Armine who works at SOSE sat beside me and translated in a whisper. My toddler Armenian meant I couldn’t say much and anyway a loud-mouthed American braying in her own language wasn’t really what was wanted. But the discussion about men’s and women’s roles did make me think about my own views and so here they are. They are not representative of America or Ireland or Britain, or all the women who live there. They are not even representative of my own family’s views. They are certainly not a to-do list for all women or any woman in Armenia.
Liana opened the meeting by asking if women should do all the work at home.
It doesn’t makes sense to talk about all women, or all men. I think each woman and each man and each couple should be able to work out what they can do —usefully and willingly –to sustain and enhance their home. I like to cook. I don’t like to clean. I have been fortunate to spend chunks of my life with men — and indeed children–who care much more about cleanliness than I do. They happily cleaned and washed and ran the vacuum cleaner round. They washed up after I cooked. Usually they made the tea or coffee in the morning, because they got up earlier than me. They did these things lovingly and I, for my part, hope I shopped and cooked with minimum fuss and mess, and taking into account what they liked and needed. Usually, I kept the diary and made the phone calls and eased social situations. When it came to things that no one wanted to do, we discussed who was likely to do it better, or who minded it less. If necessary we took the really horrid things in turns. We worked it out based on who we are, what we care about,and what needed to be done. For the record, we didn’t give a rap about what the neighbors thought. But then we barely knew the neighbors, which is not the case here. My homes have also been helped and held together by 10 different cleaners over 30 years. Two of those were men. Everyone of them was a true professional– business people making the most of their strengths, circumstances, or choices to run their own in-demand small enterprise.
Which brings us to economics.
Young women working at a hi-tech company in Yerevan
For good or ill, family life will change here as the economy improves. Armenians are well-educated and tech and service industries are already blossoming. In an age where brainpower and interpersonal skills are what employers want, bright men and women will be equally in demand. The days of hunter-gathering and physical work are done. As in many other parts of the world, companies in Armenia will woo some women to work– they can’t afford to lay waste to half the population. Perhaps in some houses the curtains won’t get washed and rehung twice a year. Perhaps not so many vine leaves will get picked and washed and sorted and stored. Maybe the cold room won’t be filled with homemade jam. Some families will use their new income to hire a cleaner. Not everyone will choose to make these changes, nor should they. But they will have a choice.
One of the men in the group brought up the issue of “head of the household”. At the moment, his wife works and he is not able to find a job. He believes the man should be head of the household– the authority and final arbiter when decisions need to be made. He conceded the role might pass to a women if they are earning the money. In his case he hopes the situation is temporary and that the natural order of things can soon be restored.
I don’t like the idea of someone being the boss in a relationship-and I certainly don’t like it being tied to income. None of us wants to feel owned. Consensus on important issues is ideal but we all know it is impossible to achieve always. It has to be possible to work out who has dominion where. Traditionally women have the last word on children and home, and men on spending money. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Negotiate on what matters to you most. Oh, and consider value versus income. I know a couple here where the husband is definitely in charge. He works outside his home and he brings home a pay packet. His wife works in the house and garden. She grows, preserves and prepares most of what the family eats. Her effort has no status because money is not involved. But if she stopped working the family would starve. That wouldn’t happen if he lost his job– although the lights would go off quite quickly. So whose contribution is greater? He sits down for most of the day. She is never off her feet. In the evening, he flops on the sofa and she makes the coffee and clears it up. She resents it and I would too.
And then to the parts of the discussion I found most difficult; the issues of dress and behavior.
Anahit said men should let women wear what they want. The verb jarred with me. Let: allow, permit. Women should wear what they want. So should men. A partner might say they prefer one outfit over another but they shouldn’t have and shouldn’t seek any control. It’s only respectful. I love you. I married you. I trust you to pick your own clothes.
Respect and Trust
A young woman talked about teen relationships and how young men forced to enter the army for two years often ask their girlfriends not to wear short skirts or high heels while they are gone. Oh dear. Either you trust each other or you don’t. If your girlfriend is committed to you, she can wear what she likes and it will be ok. If she cares nothing, she can wear a balaclava and a onesie and still she will betray you. If some predator chooses to abuse her in your absence that is a crime. It doesn’t matter a damn how she was or wasn’t dressed.
After this the conversation turned to a discussion of (female) virtue, a big deal here. Several of the women talked about the messages sent by immodest dress. They were against it.
I am against it myself. No speedos and unbuttoned shirts and too-tight jeans, thank you. I am with the Queen of England:enigma is all.
There was a lot of talk about what the neighbors would think when a young woman is seen going out or coming home late at night. Or when four men who happen to be her brothers are seen coming and going. The neighbors? It’s none of their business.
“It’s the Armenian mentality” said everyone. But it doesn’t need to be. Let the change start with you. Don’t gossip or pass opinion on other people’s behavior that doesn’t conform and when you hear other people do it, challenge their assumptions.
“Do women in America wear white at their weddings?” asked Armine, who will be married in a matter of weeks.
“Most do” I said “But not all. They choose. They wear what they want”
Armine looked shocked. Was she astounded by the idea of despoiled women daring to drape themselves in white? Or by the idea that anything goes in America at the altar or in the aisle? I must ask her next time.
I believe in individualism, respect, trust, partnership, autonomy and choice. There, I’ve said it. It feels good.