At its inception, the Soviet empire included some of the most patriarchal societies on the Eurasian landmass – even by the already patriarchal standards of 1917. True to their Marxist teachings – which saw the patriarchal family as a microcosm of bourgeois oppression – the early Bolsheviks set upon many of the Central Asian and Caucasian traditions that had kept women in Tbilisi, Tashkent, Baku in bondage for centuries. The veil was torn up. Women received equal rights of divorce. Legally at least, they received at the very least the same level of control over mind and body that this totalitarian system allowed their male counterparts. They could opt for higher education, indeed, they were encouraged to. And abortions were legalized.
The picture was not unequivocally rosy throughout the history of the Soviet Union. Some of Stalin’s policies were particularly retrograde, both state and party remained bastions of male dominance throughout Soviet history, and, in the later Soviet period, many of the great ambitions of the early Bolsheviks became mired in the self-congratulatory stagnation of Brezhnevism. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that, in the Caucasus and Central Asia at least, seventy years of communist rule drastically transformed the power relationships between men and women on a very fundamental level. Where an illiterate Central Asian girl born at the beginning of the century could at pin her hopes for a not-too-bright future on her parents’ choice of a not-too-old and -gruff husband, women at the end of the Soviet experiment could fully expect to become part of their republic’s workforce and live a life of their choosing (again, within the confines of ‘Really Existing Socialism’). And while local patriarchal traditions did stay alive, at least it was official policy to discourage some of their more sinister utterances.
The fall of the Soviet Union was a disaster for gender equality throughout the collapsed empire – but especially in these above-mentioned hyper-patriarchal societies in the Caucasus and Central Asia. With the economic collapse, many women lost their ability to survive independently outside of marriage if they so chose to; others had the pressure of being the sole breadwinners for their families added to their household chores, which they had always been expected to perform even in Soviet times (attesting to the limits of the Soviet gender experiment). But, perhaps more importantly, with the revival of nationalist, old, forgotten and atavistic patriarchal traditions were embraced with gusto by the new authorities throughout the FSU. With official Marxism gone, nothing could counter-balance the revival of male chauvinism – that ever-present companion of bigoted nationalism - in places like Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan.
The cult of virginity returned, with a vengeance, as confirmed by sociological surveys throughout the Caucasian republics, where a solid majority of men would not marry a woman who has already ‘done it’ with another man [the opposite does, of course, not apply, for ‘boys will be boys’.]; such attitudes were, naturally, actively promoted by the local religious establishments, with many Georgian and Armenian priests and Azeri mullahs busily pontificating on the virtues of matrimony and the weaknesses of the ‘fair sex’. Those same surveys confirm a large majority in these republics believe women to be less intelligent than men, and therefore under the obligation to be obedient to their husbands. Domestic violence, a survey by Amnesty International tells us, is rife, with a quarter of women falling victim to it in Armenia. Girls born in Yerevan, Baku and Tbilisi today are expected to a far greater extent than before to be good housewives above all – the pressures to marry –and forget about a career- are on as soon as they turn eighteen. You go to university to find a husband: the clock has been well and truly turned back by a few decades.
The reappearance of ‘traditions’ has also meant a sudden return to grace of a supposedly ancient, but probably reconstructed – and certainly despicable – Armenian usage: that of the ‘Red Apples’. In short, on the morning after her first wedding night, the groom’s family is supposed to deliver a basked of red apples to the bride’s relatives – as a confirmation of their newlywed’s virginity. While the custom is certainly not ubiquitous (some Armenians would still take such a gesture as a rather vulgar insult) it has certainly seen a revival – as have, not surprisingly, hymen-repair operations throughout the region, where a few remote villages even continue the even more demeaning practice of hanging the bloodied bed-sheets out on public display during the morning after – just in case anyone missed the point made by the apples themselves. In an atmosphere of national chauvinism, challenges to this kind of atavism are few and far between; the few Armenian women who protested against the ‘red apple’ on international women’s day, in March 2009, were ridiculed by bystanders who saw them as eccentric threats to the ‘grandfatherly traditions’ (‘papakan adatner’ in Armenian) of the country, and, for good measure, compared them to drug addicts.
What’s more, international women’s day itself, instead of being what it was intended to – a celebration of or an impetus to emancipation, depending on what side of the women’s-lib divide your country is one – is distorted in all societies of the region into an affirmation of women’s subordinate position. ‘Sois belle et tais-toi’ – be pretty and keep quiet – could just as well be the motto of the day. Instead of concentrating on the numerous problems women face, the dominant themes are those of ‘female beauty’ and ‘motherhood’ – in fact, for a while in the 1990s, the Armenian government had abolished the observance of International Women’s Day in favour of a reconstructed ‘day of beauty and motherhood’ [sic], in April. While the sight of men buying flowers for their female counterparts is certainly not a disagreeable one at first sight, in this region, it serves to camouflage the inferior position of the female sex, where ‘manhood’ (‘tghamartkutyun’) still implies the dependence of women on male protection and tutelage. Independent women who make choices that fall outside these norms – do not marry, don’t have children, or simply don’t give up their career for God, husband and family – are seen as bad mothers, hysterics, weirdos, just as in the olden days in Europe.
The point of 8 March is to put an end to these distortions, which keep half of these societies’ populations – with all their ability and talent - in a social corset. It is ultimately up to Armenian, Georgian and Azeri women to free themselves from it – and regain the rights they enjoyed before their republics decided to go back a few decades, and more. Because, in the end, international women’s day has nothing to do with either beauty or motherhood – and everything with liberty and equality.