"Mother Armenia" and "Mother of Georgia"

Women's Role and Position in Armenian and Georgian Society

By Dr. Shushanik Minasyan
"Mother Armenia" and "Mother of Georgia"
Image: Diana Forker

For transition countries with patriarchal societies, the emancipation debate poses an enormous challenge. It is often observed that traditional stereotypes about women’s roles and responsibilities in society prevent the development of gender equality because it is often perceived as a threat to cultural identity as well as traditional values. Similar patterns of perception can be found in all former Soviet countries that have experienced profound sociopolitical metamorphosis over the past 30 years.i Armenia and Georgia, which have achieved peaceful political changes in recent years and thereby form a contrast to the authoritarian political culture in many neighbouring states, are no exceptions. Both countries have already taken considerable political steps towards the development of equal rights for men and women. It should be noted that such progress is identifiable. In recent decades, Armenia and Georgia have signed a large number of fundamental international conventions on gender equality that require their commitment to continuing to improve the legislative and policy framework on gender equality. However, despite political measures, women’s rights remain a problematic issue in both countries.

Gender inequalities are caused by the interplay of multiple factors. The tough struggle for equal roles for men and women arises primarily from the social structure in both Armenian and Georgian societies. This problem is first and foremost reflected in prenatal gender selection. The high ratio of male-to-female births points to an undervaluing of women in Armenian and Georgian society. For several years, United Nations’ reports and research conducted by non-governmental organizationsExternal link have been concerned about the high incidence of selective abortion in both countries. Studies stated preferencesExternal link for the sex of the childExternal link among pregnant women and that families decide to terminate the pregnancy if they are expecting a girl. The reasons for preferring sons are based on the belief that sons are lineage holders. Furthermore, the economic aspect also plays a decisive role.External link The assumption that boys are likely to contribute financial support to their family is predominant in both societies. This awareness is also heightened by protracted conflicts and security instabilities in the region. While women are identified primarily as mothers or caregivers, men are valued as future soldiers and defenders of the homeland.

Physical violence against women also poses a serious social problem, which is generally justified within these cultures. Hegemonic masculinityii operates through social norms and it contributes to sustaining hierarchical gender relations between men and women, allowing such relations to be perceived as normal and legitimate. This narrow view of masculinity very often generates an informal set of social rules that assumes a subordination of women and builds a tolerance of violence against female individuals. This traditional, conservative view on men and women’s roles in society is also justified by religious arguments. Armenian and Georgian churches tend to position themselves as champions of the perceived hierarchical morality and protectors of traditional values,iii including discriminatory gender norms. Women have been restricted from holding positions in these institutions since their formation, and are not allowed to work for the Church as nuns or occupy a pastor’s position. These roles are reserved only for males. In particular the Georgian Orthodox church heavily affects the perpetuation of masculinity and patriarchy in the country due to its decisive role in the gender discourse as a powerful and respected institution in Georgian society.iv

Interestingly, hegemonic masculinity starts at home, particularly from marriage. Fathers may treat their daughters like princesses, but after getting married, women experience a metamorphosis of their social role in public perception by receiving new obligations and responsibilities. Very often this contradiction can be also observed in a family context within ArmenianExternal link and GeorgianExternal link households. Many girls are expected to uphold a level of dignity and integrity that meet the norms of the society. The ‘princess-love’ very often includes preparation for the future social role and obligations. This tendency increased along with the political and economic transformation after the collapse of the Soviet Union. External linkWhile men were dealing with adaptive difficulties in the new economic reality, having fears about their jobs as well as social status, many women were very creative and found ways to support themselves quickly in the new economic structure. In order to compensate for the shift in men’s role, society generated new norms for the maintenance of masculinity. In the course of globalisation and growing feminist movements, accompanied by the change of male self-perception, masculinity in Armenia and Georgia was undergoing radical transformation. It became aggressive and self-determined.

This environment is furthermore supported by a culture of silence. Many women are afraidExternal link to articulate this problemExternal link because they would put themselves in danger of being excluded from their social group as well as family. Traditional Armenian and Georgian culture emphasizes the centrality of family and only a married woman is considered to be a full-fledged respected mother. In cases of divorce or marital dissolution, women experience discrimination and rising disregard in their close social surroundings because in both countries separation is considered shameful. The perception of society puts the blame on women in most cases. Hence if women become victims of domestic violence, they feel left alone in a helpless situation. Violence within the family is not only strongly relativized, but also socially negated, and many women consider it pointless trying to go to the police. Because of the manner in which these societies privilege masculinity, statements and complaints of women are not taken seriously. As soon as children are in the family, the situation for women becomes more complicated because women have limited access to the court system to claim their rights of child custody, child support, and joint property. So many women choose to be silent in order to avoid any attention and the potential for violence. As such, young women adopt a range of strategies to maintain their invisibility as a means of protecting and preserving their physical well-being. This strategy, however, creates and maintains further silence around their experiences.

These social tendencies are additionally impacted by deficiencies in the legal context. ArmeniaExternal link as well as GeorgiaExternal link have adopted a number of policiesExternal link and strategiesExternal link, including the National Action Plan for the Implementation of the Human Rights Strategy, with the specific objective of achieving gender equality through the empowerment of women and combating domestic violence. However, there are no comprehensive legal provisions for preventing violence or discrimination against women. For example, Armenian law does not effectively protect survivors of domestic violence. The law defines domestic violence as “a physical, sexual, psychological, or economic act of violence” between family members, including spouses in unregistered marriages. It is unquestionable whether the law also applies to couples that are not in either registered or unregistered marriages. Just before submitting the law on domestic violenceExternal link to parliament in 2017, the government revised the law to include “strengthening of traditional values in the family” as a key principle. Authorities also changed the title to add the concept of “restoring harmony in the family.” There is a concern that the new principle of “traditional values” could be used to reinforce obsolete and problematic gender roles and stereotypes. Women activistsExternal link also fear an emphasis on “restoring harmony” could be used to pressure women to remain in abusive relationships. The same problem can also be observed in Georgian law, where many formulations regarding domestic violence against women remain vague.

Given the gender discourse challenges noted above and their deep roots in Armenia and Georgia, the struggle for women’s rights will remain a key issue of the socio-political transition process. The creation of political and legal conditions will not be enough to modernize the gender discourse because the reasons for such development are deeply embedded in the social structure and national perceptions. Coherent civil society actions and open dialogue between different groups in society are needed for sustainable change. Unfortunately, the willingness to engage in an open dialogue is not yet apparent in either society.

i LaFont, Suzanne. 2001. “One Step forward, two Steps back: Women in the Post-Communist States.” Communist and Post-Communist Studies 34, no. 2: 203-220. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0967-067X(01)00006-X.
ii Connell, R. W. and James W. Messerschmidt. 2005. “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept.” Gender & Society 19, no. 6: 829–859. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243205278639.
iii The Foreign Policy Centre. “Traditional Religion and Political Power: Examining the Role of the Church in Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine and Moldova.” Edited by Adam Hug. London, October 2015. https://fpc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/1707.pdf.
iv Gurchiani, Ketevan. 2021. “Women and the Georgian Orthodox Church.” In Women and Religiosity in Orthodox Christianity, edited by Ina Merdjanova, 101-128. New York: Fordham Uni-versity Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv1zm2tjd.8.

Author Bio:
Dr. Shushanik Minasyan is a DAAD Postdoctoral Fellow at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). She serves also as a research assistant at the University of Bonn and at the Center for Advanced Security, Strategic and Integration Studies (CASSIS), a new interdisciplinary research centre of the University of Bonn in the field of strategic foreign, European, and security research. She received her Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Bonn in 2016. Her research focuses on the new security order and transformation processes in former Soviet countries. Over the past fourteen years she worked in a large variety of interdisciplinary research contexts, starting with her time as a Postgraduate scholar of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and Open Society Institute (OSI) as well as a Ph.D. scholar of the Konrad-Adenauer Foundation, and her academic position at the Technical University of Darmstadt with a regional focus on Central Asia and Caucasus.

Peer reviewed by:
Dr. Franziska Smolnik, The German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik – SWP), Berlin, Germany