Women Unveiled: The Promise of A Woman’s Difference

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LOS ANGELES — On a recent visit to ABRIL bookstore in Glendale, I picked up copies of Zabel Yessayan’s Captive Nights and of Shushanik Kurghinian’s I Want To Live. While I was familiar with Yessayan, and had read some of her oeuvre, I was on an adventure to discover Kurghinian. As I read on, I was struck by the daring of the two women, both writing in the early decades of the 20th century, in demanding the fair treatment of all oppressed groups.

“Every trace of servitude must be/uprooted, demolished, undone!” vows the speaker in Kurghinian’s “A Curse.” Likewise, seated next to her little one’s cradle, the narrator in Yessayan’s Enough!, one of the three novellas in Captive Nights, summons her little one “to struggle, so that your head is never bowed in servility.”

Kurghinian’s is a passionate plea for a woman’s right to live fully. The boldness of:

Do not love me gently as if

I were a blooming flower in spring,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . .

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Let me taste the poison of anguish

courageously, with you;

Let me relish freedom, and speak my mind,

Striving for the light of deliverance.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I want to live a worthy life—

is shocking for her time, and stunning even today.

 

Both Kurghinian and Yessayan defy the cultural expectations of submission for a woman. In The Veil—Scenes from Harem Life, Yessayan depicts the horror of Ali Hasan’s dominion over his wife Adileh. Adileh owes “obedience and absolute acquiescence . . . to her lord and master,” even if he should return home late at night inebriated, and violently throw his wife to the ground, or spend long hours joking and giggling with the maid in Adileh’s intimate quarters. In Adileh’s mother-in-law’s words, “It makes no difference what it was or what he does. He’s a man.”

The persona in Kurghinian’s “My Mind Is An Eagle,” rages against her oppression and wants to rekindle the fire of “My mind . . . accustomed to servitude/and tattered by loss, forcefully smothered/ . . . with a spark of vengeance.” Kurghinian curses all those who enslave and hold in bondage. The poet speaks of “a poor worker’s pain without a salve;” of the seamstress who “will surely sink into her grave,/the vain cross of suffering on her shoulder,” and of the refugee woman, “exiled from life, wounded in heart.” The “ugly past” Kurghinian depicts is the even uglier present, for we continue to hate, to oppress and to kill, except we do it on a larger scale.

“It is enough, this diseased ugly past,” writes Kurghinian in “A Curse.” “Enough! Enough!” reiterates Yessayan in Enough! It is highly ironic that we should need voices singing over a hundred years ago to find it in ourselves to exclaim, “Enough!”

Indeed, through the rhythm of, “war was declared,” “blood is being spilled,” and “the ominous cry of . . . We want war,” Yessayan makes us aware of the full horror of war, of the “the terror and dread” of Rumelia steadily approaching the capital and the Ottoman army retreating in defeat.

“It was as if a whole world were sobbing,” muses the narrator as the caravans of settlers from Rumelia, ”squeezed together like animals,” migrate into inner Asia. Yessayan’s use of nature imagery, “the oppressive, humid air,” “the gloomy autumn evening,” the “thick, disquieting darkness,” confirms Nature’s empathy with the Balkan peoples’ fight against oppression, and further highlights the evil of war and of all repressions.

In his Memoirs (Yerevan, 1978), commenting on Zabel Yessayan’s words to her students on the first day of class at the university in Yerevan, “If you are bored you may feel free not to come. I have always believed that one should avoid the use of coercion in these matters, because coercion offends the soul,” Rouben Zarian, one of Armenia’s eminent literary figures, writes: “This gift of freedom bound us to her more effectively than any authoritarian regulation . . . and we grew very fond of her. We just loved her.” Of her last lecture, “more of an informal talk actually,” Zarian writes: “These were self-evident, simple truths, but she expressed them in such a way that they acquired a new poignancy, depth, and brilliance.”

It is the immediacy of the two women’s appeal that ushers in the possibility of change. Kurghinian and Yessayan awaken us to the realization that hatred and tyranny are not a solution to the misery of the world. This awakening must be the greatest legacy of these revolutionary women, who aim to reform the world through compassion, kindness and understanding, attributes historically regarded as feminine. (The fight against tyrannies is of course not limited to women).

The more things change, the more they stay the same is a cliche many would refute today, given the visibility of women in all spheres of life. Yet, the fact that women’s writing is sought after and read eagerly, receiving both critical and popular acclaim, evidences that women have much to offer the world. The numerous books by female authors displayed on the shelves of ABRIL bookstore is telling. Besides fiction and poetry, these books include titles about the recent war in Artsakh, about Armenian women’s fight for the homeland, and other cultural and social issues. They evidence that women are deeply involved in the fight for justice, and that they can indeed write beyond romance and domesticity.

This surge in interest in women’s voices is a move in the right direction. It is, in fact, an uncanny affirmation of the need for compassion and tenderness to ring in a new hopefulness. The surge indicates belief in the possibility of bringing light in the midst of darkness, of greeting ”the brand-new dawn with assurance [with] no dread or fear.” Kurghinian’s gift to her daughter “when I depart,” of a “Me” that has “the strength to shatter the chains of ignorance/cast from these/dark black days,” attests that the voice of her “rebel soul” will sing with the “selfless and proud workers, who . . . struggle stoically for existence:”

 

Let our voices from an awakened life

greet the brand-new dawn with assurance,

and let our hearts not feel dread or fear

for the degenerate glory of a decayed rule.

 

While it is true that in The Veil—Scenes from Harem Life, Adileh dons the “veil” in death — her father “completely veiled his daughter’s face with the shroud” when her husband tried to pull it back to see her one last time — it is also true that, rather than “reinforce her husband’s dominion over her” by “drowning her grief in silence and resignation,” Adileh “unveils” herself and, defying the “chains of established custom,” chooses “to flee her pain, to flee her hellish torments.” Recovery remains a possibility.

 

 

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