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Meet our Volunteer: Anna Nikoghosyan

Published: 29 April 2016 Tags: womens programme, lgbt, volunteer By John Walding

Hello! My name is Anna, I am a pansexual feminist activist from Armenia, currently based in Manchester. It’s been just a few weeks since I became a volunteer for LGBT Foundation’s Women’s Programme, but from the very first day when I entered the organization and was welcomed by sunny smiles, I understood I’m in a right place. It feels like home.

I want to tell you a little bit about my life, my activism, my politics and what is going on in Armenia. For those of you who are not familiar, Armenia is a mountainous country in the South Caucasus, with a beautiful nature and nice food. But these are things you can find in Google in just five seconds. What I’m going to tell you is something harder to find as people in Armenia don’t talk much about women’s sexuality, everyday discrimination and violence. These are taboo topics that should be maintained inside the four walls of the house. No matter how much you scream, personal is not political in Armenia.

According to national research, every third woman in Armenia is subject to at least one type of domestic violence. There is a popular saying in Armenian, “A woman is like wool, the more you beat her, the softer she’ll be.”

In Armenia women’s voices are silenced. We are hardly able to make decisions in our families and communities, decisions over our lives, bodies and sexuality. Armenian society is aggressive towards anything outside the culturally accepted binary of gender and sexual behaviour. Homosexuality is treated as an illness or pathology even by psychologists and university professors. Trans* and non-binary people are at constant risk. They struggle for their basic rights, rights for survival and life free from violence.

The recent research undertaken in Armenia shows that over 90% of Armenians want homosexuality to be restricted by law. A third believes that homosexuality is the result of a “wrong upbringing”. Others assume that LGBTQ rights are part of Western “pervasive” politics, “artificial artefacts” that aim to destroy Armenian values and traditions. Being a member of LGBTQ community therefore equals being an enemy to the country and national interests.

One of the reasons that Armenian society is so hostile against LGBTQ people is that sexuality in general is a taboo topic in the country, especially for women and girls. We don’t talk about sex.

There’s another saying in the Soviet space (Armenia was part of it) – “There is no sex in the Soviet Union.” Obviously, the Soviet system no longer exists, but sexual freedom is still hardly achieved in Armenia.

Women’s sexuality is so much restricted that we still have an old ceremony called “Red Apple” which is predominantly applied in rural areas. Whenever a girl gets married (and of course we are talking about heterosexual marriage here), the sheets are checked by the mother-in-law the next morning to see if there is blood on them, the blood indicating that the bride’s hymen had been broken. By this way the virginity of the bride, and consequently her “pureness” and eligibility to a happy and “qualified” marriage is tested. In case there is blood, the family of the groom is visiting the family of the bride, publicly giving them red apples - the symbol of the woman’s “decency” and “chastity”. This happens in front of the eyes of neighbours and other relatives.

However, if there is no blood, severe problems may occur, up to “sending back” the bride to her family as she dishonoured the family of the groom. And since there is no sex education in Armenia, people are generally unaware about hymens and how possible it is to engage in sex and not break the hymen, naming only one of the problems.

But does anybody care about increasing awareness and dismissing harmful traditional practices that objectify and discriminate women? Some do, but our voices are still marginalised. We’re referred to as destroyers of “public and private morals” and traditional Armenian families. Well, I am fine with those labels. Smashing the oppression of women, girls and LGBTQ+ people is exactly what we all need to do.

As for me, my feminist and activist journey started when I understood that I live in a society where men are perceived as humans and women as “others”. I was fourteen years old. Since then [I am 25 now], I am involved in feminist and LGBTQ movements in various capacities and roles on local, regional and international levels. Whatever my capacity is, I am desperately trying to dismantle patriarchy, problematize essentialist and hegemonic understandings of femininities and masculinities, question and deconstruct the gender binary, challenge heteronormativity and gendered power structures in all their forms.

These are big goals, aren’t they? But not that big in comparison to the challenges and risks we experience every single day when we try to come out, resist, struggle for our rights and recognition or simply live in a cruel society. For many of us, living in Armenia is already a sort of political activism.

Because of my LGBTQ activism and the work that I’m doing locally to support women and girls in all their diversity, I was blacklisted by a national newspaper in May 2014. A newspaper ironically called “Rights” blacklisted me and 59 other LGBTQ members and activists. The article was entitled “They serve the interests of international homosexual lobbying.” It was calling upon the public in large to hate us, refuse us, cut any communications with us. Employers were encouraged to fire us.

When we sued the newspaper for hate speech, we lost the case and had to pay money to the newspaper that ruined the lives of many of us. Guess what happened next? The board chair of that media company got a medal from the president of Armenia for its honourable work. That means we were indirectly blacklisted by the government itself.

Unfortunately, these recent events impacted me and my family as well. I have two brothers; one of them said to me “You’re no longer my sister.” It’s been two years now since we’ve communicated. It was hard with my older brother as well who told me I have to decide between my family and my activism. I answered back: “You’re asking too much, I can’t chose between my family and myself; activism is what I am and who I am.” That was hard, but we overcame it.

Resisting the fight takes energy, commitment and the ability to practice hope. However, it’s a lot easier when you find a community, like-minded people who have similar experiences and are ready to support, just listen or read, as you do right at the moment if you look through my words. I am thankful for that.

I know that sisterhood is global and does not recognize any state borders or religions. I believe in cross-border solidarity. And this is why I’m here. This is why I googled LGBT Foundation and decided to show up. We all are very busy, aren’t we? But we make the world a better place when we give a couple of hours from our free time to volunteering, strategizing, making our communities and help make our lives safer, better and more meaningful for all of us.

Anna Nikoghosyan

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