All Issues Are Women's Issues

All Issues Are Women's Issues

Group of activists/feminists holding a reading of Shushanik Kughinian's poems in a public space in Yerevan. Creator: Kamo Davtyan. All rights reserved.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views and positions held by the Heinrich-Boell-Foundation.
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The author would like to emphasize that this work was greatly influenced and inspired by Sophia Rakel Armen’s original work “Armenians, It Ain’t Up For Debate: Feminism Is Our Past…And Future” first published online in Hye-Phen-Magazine (link: http://www.the-hye-phen-mag.org/2014/10/31/it-aint-up-for-debate-armenians-feminism-is-our-past-and-future/ ). Without Rakel Armen’s academic labor, the following article critiquing the Western influence on the Armenian women’s movement today would not have been possible.

To ask the question whether there is or has ever been a women's movement in Armenia often implies juxtaposing a Western understanding of 'women's movement' to the Armenian context. Thereby, 'women's movement' evokes images of suffragettes from the early 20th century first wave feminisms of the U.S., Great Britain and other European countries, second wave feminist movements of the 1960's for freedom in areas of reproduction, family and work, and third wave feminism mainly focused on deconstructing gender, race, and class. Although these 'waves' can be applied in the Armenian context to some extent, often the trajectory of what may be called the women's movement in Armenia has followed neither this dominant Western trend nor its linear progression, and thereby cannot easily fit within dominant Western feminist imagination (1).

As early as the end of the 19th century Armenian women struggling for autonomy in the Ottoman Empire had identified the need for feminism to adapt to different women's contexts (ibid). Marie Beylerian - one of the Armenian feminist thinkers of the time - had identified the importance of what many third world and women of color feminists in the West call intersectionality, a term coined by Black feminist thinker Kimberle Crenshaw, as a means to incorporate all parts of one's identity and experience into the struggle for full liberation (2). Just as there are multiple sites of oppression for Armenian women who have lived as minority subjects under different empires for over six centuries and who currently live under an independent, but male dominated, illegitimate and corrupt government - there are also multiple sites of resistance (3). In the last one hundred years these sites of resistance include the Declaration of Armenian Women's Rights in the late 19th century by Serpouhi Dussab and Zabel Assadour; the participation of revolutionary women in the Armenian liberation struggle, including resistance by women freedom fighters during the Armenian Genocide (ibid); feminists in Soviet Armenia partaking in a dissident self-published magazine: Almanac: Woman and Russia, which critiqued the illusion of equal rights of women in Soviet reality by exposing the still very male dominated patriarchal private and public institutions of family and the state; a large number of Armenian women taking part in the independence movement of the 1990's; and  following the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, an increase in the number of civil society organizations emphasizing women's rights and empowerment, as well as informal feminist groups and initiatives critiquing hegemonic patriarchal institutions in Armenia (4)(5)(6).

Since independence, Armenia has been deemed a "transitioning" state, implying the normative understanding of "transition" as one "evolving" from a socialist to a democratic capitalist system. The "transition" is deemed "normative" in this text because neither the agreement of a 'transition' nor the trajectory of it were ever questioned, and alternatives were never up for discussion on the agenda of how Armenia's post-independence future would, could or should look like. What this has meant, as with many movements for national independence where women have played a significant role, is that women have also been pushed to the margins and unable to voice their concerns and visions for an independent nation for all (7). This becomes more evident when looking at the decrease in numbers of women in government in the past 25 years since the removal of the Soviet-era quota system (8). Instead, the effective importation of Western liberal (and neoliberal) ideals swept the country via international organizations advocating for democracy and development. The outpouring of funding for women's issues was/is also meant to help this "transition" along by teaching women about their issues and their rights in an effort to incorporate them into the project for democracy building.

Yet in many ways Armenian women's voices have been silenced twice over: first by patriarchal national institutions, which often reflect patriarchal attitudes of the people, and second by patronizing international institutions that view women in Armenia as victims in need of saving from their own men, which reflects the Orientalist attitudes of their Western constituents (9). These attitudes have often led to misguided and out of context attempts at resolving women's issues in Armenia, domestic violence being a prime example. By advocating for or founding women's shelters structured after the Western model, and ignoring both the absence of a welfare system that can support women outside of marriage and the strong community based ties of the women leaving abusive households, internationally funded organizations have placed women more at risk of leading precarious lives upon leaving the shelters (Ibid (8)).

Nonetheless, the power dynamics at play when it comes to gender relations is just as potent between men and nations. In the case of Armenia as a small republic with a precarious economy, two closed borders, and an ongoing unresolved conflict, the powerful actors are always those with money and weapons. In Armenia today this powerful elite constitutes first and foremost those political male actors who were able to gain power by either threatening or buying off their voters (see events of March 1st, 2008 (10)), and secondly, their international counterparts: actors with money and resources to secure their own geopolitical interest in the region (i.e.: Russia, the United States, the European Union, etc.). These circumstances, coupled with the dominance of neoliberal ideology on the global scene, brought about the neoliberal practices of deregulation, privatization and liberalization of the market in Armenia, thereby significantly worsening the situation for women (11). And not coincidentally, the kind of feminism which has been imported into Armenia during this time has no recollection of post-revolution Soviet feminists like Alexandra Kollantai, who were advocating to make all women's work public work in order to remove the burden of housework from women (12).

The destructive power of neoliberal policies in post-socialist states, including Armenia, has been written of time and again (see Khanjian, Chorbajian, Ishkanian). In particular, the neoliberal notions of individualism and competitiveness have been a disadvantage both to men and women, but women in particular have bore the greatest burden. The advent of "shock therapy" policies in the 1990's drastically increased poverty levels and forced women to rely more deeply on community and family ties for support and survival, thereby decreasing their autonomy (13). To be more precise, the privatization of a number of public assets and cuts in public spending has resulted in lack of public services, such as health and child care, the burden of which has disproportionately fallen on women. The transition to a market economy has also seen women experience widespread impoverishment due to disproportional unemployment and underemployment (14). To understand the women's movement in Armenia today is to understand the reality of growing poverty as a result of the alliance of a corrupt patriarchal government and an international influence over Armenia's economic and political sphere. Under such circumstances, any feminism which influences the discourse on Armenian women's issues must be carefully analysed in order to avoid the problem of neoliberal cooptation of Armenian women's issues and autonomy of feminism.

Nancy Fraser argues that neoliberal feminism has succeeded in singling out the category of "woman" whose "liberation" goes hand in hand with an identity politics, which manufactures "individuals" whose liberation is a product of their ability to compete and succeed in a market economy (15). But in Armenia, the category of "woman" is too fragmented to warrant a unitary struggle. "How do our 'selves' relate to one another, what are the identifying/unifying elements and what are the separating/differentiating ones?" writes Shushan Avagyan, a writer and translator, in her critical essay "BlackSelves" on Armenian women's identity/ies (16). Indeed, women in Armenia should not be expected to stand as one category on whose behalf mainstream liberal feminism can fight for. As such, the struggles of women living in rural areas are not the same as those of women living in cities, particularly in the capital city of Yerevan. Similarly, the struggles of refugee women, LBTQ women, single mothers, women living in extreme poverty, women living in border villages, women living in cities and towns where mining has polluted the water and the soil, etc. are unique to each context, and certainly interconnected.

Domestic violence, which has been one of the better funded women's issues in Armenia for the past two decades, is indeed a major concern for women in Armenia. And thanks to a number of women's NGOs and feminist activists, Armenian society is now better informed on the issue of domestic violence than ever before. But to bring about change in the situation of Armenian women, domestic violence must be spoken of alongside harmful mining practices in Armenia's villages, the 102nd Russian military base in Gyumri, corruption in every sphere of life, the inactivity of labor unions in Armenia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, violation of worker's rights, Armenia's membership in the Eurasia union, privatization of the pension system, gas and food price hikes, and more recently, plans for electricity price hikes.

Ultimately there are no issues, which can be isolated and called "women's issues" and/or "not women's issues" in Armenia, because all issues are women's issues. In recent years a number of feminist initiatives, informal groups and blogs, women's NGO's, as well as the newly established Center for Gender Studies at Yerevan State University have worked hard to address some of the issues women in Armenia face today. But when daily existence is steeped inside of a complex maze of violence, the struggle fought on behalf of women cannot afford to further fragment women's lives into isolated issues. Audre Lorde, a Black lesbian feminist poet, famously said:  “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” The women's movement in Armenia must recall and learn from her predecessors, who were also not living single-issue lives. Making the links between all the different issues women in Armenia face today can unhinge a women's movement, which will protect and serve the humanity and dignity of all Armenia's citizens. Including men.

(1) Armen, Sophia Rakel:Armenians, It Ain’t Up for Debate: Feminism is Our Past … and Future

(2) Crenshaw, Kimberle: Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics [1989]

(3) Armen, Sophia Rakel:Armenians, It Ain’t Up for Debate: Feminism is Our Past … and Future

(4) Aslanyan, Svetlana A.: Women's Rights in Armenia, Social Watch: Poverty Eradication and Gender Justice

(5) Ishkanian,Armine:Is the Personal Political? The Development of Armenia's NGO Sector During the Post-Soviet Period

(6) Milewska-Pindor,Nadina։ The Almanac "Woman and Russia" and the Soviet Feminist Movement at the End of the 1970s

(7) Armen, Sophia Rakel:Armenians, It Ain’t Up for Debate: Feminism is Our Past … and Future

(8) Ishkanian,Armine: Is the Personal Political? The Development of Armenia's NGO Sector During the Post-Soviet Period

(9) Armen, Sophia Rakel:Armenians, It Ain’t Up for Debate: Feminism is Our Past … and Future

(10) Grigoryan, Marianna: Armenia: No Answers for March First Violence

(11) Elomäki, Anna: The Economic Case for Gender Equality in the European Union: Selling Gender Equality to decision-makers and Neoliberalism to Women’s Organizations

(12) Kollontai, Alexandra: Communism and the Family

(13) Ishkanian, Armine: Civil society and Development in Post-socialist Armenia

(14) Ishkanian, Armenia: Gendered Transitions: The Impact of the Post-Soviet Transition on Women in Central Asia and the Caucasus

(15) Fraser, Nancy: How Feminism Became Capitalism's Handmaiden - and How to Reclaim it

(16) Avagyan, Shushan: "BlackSelves"

 

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