At the turn of the 20th century, the movement calling for women’s right to vote was spreading worldwide, but a young republic in the South Caucasus was already ahead of history.
On May 28, 1918, the Republic of Armenia was established on the ashes of the Russian Empire in the Armenian-populated territories also known as Eastern Armenia. On June 21 and 23, 1919, the first direct parliamentary elections were held under universal suffrage -- every person over the age of 20 had the right to vote regardless of gender, ethnicity or religious beliefs.
The 80-seat legislature, charged with setting the foundation for an Armenian state, contained three women deputies: Katarine Zalyan-Manukyan, Perchuhi Partizpanyan-Barseghyan and Varvara Sahakyan. They all served in the ranks of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), also known as Dashnaktsutyun, a socialist-leaning political party which was founded in 1890 in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, and is still active today.
Details about their lives are scarce and their political career was short-lived, as was the Armenian Republic itself. In December 1920, it crumbled under a Bolshevik invasion. Armenia became part of the Soviet Union until 1991. The collapse of the USSR established what is called Armenia’s Third Republic.
Yet the vibrant two years of the First Republic represented a significant experiment for women’s rights and political participation.
Under tsarist rule, neither sex could do anything about voting rights for women, a standard socialist principle. But with the establishment of the First Republic, its male politicians opted for change.
“[These men] were educated abroad and had witnessed the movements [for emancipation in Europe] . . .” says Lilit Zakaryan, deputy head of the Yerevan-based ProMedia-Gender non-governmental organization. “[It was the] men who raised the issue of emancipation. They understood that women could have a big role in the survival of the nation.”
Scholar Anahit Harutyunyan notes that, consequently, Armenia did not experience the women’s rights movement in the same way as did countries of the West.
The three women who obtained the most prominent public positions under the new republic were not celebrated feminist-activists, but, rather, were educated, socially active women married to leading politicians, who, like many of their colleagues in the ARF, supported a public role for women.
A nurse noted for her work with orphans and migrants, Zalyan-Manukyan in 1917 married Aram Manukyan, later one of the First Republic’s founding fathers. A year later, she had a daughter, Seda. She coordinated the women who volunteered at the hospitals during the battles of Sardarabad, Gharakilisa and Bash-Aparan between Armenians and Turks against the backdrop of World War I. Typhus claimed her husband’s life in January 1919. A few months later, she was appointed a member of parliament’s health committee.
After Armenia came under Bolshevik control, she moved to Krasnodar, a city in southwestern Russia, because of political persecution, but returned in 1927 as the Armenian Socialist Soviet Republic needed doctors. Years later, she relocated to Moscow, where she died in 1965.
Born in 1886 in Edirne, a city in modern-day western Turkey, Perchuhi Partizpanyan-Barseghyan was 16 when she met her future husband Sargis Barseghyan, an ARF member and leader of the fedayi, Armenian militias active in eastern Turkey. She founded the Women’s Union to spread knowledge of the Armenian language and culture as well as the ARF’s revolutionary manifesto. She then moved to Geneva, Switzerland, to study literature and pedagogy and started to write under the pen name of Etna.
She later returned to Ottoman Turkey. On April 24, 1915, her husband was among the hundreds of Armenian intellectuals that the Ottoman authorities arrested, and killed in then Constantinople; the first in a series of massacres of ethnic Armenians during and after World War I, which Armenia and 30 other countries recognize as Genocide.
After living and teaching in Sofia, Bulgaria, and Tbilisi, Georgia, she relocated to Yerevan and ran for parliament in the 1919 elections. When the Bolsheviks crushed Armenia’s short-lived republican dream, she returned to Sofia, then moved to Paris, where she continued her literary activity until her death in 1940.
An ARF member from an early age, Varvara Sahakyan was married to Avetik Sahakyan, the First Republic’s parliamentary president. She focused on education, initiating legislation. After the Bolsheviks’ occupation of Armenia [during which her husband was imprisoned with other national figures in Yerevan] and the failure of a 1921 February uprising, the Sahakyans and their two children walked to Tabriz, in what is today Iran. It was the first leg of a pilgrimage that took them to southern Iran, then Iraq, and, finally, to Beirut, Lebanon. In 1932, Varvara Sahakyan lost her second child, Armenak; a year later, her husband. She died in 1934.
A fourth female public figure from these years, Diana Abgar, took a different path to public life. A child of the diaspora, Abgar was born in today’s Myanmar. On July 2, 1920, she was appointed Armenia’s envoy to Japan, then a totally male-dominated society. Serving until 1921, she ranked as one of the world’s first female ambassadors.
“There was one principle [unifying them all]: serve your nation,” Anush Amesyan, the director of the Yerevan-based ARF History Museum, says of the three MPs. “These women started their activity during their student years and had career paths just like their male colleagues.”
One hundred years later, Armenia seems to have lost that progressive vision.
Though parliament today contains far more women MPs than under the First Republic -- a total of 18 out of 105 parliamentarians -- that number is the lowest in the South Caucasus. Only two ministers (Culture Minister Lilit Makunts and Labor and Social Affairs Minister Mane Tandilyan) serve in the 17-member state cabinet.
“We have gone backward. Today, just a few decision-makers are women,” comments Harutyunyan. [I believe it is because] “we did not go through feminism and have not learned how to defend our rights. Women [do] get into some parties, but they play a neutral role and even when they are included in an election list, it is just a result of the quota system.”
Over the years, Armenia has introduced and progressively increased gender quotas to ensure that women are included in political parties’ lists of candidates for parliament -- from a minimum of 5 percent in 1999 to 25 percent in 2017. A plan now exists to raise that quota again to 30 percent in 2022.
Gender quotas, however, remain a contentious issue and critics maintain that women’s participation should be a natural result of an equal society and not imposed by law.
Fifty-three-year-old MP Naira Zohrabyan, who has voted for an increased gender quota, agrees. She stresses, though, that climbing the political ladder without quotas is complex.
“Unfortunately, in Armenia, the rules of the game do not allow women to be competitive in politics,” explains Zohrabyan, a Prosperous Armenia deputy who has headed the parliamentary Committee on European Integration since 2008. “We have vicious electoral traditions [in terms of] administrative and financial resources. There has been a stereotype that politics is not a woman's business or that women engaged in politics are not feminine.”
By running for election in 1919, Armenia’s three first women MPs lay the groundwork for eventually overcoming that stereotype.
May 2018 Memory edition