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Book Review

An Armenian 'Suffragette'
Serpouhi Dussap: A militant for women's equality  
By Azadouhi Kalaidjian

Armenian News Network / Groong
April 16, 2000

By Eddie Arnavoudian

It is fitting that one of the first Armenian-content English language
publications in the year 2000 is a 'Tribute to the First Armenian
Feminist Writer - Serpouhi Dussap' by Beirut-based Azadouhi
Kalaidjian-Simonian.  Revealing a thorough knowledge of Serpouhi
Dussap's three novels and other writings Azadouhi Kalaidjian presents
a vivid intellectual portrait of a woman who was far ahead of her time
and whose words have resonance to this day for all women and men,
Armenian or not.

Serpouhi Dussap (1840-1901) 'championed the cause of Armenian women in
the 19th century' at a time when 'peasant women in the provinces'
suffered 'ignorance', 'poverty' and 'male oppression' and lived a
'life rooted in superstitions and prejudices.' Even in the more
prosperous and cultured Constantinople women 'were still deprived of
their freedom and dominated by men.' Dussap wrote her three novels
'Mayda', 'Siranoush' and 'Araxia' to expound her views on the rights
of women to challenge the prevailing oppression of Armenian women.

Despite being scorned by such eminent figures as Krikor Zohrab,
Azadouhi Kalaidjian reveals Dussap to be a formidable intellectual,
capable of thought more profound than many of her detractors. She
grasped well that no concept of human equality could, without
self-contradiction, tolerate continued discrimination against women.
One of the characters in Mayda proclaims: 'What kind of equality is it
that places half of humanity at the feet of males? What kind of
liberty is it that deprives women of the ability to protest, to act
and to initiate?'

Dussap was a rigorous and passionate critic of laws and institutions
that legitimized the oppression of 'half of humanity' or acted to the
detriment of humanity at large. 'The law places a cord around a
woman's neck and tightens or loosens it at will' while religion and
faith 'instead of becoming the hope of a desperate humanity has become
a vicious instrument in the hands of so many clergymen, to pursue
their personal gain.'

The booklet ranges across many of Dussap's views and concerns and
reveals her to have been a genuine national intellectual. She was
committed to the advancement of the people as a whole and recognised
that this could not be achieved without the emancipation of women. To
this end she argued for the right of women to a decent education, and
for their right to gainful employment outside the home.  Interestingly
Kalaidjian also offers, and this against the grain, a balanced
assessment of Dussap's novels in which many of the characters 'lack
real life experience'. 'Mayda' is a 'discourse rather than fiction',
while 'Siranoush' 'artfully weaves' ideas 'into the plot and
development of characters' But 'Araxia' is 'the most successful for
its fictional qualities.'

This booklet deserves to be widely circulated and can be used as an
introductory text for studying the history of women's liberation in
Armenia, and not only Armenia. Significantly Azadouhi Kalaidjian opens
her treatise by placing Dussap in the context of two American
contemporaries - Kate Chopin and Perkins Gilman. By so doing she
underlines Dussap's national and international stature.

Here is a work well done to salvage a still relevant figure from
obscurity.  An Armenian language version for distribution in Armenia
would be most appropriate.

Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in History and Politics from
Manchester, England. He has written on literary and political
matters for "Haratch" in Paris and "Nairi" in Beirut. His reviews
have also been published in "Open Letter" in Los Angeles.

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