The following presentation was made by Nora Kayserian during Sunday’s event, Women: Resisting, Rising, Reframing organized by AYF UHRC.
BY NORA KAYSERIAN
A feminist: a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. That’s me. I am a feminist. A label that I have proudly carried with me before I had even heard of the term “feminist”. If you ask anyone who knows me “what would be one word to describe Nora?” they would say feminist. If you ask for two words. They would say angry feminist. And they’re right. I’m angry all the time because I’ve witnessed to so much sexism, racism, and homophobia in my day to day life. That anger was heightened when I moved to Armenia. I remember this one day when I was about to board a train to go to Lake Sevan with some friends. We were hanging out when all of a sudden we heard a woman screaming. She was being abused by her partner. In broad daylight. After noticing that no one was trying to stop this monster — my friends and I ran over and pulled her away from him. After talking to her for 30 minutes and begging her not to go back to him, she said “I have to go back, I have no choice”. She assured us that it will be okay and that she will call the women’s support center in Yerevan if she needs help. The fact that violence towards women exists in Armenia was not new to me. I had been following the work of activists in Armenia long before I had moved there. But it was at that moment that I decided I needed to do more. The more I got involved in the women’s movement in Armenia the stronger my anger grew.
A year later, my friend from LA sent me a video. It was an ad for SheFighter. Empowering women through self-defense. That’s when the lightbulb went off. At the moment I was sure of 2 things:
1. something like this does not exist in Armenia and it should and
2. I knew how to box.
Those 2 facts were enough to get me motivated. Before I knew it I was on a plane to Jordan to train with the woman who started the program. Fast forward 4 months later and I was back in Armenia getting SheFighter up and running in Yerevan.
Of course, starting something like this was not easy and it came with many challenges. For starters, not everyone’s as excited about kicking ass as I am. My challenge was a lot greater than just getting women to class. The challenge was breaking gender stereotypes that have been embedded into our lives since we were born in a country that upholds the idea that the family must be preserved at all costs.
My classes started very small and slowly began to grow over the course of a year. Women in Armenia were hesitant to join because “ganantsi chi”. Like many women around the world, they didn’t see the importance of it. Despite these challenges, I finally felt like my anger was being channelled the right way. I didn’t go to bed angry anymore because I saw a change, however small that change was. I saw how self-defense training began to reveal to each of my students how traditional sexist ideas find their way into the functioning of the body itself.
The best example of this would be when I taught the girls how to use their “self-defense voice”. Something as simple as yelling “No” in a powerful way was very difficult for girls to do in the beginning. If I ask you to picture a room full of women yelling “NO” in their “self-defense voice” you would either have a hard time or you’d picture women shrilling. Why do you think that is?
I’m sure if I told you to picture a room full of men yelling “NO” in a self-defense voice you would not only be able to envision it but you would able to describe it. It would be loud, powerful, strong and a little scary, right?
Well, that’s exactly how it sounds in the room after I teach women verbal self-defense. The women didn’t shrill — they were loud and their voices were strong. Strong enough to make a man think twice about attacking her.
One of my students put it this way “Fighting would’ve been the farthest thing from my mind and my identity. I just wanted to lose weight and have some fun. Now I consider myself a fighter. I’m not afraid to speak up at work. I know I have a right to be there and to express my opinion to men.”
We’ve all been raised to think that women are physically weaker than men — that we’re not strong and can’t fight back. The reality is, we are more agile and we have a lot more strength than men do. We just have it in different ways. And if you talk to anyone who has learned self-defense they will be able to attest to that — not because they read it in a book or heard it in a lecture. They were able to live it. They saw it in action and they experienced what their body and mind was capable of. I didn’t have to raise their consciousness by talking about gender as a social construct. Self-defense did it for me. Because femininity is embodied and habitual, self-defense serves to disembody it and replaces it with the fighting spirit.
The goal is to unlearn the habit of protecting patriarchy by removing the mental blocks through physical practice. As the body gets stronger and freer, the mind realizes that there is so much more potential. Training the body allows for the empowerment of the mind through practice and repetition.
Teaching self-defense became a very concrete way of encouraging resistance. Resistance to the patriarchal system that insists that men are inherently dominating, superior to women and endowed with the right to rule over them. This idea of power is not natural; we cannot possibly look at things as they are and have been and be okay with it.
I can’t be okay with the fact that…
1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted while in college.
Armenia has one of the highest rates of sex-selective abortions in the world.
Or sex trafficking
Or domestic violence
Or unequal pay
I could go on and on.
If we want what’s best for society and for our communities (whether here or in Armenia) we have to do the work.
We have to teach men not to rape.
We have to teach consent. That no means no. And only yes means yes.
We have to question ourselves, our culture, and the institutions we work in and ask ourselves how we are contributing to sexism.
We all do it. We all contribute to sexism in some way shape or form. We’ve all learned to do it, which means we can all unlearn to do it as well. The fact that you’re all here today is a step in the right direction but it’s only one step. The fight for women’s liberation doesn’t start and end on international women’s day — it’s a daily struggle that needs more angry feminists.