Armenian women’s long history before 1920


Armenian women’s long history before 1920

Armenian academic and popular history, like in many other nations’ cases, concentrates heavily on men as actors. We know Hayk to be the legendary forefather of Armenians, but we know nothing of the foremother of Armenians. However, in comparison with other nations the situation is not at all desperate if we look into ancient and medieval Armenian history.


Text : Tigran Zakaryan


Armenian woman’s unknown place in history

We know of several ancient and medieval queens who ruled over the country (Erato, Parandzem) and princesses and even laywomen who took part in political or military, also in cultural and religious life of Armenia. In the ethnic epic tale of “Daredevils of Sasun” female characters are represented as conspicuous women who are independent in making choices in life.

Armenian archaeologist, historian Sedrak Barkhudaryan’s research (1898-1970) established that out of about 1300 documented medieval inscriptions around 500 included some mention of women. An Armenian chronicle’s mentioning of Sahakandukht – the sister of 7th to 8th century Armenian philosopher and clergyman Stepanos Syunetsi, was the first documented case of an Armenian woman as a poet and a singer.

Queen Zapel of Cilicia, by Vardges Surenyants

A most influential Armenian Law Codex by Mkhitar Gosh (12th century) stipulated that marriages were to be made by mutual consent and that if a man failed to “make his woman happy” then the latter had the right to divorce in which case the woman was entitled to the property that she owned by the time of the marriage (dowry presented by her parents, etc.) and to leave the custody of the children to the father.

The Codex also was called to prevent what currently is termed as “domestic violence” stipulating double sum of penalties for beating one’s wife, or possibility of divorce if such a case was repeated.

According to medieval sources, Armenian women were also entitled to own property, which they could sell, donate or bequeath independently from their husbands. A married woman could bequeath her personal property to her children at her own will.

A German traveler and soldier of late 14th and early 15th century Johann Schiltberger in his memoirs asserts with a certain degree of surprise that among Armenians in case a married couple “neither wishes to have the other, they are separated so that each can take another spouse,” meaning that a divorce could happen by a mutual and not unilateral decision.

However, with centuries of foreign yoke, coupled with the degradation of the Armenian society’s social fabric and its gradual transformation into an exclusive religious community, things took a turn for the worse.

By mid-19th century, Armenian society, under both the Russian and the Ottoman Empire, was almost totally traditional with few or no prospect for women beyond acting as potential and actual mothers.


Educating girls, educating the nation

Meanwhile, in the 19th century in Europe and other corners of the world national identities were being shaped and the eyes of architects of those nations were getting fixed on women. “Educating a boy – you educate a boy only, educating a girl – you educate the nation,” a common saying was going in those times. Armenians were no exception to this trend and education for women became a pressing issue in the second half of the 19th century.

Armenian women, Istanbul, 19th century

It was no wonder that almost all the prominent Armenian liberal intellectuals of the period were also promoters of women’s education and were promoting their role in the nation as educators of their own and others’ children. Initially, it was the men who were promoting or even starting education for women. Armenian writers (Perch Proshyan, Raffi and others) were also at the inception of that movement, particularly among eastern Armenians.

Proshyan is known to be actively involved in opening girls’ schools in Tiflis, Shushi, Agulis and elsewhere. However, the idea of educating women was not universally greeted among Armenians even as late as in 1870’s.

Raffi, when teaching at the Aramian school in Tabriz, Persia (1875-1877), met fierce resistance by the local Armenian religious and lay notables in the city as he was trying to introduce female education among the local Armenians. He barely saved his life by fleeing the city and escaping an angry mob.

Armenian educational institutions for women were established in Armenia proper, too. For instance, Hripsimyan school for women was active in Yerevan since as early as 1850. Another school called likewise Hripsimyan was founded in 1870 in Karin (Erzurum). In the same year Sandukhtyan-Mariamyan higher school for women was established in Van.

On the whole, women’s education among western Armenians concentrated in Constantinople was somewhat more ahead than among eastern Armenians whose cultural center was Tiflis – a regional capital less open to European influence than the Ottoman capital.


Article about Armenian singer Zapel Panossian, 1919

Armenian women educating themselves

Educating Armenian women became widely spread only from the second half of the 19th century and closer to its end, as women’s organizations aimed at collecting funds and supervising educational institutions for women started to mushroom in both empires, most notably in Constantinople and Tiflis, although not confined to only those two cities alone.

In one and the same year of 1879 alone two most influential organizations – named Patriotic Armenian Women’s Association and School-Loving Ladies’ Association – were set up in the Ottoman capital. While the former of them was engaged in supporting women’s education, the latter was actively promoting female instructors’ education for instruction to female students.

School-Loving Ladies’ Association opened its school in 1879 which is still functioning. Their aim was to train female teachers for women’s schools. Most students were enrolled with a financial waiver which covered their tuition fee and, if needed, accommodation.

In the Russian Empire an Armenian Women’s Charity Association was founded in Tiflis in 1882 (renamed into Caucasus Armenian Women’s Charity Association in 1907 and active until 1921) which enjoyed a membership of more than 3,000 from different cities, including Yerevan, Baku, Batumi, Kars, Tabriz, Moscow and many more. The organization funded activities at 10 schools and one kindergarten in Tiflis.

Another Tiflis-based women’s organization called Meghu (“Bee”) was engaged in the issue of women’s employment and their decent remuneration. They were calling for equal rights of women in employment. The organization funded the training of women for various works (like sewing clothes) and held their own workshops employing women for almost zero profit, so that they could sustain their families and themselves.

Hye Kin ("Armenian Woman") magazine, 1922

It was not an easy task to keep those institutions functioning under the repressive Ottoman and Russian authorities who periodically cracked down on Armenians to rule out any serious expression of political identity or cultural activity. Under Hamid at times those institutions were shut down to be reopened after 1908 Young Turk coup, whereas in Russian Empire Armenian schools, as well as those for women, had to disguise themselves as what could be termed in those days “vocational termed as centers.”


Influential figures in Armenian feminist movement

The resolution of problems of feminism, however, did not end but rather started with providing education for women. Next issue on the agenda of the feminists was the full right to participation in social and economic life.

As a forerunner of feminism, a playwright and a political writer, Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793) argued in the years of the French Revolution, “A woman has the right to mount the scaffold; she must equally have the right to mount the pulpit.”

Armenian women – first and foremost western Armenian women – for the reasons stated above became active champions of their own rights in the meantime having both supportive and discouraging reactions from male intellectuals.

A pioneer in Armenian feminist movement was Nazly Vahan (Arzumanyan) (1814-1884) who was actively engaged in charity and education. Originally from Caesarea, she was well versed in French and Greek languages. Nazly Vahan initiated the foundation of St. Hripsimeants girls’ school in Constantinople in 1859 and in 1864 founded the Charitable Women’s Association.

Another prominent intellectual and writer Srbuhi Dussab (1841-1901), Nazly Vahan’s daughter, was actively involved in her mother’s social activities. Married to a French musician Paul Dussab, Srbuhi’s first essays written in early 1880’s were concentrated on the issues of women’s education and their employment, as well as the concept of free choice in their marriage arguing that the ideals of the French revolution did not extend to women.


Zabel Yesayan (sitting) | Cover of a collection of stories of Srpouhi Dussap, USSR, 1960's

Zabel Asadour (Sibil) (1863-1934) was another prominent western Armenian feminist, writer, poet and educator who authored a textbook of modern Armenian grammar. Together with Srbuhi Dussab, Zabel Asadour made a project of an Armenian declaration of women’s rights claiming for equal rights in all spheres; social, moral, economic, etc., but it was, however, never published.

Zabel Yesayan (1878-1943) was an influential figure of the later period of Armenian women’s movement. Educated in Sorbonne, she was a prolific writer, translator, and an active social figure. Yesayan was the only woman who was in the Ottoman list of Armenian intellectuals to be arrested on the night of 24 April 1915, in the prelude of the genocide, however, somehow she managed to evade it. It was ironical that after returning to soviet Armenia in 1933 she ended up being arrested by NKVD and died in prison in Siberia.

A prominent supporter of women’s full right to self-realization, she wrote on one occasion: “A woman is not born simply to be pleasant. A woman is born to develop her own mental, moral and physical features.”

Shushanik Kurghinyan (1876-1927), who wrote in Eastern Armenian, was a member of the Social Democrat Hnchak party. Her writings concerned both class and gender issues.

“I wanted to sing: they told me I could not, / I wove my own songs: quiet, you are a girl! / But when in this troubled world / an elegy I became, / I spoke to the hearts of many,” she wrote after the 1907 failed revolution in the Russian Empire. Ultimately, she became affiliated with the Bolshevik party and welcomed the October revolution in 1917 being equally active after Armenia’s sovietization.

Nevertheless, there was no genuinely mass feminist movement as such in the Armenian society by the turn of the century and later to press for equal political and social rights, partly also because in many cases men lacked them, too.


National-conservatism versus feminism

There was not a universal consensus among Armenians as to how “women’s issue” should be treated. Although most agreed that women deserved having education at basic level, still there was no unanimity on how their education should be used and whether their participation to social life was acceptable.

Those factions, which can conditionally be called national-conservative, expressed concern that any “inappropriate” emancipation of women in family, social and economic life could threaten “national values” including the harmony in family. Surprisingly, among such writers of the late 19th and early 20th century were Mikayel Nalbandyan and Grigor Zohrap – who otherwise would be considered as liberal – and, occasionally also satirists Yervand Otyan and Hakob Paronyan.


Raffi | Perch Proshyan

Meanwhile there were others like Raffi, Zabel Yesayan and Mariam Khatisyan who argued that the Armenian women’s traditional role as primary caretakers of the younger generation in the family could be projected onto the nation, and their more active social role could be fully legitimized through that fact.


Armenian women against the background of political upheavals at the turn of 20th century

Armenian women understandably could not stay uninvolved in the political upheavals marking national history of the turn of the 20th century. Educated women, including in some cases siblings or spouses of Armenian political figures, became active champions of the national cause, even sometimes soldiers in the direct sense of the word.

The armed movement of fedayiis in Western Armenia in 1890-1900’s, although intended to be a purely male business, included some remarkable women. Not rare were cases when women were fighting or helping fighters in self-defense during the massacres under Sultan Abdul Hamid or in Adana massacres of 1909.

Many educated Armenian women, who otherwise would have served the cause of the women’s emancipation, fell victim to the genocide. Those women, however, were not just victims of the 1915-1923 genocide; they actively took part in humanitarian resistance, secretly distributed aid to the survivors, and were engaged in the armed fight, as in earlier years against regular Ottoman troops and irregulars’ bands set for killing, raping and looting. In the self-defense of Urfa (Edessa) a detachment of 30 young women, headed by Khanum Khatenjian participated in fights. There were other cases of women fighting on the frontline along with men or even commanding whole detachments.

Proclamation of the Armenian Republic in 1918, which was intended to be modeled according to European pattern, brought sudden and unexpected opportunities for feminists who would like to see more women’s participation in social life.

Diana Abgar

Armenian women, unlike some of their European counterparts, did not have to fight long for their voting rights as they were granted them without much opposition and some were elected in the parliament in 1919, well ahead of certain European states including, for instance, France or Italy who gave such rights to their woman citizens much later. Diana Abgar was appointed by the Armenian government as ambassador in Japan in 1919-1920 being one of the first women in the world to be appointed to such position.

It is difficult however for us to judge what would become of the Armenian feminism and movement for the rights of women should Armenian independence last longer. Sovietization of 1920, which ended the brief period of independence also marked a new stage in the history of Armenian women.