The following presentation was made by Dr. Talar Chahinian during Sunday’s event, Women: Resisting, Rising, Reframing organized by AYF UHRC.
BY DR. TALAR CHAHINIAN
I’d like to thank the AYF and the organizing committee for giving me the opportunity to reflect on my experiences in this world from the perspective of an Armenian woman. (So this is going to be a very frank and personal narrative.) I’m happy to be back among the extended AYF family, because it was during my time in this organization that I learned that my voice could be heard and that my actions, collectively with those of my peers, could change the way we imagined ourselves as a community.
The story I’m going to tell, my story, is essentially a story about failure. It’s a story about how patriarchy, through its many manifestations, has and continues to get the best of me. It’s a story about how the more I have done to fight it, the more I have tried to prove the system wrong, the more I have tried to defy its narratives and definitions, the more I have become enslaved to it. I begin with this pronouncement not to put a damper on tonight’s spirit of resistance, but to suggest that any serious work of resisting requires self examination and critique, the letting go of attachments that we hold dear, and the cultivation of new modes of seeing, being, and belonging. In the Armenian context, this work demands first, a confrontation with nationalism, which is inherently patriarchal, and second, the need to situate our conversations about gender inequality in larger discourses of power relations in the world.
If our family is a microcosm of the greater collective, then my world growing up in Lebanon was a matriarchal one. I had two strong grandmother figures, many aunts, great aunts, and the general category of aunties all of whom traversed the spaces of work and home, the religious and the secular, the political and the leisure so seamlessly, moving together in units, sometimes with cynicism and wit, sometimes in laughter. I was too young to notice the structures of oppression that laid one step behind this realm, and that informed this realm in ways that were invisible to my eye. And only when we moved to the states, when my sense of community was shattered, did I start to see the world as skewed, as one that is run by men and that discriminates and subjugates women. So in many ways, my first recognition of patriarchal power structures was when I was asked to renegotiate my identity within a white man’s country.
But given the sense of confidence the women of my family had given me during my formative years, I, very naively, got on a mission to prove the world wrong. At home, I demanded equal treatment. If dusting the house was my relegated task, then I made my brother vacuum. In the community, I became active in Armenian youth organizations. If elected to executive positions, I refused being the secretary, I took on positions of chairing my local chapter of AYF Juniors then AYF, I made a point to speak out in meetings, I formed coalitions with female activists from other chapters and we pushed new resolutions forward, I maintained good grades, started working at 16, and set my eyes on UCLA. Upon acceptance, I fought with my parents for the permission to move out. I rejected cultural prescriptions that sought to dictate my social interactions. On my wedding day, I refused to cover my face with a veil in church. I decided to keep my name. I refused to have children for the first six years of my marriage and finish my Ph.D. program. In my marriage, I refused to compromise my career path, and traveled extensively for research.
And all of these seemed like grand struggles, because they were tough. They often came with a fight with my parents’ generation. They were met with indirect reactions of shaming that produced feelings of guilt that I have dealt with every single day of my adult life. And they forced me to compensate by trying to also fit the mold, while simultaneously trying to reject it. I am to succeed in my academic career, I am to serve my community, I am to be a responsible daughter, as the eldest grandchild, I am to keep the clan together, I am to be an equal partner in my marriage, I am to be a good mother, both in the sense of raising critically thinking and kind human beings and in the sense of projecting an image of “all-togetherness” for everyone else.
I’m 38 and I’m exhausted. I look back at the feats that I listed above and they seem so petty. What good was not covering my face with a veil, when I still walked down that aisle in a white gown and gave consent to obeying my husband in the ceremony? But more importantly, what good was my attempt to “do it all” as a means of protest, when at the end of the day patriarchal structures prevail and the only dent I’ve succeeded in putting in this world is on my health?
It saddens me to see my community still propagate narratives that imagine women as synonymous with mother, endowed with the noble task of carrying and transferring tradition for the preservation of the nation. It saddens me to sit in community meetings, where I witness a room full of men assert hegemony over national discourse then turn to the token women present in the room and tell them they have equal voice. It saddens me to attend community events where the history of an organization or the history of the nation is presented as unapologetically male. It saddens me to study Armenian literature and intellectual history as a cacophony of male voices.
Here I should say that I’m a literature professor. In other words, I deconstruct the world in which we live for a living. I find solace in the space of a classroom, where the main objective of our collective endeavor is to dismantle cultural narratives and see how they shape our ideas about race, gender, and class. But the realm of academia is far from being an even plane. Studies continue to show that women in academia feel undervalued for their work and believe that the system denies them opportunities for a balanced life. Studies continue to show that students give higher evaluations to male professors. Studies show that women in academia, especially in doctoral universities, make 78 cents to every dollar men make and while women make up a higher proportion of faculty members in many universities, they hold the lowest-paid ranks. Not to mention of course, harassment and micro-aggressions from male colleagues that women face frequently.
While the “I’m gonna do it all and show’em” motto guided my graduate school experience, everything seemed to explode in my face as soon as I got out. I was on the job market, lecturing at UCLA and pregnant and it seemed like the inequities of gender expectations within the realm of family and by extension, community and nation, and the realm of academia, and by extension country and nation all converged and simply put, ganged up on me. In the middle of one of my big lectures, I realized how incongruent the image of a pregnant body is on a university campus. Around that time, I helped friends in similar situations concoct outfits that hid their baby bumps for job interviews. I saw friends pull out of academia entirely and refashion their career to fit the demands of motherhood. For me, motherhood meant less mobility in terms of job prospects, it meant taking an adjunct position, it meant coming to terms with my husband being the main breadwinner, it meant delaying the book project I had dreamt of working on post-dissertation. More importantly, motherhood made me deal with an existential crisis of identity. Over the last several years, I’ve had to look back and reflect on my course, to realize that the marathon I started at age 15-16 had come to an end and I wasn’t the winner in the way I had imagined I would be. For me, the last several years have been an exciting period of refashioning… The 24-hour woman or the “you can do it all” model are legacies of the 1980’s brand of white feminism. They have produced the phenomenon where there is no acceptable way of being a woman.
I don’t have the answer to what the antidote to this model is, but I do have suggestions to how the question of resistance ought to be reframed. While I am an Armenian woman in the space of this Armenian center, I am an immigrant, and woman of color when I step outside. I can’t advocate for women’s rights in my community without taking into account feminism’s intersections with ethnicity, race, class, religion, and sexual orientation. These overlapping identities inform the way we experience oppression and discrimination. We cannot critique patriarchy without confronting the misogyny embedded within nationalist narratives or without framing cultural nationalism within the larger context of imperialism and power dynamics of the world. We cannot critique patriarchy without calling into question the heteronormative behavior it mandates or without revising our understanding of a nuclear family. We cannot champion women’s rights while condoning homophobic behavior. We cannot champion women’s rights while we invest in capitalist systems that don’t compensate for women’s labor equally. We cannot champion women’s rights while supporting institutions that support racism.
Otherwise, our efforts of resistance will be futile, for they will further enslave young generations of women with a bankrupt model of “being all” and “doing it all.” Let’s not be afraid to dismantle and rebuild… or as today’s program title suggests, let’s not be afraid to resist, rise, and reframe!