Women had a highly visible role in the peaceful protests that unseated Armenian premier Serzh Sargsyan last month, with female activists seen on the barricades and setting up the roadblocks in demonstrations that brought the capital Yerevan to a standstill.
But those who hoped that this level of involvement would lead to a new government with a fairer gender balance have been disappointed.
The journalist-turned-politician who led the protests, Nikol Pashinyan, promised the National Assembly on May 8 he would ensure proper representation for women, who he acknowledged “played a major role” in unseating Sargsyan and the ruling Republican party.
“We need to create equal opportunities for all women to continue being part of political decisions in the new Armenia,” Pashinyan said.
Some hailed this as a historic speech, the first time in Armenia’s history when a prime minister had highlighted the role of women in the country’s future success.
However, just a few days later, Pashinyan warned that that there would in fact be few female politicians in his cabinet due to an agreement he had reached to share positions amongst a number of other parties.
Indeed, only two of the new government’s 17 ministers - for culture and for labour and social affairs - are women. All three deputy prime ministers are all men.
The extraordinary events that led to the fall of the government began on March 30, when Pashinyan began walking from Armenia’s second city Gyumri to Yerevan with the stated intention to bring down Sargsyan and his Republican party after more than 20 years’ rule.
Although Pashinyan was met by only a few thousand supporters in Yerevan on April 13, many more flooded the capital four days later when Sargsyan was re-elected as prime minister by a parliamentary vote. The streets were filled with tens of thousands of people angry over corruption and political reform that seemed calculated to concentrate power in the hands of a select few. Sargsyan resigned on April 23.
A handful of women were among those addressing the crowds gathered at Republic Square. The first was Maria Karapetyan, development director of the Imagine Centre of Conflict Transformation.
“I want to address my sisters who stand together, hand in hand and fought a double fight for the change of power in Armenia and for their equal rights in public. Long live sisters!” she told the crowds.
But although there was a high level of female involvement in the protests, they made up a far less visible part of the protest movement’s leadership.
This was the subject of much discussion on social media during the so-called velvet revolution, and there were hopes that the country’s new leadership would reflect a fresh approach to inclusion.
Ashot Khurshudyan, an economic expert at Yerevan’s International Centre of Human Development, said that it was important to note that, although the public speeches were dominated by men, the extent of female participation in the protests was unprecedented.
“Women are the most neglected part of our society. And these demonstrations are a signal not only to the system of governance but to the entire society that we have an able part of society which is alienated,” he said.
Armenia is still a patriarchal society where women are expected to conform to certain gender roles. It is ranked 97 out of 144 countries by the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report 2017. Armenian women lack access to political empowerment, making up around 17 per cent of the country’s parliament, with 18 female MPs out of 105.
There are no female governors or mayors anywhere in the country.
Barely two per cent of those with leadership roles in rural communities are women, according to a study carried out by academic Ruzanna Tsaturyan.
“In political discourse, women were viewed in reproductive roles typical for a patriarchal society,” she said. “Their child-bearing and maternal functions were emphasised. Women were presented in sexist and stereotypical feminine models in politician’s speeches. These texts were identical and one-dimensional,” Tsaturyan concluded.
Many female civil society activists who played a key role during the protests say that they are disappointed with how little the political culture has changed.
Lara Aharonian, the founder and manager of Yerevan’s Women’s Resource Centre, spent many days in April on the street protesting and was even detained at one point.
She said that as the role of women in social change had long been minimised in Armenian culture, Pashinyan’s public address marked a significant step forward.
“Women were active for years over many issues - environment, issues in the army or women's rights and etc. And it was the first time that women's role in all the fights was acknowledged.”
Nonetheless, Aharonian noted, “His speech doesn't mean we have reached our aims. There is still a long fight ahead to change the patriarchal values that almost everyone in Armenia has. Maybe with this new government, our chances to reach our goals have increased.”
Some have played down the gender imbalance in the new government. Political analyst Hrant Ter-Abrahamyan said that this should not be seen as a major issue.
“When we start counting, we start considering women as objects, as if enough women in the cabinet will solve the gender issues,” he said, adding, “We will have women ministers and women prime ministers in Armenia, and not because of their gender but for their respective qualities.”
However others argue that the only way to fight for gender equality is to institute quotas for women in public positions.
Yerevan city council member Zara Batoyan, from Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party, also spoke from the stage in Republic Square. She said that more needed to be done to encourage women to take a public stance.
“I was calling on women through the whole process to make speeches on stage. Women were always involved in important issues and I was happy when four of them agreed to speak on one of the days because they actually had a say,” she continued, adding, “Yes, nobody forbade or hindered them, but as we know, not stopping doesn't mean supporting or encouraging.”