A note from the author: At the end of March 2009, I submitted the following article to the Editor of the Armenian Weekly for inclusion in the April 24 special magazine issue. Because the Weekly was also publishing another article of mine in that issue, he decided to postpone the publication of this one. Given the ARF’s proposal of a new “roadmap to regime change” focused on long-term, strategic thinking about the important challenges facing the Armenian Republic and diaspora today, publishing this piece seems particularly timely. I hope the ARF will expand its main areas of long-term concern to include sexual and domestic violence against and trafficking of Armenian women and girls.
If one were to read through the scholarship and the media articles written on the Armenian Genocide in recent decades, one might not notice a glaring omission. With the exception of very few books and articles, most notably Donald and Linda Touryan Miller’s Survivors: An Oral History of the Armenian Genocide (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1993), there is almost no sustained discussion or analysis of the extensive and profound occurrence of violence against women and girls in the genocide. There is often mention in passing, without detail or analysis, of the rapes and sexual enslavement of Armenian women and girls as an obvious concomitant of the total violence of genocide. If, however, one reads through contemporaneous eyewitness accounts, such as those collected in Ara Sarafian’s United States Official Documents on the Armenian Genocide 1915-1917 (Princeton, N.J.: Gomidas Institute Books, 2004) and survivor accounts, such as those presented in Survivors, one cannot help but be struck by the utter pervasiveness of the rape of girls and women and of their abduction or coercion into sexual or domestic slavery. So many accounts contain chilling mention of these acts. Despite attempts to soften the ghastly reality experienced by Armenian (and Greek and Assyrian) women and girls through vagary and euphemisms such as “violation” and “outrage,” the scale and horror of even the sanitized versions leap off the page. Case after case, story after story, the drum beat of brutal sexual torture of girls and women pounds at the reader’s head.
One example of hundreds has stuck in my mind, haunting it, from Survivors: “References to sexual abuse abound in our interviews…but one of the most graphic accounts was of a young girl who was raped by one of the Turkish leaders of a town through which their caravan passed. Gendarmes went through the caravan and found an especially pretty 12-year-old girl. They dragged her away from her mother, telling the weeping woman that they would return her. And, in fact, the child was returned, but she had been terribly abused and died.” As appalling as these few sentences are, to understand the scale of the horror, one must multiply this one incident by a million to begin to grasp the scale of gruesome suffering Turkish and other genocide perpetrators inflicted on Armenian and other minority girls and women. Reading a true history of that suffering, if each girl and woman could tell her story, would take a lifetime. To read just one book of it is enough to traumatize the reader. Of course, this is nothing compared to what it must have been to experience it.
Human decency will not let us stop there. Multiply that million by another hundred or a thousand to approach the scale of sexual violence and abuse against women and girls in genocide, slavery, and other mass violence, including war. Soon it is impossible to deny that this is one of if not the great horror of human history.
And even here there is further to go, much further.
In the past year or so, there were two articles in the Armenian Weekly that I consider the most important two articles published in this period—and that is saying something, given the substantial content of the paper. They were not about “soccer diplomacy” with Turkey, not about corruption in the Armenian government (though this is part of the problem), not about Javakhk or the renewed threats against Karabagh, nor about the Armenian Genocide Resolution in the U.S. Congress or presidential hopeful Obama’s pledge to say “Armenian Genocide.” I do not mean to suggest that these are not all important issues—they absolutely are. But the two articles were about something even more important, a situation more desperate: brutal Armenian suffering on a daily basis.
The first article revealed to many in the Armenian community for the first time that many Armenian girls and women have been and are being enslaved by other Armenians to be shipped abroad for sexual slavery, forced prostitution. Not insignificantly, given the past abuse of Armenian women by Turkish genocide perpetrators, according to the 2001 International Organization for Migration’s Trafficking in Women and Children from the Republic of Armenia: A Study, one of the two main destinations for the slaves has been Turkey. For those who are not familiar with this problem, the trafficking of women and children into prostitution and other forms of slavery is a global problem. Estimates indicate that on the order of one million women and children are the victims of trafficking globally every year. Police and social service agencies find traffickers moving women and girls right where we all live, in Boston and elsewhere. It is a problem right around us. The abusive enslavement of domestic workers—typically women—by apparently innocuous Americans and internationals living next to us, going to college with us, is another part of the issue, often intertwined because of sexual assault and torture. And Armenia has a role in all of this that belies its small size.
One should not let the apparently voluntary nature of some cases of prostitution be distracting. Is it truly voluntary to latch on to any mysterious chance out that presents itself, in order to try to escape from abuse at home or poverty, in a context in which women are devalued and have a hard time finding legitimate jobs (which are underpaid and precarious, and too often come with sexual harassment on top of everything else)? The traffickers are master manipulators who capitalize on family violence, poverty, and sexism to snare their option-less, desperate victims with false promises and unnoticed winks to other traffickers.
The other article, published in Nov. 2008, reported on the release of Amnesty International’s 2008 No Pride in Silence: Countering Family Violence in Armenia (available online at www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/report/no-pride-silence-domestic-sexual-violence-against-women-armenia-20081113). This unnerving report highlights the tremendous problem that domestic violence is in the Armenian Republic. The vast majority of cases are men’s violence against women, especially husband’s violent treatment of wives. It takes the form of brute physical force, beatings, sexual torture (including being forced to engage in sexual activity against one’s will), authoritarian control (imprisoning the victim in the home, controlling contacts with others including family members, controlling all finances including access to food and clothing, etc.), and psychological abuse (constant degrading, insulting comments, threats, sadistic or controlling manipulation of the victims fears and vulnerabilities, “cat-and-mouse” toying with needs and expectations, threats against the children, etc.).
The “taboo” on public discussion or acknowledgment of domestic violence has made accurately determining the extent of the problem a challenge. But in 2002, the World Health Organization, based on 48 surveys, concluded that a minimum of 10 percent and possibly as many as 69 percent of Armenian women have been “physically assaulted by an intimate male partner at least once in their lives.” Research studies have fixed the number of physical abuse victims at somewhere between about one-quarter and one-third of all women, with one study showing 12 percent suffering severe physical abuse and 16 percent suffering from relatively frequent abuse. (On these statistics, see No Pride in Silence, pp. 10-11.)
Just taken themselves, these statistics are staggering. When they are matched to the specific human reality they summarize, they are even more so:
“I was born in Yerevan, and I first met my future husband in 1986. In 1989, he raped me and I became pregnant. Although he wanted me to have an abortion I wanted the baby. To keep the pregnancy secret, he took me to his parents’ house in Aragatsotn region. His family accepted me at first and in 1990 we got married. My parents disowned me at first because I’d had a child outside marriage, but later we were reconciled and my father helped us to construct a new house on the plot owned by my parents-in-law. But my husband began to beat me when I became pregnant again. He beat me to induce a miscarriage and it was worse when his parents were angry with me. They would get angry over the stupidest things, because my parents helped me, because I was a city girl, because my parents brought them the wrong size slippers as a present. My husband made me walk long distances without water when I was pregnant, once he beat me with a branch like a cow. Then one day he beat me up really badly with a shovel, when I came back from a visit to Yerevan. I think it was his brother who said something to him to make him do it. The brother wanted me out so that his parents would move in with my husband and he could have his parents’ house to himself. My husband broke my nose and gave me concussion. My face was completely bruised and bleeding, then he took a mirror, forced me to look into it and said “Look at yourself! What do you look like?!” (No Pride in Silence, p. 16).
The problems of domestic violence and trafficking are both based on a deep and pervasive devaluing of women and girls in Armenian society. This “cultural value” is strongly embedded in government institutions, law, social practices, and popular sayings. (See, for instance, No Pride in Silence, pp. 9-10, 11, and 14.)
But even here there is further to go. December 8-10, 2000, the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery, tried the Japanese Emperor and government for their perpetration from 1931-45 of the “Comfort Women” system of sexual slavery, in which about 200,000 women from mainly Asian as well as some European countries were forced into brutal sexual service, sometimes involving dozens of rapes a day, for the Japanese military and accompanied by great brutality and a high mortality rate. On Dec. 11, 2000, a number of the sponsoring non-governmental organizations held a Public Hearing on Crimes Against Women in Recent Wars and Conflicts, publishing the results. One of the testimonies was from an Azeri woman who related her own torture at the hands of Armenian soldiers and the rape and torture of other women in her village, in 1992. As she states, “Armenian soldiers committed sexual violence on my sister-in-law’s daughter…I saw many outrages being committed every day, morning and night. They scorched my brother’s young wife in front of my eyes” (Public Hearing on Crimes Against Women in Recent Wars and Conflicts: A Compilation of Testimonies, pp. 45-47). Given the context of its publication, there is good reason to accept this testimony as credible. The violence inflicted on this woman and others around her was a war crime that could have been scripted by perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide. This is not to suggest in any way that the context of this war crime was not Armenian resistance to a clear case of ethnic cleansing by the Azeri government against ethnic Armenians in Azerbaijan, beginning with the Sumgait and Baku massacres against Armenians in 1988. The state of Azerbaijan has perpetrated a major human rights violation, including the massacre and systematic killing of Armenian civilians, forced deportation, and other such acts. It is also not to suggest that Azeri forces did not rape and torture Armenian women, as they clearly did and should be held fully accountable for these acts. But these points are irrelevant to the wrongness of what Armenian men did to these Azeri women. There is no excuse for such actions. All such claims should be investigated and, if investigation supports it, tried as war crimes. Those whose “patriotism” causes them to shy away from admitting such acts if they have occurred fail to understand that the legitimacy of the Karabagh Armenian cause rests solely on the Armenians’ resistance to the human rights violations perpetrated by the Azerbaijan state. Human rights violations such as rape are never an acceptable part of such resistance and undermine the legitimacy of the human rights struggle they become a part of.
Domestic violence is torture, rape is torture, and sexual trafficking is slavery and rape. It does not matter who is doing it—all rapists are the same in their villainy and vileness, no matter what their nationality. And so we come to the point: These acts by some Armenian men (and, it should be admitted, probably a few Armenian women with roles in abuse of their son’s wives and in trafficking girls) that I have been describing could have been taken out of the pages of testimony on the Armenian Genocide. In it there was sexual slavery, and today there is sexual slavery. In it there was rape of and physical assault against women, and today there is rape of and physical assault against women.
We want to see a difference between those Armenian men today who engage in such things and those who did them in the genocide, but what is the difference? What is the difference between the particular Armenian men who abuse their wives and children, Armenian men who rape Armenian women, Armenian men who rape Azeri women, Armenian men who kidnap, manipulate, sell girls into sexual slavery, and the particular Turks in 1915 who raped Armenian women, who enslaved Armenian women? Look carefully and you will see the answer: There is no difference. They are the same. They engage in the same degradation and dehumanization of women, have the same view that Armenian or ethnically other women are the fit targets of violence and of torture, have the same twisted morals that make it perfectly acceptable to inflict extreme harm on innocent human beings.
Yet, there is a difference, a crucial one. If Armenians like to talk about how denial of the Armenian Genocide is the continuation of that genocide, let us look at the continuation of violence against Armenian (and other) women that so characterized the Armenian Genocide. It is before us, in so many Armenian men’s violence against women and girls. Right now there is an Armenian girl being taken into slavery, right now an Armenian wife is being beaten. We are not talking about nine decades ago, we are talking about today. And, unfortunately, it looks like we are talking about tomorrow.
Armenians cannot control what Turks do to face the 1915 genocide. But we can control what we do to women and girls inside and outside of Armenia. We can help stop that violence. We can join with and support those few courageous individuals and organizations, mainly women’s organizations, in the Armenian Republic who are struggling against domestic violence, sexual assault, and trafficking. There can be no greater tribute and show of respect, no higher duty, to the memory of those who died in and those who survived the Armenian Genocide than to stop the violence against Armenian women and girls today. There can be no greater hypocrisy than to express outrage at what the Ottoman Turkish state did to Armenians (including Armenian women and girls) nine decades ago, and remain silent and do nothing about what Armenian men are doing to them today.