From left, Dr. Melissa Bilal, Gayane Aghabalyan and Elmira Ayvazyan (Karine Armen photo)

Armenian Wonderwomen: Making the Impossible Possible

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Armenian Wonderwomen, published in an Author’s Edition in Yerevan, Armenia, in 2023, gives us a glimpse into the lives of 37 Armenian women, both historical and contemporary, who have defied the stereotype and made a difference with their achievements, yet have almost no representation in Armenian history books except “through marriage to kings or through motherhood.”

With their stories, co-authors Gayane Aghabalyan and Elmira Ayvazyan, both from Yerevan, aim to educate 10-year-old schoolchildren about history’s unfair treatment of women and about the need to bring about positive change in their lives.

The book is published in three versions — English, Eastern Armenian and Western Armenian — a phenomenon unique to an Armenian children’s book.

The budding authors are thrilled about their vision of a future where there are no exclusions. While obviously guided by their love and admiration for the women featured in their book, they are also angry that history has chosen to ignore or to marginalize these exceptional women. Finding out about Diana Agabeg Apcar, the very first woman to hold a diplomatic position, at 21, “refueled my anger and provided inspiration and drive,” noted Aghabalyan.

Both women bemoan the fact that there are only three streets in Yerevan named after women. On a walk in the streets of the Armenian capital, the vigilant pair noticed a children’s book about “Jobs for Men” and “Jobs for Women” displayed in a shop window. “We sometimes inadvertently reinforce the stereotype,” they deplored. There is, nonetheless, no animosity, no belligerence in their pronouncements. Theirs is a peaceful demand to set things right.

The book starts with the pioneering novelist Srpuhi Dussap (Vahanian) who, defying all norms, defended a woman’s right to education and encouraged women to think and act freely. Along with some other familiar names, featured in the slim volume are little known wonderwomen in diverse geographies, in a variety of fields — referees, weightlifters, farmers, animated film producers. We learn about Anita Caracotchian Conti, the first woman oceanographer, one of the first people to start conversations about overfishing in the world. We learn about Louisette Texier, born Arpine Hovanessian, who became a car racer at 40, when women did not even have the right to own a car.

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Also featured are Berjouhi Parseghian, Katarine Zalian-Manoukian, and Varvare Sahakian, the three females who became members of the Parliament of the first Republic of Armenia when in many countries women did not have political rights.

“There are thousands more waiting to be unearthed,” say the authors with enthusiasm. Aghabalyan and Ayvazyan were recently in Los Angeles to promote their book. The presentation of the brave and articulate duo at an event organized by Abril bookstore, at the Center for Armenian Arts in Glendale, confirmed their unwavering belief in the possibility of change.

At left, Arno Yeretzian of Abril Bookstore, with the two authors (photo Karine Armen)

With pride, yet with utmost modesty, they talked about the four years of hard work and dedication — “so much more than is obvious” — that went into the creation of the 75-page volume. The two shared stories of emotional meetings with the families of Diana Apcar and of resistance fighter Khatun Yapudjian.

Each contemporary wonderwoman featured in the book was interviewed for first-hand information. “It’s communal work,” they assert.

In her introduction of the authors, Melissa Bilal, Distinguished Research Fellow and New Promise Chair in Armenian Music, Arts and Culture at UCLA, described the book as a “feminist children’s book.” The label is apt. The effort to correct the historical injustice done to women is the core definition of feminism. Yet, recognizing that labels can be limiting, and aware of the connotations of “exclusion” of the word “feminism” for many, the savvy authors were quick to point out that their undertaking was not exclusive to women, a stance which in no way diminishes their fight for a woman’s rights.

Co-Authors Gayane Aghabalyan and Elmira Ayvazyan (Karine Armen photo)

The two are in fact currently working on a project on Armenian men in the feminist movement. It was through writing “not by cutting her hair short and wearing ties,” they remind us, that wonderwoman Zabel Yesayan expressed her free spirit and her independence. Indeed, having a few fathers in the audience accompanying their kids was refreshing.

“Nothing has changed,” Aghabalyan’s dad told her as he read the stories. His comment evoked the popular adage that “the more things change the more they stay the same.” Rather than dishearten them, however, the father’s response redoubled their enthusiasm. “At no point did we consider giving up.

There still is a chance to turn things around. The key is educating correctly,” they say with confidence. Aghabalyan referred to their passion about change as naive. A “paradoxical naïveté” she explained, as it was their “naive selves” that prompted them to go on when they might have given up as challenges were encountered.

The two women sometimes wonder if “the topic is even relevant in an age consumed by violence and perennial wars.” Yet, their faith in the possibility of transforming the status quo moved the audience. Inspired and excited, all rushed to secure copies of the books.

Armenian Wonderwomen

Making an “adult” topic accessible to children is no easy feat. A full-page illustration of each wonderwoman, facing the page-long text introducing her, grabs the young scholars’ attention. Thought-provoking questions go with the images, such as “What do you know about climate change and what can you do to prevent it?” “What is one daring dream you would want to pursue?” “What are some stereotypes you’d like to break?” also force them to think about issues, such as environmentalism, discrimination or stereotyping, and make the book relevant to their lives.

The book can be enjoyed by children and adults alike. Armenian Wonderwomen is a work in progress. The authors continue their connections and invite suggestions. Adding a new name to the list of women who have successfully crossed barriers gives them the greatest joy.

To make their archival work available online globally, Aghabalyan and Ayvazyan have created a website, www.Armenianwonderwomen.com.

“We have the obligation to make it available for everyone,” they affirm. The passion of these visionaries for their mission to transform the world remains the key ingredient of the book. The Armenian Wonderwomen project is supported by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

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