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The Critical Corner - 02/09/2004

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The Women of our Awakening

By Victoria Rowe
301pp. Cambridge Scholar's Press, 2003
ISBN 1904303234

Armenian News Network / Groong
February 9, 2004

By Hermig Yogurtian

If you are a diasporan who attended an Armenian high school, you
probably learnt about the Awakening [Zartonk], in your Armenian
literature class, possibly read a short story from Zabel Yesayian
and/or Sibyl, and the name Srpuhi Dussap may ring a distant bell. If
you were instructed in the Eastern Armenian tradition, you will surely
be familiar with the proletarian poetry of Shushanik Kurghinian. Few
of us, however, are likely to have ever encountered the work of Mariam
Khatisian or Marie Beylerian. Yet these six remarkable Armenian women
of letters contributed greatly to the debates that characterized the
Zartonk; left a valuable literary legacy; initiated, if not a
"feminist movement", then at least a re-evaluation of Armenian women's
roles in the private and public spheres; and definitely deserve a more
prominent place in our national plenum of writers and thinkers.

Victoria Rowe's thoroughly researched and pleasantly readable "A
History of Armenian Women's Writing: 1880-1922" makes that prominent
place possible.


As a religious minority in the Ottoman Empire, the Armenians had
suffered second-class-citizen status for centuries. The Zartonk was a
direct reaction to the repressive Ottoman rule that had stifled
Armenian political thought and lulled artistic output into a
slumber. By the mid-nineteenth century, the empire was weakening and
breaking at the peripheries, and social reform for the Christian
minorities seemed possible. Successive sultans promised to ameliorate
conditions and reform was sanctioned (though not implemented) in the
Armenian National Constitution of 1863, which would allow the
Armenians to govern their internal affairs. It is within this
framework of inevitable change that Armenian writers and social
activists aspired to shape their national destiny.

This was a time of momentous and unprecedented revival. Literary
output multiplied, educational and charitable national organizations
were established and political thought took shape and form.
Constantinople, with its sizable Armenian community, was the hub of
this re-awakening.  Its proximity to Europe and the exposure of
Armenian thinkers to the writings of contemporaneous western
philosophers highlighted the necessity of social reform and
emancipation. The ideals of freedom, equality and justice for all,
precipitated from the French Revolution, inspired a new generation of
young Armenian intellectuals.

One major issue of overarching national concern that drove the agenda
of the Zartonk was the adoption of the vernacular, (ashkharhabar'), as
an acceptable form of written expression. The debate was not simply
about language, but about change and modernization. A new national
identity was being negotiated, the value of custom and culture
reassessed, and the language had to change to reflect these new
constructs. The traditional national establishments, and foremost
among them the church, supported maintaining the use of the classical
Armenian, (grabar'), whereas the young intellectuals, concerned with
the necessity of reaching out to the masses and making education more
widely accessible, advocated the use of the vernacular.

The women intellectuals of the day were squarely on the side of
modernizing the language. Srpuhi Dussap wrote essays in its support;
Sibyl penned a grammar of vernacular Armenian; and Zabel Yesayian's
novels helped create a uniquely modern Western Armenian literary
lingua.  Mariam Khatisian and Shushanik Kurghinian likewise wrote in
modern Eastern Armenian.


Only an educated, progressive and modernized nation would be able to
free itself of the Ottoman yoke, and an enlightened nation needed
educated mothers who would transmit to their children cultural values
as well as the language, which had become the new symbol of national
assertion. Thus educating young Armenian girls became not only a
women's rights issue, but took on national importance. Women,
traditionally seen as physical caregivers and confined to a nucleic
family, had to take on a new, public role, and so their education
became a political and politicized issue. The mother of the family had
to become the mother of the nation. Previously, education had been the
prerogative of only the wealthy. Srpuhi Dussap (born 1841) and Sibyl
(born 1863) had attended local French schools and received private
tutoring for Armenian. By 1883 however, when Yesayian was five and
about to enter school, Constantinople had eleven Armenian girls'
schools. Whereas in 1865 there had been only 19 female teachers and
1400 female students in the capital, by 1908 the numbers had risen to
126 and 2457 respectively.

The situation was very different in the provinces of course, and the
elite and educated women of Constantinople realized how important it
was to make education available to young children, and especially
young girls, in the provinces. Two important charitable associations
were founded in 1879. One was the Dbrots'aser Tiknants' Enkerut'iun
[School Loving Ladies' Association], which was devoted to training
female teachers who would go and work in the provinces. The second was
the Azkanver Hayuhyats' Enkerut'iun [Patriotic Armenian Women's
Association](AHE), which was founded by Sibyl (Zabel Khandjian then)
together with eight of her female classmates, fresh out of Scutari
Chemaran. The objective of this organization was to open schools for
young Armenian girls in the provinces, and it established thirty-five
schools in its first five years of operations.  Sibyl was only
seventeen when she founded the organization. She consequently went and
taught herself in the provinces for eight years and remained a staunch
supporter of the organization throughout its years of operation.

These charitable organizations served several purposes. Not only did
they strive to make education accessible to all, but also gave women a
public forum where they could put into use their fundraising and
organizational skills. Moreover, they provided a podium to create
awareness of women's rights issues; made available a reputable
profession (teaching); and afforded writers and activists a place
where they could meet and work together. Thus for example Sibyl and
Zabel Yesayian, whose mutual antipathy was public knowledge (XXXand more
about that later), reconciled in 1909 when Yesayian joined the AHE.


Reflecting nineteenth century European trends, the novel features
prominently in the oeuvre of Srpuhi Dussap, Sibyl, and Mariam
Khatisian.  A chronological comparison illustrates how the styles used
by these authors changes; Dussap and Sibyl wrote mainly in the
Romantic style while Mariam Khatisian's work combines elements of
Romanticism and Realism.

Srpuhi Dussap was a trendsetter.  She was a feminist, a visionary and
the first Armenian woman to publish a novel (1883). Her work greatly
influenced the women who followed in her wake; Sibyl and Yesayian
sought guidance and inspiration from her. Born to a wealthy family and
married to the French musician Paul Dussap, she ran a European style
literary salon where young artists and intellectuals, writers and
activists met to discuss ideas and read poetry. Her first novel,
'Mayta', although dismissed by critics as "romantic" and
"unrealistic", was extremely popular with readers. This was probably
because she tackled crucial social issues of the day. It is her second
novel 'Siranush' that Rowe analyzes in detail and compares/contrasts
to Zabel Yesayian's 'The Last Cup'. The parallels drawn between the
two works and the discussion of Dussap's influence on Yesayian are
very pertinent. Both works deal with gendered power structures,
romantic love, companionship and choice in marriage, and the familial
and social conflicts that arise from these issues.

Sibyl's novels add a new dimension to all these concerns, that of
women's employment. Interestingly, in 'A Girl's Heart', Sofie, a
teacher/governess, financially supports her artist brother, who is
romantically involved with her student, Bubul. The novel unfolds in
unexpected ways but there is never a prospect of romantic love or
marriage for Sofie.  Sibyl had a family and worked as a teacher most
of her life, and yet supported the idea that employment and family
life were incompatible for a woman and that a woman's primary place
was in the home. She felt that work was somehow demeaning for women
especially since there were not many respectable professions available
to them.  This is where Sibyl and Yesayian did not see eye-to-eye,
since for Yesayian all work was ennobling and indispensable if women
were to gain financial independence from fathers, husbands and

Mariam Khatisian, whose name unfortunately does not feature in
anthologies of Armenian literature, authored four novels. 'On a New
Road' deals with issues of social mobility and employment
opportunities for three generations of Armenian women. The novel is
set in Tiflis, and explores the problems of assimilation into Russian
culture and the cross-generational conflicts this creates. There is
another very interesting dimension to this work; it illustrates how
young Armenian intellectuals in Tiflis, men and women alike, were
moved by the massacres and hardships inflicted upon the Armenians who
lived under Ottoman rule, and how they responded to that. There is a
certain sense of closeness, a one-ness as a nation that comes through.


Perhaps one of the more important, lasting legacies of 'A History of
Armenian Women's Writing' will be the revelation of the work and
character of Marie Beylerian. A free spirit, a staunch feminist, her
life, work and tragic death would inspire young Armenian women even
today. She was a political exile at fifteen and started editing a
women's journal when she was twenty-two. She died during the Armenian
Genocide when she was thirty-five.

Forced to flee to Alexandria after having participated in the Bab Ali
demonstrations in 1895, Marie Beylerian started a career of teaching,
writing and feminist advocacy from a very early age. In 1902, she
established and edited the women's magazine Artemis. Her editorials
addressed issues of education, motherhood, and employment. She
formulated unique concepts of how western practices of feminism
related to and were applicable for Armenian women, and she always
placed national unity first, without compromising the right to
equality that she felt all women were naturally entitled to. Her
journal had subscribers and published letters and articles from women
living in as far-flung places as Kars, Nor Jugha, Tiflis, Paris,
Moscow and New York; an enviable model indeed.


One of the first Armenian women writers not to belong to the
Constantinople or Tiflis middle-class elite, Shushanik Kurghinian
dedicated her poetry to the working classes and drew inspiration from
the ideals of the socialist revolution. Soviet era biographers and
literary critics duly acknowledged her work, but they always
championed her as a revolutionary writer without attributing enough
importance to the rest of her writings. Her poems that dealt with
economic hardships specifically as they affected women were sidelined
as no longer relevant, and her short stories and poems depicting the
plight of the Armenian refugees after the Genocide were dismissed as
"too nationalistic".

While her counterparts in Constantinople debated the desirability of
employment for women, Kurghinian wrote about women for whom there were
no choices available. Thus her poem 'Flower Seller', which touches on
the then taboo subjects of prostitution and sexual exploitation, is
the story of a young girl forced to sell her body in desperation in
order to provide for herself and her elderly grandmother. 'The
(Female) Worker' tells of a mother who sews by a dim light into the
late hours of the night while rocking her infant's cradle, in order to
be able to provide for her young child.


Zabel Yesayian was undoubtedly the most accomplished writer of the six
authors discussed in this volume. A prolific writer who penned novels,
essays and short stories, she had a modern-day professional's
reverence for her vocation. Her literary style is unique, and although
women's issues and female identity figure prominently in her works,
the dilemmas of her characters are not exclusively gender-specific,
but of a more universally human nature.  Her novels and essays deal
with issues of exile and migration, economic hardship, and
psychological turmoil.

She studied literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, and
remained a dedicated and meticulous writer throughout her life.
Several of her works are discussed in detail in this tome: 'The Last
Cup' (1917), 'The Man' (1905), 'In the Waiting Room' (1903-1904), 'My
Soul in Exile' (1922), 'The Gardens of Silihtar' (1935), and two
essays, 'Agony of A People; (1917) and 'Le role de la femme armenienne
pendant la guerre' (1922). All these works, and her widely read
account of the Cilician massacres of 1909, 'Among the Ruins', reveal
her masterful understanding of the human psyche, her compassionate
soul, her artful use of the language, and her genius in portraying
multi-dimensional, complex characters.

Few other writers' lives so poignantly embody the tragic fate of the
Armenians, as does Zabel Yesayian's heartbreaking life story of
perpetual exile and tragic death. In April of 1915, she escaped arrest
by the Ottoman authorities only because she was out visiting when the
gendarmes came for her. She fled to Bulgaria, leaving her young son in
Constantinople with her mother, while her husband and daughter were in
Paris. From Bulgaria, she traveled to the Caucasus and Cilicia to help
care for Armenian orphans and refugees. She resettled in Paris in
1921, and continued writing and publishing. In 1933, she moved to
Yerevan at the invitation of the Soviet Armenian authorities, where
she lectured on French literature at the Yerevan State University. But
this was yet another short respite from exile. During the Stalinist
purges of 1936-1937, she was arrested and exiled to Siberia, where she
eventually died in prison. We know neither the exact date (1942 or
1943), nor the exact circumstances of her death.


After 1922, exile took on utterly new meanings for the Armenians.  The
refugee communities deported from Western Armenia settled mostly in
Syria and Lebanon, their realities shaped for a very long time by the
most basic forms of physical survival. Eastern Armenia was Sovietized,
and developed under very different social and political constructs.

Nevertheless, new voices did eventually emerge. Siran Seza, Las, Maro
Markarian, Silva Kaputikian; Victoria Rowe touches very briefly upon
the work and social circumstances of these authors at the end of her
book. A second volume of A History of Armenian Women's Writing would
be most welcome indeed.

Hermig Yogurtian lives in Montreal and is involved in the local
Armenian community. She is a researcher in issues of survivor memory
and cross-generational transmission of trauma, especially as it
affects women.

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