to Conservatism

Many years ago, I was asked to speak by our local Armenian Relief Society (ARS) chapter on the occasion of Mother’s Day in Toronto. I was a young mother myself at the time, raising two young children, and working excruciatingly long hours. Had it not been for my mother, I’m not sure how I would have survived that period in my life. Naturally, my speech was dedicated to her and to all Armenian mothers.

I don’t remember exactly what I said that day except that I considered my mother to be the anchor of my life, the one person on the planet who loved me unconditionally and always, always had my back. I recall looking out in the audience and seeing my Mom sitting beside my daughter, her eyes full of tears ready to tumble down her cheeks, and hoping that I would be to my children what she was and continues to be for me—a source of unfaltering guidance, wisdom, and faith.

Back then terms such as women’s rights, equal access to resources, stereotyping of women, rigid gender roles, domestic violence, or discrimination were not part of my consciousness when I thought about women or mothers—Armenian or otherwise. Those were issues that, I believed, had been resolved for my generation by the women’s movement of the 60s.

As I have gotten older, my perception of the Armenian woman has changed; moving to Armenia shifted the ground beneath my feet. Today, more than ever, I am confounded by the “Armenian woman.” Who is she? What does she represent? What is her opinion? Why is she absent in leadership positions within institutional diasporic structures and in decision-making bodies in all three branches of government in the homeland? Where is her political activism? What is her role in the nation-building process?

Today, we live in an era of global mobility with a capacity to transfer knowledge, technology, experiences, and skills. The Armenian Diaspora, I would argue, is sophisticated and well organized, with a bank of highly trained professionals and experts in a variety of disciplines, and more economically powerful than Armenia itself.

Highly skilled diasporans living in foreign lands can serve as living bridges of knowledge and experience, and can help initiate a national discourse on issues affecting the nation. Effective diasporic organizations, networks, or movements can help shift the brain drain from the homeland to a brain circulation.

From alleviating to elevating

While diasporic women’s organizations came to Armenia immediately after independence and carried out projects and implemented plans, their imperative, in general, was not to elevate the role of women per say, but rather to provide services that would alleviate a woman’s burden. A noble and worthy venture indeed, but this did not serve to germinate the seeds for social mobilization that would have demanded and perhaps secured resolutions to some of the crippling problems faced by women in the homeland.

While they gave of their time and energy, they did not demand a more instrumental role in the rebuilding of institutions and the creation of networks that would have helped generate an atmosphere for constructive change. Why did they alleviate instead of elevate?

It must be noted that institutions in the homeland weren’t always welcoming. They wanted assistance from diasporic organizations with no strings attached. This attitude did not lend itself to developing cooperation and an exchange of new ideas. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia was poised to ease through the transition period and move toward institutionalizing democratic values and principles in the country, taking into consideration the high rates of literacy, a well-trained work force in the technology industry, and a vibrant, well-developed diaspora.

The opposite occurred. Fire-sale privatization after independence led to huge transfers of public wealth to private hands, widening the seemingly insurmountable divide between the rich and the poor. This concentration of wealth accumulation led to the current policy of neo-liberalism where everything is up for sale to the highest bidder. Women were left out of the game, the rules of which were imposed by the ruling elite, mostly men, and their access to resources was severely restricted.

Gender equality in Armenia is not considered to be a critical issue and its Soviet legacy has served as an impediment to the advancement of women, primarily in the political sphere. During the Soviet era, gender parity was ideological and imposed. With independence, women were relegated back to their traditional, culturally defined roles, which have marginalized their involvement in all aspects of governance and conflict resolution.

While Armenian women in the diaspora were individually breaking new ground and progressing in their respective careers and disciplines, collectively they continued to remain outside of leadership positions in diasporic organizations. If we accept the premise that these women could have served as bridges of knowledge, experience, and expertise to their sisters in the homeland, then the absence of a woman’s movement on the ground in Armenia is evidence that this did not happen. The deficit of women’s presence in decision-making bodies in the diaspora is therefore reflected in the lack of any stirrings of a developing movement in the homeland.

Another factor that impeded Armenian women in the diaspora from galvanizing to secure a role in decision-making bodies for themselves was the nature and essence of the diaspora itself. Living and working in foreign lands, and being influenced by the societies in which they existed, did not lend itself to conditions upon which to build a movement that would have assured their leadership position in diasporic structures.

At first glance, one might be inclined to believe that a key factor is that diasporic women’s groups did not evolve out of social reform movements like they had at other time periods and in different countries. They evolved to support the nation, the homeland, and its people. Their purpose was not about affecting social and political change for women; it was about survival, plain and simple. It is unfair therefore to have expected diasporic women’s organizations to help mobilize a meaningful women’s movement in the homeland after independence in 1991.

However, the existence of women’s organizations like the ARS, which is celebrating its centennial this year, in and of themselves, was an expression of emancipation when they were created. After all, it took the Armenian woman, who had been and would be instrumental in the survival of the nation, out of the home and gave her a purpose outside of tending to the immediate needs of her family.

If the existence of organizations like the ARS was progressive, even revolutionary, 100 years ago, why then are women absent in leadership positions today?

Over the years, the dynamic in the diaspora shifted and became more and more insular, hence the current dominant conservative paradigm. The “hayabahbanum” (defending/preserving Armenianness) ideology placed constrictions on the Armenian woman and mother. Her predominant role was to educate her children in the Armenian language, to struggle against the forceful winds of assimilation, and ensure the perpetuity of the nation.

After all, gender equality in the diaspora was never a critical or pressing issue either. There was always an abundance of collective national tragedies that required attention from both men and women. So women went from progressive emancipation to a conservatism model that emphasized stability and continuity.

A movement needs activists who believe that devoting their time and energy will help instigate societal change. They motivate others to take action but don’t do so in a vacuum. They help their members develop skills, give them the necessary tools to carry out programs, and they have a well-defined strategy with a clear objective. How were diasporan women supposed to consolidate their energy and develop programs to realize their objectives when they were as diverse as the countries in which they lived?

With the amount of information at our disposal and with the number of professional Armenian women in the diaspora, we can be more innovative and creative in trying to find ways to share experiences and transfer the knowledge that we have to a hopefully willing population in the homeland. We cannot remain victims to our own forbearance. A well-known sociologist once wrote, “Women are not passive targets of policies or the victims of distorted development—they are shapers and makers of social change.”

As the Armenian Relief Society celebrates a century of dedication, devotion, and steadfast commitment to the nation’s needs, perhaps we should use this moment in our collective history to initiate a national discourse about a new and progressive role for Armenian women in the diaspora and in the homeland.

By consolidating our energies, developing new models for development, advocating for greater participation, and utilizing our talent, we can and must become the shapers and makers of social change.

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