Commentary: Domestic Violence Comes to Light in Armenia


By Edmond Y. Azadian

A recent incident of domestic violence in Armenia once again highlighted a societal fault-line. Indeed, a 27-year-old woman, Zaruhi Petrosyan, was beaten to death by her husband, Yanis Sarkisov, and his mother; the police in the Masis region had failed to respond to the pleas of the victim and her sister.

This type of domestic violence is a daily occurrence in Armenia and it goes unreported for a number of reasons.

However, the irony is that there was more outrage in the Diaspora than in Armenia. And we were surprised not to find any warnings in the Yerevan press to the Diaspora Armenians stating: “stay away from our bedrooms.” Because on many occasions, Diaspora Armenians have been asked politely and sometimes bluntly, that “your help is welcome but not your meddling into our internal affairs.” Yet Diaspora Armenians continue meddling in Armenia’s affairs, because they believe Armenia is the homeland of all Armenians and it has to be helped in order to become irreproachable. For those of us living in the West, it is hard to digest — and live with — the fact that in Armenia, domestic violence is still considered a private family matter and not a crime.

Domestic abuse is rampant in Armenia and the root causes are many: value system, history, Islamic/Turkish influence and the current socioeconomic factors.

In the Muslim-Turkish society, which for years dominated Armenia, women are treated as chattel or at best, the property of the dominant male, except perhaps in metropolitan areas closer to Europe. In many Islamic countries, men can officially marry up to four wives and divorce them at will.

During the last years of his second term, the French President Jacques Chirac visited one of the former French colonies, Morocco, and in an official reception he praised the Moroccan king as being one of the more emancipated rulers of the Islamic world because he had introduced a new legislation in the constitution of the country, which the French president considered very progressive.

Anyone researching that law could not hold his/her laughter: in essence the new law stated that any Moroccan man who would decide to marry a second or third wife, had to seek the permission of his first wife. This is a measure of societal progress in Morocco!

Under the pressure of the West and UN, the Islamic world unwittingly is struggling to change some traditional trends in polygamy, genital mutilation, family law, etc.

We recently witnessed how charitable mullahs proved to be in Iran when, under international pressure, they decided to punish an adulterous woman by hanging, rather than stoning to death.

Unfortunately, that Islamic influence has somehow permeated the social fabric of Armenia.

Diasporan Armenians live in Western societies and have adapted to their ways.

Western societies are not immune to domestic violence, but at least there are laws which protect the victims. And also, family dysfunction has different underlying causes, most of the time psychological or driven by alcoholism or another type of substance abuse.

Dysfunctional gender relations are well-reflected in literature, especially in plays and novels; some salient examples are offered by Tennessee Williams (“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”), August Strindberg (“Miss Julie”), Federico Garcia Lorca (“Yerma”) and others. In the above cases, the sexual orientation of the authors may explain their motivations.

Armenian literature is replete with the inequality of genders, which has caused many tragedies; to cite a few, perhaps come into mind Krikor Zohrab’s Postal, Gosdan Zarian’s The Bride of Dadrakom, Shiraz’s Siamanto and Khejezareh, Bakounts’ Alpine Lillies, even, to a certain extent, Hovhaness Toumanian’s narrative poem, “Anoush.”

Besides the Muslim influence, modern-day social pressures have wreaked havoc on Armenian family life. Often when men, traditionally the breadwinners of the family, arrive home empty-handed, they head down a path of tragedy. They either succumb to a heart attack, commit suicide or take their frustration out on their spouses, sometimes in front of their children, who will grow up to become abusers in their turn. Many Armenians believe, even if they don’t profess it, that wives have to be beaten during the day and loved at night.

This scenario is more common in underprivileged families. In more affluent families the broken relations are caused by that very same affluence. As long as the breadwinner provides for the family, buys a car for the wife and offers a generous allowance, he is entitled to fornicate and “own” as many lovers as he wishes, no questions asked. That is even a status symbol that no self-respecting macho male can forgo.

The rich husband allows himself more of a right to domestic violence, should his conduct be ever be questioned. Thus conjugal infidelity is glossed over for family harmony.

And to say that we are counting on the sanctity of the family unit to build a healthy nation!

Interaction with the West has begun to awaken women to their basic rights. But the awakening has been slow and sometimes contradictory.

Without going into the specifics, when women’s issues have been discussed at conferences in European capitals, criticism from abroad has touched some raw nerves and women from Armenia have become very defensive, stating that they believe in a male-dominated society and that this sort of dynamic makes for a more exciting marriage.

That is perhaps why the movement has been slow, because, sometimes you cannot defend women against their will.

Armenia is on the fast track to emulating many unsavory Western traits, but is not as alert in reaching out for more civilized values.

But not all news in this regard is bad. Legislation defending women’s rights is on the drawing board. The director of Women’s Rights Center Susanna Vardanyan has announced that her organization has initiated a draft law on domestic violence, which has been examined by various ministers and officers of the law. “Five years ago, we could not even have said that. High-ranking officials would just have laughed and said such a problem did not exist in Armenia, that these were just isolated cases, but now, many are even ready to support the adoption of the law.”

The laws are welcome, as long as they don’t remain in the books. The criminal justice system as well needs to be revamped in order to reflect those changes. Also, the police must be trained in taming their male chauvinist views.

In the West, we are very fond of defending the rights of the exiled Tibetan religious leader, Dalai Lama, and, by association, his religious and social values, sometimes without even knowing what those values are. Perhaps it is not common knowledge that gender relations are reversed in Tibet. A woman can marry several husbands, as far as seven, if memory serves me right. And then in the 1.5-billion-strong-Chinese population, no one bothers to find DNA experts to sort out the biological parentage of the children born into Tibetan families. Armenia, in pagan times, was also a matriarchal society, as stated in David Reuben’s book, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), who also relates some disturbing practices by married Armenian women in the shrines. We have yet to see an anthropologist refute those statements.

But in the early Christian and pre-Christian eras we had many glorious cases of family values; Ara the Fair and his wife, Nevart, Shoushanig and women in Vartanants war reflect highly- moral family values that we forget sometimes to emulate.

Which course is right for Armenia — to adopt European values or to revert to the matriarchal society?