Karabakh: Female Cadets in a Military Academy Built for Males

Author: Knar Babayan

Roughly two years ago, 16-year-old Arpine Avanesyan got what she describes as “the best present” ever for her birthday. It was not what most teenagers might want  -- parental consent to attend a military academy.

Nagorno Karabakh’s government-run Kristapor Ivanyan Military College has been coed since 2015, but it took the four-day conflict in April 2016 between Armenian and Karabakhi forces and Azerbaijan to prompt many of its 16 female students, like Avanesyan, to apply.

Located in Karabakh’s main town, Stepanakert, the academy prepares 110 students between the ages of 14 and 17 for a potential career in military service. Cadets follow the curriculum of Karabakh’s public schools, but also learn hand-to-hand combat, military readiness and how to fire an automatic rifle.  

Breaking stereotypes, though, appears to have been the most difficult part for the female cadets.

Most of the girls enrolled at Kristapor Ivanyan say that their parents agreed to their attending the military academy only after a long struggle. Many Karabakh residents still adhere to the traditional Caucasus view that women should look after their families and leave military matters to the men.   

All of Avanesyan’s family, for instance, opposed her attending the school except for her father, who had fought in Karabakh’s conflict with Azerbaijan in the early 1990s.

“After all the guests left [my birthday party], my father told our relatives that I will attend the military college and that it is not a topic of discussion anymore,” she recalls. “None of my relatives could contradict my father’s decision.”

Except on the frontline, women already serve in all parts of the Karabakh armed forces, says

Lieutenant Colonel Vahram Hakobyan, director of the Kristapor Ivanyan Military College. (There is no publicly available official data about how many do so.)

Hakobyan claims that a visit he paid in 2013 to Moscow’s Suvorov Military School, a prestigious, state-run Soviet-era academy which also has girl cadets, prompted the government to decide that Karabakh’s military academy, as well, should go coed.

“After seeing the girl cadets in the Suvorov military school, I thought ‘Why shouldn’t we also give girls the chance of becoming military professionals?’. . .” he recounts. “I am sure that, in departments related to logistical support, there are jobs which can be performed by women as well as by men.”

He excludes preparing females for the frontline, which he describes as no place for women.

Interviewed female cadets, though, noted that most of their male classmates still don’t think that females should be in either the military academy or the army.

Male cadets do not openly object to having female classmates, but some of the boys appear to see them more as their assistants than their equals.

Twenty-year-old cadet Artak Petrosyan, for instance, believes that female cadets will, as he puts it, stand behind Karabakh’s male soldiers and work in air-defense units, the signal corps or as nurses.

“History shows that in war situations a lot of women stood by their husbands. Our girls are continuing that tradition today,” he remarks.

In 2017, Eva Ghazaryan, 18, became the first female to graduate from the Kristapor Ivanyan Military College. She is now studying at the Armenak Khamperyants Aviation University in Yerevan. She plans to work in Karabakh’s armed forces after receiving her degree.

The military academy’s regulations require female cadets to keep their hair orderly and away from their faces. For many, braids are the best way to meet that requirement.

Cadet Erna Avagyan, 16, performs a traditional Armenian dance before guests on February 23, Defenders of the Fatherland Day. In 2018, the day also marked an annual commemoration of the Armenian language.

The Military College follows the curriculum of Karabakh’s public secondary schools, supplemented with military topics. Here, students follow Soviet tradition and take part in a supervised study hall for the next day’s classes.

Since enrolling in the Kristapor Ivanyan Military College, some of the female cadets have started wearing military-style jewelry, like this rifle pendant.

Cadets gather for breakfast on Monday, a day when they wear their dress uniforms. The free meal includes scrambled eggs, omelets, sausage, bread and tea.

Lena Amirkhanyan, 16, would like to attend Armenia’s Vazgen Sargsyan Military University to become a military engineer. She then plans to serve in either the Karabakhi or Armenian army.

Learning how to shoot a firearm, including in dim lighting, is part of female cadets’ training at the Kristapor Ivanyan Military College.

Svetlana Asryan, 16, has become so skilled at disassembling and reassembling a Kalashnikov rifle that she can do it blindfolded.

College cadets have one free hour after lunch before classes resume. Female students have a special room where they hang out, chat and listen to music.

Arpine Avanesyan, 16, and Anastasia Harutyunyan, 16, stand at either end of the front row during a routine Monday ceremony. They say they didn’t think about a military career when they were younger. Instead, they wanted to become a teacher or designer, respectively.

As in the army, cadets take part in an annual oath-taking ceremony. At the start of each academic year, they pledge to dedicate themselves to their studies.

Sixteen-year-old Lena Amirkhanyan, now in her second year at the academy, makes no mention of enrolling in the school for that reason.  Rather, her goal is to become a military engineer.

Something about a soldier’s job already had attracted her when, in 2015, her family moved from the Armenian town of Dilijan to Karabakh, where her mother had found a village teaching job. The 2016 conflict “encouraged” her to go ahead and apply to Kristapor Ivanyan, she says.

“I like being in the minority and standing out that way. . . . It’s very pleasant to stand out from all of society.”

The academy, however, is not yet entirely adapted for its female minority. Girls and boys have the same uniforms. Separate restrooms exist, but dormitory space – except for two girls unable to find nearby accommodation -- does not. The academy plans to build a new barrack for 30 female cadets, Hakobyan says.

Graduates from Karabakh’s academy must serve in the armed forces after receiving their degrees or graduating from university, but they are not obliged to choose a military career.  

Amirkhanyan, though, has already made her choice: “If I don’t serve, it will mean that I wasted all these years,” she says.

This material may contain terms which are not favored by all parties of the dispute/conflict. Terms used in the story belong to the author and not Chai Khana.




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