Karabakh War Changed Women's Roles for Ever

Women say they are much more prominent in civil and business life due largely to the full part they played in the fighting.
  • Women in a military unit during the Karabakh War. (Photo: Margarita Taranyan)

The balance of the sexes in Nagorny Karabakh appears to have been permanently changed by the war between Azeris and Armenians, with women retaining the greater equality they gained on the frontline.

Just three ministers and five members of parliament are women, but in the non-governmental and business sectors women often outnumber men.

That is a major reverse for a society that was strictly traditional towards the end of the Soviet period, with women crediting much of the change to the full part they took in the fighting.

“Despite the fact that the main burden in actual fighting was born by men, the role of women in the war was no less important,” said Zhanna Krikorova, chairwoman of the International Cooperation Centre of Nagorny Karabakh, which coordinates connections between non-governmental organisations in Karabakh with international non-governmental bodies.

“Although this goes against the Caucasus mentality, many Karabakh women, despite their traditional place, went to fight alongside men. Others took upon themselves all the difficulties of wartime survival.”

Nagorny Karabakh, although unrecognised internationally, declared independence from Azerbaijan unilaterally and has governed itself unimpeded ever since the ceasefire of 1994.

According to research conducted by the entity’s regional business centre, women adapted much more quickly to the difficulties of post-war life, when the economy was destroyed and trade was restricted by all connections between Nagorny Karabakh and Baku being severed.

“Since Armenian women are responsible for their families, many representatives of the weaker sex used their initiative and became more active. This social activity has been preserved, meaning we have a different kind of life in Karabakh,” Krikorova said.

Nagorny Karabakh was an autonomous region within Soviet Azerbaijan with a majority Armenian population. In 1988, the Armenians appealed to Moscow for their region to be joined to nearby Armenia, sparking ethnic clashes in Baku and elsewhere, in the first major disorders to herald the end of the Soviet Union.

Ordinary women in Nagorny Karabakh threw themselves into the defence of the territory, and some even went to the frontline to serve alongside men, though often as nurses, such as Margarita Taranyan.

“I still do not understand how we managed to save ourselves. I cannot believe that after all those horrible and cold days I managed to preserve good health,” said Taranyan, who served as a nurse from 1992-4.

Now she is a major in the police, with a position in the defence staff. It would once have been rare to see a woman in epaulettes in Nagorny Karabakh, but since the war, it is fairly common, though they do not serve on the frontlines.

“Such lads were killed, one better than the next. And the girls too,” she trailed off, before talking about her friend Margarita whose body they waited until night to recover.

According to men who fought in the war, women have not retreated to their traditional subservient position after the ceasefire. Gagik Avanesyan, an activist from the Movement for Nagorny Karabakh’s Independence, said women often gave blood for the wounded, cooked food, or served as medical orderlies.

“Now of course it is not the war veterans who are so active, but younger women. And I have a sense that young men became more inert, and that women more frequently take the responsibility on themselves,” he said.

But the war did not spare women the traumas associated with violence and fear. Many war veterans have struggled with getting the psychiatric care (http://iwpr.net/report-news/mental-scars-karabakh-war-veterans) they need to overcome the horrors of the fighting, and women who served as nurses often do not even have the minimal help that has been available.

“You’d think that I should have been scared then. We’re the weaker sex after all. But I felt no fear at all. There were so many killed and injured, and I understood I could be next, but I had some feeling inside that I would live,” said Anahit Petrosyan, a mother of two from Martakert who continued working as a military nurse in civilian life.

“The fear came later. After the war, when I told someone about the horror I had been through, and it was then I felt this indescribable terror.”

All the same, however, Nagorny Karabakh’s women say they are tougher now than they were, and that the society will not turn back.

“War has so hardened us women,” said Julietta Arustamyan, the widow of a fallen officer and now head of the Harmony non-governmental organisation, which organises cultural events for women. “We lived through so much that if someone told us to sit on a tractor and fly to Mars, we could do it,” she said.

Karine Ohanyan is a freelance reporter. Anahit Danielyan is a correspondent for the Armedia news agency.


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