Armenian women helped oust an autocrat. But they’re still being left out of politics.


Supporters of Armenian protest leader Nikol Pashinyan gather in Republic Square as parliament holds a session to elect a new prime minister in Yerevan, Armenia, May 8, 2018. 

Hayk Baghdasaryan/Photolure/Reuters 

This past spring, as Armenia erupted in protests that would eventually oust the country’s longtime leader, women took to the streets in droves. Within days, their ranks swelled to numbers unheard of in the small, and still largely patriarchal, Caucasus nation.

Many, including the country’s new prime minister, believe that women were key to the success of Armenia’s so-called “Velvet Revolution.” But when the opposition unveiled their new government in May, female activists were disappointed to see that their numbers in the streets had not translated into greater political representation: Of 17 ministers, only two were women.

“I saw so many girls in the streets, more or less equal to the number of guys. My mum was in the streets, my little sister was pregnant and protesting,” said Sona Ghazaryan, a 25-year-old activist. “There was a huge participation of the female part of Armenia, but in the government, we see a different picture. That’s a sad story.”

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The protests began in April when the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) nominated outgoing President Serzh Sargsyan for the post of prime minister.

After a decade as president, Sargsyan was about to complete his second and final term in office. At the same time, Armenia was transitioning from a presidential system of governance to a parliamentary model, transferring the president’s powers to the prime minister.

Many Armenians therefore saw Sargsyan’s move toward the prime ministry as an attempt to sidestep constitutional term limit rules — breaking his earlier promise not to run again as either prime minister or president.

Enraged activists and politicians, led by Nikol Pashinyan, an opposition member of parliament, began organizing demonstrations that swiftly ballooned in size, bringing the capital, Yerevan, to a standstill. Pashinyan urged nonviolence, declaring the protests a “Velvet Revolution” in homage to the peaceful end of Communist rule in former Czechoslovakia.

Lara Aharonian, a veteran women’s rights activist, believes that women were instrumental in keeping the protests peaceful: “Especially with elderly women present, it was hard for the police to confront them,” she said.

Sargsyan stepped down after nearly two weeks of sustained protests, and Pashinyan was elected as prime minister in early May. His pledge to strengthen democracy and eradicate corruption was met with praise around the world. But the lack of women in his cabinet sparked complaints.

“It's not as if there aren't enough qualified women. If you go and have a meeting with civil society, there are so many women,” said Ghazaryan, who helped coordinate the protests. “It’s not nice to have just two [women] ministers.”

Pashinyan has repeatedly emphasized the importance of women’s participation. “Many people are stressing the role of the youth, which is, of course, very important,” he said, speaking to a small group of reporters at his official Yerevan residence in June. “But women played a little bit more important role in this revolution.”

Still, Pashinyan defended his decision to appoint only two female ministers, saying he had chosen his ministers from a small circle of prominent activists. As everything had happened so quickly, he argued, few women had emerged as leaders over the course of the protests.

Asked what he would do to increase the representation of women in politics and society, he gave no definitive answer. “I think that women boosted their own role themselves. I don’t think that government should do anything to boost any role,” he said.

Women activists concede that when it came to giving speeches and leading the protests, men were more visible during the protests. But that, they say, is no excuse for leaving women out of government. They have also criticized Pashinyan for assigning the two women to ministries seen as stereotypically female posts: culture and social affairs.

“The social minister and the culture minister aren’t so important. The appointment of those two posts also says something about how women are viewed,” said Olya Azatyan, a civil society activist.

Like many Armenian feminists, Azatyan sees the country’s patriarchal social norms as the root cause. Gender equality is enshrined in the country’s legal code, but discrimination is widespread. Domestic violence is endemic: A 2011 survey conducted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) found that 60 percent of women had been subjected to domestic violence at least once.

Last year, the proportion of women in Armenia’s parliament stood at 18 percent, according to World Bank data. It's an improvement: Between Armenia’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and 2016, women lawmakers accounted for 10 percent or less. The current global average stands at 24 percent.

Aharonian said that while she was disappointed by the lack of female ministers, she was therefore not surprised. “This new government grew up in the same patriarchal society. They have the stereotype that women should not be involved in dirty political work,” she said.

But she is optimistic about the future. With a government largely comprised of activists in power, civil society groups wield greater influence than ever before.

“There was no political will in the old government,” said Aharonian. These days, however, civil society activists are in constant dialogue with Pashinyan and his ministers: “We’ve met more often with the new government in the last months than we met with the old government in years.”

And many female protesters hope for more women in parliament after the next elections. Pashinyan is currently running an interim government and has pledged to hold snap elections within a year.

The government may have a responsibility to work on gender equality. But Olya Azatyan says it’s ultimately up to Armenian women to step out of the shadows and enter politics in greater numbers. She worries that many qualified women lack the self-confidence to put their names forward.

“I know some women have been suggested for posts and refused, thinking that they are not qualified enough,” Azatyan said. “I don’t know any man who’s been offered a post and refused it. Women think they have to work twice as hard.”

Yet, Armenia is changing. Sona Ghazaryan, for one, is thinking of running for a parliamentary seat in the next elections.

“Women in parliament, they’re seen as pretty things who occasionally say something interesting,” she said. “It’s time for a change.”