In the Middle Ages, Armenian women had a legal right to divorce: this was fixed in Mkhitar Gosh's «Lawcode». The history, however, knows no woman who has ever used this right. Wives knew well enough that once divorced, they would have nowhere to go. Intrigued by this revealing story, I went to the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of National Academy of Science to find out why the state rules in Armenia are usually weaker than customs and traditions.


Text : Karine Ghazaryan


When Armenia's first lady Rita Sargsyan was asked whether she helps her husband with advice, she was quick to reject, noting that she does not like those wives who advice their husbands, and, moreover, she would never have respect for those men who listen to their wives. As surprising and disagreeable as it sounds for a representative of a generation of multicultural millennials, I must acknowledge that it is not accidental that Rita Sargsyan is the kind of a first lady that she is.

Armenian society has always been patriarchal. 19th-century Armenian writers Srpouhi Dussap and Zabel Yesayan were creating the first Armenian feminist literature and were actively participating in public life of Ottoman Empire where they lived. At the same time women in towns and villages lived by strict standards: first as a victimized newlywed, then as a mother-in-law with her own victim, and finally as the absolute authority of the house, who was forced to obey only every single man around. Being illiterate, what possible access could they have to Dussap’s and Yesayan’s liberal ideas?

In 1920s, the Soviet Union introduced the new rules which included literacy for women, equality and participation in social life, but they did this without caring about the other side’s convenience or opinion. “Generally speaking, Bolsheviks forced women to go to school, to do men’s work, to be visible in the public sphere,” says ethnologist Svetlana Poghosyan, “But this was not easy for women. First, they had to do twice as much work as men, since they already had a full-time housework that wasn’t going anywhere. Then, they were told to take off the headscarf, cut their hair short and go to the streets, when for their entire life these things had been considered a big shame.” During World War II, the Soviet government even developed images of hard-working heroic women coping on their own who were meant to be role models for everyone else. These were not the new women, but the women who were masculine and, therefore, strong.

Svetlana Poghosyan notes that at the end of the day the innovations resulted in women’s presence and activeness in life outside of their houses, which were once their entire world. Of course, the activeness was never connected to important leadership positions as the glass ceiling was – and is – always there.

Ethnologist Ruzanna Tsaturyan says that the government of independent Armenia failed to use the achievements of its predecessors. “One challenge was overcome. Women were doing more work, but the self-called democratic government failed to stop the exploitation. Instead, we have regressed and now the women’s role is reduced to just giving birth to future soldiers.” The researcher says that the poor quality of education also creates a solid ground for the rise of militarism, violence and inequality. “When conscripts are taken to the army, mothers are the ones associated with the horrible sorrow, yet their voice is never heard in peacebuilding initiatives.”

Education is a proven method to break the stereotypes in society, but its potential changemaking power does not seem to be used to build equality in Armenia. Ruzanna Tsaturyan recalled the story of a section in elementary school textbook which Armenian and international education specialists had created to show the kids that gender roles are taught rather than inherited. This initiative was called off because of a complaint from a conservative activist, Khachik Stamboltsyan. “This man does not represent any institutional power, he is basically one citizen whose complaint was used to explain the government's unwillingness to work for gender equality,”  says Ruzanna Tsaturyan. Almost the same happened to the domestic violence law just last year, which was eventually edited before passing.

Svetlana Poghosyan is quite optimistic about women's education. She says that despite all the big gaps, education has never been as important for women as it proved to be during the last decades. She shares her impression that more and more girls pursue a career while building a family. At the same time, she highlights the prevailing importance of the family: “Even female leaders in business and politics proudly mention their ability to manage with housework and kids, as regardless of public position they always try to match the ideal that the society has created.”

This ideal is protected and controlled by the customs of the society, which very often replace the law when the latter is not applied effectively. Ruzanna Tsaturyan mentions that people use the cultural capital of their social ties more than the force of law, not because they don’t want to rely on the law but because they have no trust in it. “And if you use social ties you accept the respective rules.”

In answer to my confident remark that the global conversations such as Hollywood harassment scandal can influence our society, too, Ruzanna Tsaturyan drew my attention to the most popular shows on Armenian television – low-quality Indian serials with very conservative content. “The common public does not really get the information. No one speaks about women’s issues on TV, the most accessible and popular media. Most people just see violent and absurd attitude towards women in an Indian soap opera and feel more secure about their lives: At least, they are allowed to go to school.”

The images and values that mass media transmits match the characteristics of inequality. This content is full of militarism and involves very sensitive and emotional topics for Armenians: motherhood, children, loss of a child. Ruzanna Tsaturyan notes that it is impossible to discuss gender inequality without speaking on the long list of the types of violence and assault. “Individuals and groups will always have a chance to live a different life. But the real issue is in the path that the government paves for you as a citizen.”