‘Agents for change’: The intersection of Armenian feminism and Instagram

Anaïs Chagankerian/Courtesy

Translation note: The image above reads “My love shall break your patriarchy” in Armenian.

While feminist strands of thought have always existed in the Armenian community, the stigmatization of feminism that I have witnessed within Armenian culture has barred feminist ideas from mainstream dialogue. As an Armenian woman growing up amid my culture, I repeatedly heard that Armenian culture is incompatible with feminism and that gender equality somehow threatens traditional values and norms that purportedly form the basis for Armenian culture.

I believe, however, that the rise of social media has democratized the tools of storytelling, empowering Armenian women to elevate one another’s narratives and bringing feminist ideas to the forefront of public conversations. Three significant social media pages that reflect this recent trend are @anahitoferebuni, @kooyrigs and @armenian_women_artists. I had the opportunity to interview, over email, the women who launched each of these Instagram pages to discuss their diverse views on representation and gender in the Armenian community. Their responses reveal the ways in which Armenian culture is enriched when the stories of Armenian women are uplifted and feminism is used as a tool for progressing a dynamic, ever-evolving Armenian culture.

@anahitoferebuni

@anahitoferebuni, created by Anaïs Shahangirian, is an Instagram account that aims to celebrate the strength, resilience and wisdom of Armenian women. Shahangirian uses original artworks, largely illustrations of Armenian women, to elevate stories of powerful women from Armenian history and highlight current issues facing women in the global Armenian community.

The Daily Californian: What was your original intent in creating @anahitoferebuni? Did you have any hopes about what @anahitoferebuni would accomplish?

Anaïs Shahangirian: I created @anahitoferebuni because…I have been hoping to: 1) highlight the contribution of Armenian women to our culture and improve access to their work; 2) interview present day Armenian women from around the world in order to document what it means to be an Armenian woman today; 3) democratize gender studies and intersectionality in the Armenian community through the use of social media; and 4) promote the voices of Armenian women as agents for change.

DC: How do you understand the relationship between social media and social change?

AS: The Internet can be used as a platform where the narratives that are traditionally rejected from societies can be broadcasted and thus gain more visibility…when I started @anahitoferebuni, I was surprised to learn that there were so many feminist Armenians…it seems like social media represent a way of strengthening a network of same-minded people in order to increase their visibility and influence in their societies, hence their potential for social change.

DC: How has @anahitoferebuni evolved since it was initially created?

AS: I created @anahitoferebuni in August 2017. At the beginning, it was just an Instagram page where I would share the results of my research on historic Armenian women but it then evolved into a blog, and a space to also share my illustrations. I really wanted to not only share information but also create my own visuals to do so, and this also enabled me to sell some merchandise and make some small donations to NGOs fighting for women’s rights in Armenia.

DC: How would you conceptualize the evolution of Armenian feminism?

AS: Being an Armenian feminist means protecting a great heritage, but also identifying what we can do better as a community, and transforming ourselves in order to be more inclusive and respectful of the inherent human rights of all… As far as I know, Armenian female writers have been advocating for gender equality and education of women and girls since at least 1855. But unless you specifically research them, it is quite hard to learn about them as female writers haven’t been promoted the same way as their male counterparts… I can, however, say that social media have definitely contributed to democratizing feminism and addressing the negative stereotypes that are associated with being a feminist.

DC: What would you identify as the main problems facing women in the Armenian community?

AS: Being Armenian is one of the things I am the proudest of…(but) growing up I have felt like Armenian girls and women have a lot of pressure to be “perfect” in all aspects and as per a very traditional and restrictive definition…we bear the weight of our family’s dignity on our shoulders and this can be very heavy and unfair to carry around… I have seen many women being abused and silenced, or a lot of women being shamed and name-called, because of their life choices or because of their simple existence…it is seen as a burden to birth and raise girls, women are victims of all sorts of abuses and there are too many limitations placed on their free will.

@kooyrigs

@kooyrigs (translated as “sisters”) was launched by Karine Sophie Eurdekian with the goal of promoting education on issues affecting women in Armenia and in the global diaspora today. The account posts original art while providing a digital safe space for community members to discuss their experiences as Armenians alongside their other intersecting identities.

DC: Please provide a brief description of the origins and history of @kooyrigs.

Karine Sophie Eurdekian: Throughout my life, I have witnessed the injustices brought upon Armenian women as a result of patriarchal ideologies. While living in Armenia during the summer of 2017, I volunteered as a legal assistant and ESL teacher at Women’s Resource Center in Yerevan. I was blatantly exposed not only to the facts about women’s rights in Armenia, but was also able to connect with the very women going through such trials and tribulations…I felt the responsibility to create a platform for resilient women and allies to start having conversations and allowing our presence to be known. In November of 2018, a little over a year following my trip to Armenia, Kooyrigs was born!

DC: What was your original intent in creating @kooyrigs? Did you have any hopes about what @kooyrigs would accomplish?

KSE: My original intent in creating Kooyrigs was to create a safe space where minorities in the Armenian community could come together to connect through education, sharing experiences and helping fund NGOs in Armenia…In the future, Kooyrigs aims to have a full physical presence in Armenia, with access to resources in even the smallest villages. We hope to aid in projects involving education and human rights.

DC: How do you understand the relationship between social media and social change?

KSE: Social media allows Kooyrigs to share our message for a brief few seconds on a news feed or story…Kooyrigs believes that we are impacting social change because of the strong relationship between the Kooyrigs followers in the “Kooyrigs fam.” This family helps build a bridge between some pixels on a screen and legitimate social change. Conversation had by followers are both the catalyst and foundation. Simply put: When media incites conversation in people who desire to make a difference, social change occurs.

DC: For what audience was @kooyrigs created?

KSE: The beauty of Kooyrigs is that it was initially created for everyone. The account is inspired by fourth wave feminism movements like the Arab Spring and is visually inspired by feminist zines… Regardless of if you are in the diaspora or not, regardless if you’re Armenian or not — it all comes down to how much you care about the topic at hand. Wherever anyone may fall on the gender spectrum, however old they may be, and wherever they are from, they are welcome to be apart of the Kooyrigs family.

DC: How would you conceptualize the evolution of Armenian feminism?

KSE: Armenian feminism is very grassroots. Those who are openly feminist in Armenia still do risk condemnation. The ability to utilize social media helps empower and strengthen grassroots organizations through raising awareness and funding to help their push their initiatives — this is the goal of Kooyrigs!

DC: Do you see the Armenian feminist movement as a global one?

KSE: The Armenian feminist movement is definitely global. Though Armenians are displaced, we hold on to our culture and traditions very closely. Unfortunately, there are some negative stigmas that come along with all the good. For this reason, Armenian women internationally are forced to face a lot of the same challenges on varying levels. A successful social media community helps build bonds of support that transcend cyberspace.

@armenian_women_artists

@armenian_women_artists is the brainchild of Cassandra Tavukciyan, who researches and promotes the works and lives of Armenian women artists from around the world. Tavukciyan elevates the art created by these women while providing information about their biographies and their artistic styles and inspirations.

DC: What was your original intent in creating @armenian_women_artists? Did you have any hopes about what @armenian_women_artists would accomplish?

Cassandra Tavukciyan: The intent of AWA is to research and promote the works and lives of Armenian women artists, both in Armenia and its diasporic communities…contributions made by women are still relatively unrecognized in the field of Armenian art history…I was becoming increasingly uneasy with what I felt was a tendency within some strands of contemporary feminism to simplify the history of women…women have always played a vital role in the modernization of society and I wanted to look into the near past of Armenian history to find examples of that kind of agency and self-determination.

DC: How would you conceptualize the evolution of Armenian feminism?

CT: For me, I see contemporary Armenian feminism as having its roots in the broader 19th century Armenian cultural renaissance…Armenian feminists were serious intellectual and moral leaders in not just Armenian society, but in the broader societies they were a part of, be it Russian, Ottoman, Persian, American or European.

For instance, (Mari) Beyleryan, a writer, activist and public figure who was murdered during the Genocide, felt that the ideal woman was one who was educated, knew how to express herself, had a family, and asserted her right to have an input in the development of society. These women understood the interrelation between gender and nation, such that they felt neither condition could be truly improved independent of the other. I consider this conjunctive reflection on Armenianness and gender to be the essence of Armenian feminism.

DC: Do you see the Armenian feminist movement as a global one?

CT: In so far as Armenians are a global people spread and dispersed across each of the world’s continents, yes, I do see Armenian feminism as global in character. All these communities are connected to each other through their reflections on Armenianness, despite the fact everyone speaks different languages today… I see Armenian feminists thinking through Armenianness and gender in the everyday local contexts in which they live, and this is resulting in a lot of creativity!

DC: What is the role of visual art in social change?

CT: Art has variously been a catalyst for social change, but also a tool of social control.

That being said, for me, the value of visual art lies in its ability to offer a means of expression that goes beyond words. I nevertheless think one has to be critical of the impact and role of art today, especially given contemporary society’s tendency to want to see everything as needing a purpose. I am not trying to instrumentalize art for feminist purposes with AWA. Rather, I think of it more as a collection of works that I am interested in learning more about, and, along the way, perhaps others will become as interested as I am in the backgrounds and works of these women.

DC: What would you identify as the main problems facing women in the Armenian community?

CT: That the Genocide remains a taboo subject to this day is a major issue. From the perspective of Armenian feminism, this matters since so many women were dehumanized, both on account of their womanhood and Armenianness. A taboo against speaking openly on this issue thus amounts to not just the silencing of Armenians, but also the silencing of women.

At the same time, however, I do not believe Armenians are defined solely by their victimhood and the Genocide. Armenian culture is rich and expressive, and AWA tries to bring light to this fact.

Moving forward: Feminizing the narrative

While each of the women interviewed expressed differing views on the roles of representation and gender in the Armenian community today, I believe their responses reveal a common thread: the emergence of new forces for change that push back against traditional, narrowly conceived conceptions of Armenian culture. Social media has proven a powerful tool for uplifting historically silenced voices and narratives, consequently bringing feminist thought into mainstream dialogue. Armenian culture and feminism are not incompatible, and these powerful social media pages and their growing popularity prove that the tide for change in the global Armenian community points toward inclusivity.

Contact Lillian Avedian at [email protected].