A politics of myth

Seda Muradyan
12 December 2006

As women in Armenia renew efforts to secure their role in politics, Seda Muradyan examines the challenges they confront, from flowers in place of debate, to systemic corruption.

Twenty-two parties recently signed a document making proposals for Armenia's electoral code, to broaden women's access to politics. It suggests a 25 percent quota for women in party lists, up from the current provision of only 3 percent. But the chances of any real change emerging may be slim, given lack of support from two of the largest factions in government. Women make up more than 65 percent of the literate population with higher education. Yet they face an uphill struggle to achieve political influence.

Armenia ranks among the lowest countries in the world for women's representation in parliament, with a participation rate of only 5 percent. In local government, this figure is below 2 percent. Seven of the National Assembly's 131 members are women, while one minister and three deputy ministers are female. So why is women's intellectual potential neglected in state management? Women engaged in the public sphere divide the underlying reasons into myths and realities.

Seda Muradyan is Armenia country director for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR)

Myth or reality? "It is cultural: politics is a man's business"

One of the commonest explanations for women's exclusion says politics is a man's business and Armenian women more frequently see themselves as housewives, mothers and wives.

Alvard Petrosyan, of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (a ruling coalition member) does not think this is a myth. "Armenian women love ruling the country or the family from behind their husbands' backs. Might it be true that it is important to maintain a womanly image? I keep this in mind even when I am at the National Assembly... I frequently hold back and think: ‘let these men speak out here'. In cases where I become extremely active, I don't show it off, and the reason is in the nature of Armenian women." However, she is confident that for the country to develop harmoniously both sexes should be equally represented at the National Assembly.

In contrast, Hranush Kharatyan, head of the agency for ethnic minorities, says "frequently we become ‘cultural conservatives', although our culture has no traditions of opposing women's activities". No matter how much women in Armenia might dispute cultural factors, the moral-psychological atmosphere dictates certain attitudes towards women politicians.

In 2005, Gagik Beglaryan won the Kentron community local administration election over his rival Ruzan Khachatryan, the only female candidate for the post. Throughout the campaign Gagik Beglaryan presented his female rival with bunches of flowers instead of holding ideological debates with her. On 8 March 2004, some five hundred women marched to the presidential residence to demand the ousting of the incumbent authorities. The president claimed, "those women either have no families or lack family warmth". (Ruzan Khachatryan disputes this crude equation. "There are women in Armenia who are actively involved in social and political work, but it does not keep them back from being caring mothers and loving wives.")

Meanwhile, a 2006 Gallup survey measuring pre-election tendencies revealed that, presented with a choice, Armenian voters would give preference to male candidates. Only 6 percent of voters were ready to vote for women against 64 percent support for male candidates.

Political analyst Aghasi Yenokyan believes that men's predominance stems from social factors, and that women's inclusion remains a mere cosmetic measure from parties. "Women have not traditionally been engaged in politics in Armenia. It is not perceived as a matter of their daily activities. They are still not formed as a social group that could demand and get benefits."

So is there a desire and understanding for women's participation in politics? Khosrov Harutyunyan, chairman of the Christian-Democratic Party of Armenia, regrets he can't see such demand, though he strongly believes that many things - from tolerance to corruption - would radically change if women played a decisive political role. Yet he is confident that women's suppression by men is not the problem. He too attributes women's lack of participation to social attitudes.

But scratch the surface, and the reality may be more fluid than the myth. Armenia's national UNIFEM program coordinator Ilona Ter-Minasyan refutes the idea that the Armenian mentality is an obstacle. "There have been many other things that our mentality once lacked. But we are already seeing change in some spheres despite the fact only a short period of time has elapsed. We can't say our mentality in five hundred years will be the same as it was three hundred years ago. We can influence our mentality, to change aspects of it, and we must do so. We need to realise the necessity and orient ourselves to the country's development."

Myth: "Women are unwilling to go into politics"

That women are unwilling to go into politics is one of the most irritating stereotypes for politically active Armenian women. Women politicians are confident that they are "simply not allowed to come close to politics".

Eighteen women ran for seats in the National Assembly during the 2003 parliamentary election in Armenia. Only one was elected.

"Today the deputies in the National Assembly are mostly those who have gained property in the course of the time and their aim is to keep that property. They will hardly make way to others. That is why they need a myth about the unwillingness of the women to go into politics," says Jemma Hasratyan, chair of the Association of Women with University Education.

Some experts think that the view that women are to some extent unready to be engaged in politics relates to women's lack of political experience rather than inadequate knowledge or education. Ruzan Khachatryan is confident there is quite a big number of politically active women, but they are not allowed to enter the field because the opponents exploit ‘dirty political mechanisms' like the use of force, violence and fraud. She says this is why women do not want to be engaged in politics, despite their suitability.


Once myths are dispensed with, the underlying realities become clearer. The political and economic spheres are adjusted to suit male managers, such that women are more likely to bend to the system than to struggle against it. Women require the backing of a political party to enter politics, and cannot take part independently. The highest positions they can hope to achieve are head of an agency, advisor or deputy minister - not positions that would allow them to reform the system. "A woman moving in this milieu needs to adopt the laws and the rules. The environment does not create the conditions for a woman to manifest her other qualities," says Ilona Ter-Minasyan.

And the system is frequently corrupt. A recent survey by Transparency International showed that 62.9 percent of the Armenian population thinks corruption has grown in the last three years. Amalia Kostanyan of Transparency International is confident that the system in Armenia is "corrupt from top to toe".

Women politicians think a certain percentage of representation would help them avoid obeying the rules of the game set by men, in terms of corruption, and prevent them falling victim to the system.

Will quotas solve the problem?

International organisations promote women's increased participation in politics, in the hope of building democracy (a key requirement in a recently adopted action plan for greater cooperation with the European Union, for example). But their efforts have so far been successful only in the non-governmental sector, where women play a major role. Analysts believe the overall situation will remain unchanged unless women are artificially included in politics, with steps on the state level to promote women's entrance into the political arena.

UN expert Dubravka Simonovich thinks the implementation of quotas is an effective mechanism to redress the balance, while specifying that it is not "a sign of discrimination towards men, because convention provides for quotas to promote women's participation in big politics".

"A parliament that does not represent the interests of the half of the population is not representative. It's not an aim in itself, but the balanced representation of men and women provides the opportunity to consider problems raised by both men and women," says Jemma Hasratyan.

Nevertheless, many believe legislation alone will not solve the problem: attitudes also need to change. Both opposition and pro-governmental parties accept the need for more women in the National Assembly. Yet they agree the attempt to artificially increase their number will not be very productive.

At the parliamentary election 2003 it was decided that 5 percent of the party lists would be allotted to women. Because the position of women on the lists was not specified, men immediately took advantage, says Hermine Naghdalyan, elected on the Republican Party list. Women were included to meet legal requirements, but their names were set in the lowest places.

To escape such disappointment in future the introduction of quotas needs to be accompanied by a relevant work with the political parties, says Ilona Ter-Minasyan. Women's names should be set in every fourth place in the list, and women should not be included simply for being women, but so they are engaged in the development of human and intellectual resources. Foreign experience shows the quantity gradually turns into a quality.

Looking ahead: election 2007

Parliamentary elections in May 2007 will be another test of Armenian democracy. Armenia has failed its previous tests. It is too early to forecast the results this time, but the unofficial campaigns already launched do not inspire much hope.

The Republican Party of Armenia, the largest coalitional political force in Armenia, has chosen to target young people by engaging them in various events and organising concerts by Russian pop stars for them. Gagik Tsarukyan of the Prosperous Armenia Party pays young people's tuition fees, distributes potatoes and seeds, and organises activities for rural villagers. Despite the prohibition of business activities by politicians, many members of the National Assembly of Armenia don't bother concealing their violations, and their entrepreneurial endeavours enable them to spend large amounts of money gaining voters' hearts.

These unofficial campaigns tend to replace intellectual and policy competition, and distort the democratic process, since such "benevolence" - which is not within the responsibilities or the salaries of National Assembly members - generally amounts to bribery. Such methods add to the obstacles women face, as they are less able to raise funds for campaigns.

So perhaps democracy itself will be the force that properly enables women's participation. "The artificial involvement of women in politics will not make the country democratic. If the country becomes democratic, women's inclusion in politics will grow without special efforts," says National Assembly member Shavarsh Kocharyan.

In any case, it seems the two will need to go hand in hand.

Lena Badeyan of the A1+ TV Company also contributed to this article.


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