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Why we should read... 'Srpouhi Dussap - her life and work' by A S Sharourian 252pp, Armenian State University, Yerevan, 1963 Armenian News Network / Groong May 19, 2003 By Eddie Arnavoudian Novelist, democrat and feminist Soviet era critical biographies of 19th and early 20th century Armenian writers whilst generally of great value are rarely inspiring. A S Sharourian's volume on Srpouhi Dussap is an exception. One cannot but delight in this story of an intellectual and writer who born in 1841 to a well-to-do Istanbul Armenian family and married to a local Frenchman, went on to become the foremost modern Armenian feminist and the first Armenian woman novelist as well as a prominent figure of the Armenian national revival. Sharourian reveals the shocking extent to which the wealthy Armenian elite in Istanbul had assimilated or integrated into official Turkish society or into the then local European colonies. The young Dussap with her initial disdain for the Armenian language was typical, though moderate compared with many of her peers who, in the words of a contemporary, 'had a hatred of all things Armenian'. But tutored by the famous poet Mkrtich Beshigtashlian, Srpouhi not only learnt to love the language she even made her first creative ventures in classical Armenian. Taking up the cause of the Armenian nation, its language and its culture the progressive wing of the 19th century Armenian intelligentsia, among them Srpouhi Dussap, committed itself to enlightening and advancing the common people. Shocked by the elite's indifference to the elementary needs of the people it established schools, educational societies, theatres, charitable organizations and patriotic clubs. These were heady days of enthusiasm and hope despite the increasingly repressive regime of Abdul Hamid II. During Hamid's reign (1876-1909) previous limited political and constitutional reforms were nullified and possibilities for democratic discussion terminated. Harsher restrictions on the press were coupled with prohibitions on all forms of protests against national oppression or manifestations of national pride. The term 'Armenia' to describe the historic homelands of the Armenian people was also prohibited. Neither could Armenians refer to the names of ancient Armenian kings and queens. Posters of venerated figures such as Vartan the Brave were regularly ripped from public spaces. While the Turkish press infected its readership with a flood of poisonous ropaganda designed to whip up popular anti-Armenian hysteria the Armenian press was forbidden to respond. Nevertheless, sometimes through tactical accommodations, sometimes through direct or indirect resistance, but always in the face of enormous obstacles men and women like Dussap, Krikor Chilinghirian, Yeghia Demirjibashian, Krikor Odian, Hrant Assadour, Haroutyoun Svajian, Aram Antonian, Arpiar Arpiarian and many others persevered. Much of their effort centered on popular education. It was here that Dussap first stood out as a brilliant organizer and fundraiser for the Armenian Women's School Society. She secured funding from local banks, from theatrical performances and by organizing the first Armenian painters exhibition in Istanbul in 1882. It was she who first proposed an internal levy on members of Armenian communities to finance popular education; an initiative that was to be widely copied. But Dussap was first and foremost an intellectual and a writer. Quoting dozens of contemporaries Sharourian recreates some of the excitement, passion and energy of the intellectual and artistic life of the day. Dussap's first novel Mayda, in the words of contemporary writer and philosopher Yeghia Demirjibashian 'sold like hot cakes despite its high price'. Another contemporary novelist Matteos Mamourian exclaimed excitedly that 'within a few weeks hundreds of copies were sold'. As scores of novelists, poets, publicists and educationalists vigorously debated the artistic merits of the novel and its espousal of women's rights Demirjibashian remarked that 'no other book had ever generated the same interest as Mayda' (p128) With a confident grasp of aesthetic theory critics readily pointed to some of the glaring flaws in Dussap's first novel that focused on women's rights to work. Arpiar Arpiarian criticized it for being ignorant of the real condition of 'Armenian women, of Armenian society and of Armenian life' (p102). Mamourian echoed this noting the absence of 'authentic national context ' and a 'lack of concrete knowledge' of Armenian social life. Hagop Baronian remarked on 'the forced and unbelievable twists' of a plot that disregarded the artistic truth that a work of fiction will 'only move people if it is credible.' Yet most critics, though not Baronian, concurred with Krikor Chilinghirian's affirmation that the novel's 'audacious advocacy' of women's rights marked a 'turning point in Armenian literature.' (p137) All Dussap's three novels center on women's social and political rights within which she underlined their right to work, to education and to equality in marriage. She believed rightly that woman's subordinate position was not a result of a single cause but a product of a whole network of social law and religion that 'transform women into a form of property owned by her husband, a slave.' (p70-71) Nature endows women with talent that 'is corrupted by law and repression.' Women are 'victims of a society' in which 'religion has become an instrument of torture' reducing them to the status of a 'domestic dog'. Law 'has become a noose round women's necks loosened and tightened as necessary.' (p120-121) Dussap's portrayal of unfulfilled lives, lives full of drudgery, lives defined by eternal subordination and unrealized humanity is often powerful and moving. In society women are forced to 'feel ashamed of loving. In other words they have to proclaim that they have no heart. Women cannot utter the word justice. In other words she cannot proclaim her own rights. She is denied the right to point out the excesses of law and religion, in other words the right to prove she has reason and conscience. She passes through the world in silence - unnoticed.' (p103). Dussap's ambition was to bring women out of this drudgery and onto 'the world's stage' as a 'free person' with her own 'ideas and career.' (p119). The right to work, to education and to equality in marriage were necessary stages to this end. Insisting on women's rights to work and participate in social life Dussap opposed conservatives such as Puzant Ketchyan who argued that women 'rather than acquiring knowledge and linguistic skills' should be taught 'good morals to make them good housewives' (p65) Dussap was supported by the best of her generation. In a passionate riposte Krikor Chilinghirian wrote that for Armenian women 'to be born is to be damned'. Women are condemned 'to become a reproductive machine. They are condemned never to drop the thread and needle from their hand, and to spend their lives gripping a broom handle and smelling of kitchens.' (p60) A virtue of Sharourian's biography is the picture he offers of the ferment among Armenian intellectuals on the question of women's rights, both within the Ottoman and Tsarist Empires. Besides Dussap, Chilinghirian and Mamourian others such as Ardzrouni and Nalpantian in eastern Armenia devoted thought and argument to women's rights and their role in society. This formed a healthy terrain for future development. Dussap's second and third novels 'Siranoush' (1884) and 'Araxi' (1888) did not generate the same controversy as Mayda. But they mark further developments in her thought. In her preface to 'Siranoush' she writes that she has 'undertaken to study and criticize social injustices that oppress women within married life' especially as 'today marriage has become a question of ambition and trade rather than of loving relations. (p153) These novels are also sharply critical of the Istanbul Armenian elite 'who resort to all manner of injustice, repression and fraud to exercise influence or accumulate wealth.' They only 'act in the national interest if this does jeopardize their personal interest and does not bring them into conflict with the government (p155). Conservative critics were naturally enraged by what they regarded Dussap's effrontery. But even among the progressives there were those like satirist Hagop Baronian whose democratic vision faltered at the notion of women's rights. Krikor Zohrab's contemptuous dismissal of the issue as 'undeserving of urgent consideration' was particularly outrageous backed up as it was by his claim that though 'law and religion may be based on superstition they are necessary superstitions.' (p141-2). Zohrab's prejudice did not of course go unchallenged! Contrary to malicious claims Dussap never equated women's liberation with the aping of decadent European manners and morals. Neither did she separate off the question of women's rights from the fortunes of the Armenian people. She campaigned consistently against the trivial frippery that passed for women's emancipation among the elite and at every opportunity attacked the national self-hatred of the assimilated elite drawing a close link between women's emancipation and national revival. She spoke of herself as 'an ordinary Armenian woman working like many others for the benefit of the nation.' (p48) For her education must serve to bring up 'patriots' who treat 'the nation's tears, its woes, its joys and its rights with respect.' (p 65) Dogged by ill health Dussap abandoned fiction after her third novel though she continued charitable and educational labour. But in 1892 she was struck by personal tragedy that cut her off from all further literary and public life. On her return to Bolis after a two year absence in France her young daughter died of TB. She sought solace retreating to religious mysticism hoping to communicate with her dead daughter's spirit. She also burnt most of her archive. Her work however continued to influence a new generation of Armenian intellectuals. As she approached death in 1901 writers such as Sibil and Zabelle Yessaian wrote enthusiastically about her work and visited her to pay homage. Srpouhi Dussap's standing and reputation deservedly endures beyond her death. For whatever the aesthetic evaluation of her work her novels and other writings are of immense social, intellectual and historical value being a record of a critical moment in the origin and formation of the modern Armenian women's movement and the modern Armenian sense of national identity. ------------------------------------------------------------------- Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open Letter in Los Angeles.