Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Feminine Mystique

Today is International Women’s Day and it is a national holiday in Armenia. So it seems like a good time for my long planned discussion about gender issues here.

As any of the women volunteers here can testify, the gender roles here are reminiscent of the US in the 50s and 60s. While living in a city like Gyumri is different than living in a village like Solak, even in Yerevan things would shock most Americans.

As I wrote last time, there are very traditional notions about what is appropriate for women to do, how to dress, what should and should not be done before marriage, etc. But the issue goes far deeper than that. Whether it is due to the religious traditions here, the influence over the ages from the surrounding Muslim countries and their traditions or just that Armenia is still catching up with Western countries, I don’t know. But from statistics I read and stories I hear I constantly have to hold in my surprise at what people take in stride. Here are some examples.

In Solak, women were the first ones up in the morning and the last to go to bed at night. Gohar, my host mother, was out tending to the cows and chickens, then fixing breakfast, cleaning the house and getting food for dinner – all before noon since she had a job at the post office every afternoon. When she got home from work, she cooked dinner, milked the cows, cleaned the house, picked fruit from the garden and took care of anything else that needed to be done. The fact that her husband has a job and her son is in the army was not relevant – other families had the same division of labor even if the husband and sons were home and out of work.

I have been to several meals here with large groups of people. In almost every case, the men were at one end of the table and the women at the other. After meals, it is normal for all of the men to walk away from the table and leave their dishes there. When living with my host families, any time I cleared my dishes and brought them to the sink, everyone (men and women) told me to leave them. Some of the large meals I attended were with co-workers (managers of the organization and volunteers) and it went without saying that the women (managers and volunteers) would clean up and the men would stay seated.

Some of the male volunteers insist on cooking occasionally for their host families and that is seen as very odd (the host families have training and are encouraged to accept the cultural differences such as that). The big exception to this is when it comes to khorovats – as in the US, barbecuing is the man’s domain so the women get a break for a while. As I wrote previously, in some host families, male volunteers don’t do their own laundry since that is seen as women’s work although both of my host mothers seemed to feel that my cultural integration was important (or something like that).

I went to a meeting at a local business university with two other volunteers, both women - an English teacher and another with a background similar to mine but with more experience. We went to discuss classes we might teach (which eventually became a Business English class). During the entire meeting, I was the only one that the school director spoke to.

I have yet to see a woman drive in Gyumri. In Yerevan it is a little more common but still unusual. Some of the online news sites I read regularly seem to report every single car accident in the country but one I read two weeks ago stood out – it pointed out that a woman driver ran over a person in Yerevan. I realized at that point that it was the first time an article I had read mentioned the sex of the driver in an accident. In the Business English class I teach with the other volunteer, we had the students read an article about Honda marketing scooters in India to female drivers. We tried to engage the students in a discussion about whether such a campaign would work in Armenia and they said no – women don’t drive.

I visited a monastery a few months back and entered while a mass was in progress. Shortly after I walked in, people approached the altar for communion. Two lines formed - one with men and one with women. The men’s line received communion first.

It is unusual to see women in a café or restaurant drinking alcohol (other than expatriates). If a woman goes somewhere by herself and drinks she will probably be assumed to be a prostitute. A commercial for an Armenian beer (click the link to watch) markets it as a beer for men and jokingly shows women unable to drink it while the bartenders laugh.

Nestle sells a candy bar here called Nestle for Men. Some of the female volunteers tried it with no ill effects so I am not sure what the marketing rationale is.

Kevin is manly enough for this candy

Notice the imprints

As I mentioned previously, there are jobs seen as men’s jobs and those seen as women’s jobs. I discussed in a previous post that many husbands do not want their wives to work and a fair number of women seem fine with that. During training last summer, we had a cross cultural session to discuss gender roles and the featured speaker was a woman from Yerevan who said that Armenia needs to adjust to meet a changing world. The most fascinating part of the discussion was the reaction of our language teachers (all women incidentally) who strenuously objected to what she was saying. When discussion turned to women working, one asked “Who will raise the children?” In a follow up conversation later that night with my language teachers, that question came up again. I pointed out that my brother and both of my brothers-in-law had significant roles in raising their children, all of whom have grown up rather well.

Most of the boys I have seen are allowed by their families to do whatever they want. I have seen a five year old commandeer the remote control while his grandmother was watching TV and change the channel to what he wanted to watch without asking. She made a comment to him but did not make him change it back. He routinely hit his little sister with no consequences. He seemed to be in training for his life in a male dominated society.

This manifests itself in ways that can be both very protective and outright abusive. Often when I am on public transportation, a man traveling with a woman will have her sit next to the window so he can guard her from others (and as I related previously I was once asked to change my seat since a man did not want his daughter sitting next to me). In many cases, women will share seats rather than sit next to men. This is not unfounded since I have heard stories of women being groped by male passengers.

And as I related in my last post, women are expected to be virgins when they marry although men are expected to be experienced. But once married, there can be a very different story. A recent UN report on the topic cites surveys indicating that between ten and 69% of Armenian women were victims of domestic violence. Since a woman traditionally moves in with her husband’s family, the violence may also be carried out by her mother-in-law. [To read this fascinating and disturbing report see here]. The report cites instances of police, doctors and judges blaming the victims or disregarding reports because they are “family matters”.

This may be changing, however, due to a case that brought widespread attention to the issue late last year. Zaruhi Petrosyan a 20 year old mother of two was beaten repeatedly by her husband and mother-in-law and finally died from her injuries. Her complaints to the police were ignored but, following her death, her husband was arrested and charged with murder (his trial is supposed to start this week). In the meantime, the issue and protests related to the case have forced the government to acknowledge that the issue exists. Where this goes will be interesting to watch.

Also, according to news reports, the play The Vagina Monologues is supposed to be performed in Yerevan next month, in a production that has been touring the Caucasus. It is being staged to help raise awareness of women’s rights and the reality of domestic violence. The reaction to this should be interesting.

While all of these matters are very discouraging, it reinforces the importance of one of the Peace Corps aims to promote development of women. Projects have been carried out to showcase the contributions of women to society (see here), to encourage their education, to help them find a market for handicrafts they create and camps to teach girls leadership skills (to donate to this year's camp see here).

As I have said, the trends in the country are likely to accelerate the changes and the educational imbalance will probably make women better prepared for the future of the country. It's just going to be a bit rough to get there.