The issues of gender and gender equality are most often analysed by exploring the nature of social and power relations within a given society. Rarely do we see the dynamics of gender relations scrutinised through the lens of geopolitics. Dr Nona Shahnazarian has taken the latter approach in this lecture, examining the concept of gender in Armenian society by positioning the concept within the context of the geopolitical competition between Russia and the “West”. This lecture took place on Thursday, 19 April 2018. It was organised by the Director of the Programme of Armenian Studies, Dr Krikor Moskofian.
Dr Nona Shahnazarian is a social anthropologist and a senior research fellow at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography at the National Academy of Sciences in Yerevan, Armenia. She is also affiliated with the Centre for Independent Social Research in St. Petersburg, Russia. In 2017, she was a Visiting Carnegie Fellow at the University of Stanford. She has published extensively on the issues of gender, war, migration, memory and diaspora in the Caucasus, including a monograph entitled In the Tight Embrace of Tradition: War and Patriarchy (2011, in Russian).
Gender issues in Armenia have become a geopolitical battleground, in which the Russian state attempts to use these issues in order to lure Armenia and its population away from so-called “Western influences”. Indeed, the false dichotomy of Europe vs Eurasia and West vs East leads to the perception of two sides, one of which espouses and propagates liberal and so-called post-modern values, while the other lends credence to traditionalism and a more rigid conceptualisation of gender identity.
Conservative elements within Armenian society have continuously been reluctant to permit the discussion of gender issues or even use the word “gender” in public discourse. Opposition to LGBT rights in Armenia has often been framed in nationalist terms that are intertwined with the history of existential threat to the “Armenian nation”. The persistence of the war with Azerbaijan, the continued emigration of citizens away from Armenia, the consistent decline in the resident population of Armenia, and the memory of the Genocide in the national consciousness are all factors that influence the way in which conservative and nationalist-leaning Armenian citizens view LGBT rights. Essentially, these elements of Armenian society see the lack of Armenians being born as a justification for their opposition to LGBT rights.
The perpetuation of traditional notions of masculinity in Armenian society have been tapped into by the mechanisms of Russian soft power. Political discourse and imagery inside Russia is imbued with references to the macho man and the strong male political figure. This can also be extrapolated to the family setting, in which the father is the head of the family – a characteristic that many in Armenian society find appealing and can relate to. Such cultural practices that are deeply rooted in the culture of Armenia are vulnerable to manipulation for the benefit of external geopolitical interests. The fear of “Gayropa” (a homophobic Russian term equating Europe with homosexuality) and of the gradual spread of “European” values are exploited to steer Armenian society and politics away from the apparent “pernicious influences” of the “West”.
This tug of war placing Armenia between the Russian and Western spheres of influences has been exacerbated by Armenia’s entry into the Eurasian Economic Customs Union in 2013 – more for political rather than economic reasons – and the recent partnership agreements that Armenia has signed with the European Union. These two separate political “camps” are in many ways antagonistic to one another. This antagonism has led to each camp defining itself in opposition to the other, a process which expands past the realm of geopolitics and into the reification of two separate moralities in the minds of the populace.
The imagined, and, some may say false, choice between these two political camps, each of which propagates its own moral ideology, renders the issue of gender in Armenia an extremely sensitive one. There is the sense that if Armenia moves towards Europe politically, then the makeup of Armenian society will be changed radically and gender roles will become less rigid, less defined, and more open to question. For the conservative elements in Armenian society, this would mark an unacceptably significant break from a long-standing status quo, and so they perceive such changes as threats to Armenian identity and an established and familiar culture. On the other hand, the other choice of remaining within the Russian “camp” means adherence to the status quo and unquestioning acquiescence to Russian political and ideological directives, which, for more liberal-minded people in Armenia, is inadmissible. The black-and-white nature of this political choice has tangible effects on gender issues in Armenia, since discussions about women’s and LGBT rights are seen to be winner-takes-all battles (i.e. either a complete shift to “European” standards or intransigence and dedication to the “Russian” or “Eurasian” sphere).
Dr Shahnazarian notes that within Armenia, civil society representatives working on gender issues are few in number. A lack of governmental interest and unfavourable social attitudes mean that activists who attempt to raise awareness of gender issues are frequently physically attacked or vilified, and often forced to run their activities without any visual public presence.
After the talk, one member of the audience commented that although Russian soft power is readily deemed to be propaganda, Western imposition of conditions linked to women’s rights, LGBT rights, economic liberalisation and privatisation may also be described as propaganda. Not in the sense that the concepts of equality and gender are Western creations being proliferated across the world, but that Western institutions often deal with more impoverished countries from a position of power, and provide support only once those countries adhere to Western political demands.
Dr Shahnazarian responded by asserting first of all that human rights, the umbrella under which gender rights exist, are not the monopoly or the “creation” of Western states. She then mentioned that when Western states do make stipulations about gender rights in other countries, they must always be in accordance with the social context. Dr Shahnazarian gave an example of when the Ottoman Empire succumbed to British pressure to implement a series of laws pertaining to women’s rights. The result was a significant increase in prostitution, due to the existing structures of patriarchy within the country warping the effect of this “liberation” of women, and had negative consequences. She then compared this to the situation of relations between the EU and Turkey during the Erdogan era. During the first few years of Erdogan’s presidency, he was keen on accession to the EU and abiding by its conditions. Nevertheless, years of frustration and lack of progress, in part due to the EU not taking into account the social context into which its demands were to be implemented, dissuaded Erdogan from pursuing the path towards accession. His rhetoric then changed dramatically, and has since often been antagonistic to the EU and Europe in general. The focus has shifted from liberalisation to the return to “Islamic” values.
Another member of the audience asked whether feminism or feminist thought had become prevalent in Armenian society, and whether there were any authors currently writing on the subject. Dr Shahnazarian rejected any claim that feminism has taken hold in Armenian society, and asserted that it was staggeringly unpopular in Armenia as a way of thinking. She put this down in part to the country’s Soviet legacy; Stalin, for example, prioritised the modernisation and industrialisation of the Soviet Union over the development of women’s rights. While Stalin instrumentalised women to boost the modernisation project and pushed women into the public sphere and the workforce, the everyday effect of this was that women were now charged with the responsibility of both taking care of the home and working in the public sphere. Ever since the decline in the importance of modernisation, women have actually preferred to revert to the domestic sphere, since they would only have to labour at home. This has fostered the sentiment among women in Armenia that their place is under a patriarchal system, in which their main responsibility is to look after the home while everything else is taken care of by the man, is preferential to their former position in society.
This event was made possible by the funding of the Armenian Communities Department of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, for which the Programme of Armenian Studies is extremely grateful.
– Leon Aslanov