Marcel and the rhythm of Armenia

Barev to all readers! For a long time, I’ve been curious to dig deeper in understanding what is behind the Armenian values, attitudes and opinions. Being puzzled about it all, I decided to spend 19 days at PINK, which offered me the most extraordinary insight to answer my questions. However shocking my findings were, Armenian society is a beast that I’ve grown to love.

Having visited the first ever gender equality fair, let me first speak about women’s rights. Women’s rights are taken somewhat for granted in the Western world, but the gender equality fair was rather controversial within Armenia. The position of women in Armenia is outrageous. Women are way too often victims of arranged marriages that are on the rise. They have no say in public affairs and face day-to-day discrimination, humiliation and violence. A woman is sometimes kept at home without the “permission” to go outside should her husband chose so. She cannot socialise, be entrepreneurial or express her opinion. Armenian social norm says that a woman must be well-educated. However, a university degree for a woman is merely a tool for her future husband’s parents to accept her. Skills acquired during her university education are wasted and Armenian joke has it that a university degree (diploma) for a woman is only to be hung on the wall of her kitchen as a decoration. I spoke to many people about this situation in hope that all I’ve been hearing was only a biased viewpoint. Unfortunately, the more people I spoke to, the more I realised the magnitude of this problem.

I loved the fact that PINK’s office was indeed one of the only places in Yerevan where LGBT members could come without the fear of being teased, harassed or attacked. PINK office was indeed a safe haven for such people, where they could find peace of mind, education, like-minded people, legal advice, free condoms and so on. When I helped teaching English at PINK, I felt great knowing how grateful these lovely people were to be able to learn English in a safe environment. This proved a great success and I was rather sad when I had to say my last goodbye to them. Due to the time constrains, I only managed to initiate the preparation for Armenian first ever LGBT history exhibition. The purpose of this exhibition, an idea of my own, was to demonstrate that bi-/trans-/homosexuality is not a modern phenomenon “imported” by the West, as Armenians think of it. I wanted to illustrate that there have been LGBT people throughout the Armenian history. Some of Armenian most admired poets, film directors and monarchs were LGBT, but the society does not acknowledge these facts. Unfortunately I had to leave before the exhibition could be put together.

The social stigma around LGBT individuals in Armenia is indeed pitiable, as for instance, there operates an extremist neo-Nazi group named Mek Azg (One Nation) that literally glued thousands upon thousands of posters on every pillar and wall in Yerevan encouraging the people of Armenia to stand against LGBT. There are many more posters also saying: “No to homosexuality and erotic internet sites”, “No short skirts,” “Only the Armenian Apostolic Church in Armenia”, “No to America, yes to Russia,” “Our army is strong” and so on. This massive campaign, however unconstitutional, is sadly supported by the government, as a protector of Armenian “traditional” values. No legal action has been taken against this extremist group and this only perpetuates suicides and violent attacks against LGBT, which are honoured and celebrated in the Armenian society. After I left Armenia, I kept a sharp eye on the development of the situation of LGBT community. My utter amazement at how intolerant the Armenian society can get and how incompetent the government is was topped by hearing that my favourite pub in Yerevan was bombed up by a group of neo-Nazis.

Nevertheless, Armenia hosts some of the most wonderful places, like Nagorno-Karabakh, the Tatev Monastery and many more that I visited. Not to forget, the capital city of Yerevan is stunningly beautiful with many pleasant cafes, restaurants, amazing food, wonderful sights and a fast pace of life. Politics, government and society aside, the most incredible people I know are Armenians. The mixture of constantly being shocked to tears and excited about the beauty of its landscape and people was a true feast for my senses, mind and thoughts. As difficult as it is to get one head around this country and its society and to really make one mind up about what to make of it, I thoroughly enjoyed my stay at PINK. I can only conclude that this experience opened my eyes, challenged my convictions and re-ordered my life priorities.

Marcel Bandur