BY LALAI MANJIKIAN
Twenty-year-old Zaruhi Petrosyan became one of the latest victims of domestic violence in Armenia last month when she was viciously beaten to death by her husband and mother-in-law.
It’s another hectic day, miles away from Armenia. The weather here is rainy and grey. I’m restless because I don’t know whether you are truly in a better place now. You may be safe from the unjustifiable wrath and violence that you endured over the last two years. But at the same time, your right to live the everyday life of a 20-year-old mother was brutally taken away. When I learned of the cruel fate that you suffered at the hands of your husband and your mother-in-law, I trembled with horror. Although violence should never be the solution to any problem, it apparently was a way of life for you.
However remote the possibility, I wonder if our paths ever crossed during the time I spent in Armenia. You may have even called me kuro jan (sister dear) in a brief encounter at a market or in the subway. I stare at the photograph of your smiling face embedded in the newspaper article detailing the morbid circumstances surrounding your “fall.” The image gives me the uncanny feeling that at some point in the past our eyes locked together. Perhaps I feel this way because I am overcome with the urge to connect with you somehow. I am struggling to understand your fate, but does it matter?
You endured the unbearable, and while everyone is wrapped up in arguing the larger dimensions surrounding this crime, where is your voice? It has been silenced, waiting to be amplified by the deafening outcry on behalf of men and women who denounce your death and all forms of violence against women. In the midst of it all, you leave behind an infant, a grieving family, and the trail of domestic violence in Armenia—which some are attempting to carefully conceal.
As your diasporan sister, an Armenian woman myself, it infuriates me that you and others succumb to aggression carried out by men and women alike. And I have trouble reconciling the attempts by some individuals, whether in positions of power or not, who downplay and at times downright deny this immense social problem.
Why are we so afraid of exposing the wounds that plague the homeland, Zaruhi jan? Why are some so adamant in wanting to silence those who dare expose the truth, and, instead, choose to neatly cover the stains behind the shimmering facades of Yerevan? It is likely due to the uneasiness these realities bring. How does that compare to the discomfort you experienced? Maybe some individuals want to avoid the shame which they may or may not feel after committing abusive acts. How does that measure up to the self-inflected guilt and humiliation that you and others have suffered following psychological and physical trauma? Shouldn’t addressing your wellbeing as a woman, as a mother, be a priority?
Maybe denial is the easiest route for those wanting to skim over our problems. After all, how hard can it be to close our eyes to deep-rooted social issues like domestic abuse? Let them shut their eyes. Yours were once a witness to the ugliness that continues to be suppressed. We shouldn’t be talking about poverty and power, corruption, sexism, and other wide social inequalities…
Concealment only deepens wounds. The first step for providing some sort of way out is to address reality directly. This may just lead to ways of finding and implementing workable solutions. It will not be a pretty process and is guaranteed to be painful but, frankly, it is necessary. Mobilizing as many citizens of Armenia and of the diaspora around urgent issues is crucial. Rest assured, kuro jan, that many in and outside the homeland have been active in having their voices heard in the name of justice and equality. And as I write to you, efforts to make the government adopt a harsh stance towards issues of domestic violence and violence against women are hopefully being noticed. Yet, promises to pass domestic violence legislation remain unfulfilled, as a petition circulates and increased media coverage of the incident continues to make headlines.
Armenia, of course, is not unique in carrying this burden. Violence towards women, whether verbal, physical, sexual, or psychological, is rampant all around the world, piercing through all social classes and cultures. Some countries, however, address this issue head on—showing a willingness that Armenia ideally could emulate.
Passive injustice is not an option, nor is disillusion towards Armenia. Such crimes need to be denounced by political rhetoric and judicial means, while changes are made on the ground. Deep-set mentalities need to shift and we need to break free from reductive roles and images that are both expected of and imposed on Armenian women.
You may have been silenced, but be certain that your sisters and brothers you left behind will be making your voice heard.
The investigation and the awareness slogans may not protect the lives of other women, and they certainly cannot restore yours. I can only hope women everywhere will have more options, outlets, and opportunities to flee violence and begin healing.
Combined efforts both by the government and responsible citizens in Armenia and Armenians living abroad should lead the way in addressing and lessening the injustices surrounding women’s issues.
In the meantime, be well…in that place where you are now…
Lalai Manjikian is a Ph.D. candidate in communication studies at McGill University. She is the author of Collective Memory and Home in the Diaspora: The Armenian Community in Montreal, published in 2008. Her current research is on the social exclusion and inclusion of refugees from different parts of the world seeking asylum in Montreal.
Joining Forces Against Domestic Abuse in Armenia
BY ARA NAZARIAN
Armenians have faced significant challenges in the past 20 years, including the devastating earthquake of 1988, the independence of the republic in 1991, the closing of the Metzamor Nuclear Power Station for a while, and the ensuing war for liberation of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabagh). Moreover, a succession of corrupt and undemocratic governments, each (s)elected under questionable conditions, have engaged in the wholesale selling off of the meager assets and resources of the nation to foreign interests, and in concentrating the remaining resources in the hands of a few families; have made little effort to establish a precedence for the implementation of the rule of law and justice in a country where those concepts are historically not well understood or practiced; and have withered away the hard-earned currency of hope and unity resulting from the independence of the nation and the liberation of Artsakh.
We must come together to bring about a real change in Armenian society—in the perception and attitude of the men who engage in domestic violence, who then, as authorities, deny its existence or refuse to provide real support to the victims in need.
These blows have had devastating effects on the fabric of society by causing the mass exodus of close to one million Armenians from their homeland and the temporary migration of a large number of men to find work in Russia and other countries to support their families. These migration patterns have left many women without support or assistance in household responsibilities and child care, with rural areas—where programs to assist women are not as plentiful and the pressure for men and women to adopt stereotypical roles is even greater than the cities—bearing the brunt of the problem.
As if this was not enough, these women, who truly are the rock upon which Armenian society is built upon, are further subjected to domestic violence, with Zaruhi Petrosyan being the latest victim to lose her life after being viciously beaten by her husband and mother-in-law and facing indifference from the authorities.
According to a study conducted by Sociometer, an independent sociological survey center, in Yerevan and in eight towns and eight villages, of the 1,200 participants, 75 percent said they are victims of domestic violence (WHO data places domestic violence in the United States at 22 percent), with children being witnesses in 25 percent of the cases. This study notwithstanding, experts agree that cases of violence against women in Armenia are widespread, but that traditional stereotypes do not allow women a proper course of action. “When we raise the question of violence against women in high places to pass a law, they say there is no such problem in Armenia, that it is artificially imported from foreign countries,” says the director of the Women’s Rights Center, Susanna Vardanyan. “We are even blamed for having sold ourselves to the foreigners and for making our traditionally strong families deteriorate.”
Mihran Galstyan, an ethno-sociologist from the Institute of Ethnography of the Armenian Academy of Sciences, agrees that claims of domestic violence are exaggerated. “Many organizations just extort grants from abroad. The foreign mediation into Armenian families is quite dangerous. If the woman is constantly told her husband has no right to reprimand on her, we will not have families,” says Galstyan .
With experts such as Galstyan and the mentality demonstrated by a large segment of men in Armenia (this is, admittedly, a generalization and not reflective of the entire population), these findings are not at all surprising. A very dangerous situation exists for the very women that we are to love and protect, for a variety of factors, including an overly macho mentality among men, reinforced by having grown up with the idea—and reality—that a woman must take a beating now and then to be a good wife and mother, the systemic insensitivity of the authorities to acknowledge that a problem even exists; the unwillingness of victims to go forward with their complaints (due to a real fear of community and family stigmatization, and the lack of any response should they proceed); and the deficiency of the Armenian legal system, where domestic violence is no different than any other type of assault.
On a sad anecdotal note, a friend told me about an Armenian lady who was married to a Diaspora Armenian. Apparently, the couple was having some difficulties, and the husband brought the subject up with his brother-in-law (wife’s brother), who in turn told him that the root of their marital problems lay with the husband, who did not give his wife a good beating from time to time to keep her in line. This was coming from the woman’s brother. Again, I understand that this is an n of 1, but it makes a point and adds to the many other n’s out there.
Another anecdotal note points to the resourcefulness of Armenians when confronted by a problem. Apparently, an Armenian from Abovyan, who was a successful businessman in Russia, hired many migrant workers from Armenia to help support their families at home. Upon hearing that most of his migrant workers were squandering their earnings in Russia on prostitutes and would return home with a variety of STD’s as souvenirs for their wives, he had the wives open bank accounts in Armenia, where he deposited the majority of their husbands’ salaries, leaving enough funds for the husbands to get by in Russia, but not enough for them to carry on with their previous dalliances.
The problem is that we cannot legislate our way out of the crippling mentality that breathes and nurtures domestic abuse. Tough laws (including the categorization of domestic violence as a separate form of assault) and, more importantly, the swift implementation of said laws would surely have an impact. The problem is, who is going to enforce the laws? The same wife-beating police officers? The changing of attitudes based on proper education and an understanding of the roots of the problem—and not the fear of punishment itself—will be the real agent for change.
On that note, we can and must take steps together to address this issue. Simply complaining about it will not make it go away. If there was a Zaruhi yesterday, who is to say that there will not be another one tomorrow? There are a number of organizations in Armenia that provide much-needed help on a shoestring budget. We can pull our resources together to help these organizations carry out their mission and help those women in need now. One could argue that there are so many problems, and that we are doing all we can at the moment to help with those issues. But if we, as Armenians, do not step in, then who else will?
If we can hold telethons to build much-needed roads and other infrastructure, why can’t we dedicate one of the telethons to help protect our mothers and sisters by bringing this issue out in the public. This way, we can let our women know that they are not alone and that they have nothing to feel ashamed of. Wouldn’t this be a reasonable cause to follow on the current “water is life” campaign? How about “a safe and unbruised mother is life“? We pride ourselves with our many poems dedicated to our mothers. Why don’t we back these beautiful poems with meaningful action? With the prevalence of social media outlets and the possibility of charitable donations via cell phones, we must be able to affect change.
We must come together to bring about a real change in Armenian society—in the perception and attitude of the men who engage in domestic violence, who then, as authorities, deny its existence or refuse to provide real support to the victims in need. We can do so by providing educational materials in the form of pamphlets; TV, radio, or magazine ads; lectures; special segments on programs; public embarrassments; or any other reasonable means that will get the message out.
We must bear in mind that this is not unique to Armenia alone, that this can affect all Armenians (like most of our issues). We would be fools to think domestic violence only occurs in Armenia, or that simply feeling sorry for women in Armenia will somehow change their plight. So, while we understand the issue and are incensed by it, we must take action to address it. We must open a dialogue with the experts in Armenia who work in this area; assess the situation together; address their immediate needs in conducting their work more effectively; raise the necessary funds and support mechanisms; and, most importantly, help each other understand the underlying causes and means to help our men be the men they ought to be. One does not need to be a brute to be a man.
I am ready to do my small part. I hope the readers are as well.
“Fighting Tradition: Domestic violence is fabric in the family cloth,” by Gayane Abrahamyan, July 4, 2006, www.armenianow.com.
“Stop Violence Against Women,” project by the Advocates for Human Rights, 2008.
“Respecting Women: Domestic Violence in Armenia,” by Belinda Cooper and Elisabeth Duban, 2008, Armenian Forum, vol. 2, no. 3.
Ara Nazarian is the co-chair of the ANC of Massachusetts.