Army in Armenia, a Bastion of Manhood?
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Artyom Avetisyan has lost count of the times he has driven along the serpentine road that from Yerevan takes him to the village of Khachik - a ribbon unrolling for about 100 miles, cutting through the rocky and grassy landscapes of Armenia’s south and climbing up to the hills bordering the Azerbaijani enclave of Nakhchivan.

The 32-year-old officer has been stationed in the local base for two of the ten years he’s been in the army.

“I decided I wanted to join the army when I was a child. For me no other job is more honorable for a man,” explains the officer who graduated from Armenia’s Vazgen Sargsyan Military University, which is named in honor of Armenia’s first Defence Minister. Students at the school combine higher education with military service. “It has taken me away from my parents as I served in various military bases, often far from [my native] Yerevan. But I don’t complain about it, not at all. This is what life is about if you serve in the army. This is my choice.”

Avetisyan’s vision echoes that of millions around the world, for whom the military embodies manhood and codes of honour, courage, and heroism. All these traits, maintain sociologists, are supposed to be tempered with restraint and dignity.

“[World] history shows how the army and carrying weapons have always been  honorable,” explains Arthur Atanesyan [unrelated to Artyom], a sociology professor at Yerevan State University. “Soldiers were always the elite, they were educated. And glorifying them does not have any relation with a nation being militarized or aggressive.”

In Armenia, military service has been mandatory for all men over the age of 18 since 1992, when the newly-independent country established its army. Soon afterwards it got entangled in the conflict against neighbouring Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorno Karabakh — the conflict remains unresolved despite the 1994 ceasefire and the long shadow of the war looms on both sides of the border. Thus the army is central to Armenians.

“[Protecting] the family and defending the homeland is everything for my husband. It is his life,” says Avetisyan’s wife, Nairuhi Mesropyan, who has been on the move with him since the two married in 2009. “When I discuss with other women what it means to be a man I immediately think of soldiers. My son is only two now but I do see him in the future serving as a soldier, a defender.”

Artyom Avetisyan indicates the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan’s Nakhchivan; it runs just a hundred yards from the village.
Artyom Avetisyan and his two-year-old son Arman. Arman is wearing a military shirt; both Avetisyan and his wife dream of an army career for him.
Avetisyan’s two-year-old son likes wearing his father hat. His favourite toy is a military car.
Varuzhan Asatryan, 47, joined the army when he was 36. In three years he will have to retire as Armenian law sets a lower retirement age for people serving in the army. The provision for civilians is 63 years of age, 45 for military contractors with the exception of those employed in border areas, who can stay on the job until they turn 50. “I am a bit worried,” he says. “I cannot imagine myself doing any other job.”

As the conflict remains unresolved, border settlements like Khachik are strategic — most men of the 1,100-strong village are military contractors, soldiers who joined the army but are not career officers like Avetisyan. Families whose male members are all soldiers are not rare in the community.

Take the Asatryan family, where all the seven sons served.

“I’ve been a military contractor for 11 years. Here, a man is a soldier, that is the most honorable job and Khachik is on the border [with Azerbaijan],” explains  47-year-old Varuzhan Asatryan who joined the army after a few years as a farmer. He and his brother Sirekan, 49, are the only ones still in the army as their other four brothers have retired.

Growing up Father Hovhannes Matevosyan envisioned becoming a soldier, but he embraced priesthood instead — it is just another way to serve your country, he notes.

Father Hovhannes Matevosyan has been the local base’s chaplain since 2014 when he moved from the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, the seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

The paradigm of the army being a male-only kingdom is changing, in Armenia like elsewhere, as women have managed to cross traditional gender lines and work in the military. The change, albeit slow, is part of a larger phenomenon of women’s integration into traditionally masculine spheres.

It is not an easy path, as Kristine Beglaryan knows well. As the only woman serving at the base, she had to confront the skepticism of officers like Asatryan whose idea of the army is deeply rooted in what manhood is and means.

“In the beginning it was hard to be accepted, but they got used to it. For most of them today I’m not just “a woman” but an equal fellow soldier,” says the 38-year-old who heads the supply unit in Khachik where she’s been stationed for the last two of her 13 years in the army.

There is no mandatory service for women but enrollment has gained traction since the Defence Ministry opened two military academies to women; today reportedly the Armenian army employs over 2,000 female officers. The Ministry would not disclose the exact number.

Beglaryan’s life plans did not entail wearing a military uniform but when she divorced and became a single mother, the army provided a lifeline, both financial and psychological.

Some scholars argue that while women’s integration into traditionally masculine roles, like being a soldier, is not enough to change the gendered structure of the institution. But the experience can still be empowering as it raises women’s confidence and it opens up individual achievements in areas traditionally inaccessible to them.

“Gender stereotypes are rooted in society, but the idea that women cannot be a part of the security apparatus contradicts their versatile role and their functions as both historically and currently women have been playing an important role in the security system, ” argues Atanesyan who, alongside other researchers, have been monitoring the integration of women in the army. He says that women certainly played a key role in the conflict over Nagorno Karabakh, both in the 1990s and in the violence which erupted in April 2016.

Beglaryan is originally from Yeghegnadzor, a city 40 kilometers away from Khachik. Her 15-year-old son still lives there with his grandmother, and the two see each other rarely: her work is demanding and there is no public transport between the two locations.
Father Hovhannes Matevosyan, 29, was born not far from Khachik. After serving at the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, he fulfilled his dream to return to his native province of Vayots Dzor.
Arsen Gevorgyan (right), Suren Alikhanyan (centre) and Karen Muradyan (left) are all 19. They plan to stay in the military once they have completed their mandatory army service.
Twenty-year-old Arthur Abrahamyan is from Khachik. After serving his two-year mandatory army service, he stayed in the army to serve in the village, which is on the border with the Azerbaijani enclave of Nakhchivan. His two brothers are also soldiers.

In Khachik, despite Beglaryan’s presence, the army is still largely a bastion of manhood.

“I personally cannot accept that women can be soldiers,” concludes Asatryan Artyom Avetisyan. For him the military remains a man’s job.

Masculinities, April/May 2019

Chai Khana
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