Petra is currently at Kvinna till Kvinna’s partner organisation Women’s Resource Center in Armenia and we will be able to follow her work and reflections as she will be guest blogging with us.
When I have told people I will be in Armenia for 10 months the most frequently asked question in Sweden is “what will you be doing there?” followed by “Armenia, where is that exactly?” and “do you have to wear a veil there?”. Since I have already answered question number one in an earlier blogpost I will try to shed some light also over the two remaining questions.
Armenia was declared independent 23 august 1990 before the collapse of Soviet union and is situated in the Caucasus area with Turkey to the west, Azerbaijan to the east, Iran to the south and Georgia to the north. 80% of the Armenian borders to neighbouring countries are currently closed. The territorial dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, which was an autonomous region of Azerbaijan with a majority Armenian population, escalated into armed conflict in 1988, three years prior to the collapse of Soviet and still remains unsolved.
Since 1994 there’s an official ceasefire but reports about firing from both sides occur regularly despite this and the relations to the neighbour in east is very strained to say the least. Turkey closed their border to Armenia 1993 in solidarity with Azerbaijan during the war – this and a number of historical conflicts, where the most infected one is the genocide against Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, makes that also these two countries have a quite chilled relationship, especially since Turkish government keep claiming that there’s been no such thing as a genocide despite of international pressure of recognition.
On top of this add the starvation during early 20th century, more than 70 years of Soviet reign, a gigantic earthquake during the 80′s and violent clashes during the election 2008 where 10 people where killed and it sums up to a not very jolly depiction of modern Armenian history.
As a visitor here it’s not something that immediately affects me though. It’s hard for me to imagine that during the 90′s, when I was walking around in jazz pants listening to pop music on my walkman in Sweden, there was only two hours of electricity daily in the capital city here. Over all Yerevan feels as any other modern city and is flooded by cafés, bars, shops and restaurants. It’s a lively city, always with something happening somewhere, a variety of cultural experiences and it feels very safe to move in the city.
But under the surface I do sense the history and I don’t feel I have to dig deeply in order for it to show. There’s strong nationalistic forces, I see slogans such as “One nation – one culture”, Christianity is very present and I frequently hear people utter that this or that is not a part of Armenian tradition or culture, especially when it comes to “Western inventions” about women’s or gay rights.
In a country where one have historical and ongoing conflict with one’s Muslim neighbours and on top of that been restrained from practice your religion under communism perhaps there’s it’s no wonder that Christianity has became an important part of the national identity. Add to this that the mountain Ararat is a national icon (many believe it to have been where Noah’s ark landed in the Biblical story and nowadays on Turkish ground), it claims to be the first Christian country and Christianity is the without a doubt most dominant religion (about 97 % of the people) in a monoethnical population.
So the answer is no, I do not have to wear a veil, however this does not equal that religion is not used as an excuse and cultural pressure to control and inhibit people and women’s rights.
A female archbishop like the one in Sweden who is even questioning the virgin birth is far from any reality in a country where women by tradition is expected to be virgins when they marry. But more about women’s situation in my next post!