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Speaking truth to power is dangerous: the violence perpetrated against Armenian political activists

The women’s protest became dangerous and a threat to the status quo when they questioned and criticized these men’s ability to fulfil their "proper" role. հայերեն 

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lead lead Screen shot: scenes at Yerevan Municipal councillors' meeting, February 13, 2018.As the world watches the latest incidences of sexual assault and abuse being exposed through the #Metoo campaign, in Armenia violence against women appears to be the socially accepted norm. 

On 13 February shocking scenes unfolded at a Yerevan Municipal meeting when two female city councillors, wearing surgical gloves and masks, brought a jar of polluted sewer water to the council meeting.  Councillors Marina Khachatryan and Sona Aghekayan, of the Yerkir Tsirani party, brought the glass jars full of sewer water to the council session to highlight the situation of residents in Yerevan’s Nubarashen district. They felt compelled to take such an extreme measure because complaints of the area’s residents protesting that sewage from Nubarashen prison had been seeping into their neighbourhood had been repeatedly ignored.

When the two female councillors entered the hall with the jars to highlight this problem, they were brutally attacked by several men at meeting. The men who attacked them, primarily members of the ruling Republican Party, were angry that the women dared to bring the revolting water into the council chamber. 

This violent attack on the women was caught on camera, leading to an outcry on social media and a protest later in the day as activists against the violence perpetrated on Khachatran and Aghekayan. The incident is significant for two reasons. Firstly, it illustrates the normalization and social acceptance of violence against women which has been highlighted by women’s rights campaigners for many years, despite the recent adoption by the Armenian Government of a law on domestic violence and their signing of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combatting violence against women and domestic violence (the Istanbul Convention).  Government therefore has an obligation to address such an egregious and public act of violence.  

Secondly, such a reaction indicates the growing lack of tolerance towards democratic dissent overall in the country.  Watching these videos of the attack on women councillors and following the subsequent commentary by the municipal authorities, it seems clear that the women were attacked for their audacity in speaking out against the municipal authorities’ failure to address the problems of the city’s sewage system.

In recent years Armenia has witnessed protest upon protest against a slew of social injustices and corruption. Yet time and again the protests have been met with violence and repression by the authorities. Little has been done by state officials to address all these underlying concerns and to redress the causes of discontent. Instead, the authorities’ response has been to severely punish those who dare to speak out.  Today, it would appear that the politics of violence, brute force, and fear has become the norm in Armenia.   

While discussions of inequality have been becoming mainstreamed, to the extent that even Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF, expresses her concern – in a post-Soviet state such as Armenia, speaking out against social inequality and injustice remains difficult for two reasons. First, those advocating for social justice and inequality are denigrated as being left wing throwbacks to a socialist past. Second, whilst the country is at war, any kind of criticism is viewed through a nationalist lens. 

In other words, speaking out against social injustices becomes particularly dangerous the minute it is framed as an anti-national act. As long as the situation in the country remains one of “no war, no peace” the authorities frame any criticism of their social and economic policies as an attack against the nation and a threat to the nation’s security. National security becomes the primary paradigm through which all issues are viewed. 

Such a position stifles democratic debate and chills dissent as it frames protests against social injustices as an attack on the authorities who, in this nationalist populist paradigm, are constructed as the defenders of the nation. What then are activists to do? Should they remain silent in the face of gross injustices and inequality?   

Here we also cannot ignore the gender dimensions of the incident. In a patriarchal society such as Armenia, women’s ‘proper role’ is confined to being self-sacrificing mothers. Women are praised as being the mothers of current and future soldiers: whilst men are expected to be the defenders of the nation against the external enemy. 

Yet in this instance, where (some of the) men have clearly failed in their, arguably straightforward, duty to safeguard the population against health risks, the women’s protest becomes dangerous and a threat to the status quo. This is because they are questioning and criticizing the men’s ability to fulfil their ‘proper’ role.  Thus the women are attacked for daring to bring the sewage water to the council meeting, but little is said about the fact that sewage was allowed to flow and pollute the Nubarshen district in the first place. 

Their violent actions were intended to punish the women for daring to make that which was supposed to be private, public. Of course the women had to be punished as transgressors. They had to be physically disciplined for their acts of publicizing the spread of literal and metaphorical shit into the social space and for daring to confront those men (i.e., powerholders) for their incompetence and failure to deal with the situation.   

It is unclear how, indeed if, the national authorities will respond. But the question remains: is it better to keep silent about injustice or to shed light on the darkness (i.e., in this case shit) and to speak out against it, even if this leads to personal attacks and harm? This question pertains to so many, maybe all, courageous individuals who dare to speak truth to power around the globe. Because as we know, speaking truth to power is never without risk or danger.

How to cite:
Ishkanian A.(2018) Speaking truth to power is dangerous: the violence perpetrated against Armenian political activists Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 15 February.
About the author

Armine Ishkanian is Associate Professor at the London School of Economics. She has expertise in civil society, democratisation, gender, and development in the post-socialist countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

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