Transformation of Gender Roles in Armenian Society

Main speakers:
Mary Titizian – Director of the Hrayr Marukhyan Foundation, member of the Dashnaktutyun party;
Karine Bazeyan – Vice director of the Center of Folk Arts after Hovhannes Sharambeyan;
Gohar Shahnazaryan – Anthropologist, Yerevan State University.
Moderator: Nina Iskandaryan, Caucasus Institute

The first speaker, Mary Titizian, spoke about gender equality as a necessary precondition for democracy. She pointed out that truly democratic society offers equal opportunities to all its citizens regardless of their gender, otherwise democracy works only for one half of the citizens. She reminded the audience about fundamental UN documents on the involvement of women in social and political life. Mrs. Titizian highlighted many problems that women face in modern Armenian society. According to her, it is not unusual that despite their education, knowledge and experience, they are often striped of a chance to enter such spheres as, for instance, high politics. A member of a political party herself, Mrs. Tititzian stressed the importance of supporting women candidates in elections. She encouraged all Armenian NGOs engaged in women’s empowerment to work as a team instead of seeing each other as rivals, since they all work for the same cause. At the end of her speech, Mary Titizian suggested that quotas for women in politics were an unpleasant yet necessary measure for ensuring gender equality in Armenia.

Karine Bazeyan, the second speaker, shared her opinion on how to achieve gender equality. According to her, government policy is the key to success. To support her thesis, she used the example of the Soviet Union: with the advent of Soviet economic system, an average man was unable to provide for his family alone, and the society adjusted by changing its attitude towards working women. This process was further intensified during the World War II, when men were drafted into the army and women started working in factories performing duties traditionally considered male. As a consequence, even the most conservative communities of Armenia at that time, such as, for instance, the city of Gyumri, had to face and embrace the new realities of social and economic life. She also voiced the opinion that Armenian society has very good preconditions and history for gender equality, since, as she said, Armenian women were given the right to vote long before women in America or Europe.  

The next speaker, Gohar Shahnazaryan, discussed the role played by existing perceptions of traditional values. According to her, contemporary Armenians often believe that observing ‘national traditions’ is more important than achieving gender equality. However, in her opinion, the values which are now perceived as ‘traditional Armenian values’ were to a large extent borrowed from Muslim cultures, whereas previously, in the early middle ages, up to the 9th century, Armenian society was the regional leader in terms of gender equality (although back then the theoretical concept of ‘equality’ did not exist). Her thesis was that Armenian society took a huge step back in terms of gender roles and equality as a result of Muslim influences, and that the present-day situation reflects that fact. Consequently, she suggested that we have to review our understanding of traditions and values in order to achieve progress in this sphere.

The presentations were followed by a very heated debate centred around two topics. The first were quotas for women in politics. One part of the audience thought that quotas were insulting to women, since they meant women in fact lacked the capacity to compete against men on equal footing. Some believe quotas beat the purpose of the movement for equality, since one cannot at the same time demand equality and special treatment. Some guests said that quotas in general were useless; they cited the Soviet quotas for ethnic minorities which did not stimulate members of the minorities to improve their competitive abilities, but rather the contrary, made them feel they did not require the same performance levels in order to achieve social standing, and thereby served as a disincentive for professional and personal growth. Others, led by Mary Titizian, though admitting that quotas were not a good method for raising women’s self-esteem or competitive qualities, insisted they were nevertheless necessary as a temporary measure for creating equal opportunities for women and men.

The other key issue of debate was whether there is a contradiction between gender equality and the traditional values of Armenian society, and what those values actually represent. On this point, many agreed that tradition and perception of tradition are different things, as are change and perception of change. It was pointed out that tradition is in fact dynamic, and trying to hold fast to it will not work simply because it does not exist as a static phenomenon.