By Shakeh Avoyan and Anna Saghabalian
Men gave presents and paid tribute to their mothers, wives and girlfriends on Tuesday as Armenia marked International Women’s Day, one of its most popular public holidays dating back to Soviet times.
President Robert Kocharian, other top government officials and even the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Garegin II, offered their warm congratulations to the women on the occasion.
“The women of Armenia are making a remarkable contribution to the development and strengthening of our country,” Kocharian said in a statement. “The framework of their state and public activities is expanding these days. You, dear women, remain the pillars of our family hearths and maintain your female attraction.”
“Rest assured that your boundless kindness, dedication and solicitude do not go unnoticed and that you undoubtedly deserve much greater appreciation,” Prime Minister Andranik Markarian said for his part, alluding to socioeconomic hardship which most women have had to endure since Armenia’s independence.
Armenian women have been hit particularly hard by Armenia’s painful transition to a market-based economy that has narrowed their career opportunities and deepened gender inequality. Finding a job in the unemployment-stricken country is now even more difficult for them than the men.
“When a woman dresses very well and drives an expensive car in our country, I doubt that that is the result of her work,” said one married man. “In 95 percent of such cases, they have rich husbands or fathers. The economic situation in our country still does not enable most women to become prosperous on their own.”
The holiday is primarily associated with workplace equality between men and women in Europe and other parts of the world. But in Armenia it is an occasion to extol the traditional female virtues of motherhood, beauty and tolerance that are seen as more important in conservative male-dominated societies. All government ministers in Armenia are men and only a handful of female members of parliament.
Random polling on the streets of Yerevan showed that many Armenian men still regard housekeeping as the primary mission of the opposite sex. “Our traditional Armenian upbringing teaches that the woman must first of all look after the home and raise kids,” said one young man. “I can’t say I like career-oriented women.”
“Feminism sounds good, but we must remember where we live,” agreed an older man.
Another man argued that March 8, which is a non-working day in Armenia, should not have been celebrated in the first place. “It’s stupid. Every day is a holiday for my wife,” he said with a smile.
Some Westerners living in Yerevan find such attitudes shocking. Lara Dudaglian, a Canadian citizen of Armenian origin, said local women are also to blame for that. “Women here tell me, ‘This is the situation we are in, there is nothing we can do to change it’,” she said. “They must not have so submissive.”
“I find it easier to socialize here with women than with men,” said her husband Raffi. “Most of my friends in Armenia are women The mentality of most local men is more inhibited and terribly oriental.”