Long before the emergence of nation states and legislation of laws, patriarchal societies assigned distinct roles to males and females without codifying them into formal rules and written regulations. These invented norms, values, social conventions, and ancestral customs became so deeply ingrained in community life that when written laws were finally passed by governing authorities, they were difficult to enforce. In effect, social pressures and family influences often carried more weight than actual laws, especially when it came to women’s rights.
While this same pattern can be observed throughout ancient Armenian history, a notable exception is that Armenia is indeed one of the first nations on earth to have afforded women many progressive legal rights that women in more conservative countries today would envy. This began with the Christian era in Armenia back in the 4th century.
Christianizing Women’s Rights
With historic Armenia’s adoption of Christianity as the state religion in 301 AD, it began to develop a whole host of rules called Canon Law. These rules were either adapted from the pre-Christian period or banned, such as the pagan practice of polygamy. The Armenian Apostolic Church sanctified only monogamy and equalized women and men in spreading Christian values as servants of the Church.
In David Zakarian’s recently published book Women,Too, Were Blessed, the author identifies three deep-rooted marital customs that were re-examined by the Church: Varjank, which is paying the bride’s family in silver to symbolize consent between two sides; abduction; and cohabitation without formal marriage. With the latter two clearly impacting the maiden and her family’s reputation, the Church legitimized only varjank, additionally emphasizing the importance of a maiden’s consent in this process. This effectively forbade forced marriages at a time when they were commonplace in other societies. By extension, an Armenian woman could also divorce on her own initiative and remarry, even if her former husband was still alive.
Armenian Church Canon Law did retain one practice from pre-Christian times: a women’s right to property. Even during the pagan period, Armenian women could fully manage their property, bequeath it whomever they wished and keep their possessions after a divorce. Interestingly enough, a man could not divorce his wife simply because she was barren. According to Church doctrine, childlessness was the will of God, free from human control. If a man abandoned his wife for her inability to bear a child, the wife was entitled to all her possessions that she brought with her dowry, from jewelry to cattle. What’s more, if she had no other physical defect, as the word defect was defined at the time, the husband was required to pay a fine to her family for the insult.
Back in the 12th century, Gosh also highly condemned any practice of domestic violence, imposing fines on husbands charged with physically assaulting his wife. If the abuse was a pattern, the wife had the right to divorce.
12th Century Blessings
By the end of the 8th century, the Armenian Church had finalized the Canon Law, which protected human rights and imposed duties from a religious perspective. Then a revolutionary change took place in the beginning of the 12th century when a prominent scientist Mkhitar Gosh drafted a comprehensive Law Code, or Datastanagirk, giving most of these religiously-driven customs and rules a secular legal framework.
Previously, secular laws shielded specific individuals based on their class and social status. Gosh crafted laws that were humanitarian and future-forward, regardless of one’s status, religion, or race. With all society entitled to the same legal rights, Armenian women of the Middle Ages took a huge step forward to a self-empowered life.
Gosh redressed a number of other rights for medieval Armenian women, which were quite progressive for the time. Adhering to the Canon Law, polygamy and forced marriages were condemned on a legal basis, setting the legal age of marriage at 15. The Law Code also legitimized a woman’s right to property if divorcing.
Back in the 12th century, Gosh also highly condemned any practice of domestic violence, imposing fines on husbands charged with physically assaulting his wife. If the abuse was a pattern, the wife had the right to divorce. Additionally, if a pregnant woman suffered from an abdominal trauma caused by a physical assault by her husband or another man, the aggressor not only was required to pay a fine of 2,000 silver pieces but also formally ask for the victim’s forgiveness.
For a patriarchal society, the equal punishment for committing adultery was also an exceptional law for the time. Yet, a more progressive and astonishing fact was allowing the husband to pardon his wife’s adultery and continue living with her if he so wished.
Nonetheless, this collection of feudal laws of medieval Armenia that gave women great latitude when it came to marriage and property were difficult to take root in small communities in which long held conservative traditions held sway over enforceable law. This set in motion the continuous tension between the legal rights of women and the wrongs of gender bias and domestic abuse that continue in certain communities in Armenia to this day
Daughter-in-Law in Distress
Despite Gosh’s progressive laws, over the centuries close-knit communities decisively preserved and practiced customs as sacred rules. In contrast to progressive laws, these norms were highly regressive, especially in the treatment of new brides, who were essentially rendered personal servants to their mothers-in-law and the other family members.
Ignoring the minimum legal age of marriage of 15, parents gave away their girls in marriage at an even more tender age (8-12). No sooner did she join the groom’s household, that she was compelled to perform all the chores at her mother-in-law’s command. These new brides were so overworked and demeaned that marriage became tantamount to a forced labor camp. In some instances, if one’s mother-in-law so wished, the bride had to wash the feet of her father-in-law, further abasing her self-dignity.
The ideal daughter-in-law was the first to rise and the last to retire to bed. She had to be respectful, silent, humble, and self-effacing. She could eat at the table only when the rest of the family finished dining. She was not allowed to sit or stand next to her husband in the presence of other family members, nor was she allowed to speak to her in-laws, as it would mean showing disrespect. Additionally, the daughter-in-law should cover her head with a scarf and never expose her teeth; otherwise, she would be labeled as impudent. She could pay a visit to her parental house only during special holidays and with the permission of her mother-in-law.
Some of these customs were widespread in Armenia, others specific to some regions. In Gegharkunik, for instance, the hard life of the newly married woman started right on the wedding day. When the large family gathering celebration was over, the bride removed her wedding dress, put on her long-sleeved cotton robe or khalat and proceeded to clean up all the leftovers and debris from the festivities.
Depending on the gender dynamics of the household and its economic circumstances, the mother-in-law would be responsible for the cooking, though the rest of the housework was on the shoulders of the daughter-in-law. This was not done to ease the burden of the daughter-in-law, but to precisely control all the scarce staples and ingredients of the household to ensure the family would have a consistent portion of food all year round.
Another custom arising from economic circumstances was the occasional outfit of young maidens of the family. Those families that had more than one daughter-in-law possessed a single special occasion outfit for all. When hosting guests, one daughter-in-law would put in an appearance, then leave the room, change clothes, and pass on the outfit to the next daughter-in-law.
Perhaps the worst of all these humiliating customs was the practice of silence, meant to rob young girls of their innate ability to speak. The practice was called chkhoskanutyun.
Bridal Sign Language
Perhaps the worst of all these humiliating customs was the practice of silence, meant to rob young girls of their innate ability to speak. The practice was called chkhoskanutyun. It was the key method of demonstrating modesty in front of the in-laws and men. Therefore, daring to speak was an outright show of disobedience and disrespect. If she wanted to say something she had to whisper it to a child or a young sister-in-law who would convey the message for her, usually only if urgent. Chkhoskanutyun was such a widespread practice that even the wedding headdress in some regions was so heavy that it forced the bride’s head to bend forward, keeping her nose and mouth from view.
In some communities, the repression was so strict that the brides invented a sign language to communicate their most urgent messages with their in-laws or men of the family. This language was called harsneren—the language of the bride. However, it is difficult to confirm precisely how and from whom these oppressed brides learned this silent language.
Surprisingly enough, the rule to practice silence was universal for all the daughter-in-laws in most of the regions of Western and Eastern Armenia. Once they stepped into the house of their in-laws they were not allowed to speak for a conditional period of time. The rule when they could be freed from this repression was kept secret and varied from household to household. Some restored their right to speak after giving birth to their first son. However, if they wound up in a strict household, they could be required to practice silence until some unnamed arbitrary event took place, such as the death of their father-in-law, which could take many decades. Some brides already knew the unspoken condition and once their child was born or the father-in-law passed away they started to speak on their own accord. Other households would free the daughter-in-law from this cage with a ceremonious ritual in which jewelry and other assets were bestowed, perhaps as a reward for obedient behavior.
Bride’s Best Friend
Young and inexperienced, overloaded and humbled, a newly married young woman had to have someone to speak out and ease the burden of her soul. As she did not have anyone’s support and protection, including her husband, a ritual doll would accompany her through all her days of sorrow and grief.
In general, in Armenian folklore, ritual dolls played an important role. While there were many with numerous connotations attached to them, sabri khrtsig (doll of patience) was specifically meant for newly married brides. Once the girl was ready to leave the paternal house, one of the older members of her family sewed a doll of patience for her and secretly put it in her dowry (ojit). When the hardships became unbearable, the daughter-in-law took sabri khrtsig, sat in one of the quiet corners of the house and poured all misery to the doll. In effect, her only friend and trusted confident was a stuffed toy.
Even today, in Armenia and other societies influenced by conservative or theological ideals, such as in the Middle East, the tension between the laws on the books and the rules of the household remain at play. Though the picture is less oppressive than decades ago, there is a clear disparity between the experience of women in Armenia’s tight-knit rural communities and those raised in Yerevan and other cities in terms of their sense of empowerment and agency. Nationally, however, there has also been considerable backlash against calls for legislation in that protect women from domestic violence. While most of these opponents are men, their wives and mothers tend to publicly concur with their husbands and sons. These are the subtle behaviors that indicate a stubborn resistance in the country to eradicate gender bias from all spheres of society, economy, and political life.