Armenia: Daring to Protest While Female

Author: Ani Hakobyan
Edition: Taboos/ Stigmas

They are protesters, but also mothers and wives, daughters and sisters. For many in Armenia’s patriarchal society, their gender makes their protest unacceptable.

Some critics respond with ridicule. Others question their femininity. Still others, like the police officer photographed kissing the neck of a detained female protester, respond with physical abuse.

Yet these women keep on protesting.

A roughly two-month-long protest in 2012 over the construction of kiosks in Yerevan’s Mashtots Park was one of the first demonstrations in which noticeable numbers of Armenian women actively participated, observers say. The trend has continued.

Women were among those who gave Yerevan residents free rides during a 2013 protest against a 50-percent increase in public-transportation fares. They also took part in the nearly three-month-long “Electric Yerevan” in 2015, when demonstrations against higher power prices forced government concessions and challenged Armenia’s friendship with Russia. A year later, when gunmen took over a Yerevan police station, many women again took to the streets to support their armed uprising against the government.

But as women’s presence at protests has increased over the past decade, so, too, has their exposure to police brutality against demonstrators, comments Janna Alexanyan, chairperson of Journalists for Human Rights, a Yerevan-based non-governmental organization.

Exactly how frequently is unknown. The Special Investigation Service, which provides information about criminal cases, claims that no criminal charges have been filed against the police for violence against women.  

The Armenian prosecutor’s office does not have number of official complaints filed in 2016, though Alexanyan estimates the tally at 100.

Yet, like their male counterparts, many women protesters who have endured police brutality often opt not to file official complaints. The thinking is that it’s a waste of time.

While the ombudsperson’s office has discussed with law enforcement an unspecified number of cases of alleged police violence against women, it has no results to show. The national police does not maintain statistics on the sex of victims of brutal crimes. 

In the past, however, they have sought to dodge some accusations.

Earlier this year, several mothers of soldiers killed off-duty claimed that police spat at them and treated them roughly when they staged a protest outside of President Serzh Sargsyan’s administration building to demand an investigation.

Taken to task this February, Meruzhan Hakobyan, chief of staff of the national police, opted to brush off the complaints, reported. 

“We can fire the officers, condemn and shame them, and show the public how good and nice we are. But we are not showmen. If I made a show of such incidents every time and fired the officers involved, the police would be left without policemen,” Hakobyan reasoned, addressing one of the women as “my dear.”

The courts also declined to take action.

Confronting police about their behavior can prove a challenge for men or women in Armenia.

But for women, it comes with an extra burden. They also must confront sexist insults from those Armenians who consider a protest no place for a woman to begin with.

Ani Khachatryan, Environmental Activist, 31


A 2014 protest against changing the name of Yerevan’s Mashtots Park. Photo credit: Narek Aleksanyan

Ani Khachatryan, an unemployed, single mother, took her three-year-old son along when she went to her first protest, in 2012, against the kiosks in Yerevan’s Mashtots Park.  A dedicated environmentalist, she senses a calling to protect, at least figuratively, every bush and tree. But police sometimes only see a woman who threatens to disrupt the traditional order of Armenian society – an order that leaves public protests (and political campaigning) to men.

Yet despite the sexism they might encounter during a protest, female civil-rights activists have no intention of stopping. Rights campaigns, they say, treat them as the equals of men.

Zara Hovhannisyan, Civil-Rights Activist, 42


A 2013 protest on Yerevan’s central Abovyan Street against police abuses (Photo: Zara Hovhannisyan’s personal archive).

Zara Hovhannisyan is a former television journalist who decided to take part in the civil-rights activism she covered. So, in 2007,  she put aside her microphone and picked up a megaphone.  

Unlike Armenian political parties, which, Hovhannisyan claims, resemble gentlemen’s clubs, the country’s civil-society movements let women participate fully and have their equal say in decisions, she believes. No quota exists for their presence, as in political parties, which the law requires to have a 15-percent female membership.

As for other female protesters, March 8, 2012 was significant for Hovhannisyan. On that day, International Women’s Day, women took over a shop in Yerevan’s Mashtots Park as part of a protest against construction there. Confused, male police officers did not know how to respond and followed the tradition for that day – giving the women flowers. From this, a new protest slogan was born: “I love flowers, but I prefer revolution.”

Offers of bouquets are definitely not the norm for Armenia’s female protesters. Media often lambast their non-traditional behavior, while others post photos online that ridicule them. Hovhannisyan says she has also received threatening letters, targeting her as both a human-rights activist and woman.

Women activists with whom Chai Khana spoke to say that these tactics do not discourage them.

Indeed, eager to have their voices heard, women in their teens and early 20s are increasingly taking part in civil activism, notes Hamlet Melkumyan, a cultural-studies lecturer at Yerevan State University, who has researched the Mashtots Park protest.

But violence by police presents a constant challenge. 

Being pushed or injured by police or taken to police stations is a potential part of life for any Armenian activist, male or female.

Caution is the best response, advises the Journalists for Human Rights. Women, it says, should avoid more aggressive police officers, and immediately contact local police departments or human-rights organizations to address inappropriate behavior by law enforcement. 

Ani Gevorgyan, Freelance Journalist and Photographer, 28


In 2010, mostly male protesters gathered on Yerevan’s downtown Abovyan Street to rally against alleged fraud in Armenia’s 2008 presidential election. Photo credit: Gagik Shamshyan

The fatal clashes of March 1, 2008 over Armenia’s presidential election prompted Ani Gevorgyanto go into photojournalism. At least eight protesters and two policemen were killed in the violence in Yerevan.

That made Gevorgyan, then a teenager, want to show and tell people about the injustices that can mark everyday life, she says.  

As a photographer, Gevorgyan has grown accustomed to police and protesters coming to blows. She has also experienced that violence herself.  

In this fight, though, she believes that the law should be the weapon of choice.

But one female parliamentarian, 39-year-old Mane Tandilyan, a member of the opposition Yelq (Way Out) alliance, does not see a reason to propose bills that address police brutality specifically against women. Tandilyan, a former pension-reform activist and regular protester, says she has never experienced such violence.

“The problem is in the system, and we have that issue in our country regardless of sex,” she believes.

Rather than “concentrate on women only,” she says, “I will just try to exclude this [general] problem [of police brutality] from our country.”

For many of Armenia’s women activists, that alone could be a step forward.

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