Akhtala’s main square is a microcosmos of Armenia’s social norms. The square, known as the meidan, of this northern town of 2,000 can teem with life as residents mingle to chat and play backgammon and chess - and they are all men.
Public spaces are exclusively male kingdoms in small rural towns in Armenia: unwritten rules consider it shameful for women to hang out in the street as well in local cafes. Women face judgement if seen hanging around the square or parks around the town, notes Angela Matevosyan, 59, a member of Akhtala’s women council which is an informal union that implements programme to support unemployed women.
In Akhtala, most of the men found throwing dice over political discussions are largely without a job - unemployment is estimated at 30 percent, far over the 2018 national average of 16.9 percent. Rich in copper, the area’s economy has been living off the mining industry for over 200 years and today a few hundred people - from both Akhtala and surrounding villages - work at the troubled local plant, which has been accused of corruption and toxic pollution.
“[Those men] have nothing to do besides gathering in the meidan and discussing the problems of the city and unemployment inside and outside of the country and migration work,” local resident Aram Parsadanyan says.
Parsadanyan, 29, is an exception. When he graduated with a degree in journalism at the Yerevan State University in 2010 he returned to his hometown only to realize that his diploma was not going to take him far.
He managed to secure a job in town at a local cafe and is challenging the stereotypes that define work in the kitchen and as a waiter as suitable only for women.