Statement by Aline Dedeyan 13 January 2001

It's a great pleasure for me to be here today with you at this Hye Geen/AGBU luncheon and let me extend my very special thanks to Sona Yacoubian for inviting me and thank you all for coming.

The topic of my paper is Armenian women, new identity and images. Please forgive me if I make generalizations as I am well aware that not all Armenian women can be put in the same nutshell. Despite a distinctive and deep-se heritage distinguishing us from non-Armenian women, there are substantial differences in the way they we reflect ourselves, depending on generation, birth and residence place - whether we are refugees, displaced persons or full citizens - family and educational background, profession, social and economic status and several other less important factors. However, since the Diaspora has no official data or statistics on community affairs and profiles, one can only base oneself on Armenian media and personal observations and generalize. Armenia, on the other hand, has statistics but very few concerning women directly. 

Today what seems important to me is the role of women in the new Armenian landscape, in the difficult process of rebuilding the nation. And, it seems to me that one of the major questions is whether this can be achieved by perpetrating traditions and the conventional female roles and images - most often stifling and counterproductive - or, on the contrary, by moving into the innovative segment of the nation? That is, being the pioneers of new thinking and paradigms, the forerunners of social, political change.

It's clear that this second option with regard to socio-political issues calls for an enhanced consciousness and engagement as an integral part of women's new identity. That is, are women ready to penetrate the male-reserved fields of political activism as policy and decision makers or pursue the customary roles of followers and executors. I don't necessarily mean discarding men altogether but relying on women's leadership to create new forms of partnership with them. But, before elaborating on this let me refer briefly to the fundamental changes in the recent Armenian mapping. The necessity of inversing century-old visions. 

As you all know, since independence in 1991, Armenia has become a State-nation, a "budding" democracy, a full-fledged member of the United Nations and all of its Specialized Agencies integrating the international community. To underline the extreme importance of this affiliation, let me add that if it weren't for the assistance, surveillance, protection and financial support of the UN, other international, inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations implanted locally, Armenia and NKR would have perhaps ceased to exist. And today this is the way the world sees - or is bound - to see us. No more as members of a minority group scattered throughout the world, but as nationals of an independent State! So, no matter how big and powerful, the Armenian communities in the Diaspora do not represent the Armenian nation any more, nor do they hold political legitimacy in international affairs with regard to Armenia and NKR. This, of course, does not mean that the Diaspora cannot work with and unite the two Republics -- by far the best solution for all of us - but, to me, a conceptual shift is indispensable to move effectively in this new Armenian landscape.

Whereas the identity of the Diaspora is still imbedded in horror stories of massacres and persecution against a Christian minority victim of racial, religious, and God knows what other discrimination by a dominant Muslim power, Diasporan Armenians continue to consider themselves -- and by and large are considered -- as members of a minority group despite, in most cases, full citizenship and total integration to the host country. The predominance of this trait often leading to an irrevocable search for one's roots, hankering after a distinctive and well-defined Armenian identity - easily observable among younger generations.

Now, the Armenian Ambassador, Head of the Permanent Mission in Geneva with whom I work, has told me over and over again never to refer to Armenians as a minority, in particular with regard to Karabakh Armenians. Never! Except, of course, for rare references to Ottoman Armenians.

So, to improve the credibility and the overall development of Armenia and Karabakh, what is preferable today? To preserve and project the "minority identity" of the Diaspora or, inversely, to adjust to and reflect a new identity as nationals of an Armenian State living, as it happens, abroad, or say, Armenian ex-patriots? Assuming that passports and papers are a matter of formality, the underlying question is: now that we can link up with our roots and past, where do we go from there? What do we do? How do we exploit our potential and exercise our power? 

In connection with the above-mentioned identity issue, let me also raise another point which has bothered me for a long time and still does. That is the gross contrast between Diaspora and Armenia/ NKR societies and the contradictory images they project. 

We all know that the Diaspora - east, west, north or south - is relatively rich and most Armenians portray themselves as wealthy and successful citizens representing a certain -- I'd say slightly outmoded -- "bourgeoisie" often focused on appearance symbols of well-being and possession. Whereas Armenians in Armenia and NKR are no way near reflecting such a profile. On the contrary. In their daily struggle with poverty, limited means and exchanges, they display the characteristics of a third world country. In addition, governed by a power structure -- including the government -- in the hands of the very few rich controlling the financial as well as all the other resources of the country - maybe less so in NKR -- the population is decimated by corruption, generalized injustice, political instability, lack of infrastructures, technology, capital, utilities, services and the list is long. 

Faced with such incongruent facts and images, how does the Diaspora react? What can be done to breach the gap and reflect a relatively coherent and realistic picture of "armenianhood"? (Sorry, I'm translating from the French word : "arménité"). 

And for me this is where revolutionary action comes in. Believing that identity and politics are closely interrelated, and that women can play a capital role in accelerating change and transition, I feel we should now come up to the fore-front of targeted and effective actions. Not only to improve the image but the entire socio-economic and political structure of both republics. By forming lobbies, for instance, on the spot actions -- I wouldn't think of a new political party -- by engaging in direct encounters with the Armenian and NKR governments, by providing know-how in a variety of fields and exercising a certain influence. Another aspect would be consciousness-raising on crucial issues such as the Turkish-supported Azeri positions in the NKR conflict, Turkish pressures and blockade to neutralize the Armenian genocide and the country itself, and the setting up of advanced democratic structures in Armenia and NKR. It goes without saying that men, as our counterparts, should no way be excluded from these endeavors but be welcomed to collaborate. 

We are all aware that today Armenia, NKR and Diaspora, we are all facing and are committed to new objectives. And if women organized themselves differently, they could become prominent agents in resolving a large number of national problems, starting with the most urgent ones like public health and democratically functioning business and other social units. The fact is this kind of shift presupposes changes in self-image as well. From a look- appearance-mate-search oriented image to a less self-centered one ready to reach out to other national aims. 

As you all know, after so many years of isolation, Armenia is desperately hung up on Diaspora models of cut-throat capitalism inherited from the recent past, and unless we change and modify these models here and ourselves, I feel it will be almost impossible to build up a post-modern State based on the rule of the law and more human-faced, equalitarian trends of democracy comparable with other Western States.

On a less political line, let me also briefly touch a subject that came up at the Wittenberg conference last September concerning women drifting into prostitution, drug-addiction and other forms of depravity. For me it was all very new and an unpleasant surprise. The Armenian communities in Europe, including Switzerland, so far have never reported such a case. There might have been isolated ones, but I'd think too few to be symptomatic or significant enough. Anyway, in the face of such a dilemma my immediate reaction is: today both Armenia/NKR and the Diaspora can boast of a remarkably large number of professional and high-level women. If this valuable asset of our nation is allowed to go astray, it means there is something terribly wrong in the way our networks and associations, those in Armenia and NKR, and their respective governments, operate. They have failed to appreciate, inform and motivate women to participate in our common cause. Demobilizing, or excluding them, or worse, relegating them to passive roles. Frankly, I feel that today women can no more afford drifts of this kind, nor resign themselves to dated images of everlasting auxiliaries in Armenian affairs, exclusive mothers, organizers of diners, parties, tables, food, letting men do the hard thinking, the ruling and the acting. This last vision of our identity having become obsolete, women should be able to find self-affirmation and self-validation in the new Armenian adventure, its challenges, bracing up their commitment and participation for their own benefit as well as that of the nation.

Also, as suggested at the Wittenberg meeting, in such cases I don't believe the Armenian church and clergy - in general conservative and doctrinal like most other religious institutions -- are the right instances to be approached for help. On the contrary, I think it's up to us, women's groups, to provide appropriate references and support. And if necessary, consult psychologists, doctors, counselors - Armenian or not - unrelated to religious morals and establishments.

On the subject of our church and ecclesiastic, if I were allowed to go a step further, I would say that at present the role of our church should diminish rather than expand with regard to Armenian affairs in the Diaspora or in Armenia/NKR. Besides their fundamental role of cementing the nation by providing links with our history and culture and by bringing faith and consolation to those who need them, our religious institutions possess enormous power which, it seems to me, is not geared to addressing pressing Armenian problems in a rational and realistic way.

Let me conclude by saying that since we have no precedents and no pre-existing models to analyze and evaluate our present Armenian situation, and since our origin, history, culture, identity are fundamentally atypical, we can only invent atypical models and actions - a critical approach replacing the past-oriented one. Earlier in my presentation, I qualified this as revolutionary action, with particular reference to women, in as much as it implies change-oriented thinking, problem-solving and identifying in order to meet the emerging needs of the nation here - in the Diaspora - or there - in Armenia and NKR.

Thank you. Now I will be very happy to open a discussion and share views with you.