The Cult of Chastity and Control over Women in Armenia

Image Credit: Red Apples
Image Credit: Red Apples

In the Armenian short film Red Apples (free to watch on Vimeo), the mother of the groom loses her mind when, the morning after her son's wedding, she fails to find bloodstains on the sheets of their marital bed. Blood, of course, would normally be the result of a virginal bride's hymen breaking on the night of her wedding when she finally has sex for the first time in her life. That's what a proper Armenian bride does, anyway. The lack of blood can only mean that she wasn't a virgin on her wedding night.

Oh my. One can only imagine the shock and shame of marrying your soulmate - the love of your life, the woman who understands and supports you the way that no one else can - only to find out that she might have participated in sexual activity before meeting you.

In my travels around the world, I've heard many variations on these dehumanizing ideas regarding the social sanctity of female virginity. Some sound like they come straight out of the Middle Ages or perhaps from even further back in caveman times. Blood-stained bedsheets might be hung from clotheslines outside the home to brag to the neighborhood that, indeed, the new bride was an unsoiled virgin on her wedding night.

Some women who have committed the grievous sin of having a normal sex drive and expressing it in a healthy way try to restore their dignity in another drastic manner. They might pay to have their hymen surgically reconstructed before getting married in order to hide their shame from their husband.

At first, I assumed that Armenia's obsession with virginity was related to cleanliness and purity. Perhaps Armenian men are cautious about the spread of STDs. They think that complete sexual abstinence is the only way to be sure of safety. Or perhaps, for purely psychological reasons, they are simply uncomfortable sticking their genitals where they know another man has stuck his before.

But I realized that this couldn't be the case based on the starkly different way that young Armenian men are taught to think about sex compared to women. The sanctimonious and exclusive view applied to women is the opposite for men. Teenage boys are taken to prostitutes, who might be two or three times their age and who might have had hundreds of sexual partners, to lose their virginity and become "real men."

If the purpose of waiting until marriage to have sex were to avoid sexual exposure to "impure," "unclean," or "risky" women, prostitutes would clearly be among the worst choice of partners that a young man could make. By what standard does it make sense that having sex with a woman your own age who's had perhaps a few partners before you is somehow worse than having sex with someone much older who may have already had countless genitals thrust into her? Clearly, there must be more to this cultural superstition than the mere perception of cleanliness. Does it have something to do with the fact that prostitutes are given permission by Armenian society to have a sex drive, but our good, pure Armenian daughters should not?

A young female friend from Dilijan once attempted to explain it to me in a way that almost sounded noble:

"I guess that it's ok for men to have sex before marriage. But I still think a woman should save herself for her husband. It's important to his pride to know he is the first one to have sex with her."

This begs the question: If saving yourself sexually for the person you are going to love and spend the rest of your life with is an idea with merit, why shouldn't that same standard apply to both members of the marriage? Why should it only be important for men to know that their wives haven't been with anyone else? Why shouldn't brides expect the same from their husbands?

I can just imagine such conversations occurring on Armenian wedding nights across the country:

Wife: "At last! We waited so long, fell in love, and got married in front of all our loved ones. I'm so glad we saved ourselves for each other. That's how pure our love is – we will only ever know the physical rapture of sexual intimacy with one another and grow deeper in our bond over the course of our life together because of it."

Husband: "Oh, uh, that's great that you saved yourself for me. I really appreciate it. It's so important to my pride to know that I'm the first and only man who's ever going to have sex with you. But I've actually been periodically visiting 45-year-old prostitutes since I was 16. You know, boys will be boys. It's how I became a real man, thanks to my uncle, who paid for it and brought me there so many times. Anyway, I hope I won't give you any diseases or anything."

I've also learned that the status of "virgin" can extend beyond genital penetration or even physical intimacy itself. Some Armenian men won't even date women who have had any prior romantic relationships at all, regardless of how much or how little promiscuity may have occurred in them. I've heard stories of teenage Armenian girls who were told they would never be able to get boyfriends because they had already had one when they were in middle school or high school so many years before. Every eligible Armenian man would be ashamed of the association he would carry from not being his girl's first partner.

For this reason and others, many Armenian women I know are afraid of being seen in public alone with a man. Some have refused to ride in my car to only a short distance away, instead opting to wait for a bus that would take them there in a public group. They can't stop worrying about what others might assume if they see us together.

The same applies even more so to going somewhere private with men either. If someone they know finds out that they visited the home of a man, for instance, their entire social life could be over. Their parents may even insist that their daughter marry that man or else disown them for the shame it might bring. Their traditional culture insists that the only reason a single young woman would ever want to be alone in a room with a man is to satisfy her promiscuous desires. One wonders how Armenian women are supposed to find husbands at all if they are forbidden to spend time in close contact with men.

Many of my young female friends have been brave enough to come from the city to visit me here in Kalavan village, only to be visibly concerned the whole time they were here that too many neighbors might see them, and some of those neighbors might know people who know their parents and other members of their social circle back in Yerevan, Ijevan, or Dilijan. The idea of staying overnight as a guest at my house might as well be equivalent to entering the prostitution profession for them. Their parents finding out where they are and who they are with causes shaking, neurosis, and other physical signs of trauma response – all indicators of being the victim of an abusive relationship.

When I hear stories and experience things like this, it reminds me of when I worked as a teacher in Iraq. I was warned when I arrived in the country never to make casual conversation with Iraqi women in public. Someone could see us and tell the woman's father and brothers that she had been flirting with a foreign man. They could beat her or kick her out of the family for this crime. In the worst cases, they might even stone her to death as part of an "honor killing" to maintain the family's sense of honor. While I've never heard of such extreme measures being employed in modern times in Armenia, the principle isn't far off. Iraqis just employ a more severe form of enforcement.

Once a virginal Armenian woman gets married the way she is expected to, according to the edicts of traditional Armenian culture, she still goes on to face countless restrictions imposed on her by the new family she will be joining. She is often not allowed to keep spending much time with her own family because to do so would be to neglect her husband's. The new couple usually goes to live with the groom's parents, where they will be chaperoned by the overbearing mother-in-law for as long as she remains alive and well enough to make demands.

There's a tragic irony in this. The Armenian mother-in-law acts like the madam of a brothel who overseers the subjugation of younger women. She carries on the tradition of control that she herself was subjected to instead of trying to empower her new daughter-in-law to enjoy freedoms she never could because of the restrictions that were imposed on her when she was young. Perhaps she does this because it is the first time in her life that she feels like she has any real power to rule, that she is making up for all the lost time that choice was withheld from her life. And, better still, once the Armenian bride has children with her new husband, she will be forced to turn to grandma for commands on all child-rearing matters. She cannot think for herself or make her own decisions about the best way to raise them.

Armenian wives might also be restricted from taking certain types of jobs or having careers at all. Their insecure husbands don't want them to be out of the home for too long, associating with strange men who they assume will certainly try to sleep with their coveted wives. The wife's "job" is to remain at home, tending to the needs of her husband, children, and in-laws. And if she were to start earning too much of her own money, it would increase her freedom too much and loosen the control the overbearing culture exerts upon her.

One woman I know in Yerevan is just starting to enjoy casual dating for the first time in her 30s. All throughout her 20s, she felt uncomfortable being perceived as someone interested in a relationship. Even now, she feels apprehensive about going on dates where anyone she knows might see her. She travels far from where she lives to avoid being spotted and building a reputation as someone who goes on dates with many men. Gossip (a favored pastime among the general Armenian population) could make its way back to her father and brother, who she still lives with, and ruin her life at home. Her parents might even kick her out of the house and disown her if they suspect that she has had sex. She is so anxious about meeting her dates in public that she prepares stories ahead of time about who they are and how she knows them, just in case someone catches her with them and interrogates her about it.

In her words: "Until I was in my late twenties, I thought that dating someone was a bad thing. And especially dating more than one person. I don't know why. It wasn't even about sex or kissing or anything physical. It was just an association in my mind that spending time alone with boys meant I was a bad girl."

Think of how much strain and limitation all this cultural baggage adds to the already difficult process of finding someone to love. My friend tells me she feels uncomfortable giving each relationship a fair chance because she thinks she has to be certain about someone right away in order to avoid the possibility of people judging her. She can't give herself time or space with each new man to figure out if there's potential for a meaningful relationship.

She says, "People here were brought up with the Soviet mentality about relationships. Marriage was a calculation or some kind of obligation for them in past generations. Their parents had them meet each other one time and decided for them if it was a convenient match for both families. Modern dating culture and freedom are still foreign to them, and so is the idea of women deciding for themselves who they want to be with or when they want to have sex."

And thus, the limitations of parents become the limitations of their sons and daughters too. Their culture about sex and relationships is a cyclical burden that no one will break free from until someone is self-aware and bold enough to recognize it for the trap that it is. The world moves on, but outdated mentalities do not.

"I know what my dad thinks about me not being married at 31. He thinks that no men want me, that I'm undesirable. To him, there can't be any other reason why I'm single. I can tell that he's ashamed of me, even though he cares about me."

Armenian marriage seems to have more to do with family politics than love, affection, or chemistry between the bride and groom. It reminds me of the princess from one medieval family being married off to the prince from another for the purpose of forming political and military alliances. It sounds like the same thing, just on a small and pitiful scale without the pomp and presumed importance carried by those who call themselves royalty. If the parents of the girl think that the boy is handsome or that he has a decent job and comes from a good family, or that he doesn't get as drunk every night as all his friends, that might be enough to justify a coerced lifelong commitment.

I simply could not imagine being a father and letting these ludicrous cultural demands become more important to me than building genuine trust, care, and affection with my daughter. I would always make it my priority to empower her to explore relationships and her own sexuality in whatever way and at whatever pace she was mature enough for and was inclined toward. And I could not imagine training my son to view sex with women in such a degrading manner or to treat his future wife as, essentially, a piece of property that exists to serve and sexually gratify him.

To the young Armenian men and women who are still subject to this barbaric way of thinking: I encourage you to ask yourself if you want to raise your sons and daughters in the upcoming generation to carry on the same trauma. You have seen how it has affected you. If you know that your children will be better off without it, if you know they should be given the option of embracing a liberated approach to self-expression and bonding, you must consider why you still hold yourself to a standard that you do not endorse enough to pass on to others.

The widespread social reaction to the perception of promiscuity is a terrifying form of social control. Masses of strangers come together to try to ruin the lives of any women who step even a little bit outside the bounds of Armenian cultural conformity. Everyone with eyes is a potential enemy, an agent willingly participating in the system continuing the repression of natural and healthy drives.

It's no wonder that sex education is practically non-existent in Armenian schools. If they were to explain what sex is and how it works in a fair and objective manner, they would risk young people coming to their own conclusions about what an appropriate sex life looks like. The ruling influence would cease to be what one's neighbors might think and what gossip they might spread to bring shame upon one's family. The cult would quickly lose its coercive power.

An openly romantic, flirtatious, and sexual man like me has little hope of finding an equal partner in this oppressive relationship culture. There's too much fear built into every corner of it - fear of exploring natural impulses and fundamental passions.

Until the Armenian populace, male and female alike, is free to feel their emotions and express them openly with one another, fear will remain the dominant factor in human relationships. We will remain prisoners of our cult, unfree to move outside the range of its unseen shackles.

Freedom begins only with awareness and acknowledgment of the fact that the way things are going is unacceptable. It ends when enough people have the courage to proclaim that they accept it no longer, no matter the social consequences. 

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