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A liberated perspective: Armenian nationalism and the female body

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NOVEMBER 09, 2018

hen I was in elementary school, my favorite day of the year was always Vartanantz Day.

In place of the normal, monotonous recitation of poetry and grammar lessons, we were given paper helmets and swords to color during our daily Armenian language class. Each of us knew by heart the meaning behind our crafts: Vartan Mamikonian had courageously led the Armenian army against the Persian Empire in the Battle of Avarayr in 451 A.D., and every year, we commemorated this example of the indomitability of the will of Armenians against the imperialist powers surrounding them. The fact that Armenians had lost the Battle of Avarayr was kept quiet; rather, the courageous struggle to defend Armenia’s national religion, Christianity, against brutal outside forces was loudly celebrated as indicative of the spirit of the Armenian people.

Before lunchtime, we gathered in the courtyard with our paper helmets and swords, shuffling about excitedly as the school principal repeated the same facts about the battle that we had heard every year previously. It did not matter that Vartan Mamigonian had lived more than 1,000 years ago — we were just like him, preserving our heritage against the threat of assimilation to American culture.

The annual ritual of Vartanantz day is one of many examples in which Armenian nationalism was introduced to me as a child at my Armenian school in Los Angeles. The countless number of patriotic songs we memorized are forever etched into my memory, glorifying the Armenian nation, the eternal nature of the Armenian culture and the heroic militarism of Armenian men. It was not until I grew older and developed my own unique perspective on Armenian identity and culture that I could reflect upon my time at Armenian school and question the nationalistic ideologies that were presented to me as fact.

Armenian nationalism emerged in response to Armenians’ history as a colonized people. In the face of unspeakable tragedy and suffering, the establishment of a free, independent Armenian nation appeared the only solution to ensure peace and security. While this is an oversimplification of the complex history of Armenian nationalism and its development, the longing for a “homeland” where culture and language can flourish is inevitably rooted in the violence of colonial rule.

My strong feminist ideals will not allow me to accept this relegation to the traditional functions of the woman, prescribed by Armenian society in the context of its unbreakable gender binary.

Although the Republic of Armenia was established as an independent state in 1991 in the wake of the Soviet Union’s fall, the existence of the Armenian people continues to feel threatened globally, fueling Armenian nationalism. In Armenian school, our Armenian teachers begged us desperately and incessantly to speak our language, to attend our church, to celebrate our holidays, lest our culture vanish under the powerful force of assimilation. Meanwhile, halfway across the world, there is concern that the Naghorno-Kharabagh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan threatens the elimination of the Armenian nation, crafted after years of effort and hope for its creation. The Armenian identity is defined by the struggle for existence and survival.

While my love for my culture is avid and strong, I am hesitant to wholeheartedly embrace the rhetoric of Armenian nationalism as it stands, in fear that it would require sacrificing my personal sense of identity and my closely held values. I think back to the innumerable Vartanantz Days I celebrated as a child, waving my paper sword in the air and dreaming of fighting in the battlefield to defend my country. Yet now I know that there is no place for me in the Armenian army, to which Armenian men of age are drafted. As a woman, my place in the national project is not at the frontlines. So what is my role within the nationalist movement as an Armenian woman? Is it my duty as a mother to give birth to the generation of men who will grow up to join the ranks? Is it my responsibility to support and inspire, donating materials to the army and sewing uniforms for the soldiers? My strong feminist ideals will not allow me to accept this relegation to the traditional functions of the woman, prescribed by Armenian society in the context of its unbreakable gender binary.

In considering the expectations of the woman in the nation-building project, my mind turns to the statue of Mother Armenia. Mother Armenia looms large over the capital city of Yerevan. With a sword in her hands and a shield at her feet, she stares defiantly at Armenia’s enemy countries, silently vowing to defend her nation. Her solid stance and steady gaze convey her power and strength. Yet Mother Armenia never steps down from her lofty platform to wield her sword. It is not her duty to engage in conflict, but to stand by her husband and sons as they enter the battlefield, instilling them with the courage to fight on her behalf. I cannot help but feel that Mother Armenia represents a woman trapped within the suffocating expectations imposed by gender roles — roles impossible to fulfill without sacrificing her individuality.

With this new perspective that I have developed, I have come to understand the defined responsibilities set forth by the national project — the duty of the man to fight and of the woman to profess her undying support — as reflective of ominous gender roles set forth by a patriarchal system.

Yet is the solution to my liberation the conscription of women (or of all individuals regardless of gender identity — a step toward dissolving the gender binary that Armenian society is far from taking) into the Armenian army? I think of the men, both Armenian and Azeri, engaging in an endless conflict every day with no hope of resolution in sight. I think of the families who sacrifice their children to a violent struggle largely ignored by the West. I think of the rampant ethnic hatred fueled on either side by the conflict, cementing its intractability. I think of these grave realities, divisions and hardships imposed upon the people whose lives are shaped by the violent inevitabilities of war, and I cannot help but conclude that no real liberation can emerge from militarization.

I dare to envision a new kind of world, in which the liberation of the Armenian woman from the patriarchy and the liberation of the Armenian people from colonization are interdependent.

I dare to envision a new kind of world, in which the liberation of the Armenian woman from the patriarchy and the liberation of the Armenian people from colonization are interdependent. I dare to envision a world where war declared by governments and waged by the people is not the solution to achieve peace. I fear an Armenia whose security rests upon impermeable borders guarded eternally by a military force and the submission of the people to patriarchal norms that ultimately oppress everyone.

My dream of a people wholly free of fear and suffering, empowered to explore their individuality and evolve a rich and dynamic culture, is one that I believe cannot be realized within the framework of sexism and militarization. And I dare to suggest that powerful problems require radical solutions: a reimagining of people’s relationships with one another, the establishment of a new world order that is not defined by viciously defended borders and the constant threat of violence, but by the recognition of the humanity of every person and the common desire to live and enjoy what the world has to offer. I imagine peace forged by an evolution in consciousness, in a deconstruction of the traditional norms surrounding nationalism and gender.

While this essay will not catalyze global change or end the devastating Naghorno-Kharabagh conflict, it is a step in my personal journey to define my relationship with my Armenian heritage, to reconcile my desire for a liberated Armenian people with my fierce feminism. I dedicate this essay to that little girl waving a paper sword in the air, and I wish that she may feel empowered by her identity to challenge the world around her and fearlessly pursue her ideals.

Contact Lillian Avedian at [email protected].

NOVEMBER 09, 2018