Breaking the cycle: Yezidi girls fight for the right to learn

Journalist: Seda Ghukasyan

Photographer: Hakob Margaryan

19.01.21
Edition: Other
Topic: Women

Yezidis trace their history in Armenia back for centuries. The largest religious minority in the country, there are an estimated 35,000 Yezidis living in Armenia today, or just over one percent of the population. Yezidis say they feel at home in Armenia—the country is host to the largest Yezidi temple outside of Iraq. But the community has failed to assimilate in some ways. For instance, in Yezidi families, girls are rarely encouraged to stay in school. Families prioritize work over education, and even when girls can graduate from school, communities tend to shun young women who go to university. 

Two young Yezidi women, Zemfira Kalashyan and Zarine Smoyan, have proved that the future can be different, however. They have both paved a new path for themselves, overcoming tradition and fear of rejection to build a better life. 

 

Zarine Smoyan, 25, is from Metsamor, in central Armenia. Her mother encouraged her to stay in school ...
Zarine Smoyan, 25, is from Metsamor, in central Armenia. Her mother encouraged her to stay in school. Zarine studied law at the Armenian State Pedagogical University, and her family supported her even as members of her community criticized them. She says her family’s support was crucial as she worked to support her dreams.
Zarine and her husband, Mame Amiryan, married when they were 21 over the objections of both families ...
Zarine and her husband, Mame Amiryan, married when they were 21 over the objections of both families: her family worried she was too young to marry and her husband’s family was suspicious of her education and plans to continue at the university.
Today the two are the happy parents of a toddler, Samvel, and both are working. “When I was in conta ...
Today the two are the happy parents of a toddler, Samvel, and both are working. “When I was in contact with Yezidi women, their lives were basically early marriage, many children, a lot of problems, farming and livestock work. All of that repelled me, and by excluding that, I wanted my life to be different," she says.
Although her in-laws were not happy at first, now her mother-in-law says the young should aspire to ...
Although her in-laws were not happy at first, now her mother-in-law says the young should aspire to study.
"Such women even forget about being a woman, a mother, they have lots of problems, but in my case it ...
"Such women even forget about being a woman, a mother, they have lots of problems, but in my case it is different, I enjoy motherhood, I can spend a lot of time with my child, my husband," Zarine says.
Zarine says she is proud that she made a small "revolution" in her husband's family. Her in-laws hav ...
Zarine says she is proud that she made a small "revolution" in her husband's family. Her in-laws have radically changed their position toward their own daughters: the oldest girl was pulled out of school but their younger daughter was allowed to graduate from high school and enter university.
After a girl gets an education, she becomes an individual, Zarine says. “An educated girl has the ab ...
After a girl gets an education, she becomes an individual, Zarine says. “An educated girl has the ability to make independent decisions,” she adds.

Zemfira Kalashyan, 26, a Yezidi who was born and raised in the Armenian capital Yerevan, realized the importance of education when she was still in school.   She is the only girl in her family who has received an education.

After university, Zemfira helped Yezidi children, especially girls, through her work at Teach for Armenia Educational Foundation. She worked as a mentor for a program run by the Ministry of Education and Science with the support of UNICEF. She was a teacher of  inclusive education in Ferik, a Yezidi community in Armavir region. 

She also helped open a cultural center in Ferik to provide alternative education opportunities for children. More recently Zemfira worked as a teacher trainer and mentor. 

She was driven by her desire to learn and her family never interfered. Zemfira feared her family wou ...
She was driven by her desire to learn and her family never interfered. Zemfira feared her family would reject, however. But today, she has married a man who supports her—Boris, a journalist. They have a four-year-old son, Ronnie and a newborn son.
Zemfira’s education has shaped her vision for the future. In Yezidi communities, it is rare for both ...
Zemfira’s education has shaped her vision for the future. In Yezidi communities, it is rare for both boys and girls to get a higher education, and nearly unheard of for people to continue their education after marriage. But Zemfira, who used to work as a journalist, decided to go back to school after she married to get her teaching degree.
Boris, a journalist, also works in agriculture. The family lives in a village and grows vegetables o ...
Boris, a journalist, also works in agriculture. The family lives in a village and grows vegetables on their land.
Boris is very supportive of his wife, helping to raise their children and making sure she has the op ...
Boris is very supportive of his wife, helping to raise their children and making sure she has the opportunities she needs to pursue her career.
He says that if a person can do a job, they should definitely because creating something “helps you ...
He says that if a person can do a job, they should definitely because creating something “helps you become someone better.”
Zemfira plans to continue her education and her work with the Yezidi community. She notes that one o ...
Zemfira plans to continue her education and her work with the Yezidi community. She notes that one of the first obstacles is raising awareness in the community that education is vital for a prosperous future.
Zemfira remembers how a young girl asked her "why should I dream? It will not come true, I prefer no ...
Zemfira remembers how a young girl asked her "why should I dream? It will not come true, I prefer not to dream." That sentiment shook her, Zemfira recalls, because when children no longer have the hope to dream, it is a real “problem.”

This article was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) South Caucasus Regional Office. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of FES or Chai Khana.

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