BY NORA HOVSEPIAN, ESQ.
Presented at Women: Resisting, Rising, Reframing
Organized by AYF UHRC
March 5, 2017
To all my female friends, ungerouhis, out there, let me start by saying Happy International Women’s Day as we celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women overall, and of Armenian women in particular!
I want to thank the AYF and the United Human Rights Council and commend them for taking the initiative to organize this important event, and I am grateful for this opportunity to talk to you all about how I see the role of the Armenian woman in every facet of our national identity.
From ancient times, the primary deity Anahit was the goddess of fertility, morality and maternity, symbolizing someone who is willing to sacrifice her own needs and desires to dedicate herself completely to her family. Not much has changed, has it?
With the advent of Christianity, women have been revered most prominently through Saint Mary, Mayr Asdvadzadzin, patron saint of all human beings, watching over them with maternal care and a healing hand.
Even in the Armenian language, the essential role of the woman as mother, is evident: Mother Church (Mayr Dajar), Mother Armenia (Mayr Hayasdan), and Mother Tongue (Mayr Lezou). The beautiful Mayr Hayasdan statue overlooking Yerevan is the female personification of our Homeland, symbolizing peace through strength and guarding the City and the Nation against all challengers and attackers.
The important role of the woman – the mother – in Armenian society has remained a constant in times of crisis and in times of peace over thousands of years. But what is unique especially in the last century and till now is that the Armenian woman represents all that was lost and all that is needed to rise and thrive.
We are, after all, a nation of survivors. Collectively and through time, we have seen war, displacement, Genocide, forced and unforced assimilation, and evolving female roles from traditional dependency to modern self-sufficiency. We have come through history consistently as the wives, mothers and grandmothers who have been the glue holding our families together, protecting all that is sacred, and holding our national pride in our hands to pass down to our children, all the while trying to juggle competing interests of our own individual advancement. There is really no one else in the traditional Armenian family unit who has a greater or more complex role than the mother.
Even though the traditional role of the Armenian woman has always been as a homemaker, wife and mother, the women in Armenian society were never afraid to grab the rifle, literally and figuratively, to go fight alongside their husbands and sons for the Homeland, ranging from Sosse Mayrig – a living legend for her courage as a fedayee fighting alongside Serop Aghpiur and their two sons – to Diana Apgar, the first ever female ambassador in the world who was sent by Armenia to Japan in 1919, to the female members of Parliament of the First Republic which incidentally gave women the right to vote even before the U.S. did, to the “Hidden Armenians,” Islamized survivors of the Genocide, mostly women, who had the courage and foresight to preserve and reveal their true Armenian identities to their Turkish and Kurdish families, and to the mothers who protect the villages of Artsakh after sending their men and sons to the front lines. One of my favorite photos of all time is of this 90-year-old Armenian mamig in Artsakh defending her home during the early 1990’s from enemy threat, certainly a continuation toward the end of her life of the same threat she likely faced at the start. And yet you see such determination, such resolve in the deep lines of her face and the fire in her eyes that you just know that she is unflinchingly fearless and will not be defeated. She symbolizes the strength and resilience of the Armenian woman, and in honor of Women’s Day, I want to leave this as a gift for the AYF to remind you of the force amongst us.
Today, we owe the preservation of our national identity mostly to our grandmothers who survived the Genocide – those who raised their children in foreign lands while making every sacrifice to ensure that they maintained their heritage, resisted assimilation, and understood their national duty. How many times have we heard our grandmothers passionately admonish us to speak Armenian – Hyeren khosetsek – and marry Armenian – Hye arek! How many of us have found ourselves admonishing our own children the same way?
I myself have gone through various stages in my life, as I’m sure all of us have or will, starting with Armenian activism in my youth (I am a proud AYF alumna) and getting to where I am now, privileged and proud to serve as Chair of the ANCA-Western Region, actively pursuing Hye Tad through politics, trying hard along with my teammates and fellow volunteers to motivate and activate our grassroots to become civically engaged, to make our collective voices heard in the halls of government, in our schools and universities, in the media, and in the ballot box, all the while facing the David vs. Goliath-like challenges posed by a much better funded, much more powerful Turkish and Azeri lobby which enjoys the geopolitical advantage over our relatively small but fervently persistent Diasporan Armenian-American community. It is tough, but it is invigorating. It is infuriating at times, but it is more gratifying when we succeed than almost anything else, and the sense of camaraderie, unity of purpose, and passionate activism continue to propel us forward.
Like many of my contemporaries and friends, I took some time off from organizational activism while my daughter was young. But I tried to make up for it by instilling in her the seeds of Armenian national responsibility by speaking Armenian, teaching her to read and write Armenian, sending her to Armenian school, taking her regularly to church, and exposing her on a daily basis to our traditional Armenian values. It was only after she became more independent that I returned to organizational life, trying to pick up where I had left off and hopefully doing it better than before with added years of maturity, education and life experience behind me.
Yet I still marvel at my peers who have 2, 3 and even 4 kids, juggle careers, maintain their homes, and still manage to serve the Armenian Cause in different ways and with varying degrees of activism, most of all starting in the home. They are the true role models for us all, and I salute them today.
In the end, in spite of the many challenges we face as women of all ages, and as Armenian women in particular, we each have a vital role to play in the preservation and advancement of Armenian society. Some of us may be active in our schools or the Church; still others may be active in Armenian community and charitable organizations. Some of us are advocates, some are leaders, others are workers. Virtually all are volunteers. Most of us do all of this while navigating the demands of our careers, managing a household, shuttling our kids to sports activities and play dates, and trying our best to be good wives and mothers, all the while still trying to find the time and energy to take care of ourselves as well. Yet when we see our Armenian sisters all doing the same, we find strength in their example. And when we are fortunate to have men in our lives who encourage and support us, as I have had first with my dad and then with my husband, then it makes it all easier.
In my own life, I have been privileged to have three phenomenal female role models who have shaped my existence, starting with my own mother. Until I was a teenager, she was a typical stay-at-home mom, selflessly catering to our every need, maintaining the family unit and instilling in her two daughters the importance of getting a good education and having a professional career, while also cultivating the Armenian spirit in us by her own activism through the A.R.F., A.R.S., the Ferrahian PTO and Holy Martyrs Church. Then when she had to work, she continued to serve as a role model in how to juggle the demands of motherhood, homemaker, career woman and activist, all of which laid the foundation and set a good example for me to do the same. Even in her later years, she has continued to do so, serving as a devoted grandmother to my daughter, guiding and supporting me in my challenges as a working mother and community activist, and helping in every possible way to care for her grandchildren as selflessly and with as much love as she always cared for her own children, and for this, I am eternally grateful.
My paternal grandmother was a Genocide survivor who raised her son in New York as a true Hayaser patriotic young man, active in the AYF and the Church, speaking Armenian at home, maintaining traditional values, and teaching him to read and write Armenian. Yet while instilling the Armenian spirit within him, she like many others of her generation, could not find the strength to tell him about how she survived the Genocide by holding onto the branch of a weeping willow tree at the edge of the Euphrates River while her family drowned around her. At the young age of 9, she was the only one who survived. She kept this horrific pain to herself, protecting her son and never telling him about it, but then making the very difficult decision to tell me, her 10-year-old first-born grandchild, when she heard the news about Gourgen Yanikian’s revenge in assassinating two Turkish diplomats in 1973. She sat me down and told me the story in vivid detail, begging me to keep her story alive, to tell the world about the plight of our family and our Nation. Though I didn’t quite understand the magnitude of this enormous weight on my shoulders at the time, it was this mission that was imparted on me as a child that I continue to pursue so fervently today and to pass on to my own daughter and anyone else who will listen. I’m sure that many of you here today have had similar experiences and have felt the same sense of duty toward the Genocide survivors in your families.
As an adult, my third maternal role model was my mother-in-law, the matriarch of a large family, the anchor who insisted upon maintaining family traditions of nightly home-cooked meals in her traditional Armenian kitchen, speaking only Armenian in the home, and passing on these same traditions to my daughter, who cannot now even imagine living her life any other way. For this too, I am eternally grateful, and I hope that my daughter and others in her generation will carry on the same traditions in their own future families that we have all strived so hard to maintain and instill within them.
All three of these strong, kind and loving women have had such a powerful influence on me and have set a high bar to follow in their footsteps.
And yet, I am sure that my experience is by no means unique in modern Armenian society. Many of you in this audience undoubtedly have had similar female influences shaping your lives. For those who are around my age, it was after all our mothers’ generation that really became the first to encourage its young women to pursue higher education, professional careers, and financial independence while continuing to serve their families and the Armenian Cause.
Consequently, it has been our generation that gave rise to the modern two-income family, both out of financial necessity as well as at out of our own quest for individual advancement. But we cannot do it alone. Many of us have had to reach out for help, hiring nannies to help raise our children while we pursued careers outside the home.
Our own nanny, a sweet and loving Armenian woman from Aleppo once said to me, “Yavrum, yes bedk che medztsunem ays chojoukhuh. Moruh deghuh meguh chi grnar arnel. Toon bedk e doonuh mnas yev medztsunes. Kich muh kichov pavararvetzek, yev mi ashkhadir.” [“I should not be the one raising this child. No one can take the mother’s place. You should stay home and raise her. Be satisfied with a little less material things so you can do it, and don’t work.”] But I had to explain to her through my own feelings of guilt, that it was not about being satisfied with less material things. If I wanted to be really honest, it was also about not losing all I had struggled so hard with years of higher education to accomplish.
This revelation left me wondering at what price we are willing as mothers to pursue our own careers while doing everything else, because certainly we are not super women. We can juggle our time only so much, but in the end, like it or not, there really are only 24 hours in a day and only 7 days in a week. There just isn’t enough time to do everything perfectly, no matter how good or sincere our intentions may be, and something along the way inevitably has to suffer.
In my case, since we lost my mother-in-law a few years ago, what has suffered are some of the daily rituals – nightly family dinners with home-cooked traditional Armenian meals on the table, weekly extended family gatherings, and a true sense of coming to a warm home filled with life every night. Yes, unfortunately, this has all suffered and has been replaced with longer work hours, organizational meetings several nights per week, eating out more often, and just struggling to get our small but incredibly busy family to sit down together to have a nice meal and to just talk about our day as we used to do. But it is a delicate balancing act that I and I’m sure so many of you try to maintain the best we can between such competing interests in our lives, and I am proud that my daughter has herself become an activist, not by force or through pressure, but by the choice she has made because of the many influences she has seen in her own life.
So in this multifaceted role that we all play, which should suffer or be sacrificed? Mother, homemaker, career woman, or activist? All seem equally important, but I would venture to say that being an activist, an Armenian activist to any degree that we can muster, is at the very heart of being a good Armenian mother as we teach our children the importance of their heritage.
While it may be tempting to place our role as activist last on our list of priorities, if our Armenian-ness is important to us, as I’m sure it is, then it must be right up there alongside motherhood. This is the true essence of the Armenian mother that makes her unique and should be acknowledged and celebrated even if there are not enough hours in a day to do everything perfectly.
In the end, this must be our collective mission – to maintain our family role, to advance our Cause, to maintain our cultural heritage, history, language and religion, to feel the burden of the responsibility passed down to us from our generation of Genocide survivors and to become role models for our own daughters and sons to emulate as they try to navigate the often conflicting demands they will face as parents, professionals, and activists. Because if we, or they, fail to do so, the very survival of our Nation will be at risk, and we will have failed to live up to the demands placed upon us, both explicitly and implicitly, by our mothers and grandmothers before us.
As modern Armenian women of the 21st century, those of us with young daughters should encourage them to be independent, educated, assertive, and strong as they face the challenges of the world and future motherhood, while still maintaining and cultivating their Armenian roots and developing a willingness and desire to serve their Nation as an integral and inseparable part of serving themselves and their families.
And those of us with grandchildren should make ourselves available to play an active role in raising them with the same traditions that we have learned, trying to ease the stresses of their parents while providing stability and protection within the confines of our multifaceted Armenian reality. As many of us have had the privilege and good fortune, as I have, to have our mothers and mothers-in-law help us raise our children as the best option, we know that the grandmothers of our families will instill the same values in our children as they did in us, to raise their grandchildren as good and decent human beings, but most importantly as patriotic Armenians who will feel both the pride and the burden of their national identity.
And those of you young women who are just starting on the path of adult life with all its burdens, challenges and responsibilities, know that you can look to your mothers and grandmothers, your sisters and peers, to show you the way to synthesize your Armenian-ness with your personal ambitions and goals, to juggle careers and family obligations with your Hye Tad activism, to be great role models for your own children without sacrificing any of the important aspects of your lives.
After all, we, the women in Armenian society, are the guardians of a nation which has survived for thousands of years, and it is up to us to protect future generations from the constant threat of annihilation and assimilation.
And all of us, male and female, must play an active role in the pursuit of the Armenian Cause, within our community and within our homes, because to do anything less would be a dishonor to all those who struggled, fought and died for the survival of our Nation. As the mothers and anchors of our families, we are in a unique position to accomplish this task. It is not easy to be Armenian, especially in the Diaspora, and we can choose, if we want, to forget about our national identity, assimilate, and have much simpler lives. But in reflecting on the sacred mission of the Armenian mother in our life, in reaffirming our deep love and respect for her, and in reminding her, in reminding ourselves, of the importance of maintaining our unique role and true image, we must choose this more difficult path because to our proud Nation, we certainly owe nothing less.
So celebrate your womanhood, and be empowered. You have it within you to be bold, fearless, passionate and committed to yourselves, your families, your community, and Hye Tad, all at the same time. And when you do, I, along with my sisters, will see you in the trenches.