To change the system from within or without — the dilemma for feminists in ‘New Armenia’

OC Media
Nov 29 2018


Maria Kara­petyan (Anahit of Erebuni)

As more and more women choose to enter politics in rev­o­lu­tion­ary ‘New Armenia’, a debate is raging within the country’s feminist circles: how best to transform Armenia's patri­ar­chal systems — from within or without.

‘It was the methods of the Velvet Rev­o­lu­tion, i.e. de-cen­tral­i­sa­tion, hor­i­zon­tal­i­ty, that allowed women to par­tic­i­pate. You didn’t have to push women to take a political action — it happened naturally. Because the street was not hier­ar­chic, if not anarchic.’ This is how feminist Maria Kara­petyan, one of the organ­is­ers of the ‘Reject Serzh’ movement that toppled decades of Repub­li­can Party rule sums up the role of women in the rev­o­lu­tion.

While many women and girls still get goose­bumps from Karapetyan’s famous ‘Long live sisters’ speech in Yerevan’s Republic Square on 18 April, she has taken the decision — she says a hard one — to join the Civil Contract Party and run for par­lia­ment.

Kara­petyan is not the only woman who thinks the Velvet Rev­o­lu­tion must continue inside state insti­tu­tions and local gov­ern­ments. The first post-rev­o­lu­tion­ary elections in the country, 23 September’s mayoral and council elections in Yerevan, saw swathes of women activists joining the My Step alliance backed by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.

Winning a landslide victory of 81% of votes, My Step took 57 of 65 council seats, out of which 15 were women.

On 10 October, Diana Gasparyan won mayoral elections in Vaghar­sha­p­at (Ejmazin), a city just west of Yerevan, becoming the country’s first woman mayor. Par­lia­men­tary elections due in December will see even more women as can­di­dates.

This will bring fem­i­ni­sa­tion in decision-making bodies of the country, but some have ques­tioned whether it will bring more pro­tec­tion of women’s rights.

A certain subset of radical feminists in Armenia see working with the state as con­tra­dic­to­ry to the goals of feminism — women’s lib­er­a­tion. According to them, the state is the protector of private property and the family (property belongs to men, and family is the foremost place of women’s exploita­tion).

They argue instead that the fight for the women as a ‘sex class’ must come via empow­er­ing women’s com­mu­ni­ties, creating coop­er­a­tive models of social relations, and not via indi­vid­ual success stories of girls who managed to break the glass ceiling.

The New Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has been artic­u­late on his views on gender equality. Empha­sis­ing women’s role in his speech on 8 May, the day he was appointed, Pashinyan said that ‘women’s massive par­tic­i­pa­tion is a factor that allowed us to call what happened a rev­o­lu­tion of “Love and sol­i­dar­i­ty” ’.

Women protest­ing in Yerevan during the velvet rev­o­lu­tion. (Mari Nikuradze/OC Media)

But then he added something that made feminists through­out the country wince. ‘The rev­o­lu­tion proved that women’s active par­tic­i­pa­tion [in politics] is com­pat­i­ble with our national identity, our national per­cep­tion of the family’.

Most feminists concede that the new gov­ern­ment is not quite educated on what the women’s movements are about. But many have been forgiving, at least for now, in the belief that combating the risk of counter-rev­o­lu­tion is a priority.

‘In pre-rev­o­lu­tion­ary times, we had to break in to par­tic­i­pate, for example, in a dis­cus­sion of the domestic violence law in the Ministry of Justice’, says Lara Aharonyan, co-founder of Women’s Resource Centre in Yerevan.

‘Yes — members of the new gov­ern­ment are products of the same patri­ar­chal society. They are patri­ar­chal people, too. The dif­fer­ence is, they are ready to listen, to educate them­selves, to col­lab­o­rate with civil society, unlike their pre­de­ces­sors’.

Aharonyan thinks for women to par­tic­i­pate, the state must first make certain steps forward. One such step, she says, would be raising electoral gender quotas to improve the dis­pro­por­tion­ate gender balance in par­lia­ment. In the current par­lia­ment, which was dissolved on 1 November, just 18% of MPs were women.

‘Women have to be present to talk about their needs. And if more than half of the pop­u­la­tion are women, for justice and for equal rep­re­sen­ta­tion, women should make up 50% of par­lia­ment’, Aharonyan argues.

MP Lena Nazaryan greeting pro­tes­tors gathered in front of the Par­lia­ment building, 2 October 2018. (/Ruben Arevshatyan)

As a long-time party member of the Armenian Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Fed­er­a­tion, Sevan Petrosyan agrees that the party system is a com­pro­mise for staunch feminists.

‘As Simone de Beauvoir said as a woman in the French Communist Party, she had to fight on two fronts; within the party and outside of it. That’s the only solution. I had no illusions that this rev­o­lu­tion would bring women to politics with full force. It was not the priority. Unlike many other feminists, I was not dis­ap­point­ed when Pashinyan appointed only two women as ministers in his cabinet, because I didn’t have high expec­ta­tions in the first place.’

‘My problem was that this was not a movement of the poor. It was a movement to get rid of the Repub­li­can Party, of cor­rup­tion, a lack of trans­paren­cy — that was it. Yes, the state came closer to me, I can write a quick question to my friend, who is now a deputy minister. But the state hasn’t come closer to a villager from a marzh’, says Petrosyan.

Long before the Velvet Rev­o­lu­tion, a key ally of Pashinyan’s, Lena Nazaryan, was one of the first woman to trade in activism for party politics. As an outspoken envi­ron­men­tal activist and critical jour­nal­ist for many years, Nazaryan was one of the co-founders of Pashinyan’s Civil Contract Party back in 2015.

Nazaryan has now climbed the party-political ladder to head the Way Out faction in Par­lia­ment. As a role model to many young women, she is often harried for selfies by teenage girls.

‘I don’t like it when women are presented as weak, as if they need to be pushed to be active. No, they should be present because women are needed. And when they are, they should prove it in their work’, says Nazaryan.

‘I per­son­al­ly prefer col­lab­o­rat­ing with women, if I have the choice, because women are better team-players, they are inter­est­ed in getting the work done, not in competing’.

Most radical feminists in Armenia who refuse to com­pro­mise with the state do so without con­demn­ing other women’s decisions to do so.

‘I don't say women should not engage in politics, I’m saying their par­tic­i­pa­tion should not be the end in and of itself’, says feminist activist Anna Shah­nazaryan.

‘If a woman enters par­lia­ment, she should question the way decisions are made there. If a woman enters an insti­tu­tion to dismantle it from within, to make the insti­tu­tion more demo­c­ra­t­ic and human-centered, I encourage that’.

‘Per­son­al­ly I don't care whether the mayor of Ejmazin is a woman if she doesn’t represent her gender […] The minister of work and social affairs is a woman, Mane Tandilyan, but for me its a problem that she doesn't speak up about women doing unpaid work as house­wives.’

Shah­nazaryan and her colleague Arpine Galfayan have been involved in activism on many fronts, including helping to set up col­lec­tive resis­tance movements in com­mu­ni­ties to fight mining projects such as in Teghut, Amulsar.

Galfayan warns against falling into the ‘trap’ of being used as token women in politics.

‘Women are being used to fill quotas, to give false hope that it’s getting better’, she says.

‘I believe that insti­tu­tions of rep­re­sen­ta­tive democracy have the logic of keeping full control and not sharing power with others’, Galfayan argues.

Protest during Velvet Rev­o­lu­tion (Mari Nikuradze/OC Media)

She says that globally, the system is ‘promoting the interests of the wealth­i­est and most inhumane corporate elites. It is ulti­mate­ly hier­ar­chi­cal; men (espe­cial­ly wealthy het­ero­sex­u­al men), have had priv­i­leged positions in these hier­ar­chies for ages, and therefore women have a very hard time becoming part of the “club”. Finally, even those few women who do get to the top still have to serve the interests of this hier­ar­chi­cal, unfair system.’

‘I prefer to work towards dis­man­tling this system rather than making it look nicer. I prefer to support and strength­en systems which I believe are ulti­mate­ly fair and lib­er­at­ing’, Galfayan says.

Shah­nazaryan claims the important thing to ask is whether a woman is aware of the sub­or­di­na­tion she faces because of her gender.

‘To be political a woman doesn't have to be in par­lia­ment. If a housewife protects her female neighbour, inter­fer­ing and pre­vent­ing domestic violence, she is taking a political action.’

However, most feminists in Armenia agree that there is no dichotomy to ‘be reformer or a radical feminist’, and that change has always come with both forces in action together. They point to the Suf­fragettes movement in early 19th century Britain, in which militant women’s movements worked in parallel with con­ser­v­a­tive feminist groups.

Few polit­i­cal­ly active women in Armenia would disagree that the rev­o­lu­tion should be continued, and that the famous feminist slogan — personal is political — still rings true. Some focus on ‘the personal’ of the phrase; working hard on them­selves to win in an unequal battle with priv­i­leged men, while fight to transform the existing social relations.

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