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Theriault: Never-Ending Rape

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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.

"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.”

***

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.

12 Comments on Theriault: Never-Ending Rape

  1. avatar Anne S. Orlando // December 24, 2009 at 2:34 pm // Reply

    It’s worth delving deep into the problem described above and then ask the questions:  The men who commit such sadistic acts of violence against women, or are profiting from human trafficking, are they really Armenian men ?  Are they brought up with traditional Armenian Christian values ?  How strong is their Armenian identity?  Yes, we should look into the issue of identity.   In my opinion, real  Armenian men have enough self-respect not to commit such horrible acts…

  2. Thank you for this courageous article.  I think it is a very important and crucial question.  It is central to my relationship to my ethnic heritage and culture.  I think that, as part of a particular cultural and geographic environment, we Armenians have to think about these issues in terms of Christianity.  The treatment of women should be better (indeed, our church has historically ordained women deacons – albeit in limited function – throughout the centuries when no other church did).  We should think carefully about our culture as one that is to stand for values even if those in our surroundings do not share them.

  3. I’m glad Henri Theriault wrote about that problem and brought it into the open. We should adopt an organisation in Armenia that already deals with that andtalk about that on TV and in the papers. The people who do those heartless acts really don’t have any human values or Armenian values. There’s a song where the Fedayee says ” me vakhenar hankist guetsir baji djan, gananz yerpek tserk dali tché djan Fedan”. Any change will happen only if  we in the Diaspora stand behind the organisation in Armenia with financial aid and expert support. Otherwise change won’t come easy.

  4. A very bad article which is trying to show Armenian men as brutal as possible. They want to destroyArmenian family by their lies. Raping Azeri women, husband is raping his wife??? what does this mean

  5. avatar Henry Dumanian // December 24, 2009 at 5:59 pm // Reply

    Dr. Theriault,
     
    First of all, I would just like to commend you for a brilliant, timely, and thoughtful article.
     
    I would like to point out a few a things, however:
    1. There is a far more comprehensive study done on domestic violence in Armenia by the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights: (http://www.mnadvocates.org/Work_in_Armenia.html).  You should give this a look.
    2. There has been a lot of attention given to sexual slavery in Armenia, I just think because of a few reasons you pointed out, and the fact that Armenian society is too exhausted to deal with issues like this — they have been neglected.  I’m pretty sure if we didn’t have a 30% unemployment rate, poverty, blockades, genocide recognition, threat of war, and such a corrupt government, our society would be quite inspiring on this issue.
    And I don’t want to throw a patriotic twist to this, but the Azerbaijan and Armenian cases are different.  What happened in Kharabagh was done by a band of militants during a WAR.  What happened in Azerbajian (and what happened in Turkey in the 50s and 60s) was done by a mob of CIVILIANS.  I think the point might be trivial, but it says two very important things about our societies — and how different we are when it comes to the “other.”  Azerbajian has few of the hardships the people of Armenia have, and yet their society hasn’t even decided whether or not they WANT to prosecute the CIVILIANS who committed those atrocities in Sumgait and Baku, let alone whether or not they CAN/SHOULD.  Putting a soldier on trial is politically sensitive, especially when you’re trying to maintain discipline and preserve a state.  They don’t have to deal with putting soldiers on trial for Sumgait or Baku and yet a lot of them justify it — I’ve seen no such sentiment within our wider society.
     
    There’s a brilliant documentary on sexual savery and Armenians in Dubai done by Hetq:  I encourage you to watch it if you haven’t done so yet — It’s called Dessert Nights: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3fC7KDY4sqE — that’s just part 1.

  6. avatar Henry Dumanian // December 24, 2009 at 6:10 pm // Reply

    And, I would ask you to look into the following regarding the Armenian response to the women who were violated and raped during the genocide.  It’s a sad read:
     
    TACHJIAN, VAHE. “Gender, nationalism, exclusion: the reintegration process of female survivors of the Armenian genocide.”Nations & Nationalism 15.1 (2009): 60-80.

  7. avatar Dino Ajemian // December 24, 2009 at 6:23 pm // Reply

    I have been waiting a long time to see an article like this. The brutal treatment of Armenian women must be stopped. Those who traffic or torture Armenian women should be removed from society forever. They are a detriment to not only  having a civil society but a detriment to Armenian nationalism and the Armenian Ethos. I wish to actively participate in solving this problem. Hopefully there will be another article on how I and others can change this aspect of Armenian society. If the rights of women are protected and justice is swift to all those affected, I think everything else in Armenia would improve. If you ask me, ensuring civil and human rights for women is a national security issue. The problems concerning this issue will only get worse when the border opens.

  8. Excellent, impressive, and necessary. Thank you Dr Theriault. There is nothing to be surprised at, especially if one looks at figures in far more prosperous and developed countries. Wife-killing and wife-raping are a nationial plague in Spain for example. It is not a matter of being Armenian or anything, it is a matter of how men see women, especially if the latter are helpless for economic or psychological reasons, or simply because they have small children. Machos are machos. And Armenians have often remained machos, they don’t compare with Swedish men. Boys’ mothers bear part of the responsibility of course. For an Armenian reader, this is terrible : It means that when we stand in a crowd in Yerevan, a lot of men whose sleeves touch ours, not just a few, have already hit or raped a woman. And it means that in a feminine environment, like at the hairdressers or in a clothes shop, a high proportion of the women we chat with have experienced rape, violence, sadism. What you didn’t mention, Dr Theriault, is incest. When there is rape, when a man doesn’t control his sexual drives, it is hard to believe that incest committed by brothers, cousins, fathers, grand-fathers, male in-laws cannot exist.   Isn’t it a disgrace, too, that Diaspora organisations and parties have closed their eyes on many of the scandals in Armenia? Corruption, mafia etc. Not all of the population’s misery is due to the Turkish blockade.  In Artsakh, an organisation called “Mères courages” supports only widowed mothers, by giving them a cow and a calf - to have milk for the children and to make and sell cheese  then to get more calves, of which some must then be returned to the group which donates the animals to another widowed mother etc. It is very successful. Like with other sorts of microcredits, including those provided by the Grameen bank, they show that trusting and empowering women, especially mothers who care for their family while fathers, when they exist, tend to rather care for their own well-being, has a significant  impact on the economy and on society at large. Eventually boys and men profit by it too. And the sons get a positive image of women when they see their mothers become little businesswomen. If Dr Theriault or the Armenian Weekly were kind enough to provide the names and addresses of organisations that defend women’s rights in Armenia, I too, would be glad to contribute financially, and if possible, by disseminating their appeals.

  9. During the last five years of living in Armenia I have only heard of one case (not one of several that I have read) of daily brutal abuse of a woman living in Vanadzor who was essentially married to a maniac. Judging from the detailed stories that were told to me by her best friend (I met the abused woman a few times, actually) her husband was obviously mentally deranged. I have seen the statistic of 69 percent of women having endured some kind of physical violence (I have read that same report but do not have it at my fingerprints as I write this comment), but a significant percentage of women in this category have only experienced it no more than a few times or certainly less, with a slap across the face, something like this. Many women consider such an instance of violence to be justifiable, that their partners had good reason to slap them, crazy as that sounds (a woman who was slapped only once actually told me this). Naturally I am not trying to justify this behavior, but I just want to point out that the entire 69 percent of Armenian women surveyed who have suffered from domestic violence did not experience it brutally on a day-to-day basis. I hope readers have not interpreted this to be the case.
     
    As the article points out the most poignant dangers that vulnerable women face, especially those living in rural areas, is trafficking. Usually those who have little opportunities and who lack a solid familial support structure are lured into being sold into sexual slavery when promised jobs picking oranges in Greece, and instead they wind up in Dubai or cities in Turkey where they are forced to “buy back” their passports by working for years as sex slaves, if they ever do get them back. The Armenian authorities have been cracking down on traffickers and sentencing them but some wind up on the street by “escaping” from prison or paying bribes for an early release. This information has been available for well over five years now and it’s not hard to find on the Internet (see for instance the extraordinary “Desert Nights” series of articles along with the companion documentary produced by Hetq).
     
    I don’t know what it’s going to take for diasporan Armenians to understand how important these problems are, especially trafficking, for Armenian women. I think quite honestly people choose to ignore these pertinent issues because they don’t want their grandiose, romantic vision of Armenia to be shattered. Hopefully, Dr. Theriault’s article will enlighten many of them.

  10. This issue has other repercussions for the Diaspora.  Many Armenian women anticipate violent behavior from their Armenian husbands, even when these Armenian husbands are raised outside of the Armenian cultural base. This anticipation  and fear causes problems in the marriage, even when the husbands are gentlemen. The result is that many Armenian women marry odars, and assimilated Armenian men marry odars after an unsuccessful  marriage to an Armenian woman. If this trend continues, the Diaspora will disappear within  a few generations. We are our own worst enemy.

  11. avatar gaytzag palandjian // April 11, 2011 at 11:22 am // Reply

    All, or near all dwell upon the article either commending and/or in compliance  with it.
    Only Vahe´s  few words must ALSO BE TAKEN INTO ACCOUNT.For it is one thing  to praise and affirm what  seems to be completely correct and true ,another to try to see more  into the Armenian mens(in general) more positive  sides and their treatment of Armenian women.
    let  alone Some ( very few, if  any) cases  of  Armenian soldiers abusing Azeri women.
    Please try to be more inclined to believe  that Armenian men in very rare cases  are  or have been abusing Armenian women,comparred to Euro-Americans

  12. The article details a horrible but yet very common reality. Sorry to disappoint you Gaytzag but the abuse of Armenian men towards Armenian women is not very rare at all, it is more than common and the comparaison with Euro-Americans to minimize this behaviour is outrageous. Armenian men, even in the diaspora, tend to think that just because they’re Armenian they’re entitled to get any Armenian woman or girl they want and she doesn’t have to say no specially if her mother agrees with him. They think just because they had a drink or a dinner with a girl or they’re dating her that they own her, and this is just a date or a girlfriend. Let’s not even talk about the wife or the daughter of whom they think as their own possession and most of the time put to work to take their money instead of getting a job themselves. They think of women as of inferior creatures no matter how smart and educated they are and no matter how uneducated the men are and tend to believe that they can get any girl do whatever they want with a few words, because come on she’s just a girl how hard will it be to trap her. And of course, if the girl by chance isn’t dump then she’ll get a massive amount of violence, sexual and physical, without forgetting verbal assault, which of course will not be considered abuse by the Armenian man because of course she was there and therefore she agreed even if he didn’t bother to ask for her opinion, or does it after having got what he wanted just to say he asked. So please, put your misplaced pride aside and start admitting that Armenians are very very far from being civilized and humane specially with women and vulnerable people. As for comparing them with “barbarian” euro-americans, I would say that you would better go to Europe and see how Scandinavian, English, Spanish, Italian and other cultured male treat woman and how they speak of them. Armenian men and sometimes their complice women not only do not help and respect the vulnerable element of the community in order to reinforce them but they wait like predators for the moment a person will fall, get sick, have an accident in their life, specially if the person is a young and beautiful woman, in order to abuse and humiliate. There’s a massive education effort to be done for these people and sincerly I don’t know how many generations it will take. And please stop complaining and weeping about what turks did because what you do to your own women and children is much worse.

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