BY TALIN SUCIYAN
Celebrating International Women’s Day
“What does it mean to be an Armenian woman living in the diaspora?” This question may have completely different answers in different contexts and in different places. Nonetheless, for me, it is impossible to disregard the overlapping characteristics of being an Armenian woman in Istanbul, being a diasporan woman in Armenia, and most currently, being a member of the Armenian community in the middle of Europe, in Munich.
Neither in Armenia nor in Munich is it extraordinary to be a working woman. After all, women have been encouraged to take an active part in the labor force of both societies for quite some time. Being part of a labor force, however, does not necessarily mean being emancipated. Women living in Armenia are one of the best examples of this. They are very visible in Armenia’s public sphere, baking lahmaco (lahmajun), working in supermarkets, working as journalists, as hairdressers… Yet, this does not mean they have settled their accounts with patriarchal worldviews.
Marriage is a very central institution around which moral codes are established. Matchmaking is a kind of system that functions even among people who are hardly acquainted with one another. That is, you do not have to know someone well in order to find him or her someone to marry. Is there any Armenian community where an unmarried woman is not regarded as a potential bride?
Matchmaking functions overseas, too. For instance, a woman from Istanbul and a man from New Jersey can be easily matched (and, of course, the woman is expected to change her life radically in such cases). Since “going west” is always considered to be “good,” the woman should feel that she is indeed very lucky to have “found” someone from abroad, and must adapt herself to the new conditions as soon as possible. The change of country, continent, culture, economic conditions, etc. all are to be absorbed by the woman.
Partnership or being in a relationship defined by love is not regarded as “enough” by Armenian society. According to unwritten rules, a relationship should aim at marriage and having children. Without being engaged, being in a love relationship for a long period of time just does not fit. In Istanbul, for example, if two people are dating by the arrangement of matchmakers, they are not expected to remain partners or lovers only. After all, matchmaking has its own aim—which is more important than love. And of course, there is a difference if a woman or man breaks the engagement. A man can break as many engagements and relations as he wants, but a woman will always be remembered by the incident.
Virginity remains an important issue both in Turkey and in Armenia. Any rumor implying that a woman has had sexual relations with a man, outside of marriage, is one of the most dishonoring things to happen to her and her family. Last year, on March 8, I was in Armenia and realized the depth of so-called tradition of “red–apple.” After the first night as husband and wife, if the bride is a virgin, the family and relatives of the groom bring red apples to her house. If by chance, the apples are not brought to the bride’s house, then grave problems can arise.
Moreover, if a woman is in a violent relationship/marriage where her husband is using physical or verbal violence, it is very difficult for her to find help or resources among the local Armenian community in the diaspora. They would most likely hear the stereotypical response, “Do not worry it will pass,” from those they tell. Having extramarital relations for married men is regarded as normal (after all, “All men cheat”) But, the same does not apply for women, of course.
Being divorced is an uneasy condition, too. For a divorced man, matchmakers start working as soon as possible to find another bride. For the divorced woman, the situation is vastly different. She is labeled as “divorced” and will carry that social stigma for the rest of her life. On top of it, it is very probable that she will experience pressure from her parental family too.
What if, as a woman, you’d prefer to avoid all of this and not get married? What happens then? Would it be possible to gain some more freedom? Not really. An emancipated woman who would like to live her life the way she likes is probably the most difficult type of woman to cope with.
These are my observations of situations I have witnessed many times. I’d like to stress again that in different places, women may be dealing with totally different issues. This short article therefore does not claim to represent a body of issues that are omnipresent.
While writing this piece, two questions were constantly in my mind: Where do the Armenian women in the diaspora go to when faced with violence, rape, or abuse? Do they receive professional help from the communities that they belong to? Do they seek help from the women’s organizations where they live? Or do they keep silent?
Is it not time to talk about these issues? Armenian women from all over the world, from the Middle East, from Australia, from Europe, from the Americas: What are our experiences? What kind of issues do we have? What ways can we deal with our problems? Is it not worth discussing?
Talin Suciyan is an Istanbul Armenian journalist who lived in Armenia from 2007-09. She is currently based in Munich, Germany, where she is pursuing her graduate studies. She contributes regularly to Agos and other newspapers in Turkey.