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Kayserian: Where Are Our Women?

By Haig Kayserian – Chairman, Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Australia)
On May 28th, 2015 Armenians around the world celebrated the 97th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence of Armenia’s First Republic – the occasion popularly referred to as “Mayis 28”. This is a significant date on the global Armenian calendar for various reasons. It is significant, because in the lead-up to Mayis 28, Armenians rose from the ashes of the Armenian Genocide, when 1.5 million of their compatriots were subjected to an attempt by Ottoman Turkey to rid the world of the Armenian race.

It is significant, because in the lead-up to Mayis 28, Armenian civilians followed the lead of revolutionaries by bearing arms and staging battles in Sartarabad, Gharakilise and Pashabaran.
It is significant, because on Mayis 28, Armenia was able to form an independent state with an autonomous government for the first time in over 500 years.
It is also significant, because following Mayis 28, Armenia’s fledgling Republic formed a government, led by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation majority, which will go down in history as one of the models of democracy.
A gender-representative government was formed, with women not only given the right to vote in that election, but also to be elected. And, as a result, three women were elected as part of Armenia’s first Parliament, which consisted of 80 members.
To draw a comparison, Australia – rightly considered a modern beacon of democracy – elected its first female Member of Parliament in 1943; 24 years later!
Sona Zeytlian has done some fantastic research in her book titled “The Role of Women in the Armenian Revolutionary Movement”, which allows us to learn more about the Armenian Republic’s first female MPs, Katarine Zalyan-Manukyan, Pertchuhi Partizpanyan-Barseghyan and Varvara Sahakyan.
Before moving onto the pressing question this article asks, which is “Where Are Our Women?”, allow me to copy and paste from Zeytlian a short biography on each these fantastic pioneers of democracy.
“Katarine Zalyan-Manukyan was the wife of Aram Manukyan, who was the founder of the First Republic of Armenia. She was elected an MP and was a member of the health committee. Being a nurse, she dedicated herself to helping orphans and migrants by leading a struggle against epidemics day and night. She met her future husband at one of the orphanages. In 1917, they got married in Yerevan and had a daughter named Seda. In 1919, when Seda was only four months old, Aram got infected with typhus and died. After the fall of the First Republic, the political persecutions of the Bolsheviks were added to Katarine’s deprivations. She died in 1965, and had said the following to her daughter prior to her death: “I didn’t see it, but you will definitely see the day when people will remember and appreciate your father. I’m certain that the people won’t forget him.” And that’s exactly what happened.”
“Pertchuhi Partizpanyan-Barseghyan was born in 1886 in Edirne (Turkey). She was only 16 years old when she met her future husband, member of the Armenian revolutionary movement Sargis Barseghyan. At the initiative of her husband, she created the “Union of Armenian Women”. She traveled to Geneva to study literature and pedagogy. In this period, she also began to create with the pseudonym Etna and wrote short stories included in a collection entitled “After the Storm”. Pertchuhi and Sargis had a short-lived marriage (Sargis was killed in 1915). In the wake of her husband’s death, Pertchuhi moved to Tbilisi and later to Yerevan. Elected a Member of Parliament, she coordinated the activities with the American Relief Committee. After the fall of the First Republic of Armenia, like many, she also left the country. She settled in Paris where she held office in the office of Nansen and continued to write. She died in 1940.”
“Varvara Sahakyan was the wife of the first chairman of the parliament Avetik Sahakyan. She was elected a Member of Parliament and became the educational programs coordinator in the Republic of Armenia. After the occupation by the Russian army in December 1920, her husband and other national figures were sentenced to prison in Yerevan. After the failure of the 1921 February Revolution, Varvara, her husband their two children moved to Tavriz. After living here for six years, they moved to Iraq, but the climate had a bad impact on Varvara’s health, and the family was compelled to move to Lebanon. In Beirut Varvara became actively involved in community service again and participated in the activities carried out by the Armenian Relief Cross. She died in 1934.”
Moreover, Armenia’s First Republic appointed the world’s first female Ambassador. Diana Abgar became Armenia’s Ambassador to Japan and was instrumental in successfully advocating for Japan recognise Armenia’s Independence in 1920.
These are amazing women, and these are amazing stories that should fill Armenians with great pride.
So… where are our women today?
Of course, I am not discounting the amazing contribution of females in our day-to-day community activities in Armenia and in the Diaspora. Here in Australia, I see the priceless work of women in the Armenian Relief Society, Hamazkaine, Homenetmen, Armenia Media, the Armenian churches, etcetera. I am sure this is the same in Armenia and our other Diaspora communities.
But in the political sphere, where the contribution of women is critical as a representative of at least half our population, their presence is lacking.
It would be too easy to blame our women. I prefer to blame us, the men.
In Armenia today, there are 14 female Members of Parliament out of 131. And this is likely because of a quota rule that exists which states that a single gender cannot occupy more than 80% of seats in the Parliament. This should mean that even if men are dominant, only 80% should be men, and 20% should be women.
But, 14 out of 131 seats means only 11% of Armenia’s Parliament are women.
If there was no quota, which also enforces that parties put up a certain number of female candidates, Armenia may not even have the 14 female MPs that it has.
Census data shows that women outnumber men in Armenia. That’s right – more than 51% of the population (and 60% of the population possessing higher education) is represented by only 11% of seats in Armenia’s national Parliament.
This is disappointing to say the least.
97 years later, the pioneering women of Armenia’s First Republic would not have thought there would be such little gain in women’s representation in Armenian political life.
Even more disappointing is the absence of women leaders in Diaspora politics.
I am proud to say that the pioneering three female MPs of the First Republic were all members of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) – the party I belong to.
However it is not necessarily the case today. Even in the ARF, representation of women in higher bodies and assemblies is sorely lacking.
The reality of other Armenian political parties in the Diaspora is not better.
The more important reality that we all have to face is that it is the male population of the Armenian world that can increase the proportional representation of women in Armenian politics.
With nearly 90% of Armenia’s elected legislators being male, and the majority of members in the ARF and other parties being male, it is in the hands of males today to make legislative and moral changes to increase female participation in our political reality.
Legislative changes can come by way of quota increases to something more respectable and representative (if we really want to be just and radical, we could change the words “something more respectable and representative” to “equal”).
Moral changes can come by way of making Armenian political environments more appealing to females, in order to encourage more of the best women into active political life.
Given a more conducive and palatable political environment, I trust that many more Armenian females will read up on the politics of our parties and choose one that matches their beliefs to join.
“Where Are Our Women?” is a question that has one answer at the moment. “They are here, they are there… just not in key political roles.”
The time has come to change the unsatisfactory answer to this question.
“The Role of Armenian Women in the Armenian Revolutionary Movement”, by Sona Zeytlian, Los Angeles, 1992
“Women Fail to Gain Ground in Armenian Election”, Gayane Mkrtchyan, Institute for War & Peace Reporting, 29 June 2012

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