“Do you have any news yet?”

Aren Melikyan

In most ways, Satin Aleksanyan, 27, is a typical young woman: she loves soccer, practices yoga and dreams of moving to France.

Single, with an eye on her career, Aleksanyan is not interested in marriage and children. And that makes her very atypical for Armenia, where she lives with her parents.

In Armenian, the word ''kin'' refers to both a ''woman'' and ''wife'': young women like Aleksanyan are expected to marry and have children.

That expectation goes beyond parents’ wishes for grandchildren or an heir to continue the family name. Armenia’s conservative society views childbearing as a woman’s responsibility.

Aleksanyan has started practicing yoga as a way to find peace amid all the pressure she feels in society. She has trouble with relationships because Armenian men want to marry and have children; they find her lifestyle abnormal.

“I believe I live a great life. I am a very happy person in spite of all possible problems. The source of my happiness is internal,” Aleksanyan says.

“In Armenia, as in every patriarchal society, they tend to isolate women from public spaces by giving her very limited and defined roles such as that of a mother and wife -- the one who takes care of children and other family members. Those roles are presented as an integral and main part of a woman's identity, beyond which the woman does not ‘exist,’” notes researcher Anahit Simonyan.

The expectation extends to government and politics as well.

In August Armenian Premier Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced a government strategy to increase the population of the country to five million, up from the three million.

The state often encourages the view that a woman’s worth is measured by the number of her offspring. For example, during his pre-election campaign, Pashinyan defended a female member of his team – accused of being a feminist activist – by presenting her as the mother of four children. 

The fact that she has children is considered a natural defence, proof that she is a good, moral person.

“Society’s attitude towards a woman who does not want to have children or does not want to take those roles is negative. Such women are viewed as a ‘threat’ to patriarchal norms… Being childfree is natural for men too, but it never becomes the basis for public shaming, disapproval or labelling. Women who do not want to have children are labelled by society as incomplete, lonely and miserable,” notes Simonyan. 

For married women, that means pressure to have children quickly. “Do you have any news yet” – code for “are you pregnant yet?” – is a common question after a few weeks of marriage.

24-year-old Lilith Baghdasaryan, a feminist activist and marketing specialist at an IT company based in Yerevan, says she and her husband hear that question regularly from seemingly everyone -- close relations and random strangers.

She notes that many in Armenia view having children as an obligatory step to being successful. 

‘’A significant part of society considers women to be ‘’incubators’’ whose body is ready to bear children, especially male children. ...I have heard cases when people urge 34 to 35-year-old women to have at least a child because they will need someone to take care of them when they are older,” Baghdasaryan says.

For Baghdasaryan, the issue has become less problematic due to her and her husband’s united response. 

‘’As time passes this conversation is happening less and less frequently. We have managed to communicate to those who are asking that this is not their business, but rather it is our own personal life and the decision should be made exclusively between the two of us,’’ Bagdasaryan notes.

For single women like Aleksanyan, however, the situation is more perilous.

She first started to question the goal of marriage and kids when she was around 18, Aleksanyan says. Now her focus is on her career at a French company, and her plans to write a book.

Aleksanyan’s biggest dream is to move to France and publish a book there. Her French is fluent and currently she works for a French company based in Yerevan. Her family has suggested she should marry a Frenchman if that is what she wants. 

She says her dreams and goals do not include getting married and having children.

“I am on my way to reaching my goals and I cannot imagine my life any other way until I reach those goals. I just can’t imagine.”

While her parents have supported her career and interests – they encouraged her to learn French and helped her to spend time in the country – Aleksanyan says she is feeling increased pressure to get married and have children. 

When relatives start to hound her, she argues that nature could not have created women just for childbirth: what about all those who cannot have children?

But in response, she has been called an “egoist”, “incomprehensible”, and warned that God may punish her for not having children. 

The subject is so sensitive even Aleksanyan’s friends and colleagues have warned her not to speak about her plans to stay childless, telling her that it could “endanger her fate.”

They also say it is not “normal” for a woman to not have a maternal instinct.

While Aleksanyan has dismissed their comments, the pressure to confirm has taken its toll.

At one point, Aleksanyan even visited psychologists, seeking help with dealing with the pressure to change. But instead of assistance, she said they tried to “fix” her by changing her world view. One told Aleksanyan that it was “egoism” to not want to have children, another warned that she was acting out feelings of jealousy because other women already had children. After that, she stopped going. 

‘’Sometimes I wish society accepted me as I am, wouldn’t call me abnormal. They must understand that this type of woman also exists in this world,” she says.

Satin Aleksanyan, 27, is single and committed to living a full life in conservative Armenia. She loves sports and, as a member of First Armenian Front football fans’ club, she never misses a match in Yerevan.

56-year-old Karine Avanian says she does not worry about being accepted by Armenian society, however. 

Avanian, who grew up in a family that did not pressure her to get married, says she believes society pressures women to marry to support the “institution of the family.” But she has never thought of having a family as the path to happiness.

Avanian says she felt having children would be the source of unending anxiety, something she felt unable to bear.

Instead, she has a nephew she adores and a life full of travel and activism.

Three things that are always in Avanian’s backpack: a pair of gloves, for collecting plastic; a book by Russian writer Marina Tsvetaeva; and a wooden red cow, reminding her a popular Armenian proverb “a red cow never changes its color.”

"I love Yerevan like a lot of women can not love their husbands. I feel a physical attraction to this city, " Karine says.

‘’I notice that my close female friends are jealous of my freedom, my independence to make my own decisions,” she says.

“They always want to keep in touch with me, because my company is a source of fresh air that allows them to come out of their abyss of ‘family happiness.’ … And of course, they feel pinned in, they see that life without marriage is possible, and they feel that though having successful children is awesome, the price for that family happiness is their whole life,” Avanian says.


Photos by Mariam Terzian

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