BY RAZMIG B. SHIRINIAN
Rarely an organization, consistently hard at work, finds time to recall its destiny, take pride of its accomplishments, evoke and celebrate its undertakings, and generate public enthusiasm and support. Ever since its founding in 1910, the ARS has staged the priority of practice and labor over rhetoric and publicity. Carrying on a multitude of tasks and missions, the organization has been moving along with the Armenian fate and reflecting on its history for a century.
Honored by the regional executive’s invitation to reflect on the centenary of ARS, I first recall and invoke Simone de Beauvoir’s classic book, The Second Sex, which offers a systematic feminist critique exploring the perpetual inequality and violence linked to masculine cultures and representations. Beauvoir convincingly discloses the argument that inequality and violence are not fixed in human nature or in biological differences, but are determined by male perspective and point of view. The missing truth in this perspective is well captured by the Beauvoirian epitaph that “one is not born but rather becomes a woman” in male culture. Her powerful analysis targets the male representation of the world which seems to clearly resemble the Armenian culture of male point of view often “confused with absolute truth.”
A similar feminist musing appears in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique about a decade later. Since Beauvoir and Friedan, the counter-traditional conceptions of feminism have been expounded in various philosophical dimensions ranging from Marxist-existentialism to liberal-conservatism. ARS, a distinctively prominent and task-oriented Armenian women’s organization, has its exclusive approach on how feminism is viewed. It is the natural, constructive, and predominantly service and relief oriented image that characterizes the organization. It also carries an “Irenist” label, from Irene, the goddess of peace, without however, much sharing with other feminist organizations a critique of masculinity and patriarchy.
The Armenian Relief Society is the epithet of service and faith both in Armenia and the Diaspora. I call upon the idea of founding mothers of civil service to recognize the leading proponents of social justice and ardent believers in relief of people in hardship. It seems that the ARS has earned the emblematic status to represent what often goes under-represented in our understanding of Armenian politics: the profound role of infrastructure, construction and development, love and faith in the struggle of national liberation and self identification of the neglected Armenian masses.
The vision ARS shares is an alternative to the pervasive violence inflicted upon us at the core of the Armenian political life. The aim is clearly set: end social conflict and destitution through communal settlements, persuasive and empathetic means. The means for ARS seem to matter as much as the end since the method of giving and caring expounds an existential meaning to relief. The ARS’s idea of service best captures this sense of means as relief incessant, persistent and in the making. The ideas of service and faith are reasoned in the revelation of the will of the nation, the survival of collectivity, and construction of cultural identity.
ARS does not, however, call for nostalgic or abstracted national romance. There is the perennial concern for faith in relief effort that can be used to bring up the real rewards upon others. Moreover, faith and service are tempered by love not only for Armenians, but also for the whole humanity. Consider the organization’s immediate response and reach to human need globally. ARS refers to service as the social force which is born of need and care. In its struggles against conditions of injustice and oppression, this social force echoes the proletarian ground work and reveals the organization’s counter-traditional character with a pragmatic clout. ARS, thus, embodies social powers of sacrifice, protective care, and, the most valuable of all, the powers of protection extended to the ordinary working people. It is a distinct social organization, dynamic in its relations, and equipped with reciprocal powers of sympathy and compassion.
These social powers of the ARS are practically applied through a range of political actions: civil service, hunger and disaster relief, poverty reduction, elimination of discrimination, and commission of reconciliation and social justice. Both as a feminist and a social organization ARS strives for a nation out of misery, a world without war, and communities devoid of political, economic, and religious violence. This means the organization must endure human tragedies, ready to lay down all selfish attributes, and aim for collective well-being. This is the secret of endurance ARS has carried for a century.