BY MICHAEL MENSOIAN
In a recent issue of the Armenian Weekly (Nov. 27, 2010) there is a photo of President Serzh Sarkisian surrounded by a score of well-dressed, intelligent Armenian women celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Relief Society. In my mind I juxtaposed this photo with the photo of Zaruhi Petrosyan, a young mother of an infant child, whose life at just 20 years was cut short by the brutal beatings she sustained at the hands of her husband. I wondered if Zaruhi could ever have been part of such a celebration assuming that she could have entertained such a thought. I wondered how often—if ever—Armenian women and men seriously thought about the violence routinely inflicted on the Zaruhis of Armenia. And if they did, were they able to comprehend the full extent of the physical and psychological agony that these women, often on a daily basis, had to endure? Would they have assumed such beatings were justified? Or that such physical and psychological violence was more the exception rather than the rule? Might they have believed these women deserved to be given a slap or two and, if necessary, a beating because they were complainers? Or that women who defy their husband’s demands, whatever those demands might be and however they might be expressed, should be punished? And finally, would this litany of “justifications” have been sufficient to assuage any feelings of remorse they may have had for Zaruhi before they retreated to the “comfort” of their own lives?
The reality is that domestic violence is only one form of ugly, unacceptable behavior practiced by a subset of men against women that permeates Armenian society. Statistical and anecdotal data have been compiled to indicate that violence in all its brutal, demeaning, and insidious permutations is routinely inflicted by husbands on their spouses. It is unfortunate that Armenian society has institutionalized this type of behavior as a part of married life. A corollary is that public discussion of domestic and psychological violence is not only taboo, but most government officials and clergy deny its existence.
There is an Armenian folk saying that compares a woman to wool: “The more you beat her the softer she will become.” This saying was not created out of whole cloth, but spawned from society’s expectation that a “good” wife should be subservient to her husband and a beating now and then would encourage her to become the dutiful wife that he deserves and she should aspire to be. And then there is the euphemistic reference to the physical bruises a wife may sustain: “A husband’s beating is like a prick from a rose’s thorn.”
Data compiled by various organizations such as Amnesty International, the National Statistical Service of Armenia, agencies of the United Nations, Sociometer, and the Centre for Women’s Rights confirm that violence against women is the norm and is endemic especially in the very traditional rural areas of Armenia. A study by Aharon Adibekyan’s Sociometer of 1,200 women living in Yerevan and 8 (surrounding) towns and 8 villages indicated that 75 percent of the women were victims of domestic violence. Director Adibekyan added, it is unfortunate that “…many seem to feel that humiliating a woman is a casual thing, because thinking that violence is an indispensable part of family life is formed since childhood.”
A 2001 survey by the NSS found that 1 out of 3 women and 4 out of 10 men believed that wife beating is sometimes justified. This is borne out by a later 2006 report prepared by the Aguirrre Division of JBS International, Inc. for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) that concluded, “Armenians and Azeris show a high tolerance for wife beating with 30 – 60 percent of the people believing that it is sometimes justified.”
However, ethno-sociologist Mihran Galstyan claims these findings are an exaggeration. His study encompassing 1,626 settlements throughout Armenia indicated that only 6.3 percent of women believed they were exposed to family violence. That begs the obvious question. These settlements were primarily in rural areas where traditional values dominate. Did these women understand what constitutes domestic violence? Does a slap or two or the back of her husband’s hand qualify as domestic violence? Or a beating that she may innocently believe is deserving? Would she view confinement or other forms of deprivation for something she did or failed to do as a form of abuse? If a woman is brought-up in a household where her father routinely strikes or demeans her mother, why would experiencing similar treatment as a married woman be viewed as abuse? When does physical or psychological abuse reach some critical stage to be accepted as domestic violence by the abused and by society? Under these circumstances, it is not at all surprising for data such as Galstyan’s to be so skewed as to be unreliable in reporting the full extent of domestic violence.
There are too many Zaruhis in Armenia who endure beatings, sexual abuse, social and economic deprivation, or psychological violence in their marriage because they are bound by the social mores that extol the woman as child-bearer and mother, but require her to “respect” her husband and his family. She is the one who is expected to protect the integrity of the family and in doing so must stoically endure the vagaries associated with married life. It would be the truly atypical woman who has the courage to not only question the societal values that imprison her physically and spiritually, but who would rebel by attempting to seek relief from what may be properly described as marital bondage. For her to think of leaving his home (not their home) to seek refuge, assuming that option existed, might normally occur only when her situation became intolerable. And if circumstances should force her to return, how long and how brutal would her punishment be?
According to Dashnak member of parliament, Artsvik Minasyan, “…there is no gender equality in our society, and in many spheres women have been stripped of the possibility of realizing their rights.” Dafina Gercheva, the United Nations resident coordinator in Armenia, remarked that “without an appropriate legal framework it will be difficult to protect women’s rights.”
During a 2007 visit by Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, his delegation noted that “…a certain embarrassment when the issue of violence against women, including domestic violence, was raised. Some officials declared that this wide-spread European problem was nonexistent in the country because of strong family traditions in Armenian society. Others recognized its existence but considered it part of the private and family sphere where the state should not intervene.” Given this hands off policy by the government and the observation by Amnesty International UK’s Kate Allen that “the preservation of the family unit comes at the expense of women’s rights, their safety, and even their lives” is a sufficiently damning indictment of the government’s lack of commitment to improving the position of women in Armenian society and in effectively attacking violence in all its permutations.
It is not necessary to read the graphic anecdotal records of women who had the courage to unburden themselves of the violence they suffered at the hands of their husbands to understand the scope and the depravity of domestic abuse. Many of these women were stripped of their self-worth and their dignity as mothers, wives, and human beings. Any Armenian man or women who claims there is need for additional proof that domestic violence exists either prefers to accept this behavior as normal or is ashamed to admit that this type of violence is being visited on the daughters of Armenia by its sons.
Zaruhi Petrosyan was martyred by a set of values that have no place in Armenia or in any other country. Because domestic violence is a global issue does not absolve Armenia from implementing solutions that liberate women from archaic traditions that jeopardize their physical and spiritual well-being and inhibits their ability to develop as productive and respected members of society.
There is no easy path that can be taken in confronting this problem. To change societal values spans generations. Having said that, the time is long overdue for appropriate action to be taken by the Armenian government and the Armenian Apostolic Church. The prestige and expertise of certain key organizations such as the Armenian Relief Society and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation demands that they join in attacking this blight infecting Armenian society. To offer excuses would be embarrassing and not in keeping with their historic missions.
Have we so easily forgotten the heroic role women have had throughout Armenian history? They were fedeyee as well as mothers and care-givers. They were the shepherds of their families and as repositories of our heritage, imparted that knowledge to our children. The tragic life and death of Zaruhi Petrosyan was no aberration. It is unconscionable for any woman and shear hypocrisy for any man to believe that they share no responsibility in her tragic death.
If we are all Hrant Dink, is there any reason we are not all Zaruhi Petrosyan?