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Armenia: Minority Group Opposes New Marriage Rules
Rya Taza, a Yezidi village in Armenia. (Photo: Nazik Armenakyan)
Yezidis tend to marry much younger than the legally-permitted age. (Photo: Nazik Armenakyan)
Layla Haroyan,17, is planning to go to university instead of marrying immediately. (Photo: Nazik Armenakyan)
Teenage girls in Rya Taza. (Photo: Nazik Armenakyan)
A proposed change to the law in Armenia setting 18 as the minimum age at which women and men can marry has run into opposition from the Yezidi minority.
Until now, women have been able to get married at 17, a year earlier than men. The officials behind the proposed change say they want to ensure gender equality, and also to keep young women in full-time education, in light of a change to the rules which requires everyone to complete 12 years of schooling instead of ten.
“At 17, girls are still studying, so it’s no longer appropriate for them to get married,” Justice Minister Hrayr Tovmasyan said. “There’s also been a ruling by the health minister that early pregnancy can cause health problems later on.”
Tovmasyan noted that the new law was in keeping with shifting patterns of social behaviour. In the 1980s, a quarter of women in Soviet Armenia married at 17 or 18, whereas now only five per cent do so.
Leaders of the Yezidi community, where girls are married off when they are 15 or even 14 in spite of the current law, say raising the age goes against their traditions.
Aziz Tamoyan, head of the Union of Yezidis, said that in their culture an unmarried 18-year-old is already considered old, and will struggle to find a husband. He urged the government to take Yezidi customs into account before changing the law.
Yezidis speak one of the Kurdish languages, but have their own unique religion. Although there are 60,000 of them in Armenia, only one or two young women go to university every year, because most of the rest are already married and raising a family.
Layla Haroyan, 17, is from the village of Rya-Taza in the Aragatsotn region 80 kilometres from Yerevan. She is now the only girl left in the two senior classes at school. All her friends are at home waiting to get married.
“They tell girls who aren’t even 12 yet that they should stay at home, wear long clothing, and learn how to do housework, since they’ll have to get married soon,” she said. “I’m personally opposed to that, I’m against this custom, and I intend to overcome this obstacle which prevents girls like me from continuing in education and studying for a profession.”
Layla’s situation is unusual in this community. Her neighbour Sonya Aslo, 33, has already taken her 14-year-old daughter Ilona out of school, in preparation for a wedding in six months’ time.
“We found out that the lad comes from a good family and that he’s a good boy, so we decided to give our daughter away to him,” Aslo said. “What was there for Ilona to say about it? For our children, the parents’ word is law. I myself got married at 15 – what was bad about that? I’ve got four children and I don’t have any health problems.”
In public, many Yezidis say early marriage is a good thing and explains why their community has a low divorce rate.
According to Bro Hasanyan, the sheikh or religious leader of the Yezidi community, “When a 16-year-old Yezidi girl marries, she gets help from everyone and doesn’t face any difficulties. She can even work, if her husband wants her to.”
In private, however, some women disagree. Zaynab Isoyan, a 40-year-old from the village of Ferik, 40 km from Yerevan, approves of the government plan to raise the legal marriage age.
She says many women end up in unhappy marriages but cannot get divorced because of the disgrace it would bring on their families.
“We sacrifice ourselves for our parents, to avoid talk about someone’s daughter being divorced. We hold back from it just so as to avoid besmirching the honour of our forefathers. It’s also the case that our community doesn’t take well to divorced women,” Isoyan explained.
After marriage, Yezidi women move into the home of their parents-in-law. By tradition, they must not speak or eat in the presence of their husband’s father. Isoyan said her father-in-law did not hear her voice or see her eat in 15 years.
The complaints from Yezidis opposed to the marriage age change have been heard at national level. Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan has asked the health, education, labour and social affairs ministries to review to the proposal to ensure any new legislation reflects the real situation on the ground.
Sheikh Bro Hasanyan was grateful at this news, saying he wanted his community to be able to live by its traditions, and the voice of ethnic minorities to be heeded during the legislative process.
(See Armenia: Yezidi Girls Fated For Teen Marriage for pictures of a Yezidi wedding.)
Gayane Mkrtchyan is a journalist with Armenianow.com.
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