Finding her Place: Anoush Ter Taulian
I am an Armenian American who was raised in an assimilated household that taught me nothing about the Armenian language, culture, or history. I was in college when I first learned about the 1915 Armenian Genocide, in which over 60 percent of the Armenian population was killed by Ottoman Turks and 90 percent of Armenian land was stolen. Both of my parents are Armenian. During the genocide, my father’s mother’s family was killed and she came to the United States.
While I was a student at University of California at Berkeley in the 1980s, the Armenian Students Association put an exhibit of genocide photos in the library. The Turkish Consulate called and said, “These are lies, take them out,” and the university did. I was so outraged that I made leaflets featuring a map of historical Armenian lands and pictures of the genocide and plastered them all over Berkeley. Then I started interviewing genocide survivors for radio and television broadcasts. I felt sad that in the American schools I went to, I never learned about the history of my people.
I was involved in the people-of-color movement, and at that time, when I went to people-of-color groups, they would say, “Oh, you’re white. Go away.” I would respond that there are light-skinned people of color. But these groups had never heard of Armenia. Even when I explained it to my friends, they would confuse Armenia with Albania, or Romania. I had to make T-shirts with maps just to show people. Only other people’s freedom struggles seemed to matter.
At this time, I joined the women’s movement. I was at every conference, trying to bring up issues of importance to Armenian women, but again,no one cared. After the Armenian earthquake in 1988, I decided to go to Armenia and help. It was hard to get a visa because it was a Soviet Republic, but eventually in 1991 I went.
Cultural Survival Quarterly: As a woman who was raised in America, what did you experience when you went to Armenia?
When I went to visit Armenia, I went to be a soldier in the region of Artsakh, which was being attacked by Azerbaijan. During this war I was greeted with suspicion because why would a woman go there alone to be a soldier? I lived there for nine years, three years taking photographs during the war and six years in a village called Martekert, where there was no water or electricity. It was hard to fit in.
While there, I saw the struggles women faced for equal rights. The children asked me, as a woman, “Did your parents give you permission to come here by yourself?” In Martekert I tried to transcend the restrictions on women’s behavior. For example, the first time I went to swim in the lake, the fishermen gasped and said, “Your legs are showing, it’s immodest.” And they said, “Women can’t swim!” I got so mad that I woke up the next day at 6 a.m. and spent 12 hours swimming across the length of the lake so they would talk about it for 50 years. It was hard to exist as an independent woman without a family, but I was inspired by the courageous, hardworking women I met, and I documented the stories of the women soldiers I was working with.
I responded by addressing women’s rights in Armenia through theater, paintings, photography, video, and radio. Last year I went to the contemporary arts center in Yerevan and I put on a play with a group of Armenian women, Rocks Melting Inside the Earth. In the performance we talk about true stories of violence against women in Armenia, such as when a father found out his daughter was pregnant and threw her in the well, where she drowned. When I was in Armenia last month, I decided to express my longing for women’s freedom through the arts. I wrote a rock song, called “Liars Drive me Crazy,” and I found an all-women’s rock band and we recorded the song. One of the verses was for young girls who were prostitutes. The verse goes “I am not your porno/I am not your sleaze/If you only want a quicky I will leave/If you only want to satisfy yourself I will leave.” I also made videos about the problems of the children of Artsakh, and about the struggles of Armenian women, which I would like to see in more Women’s Studies departments in America.
CSQ: Are you seeing any changes for women in the younger generation in Armenia?
Yerevan is much different than the villages. In the capital things are changing. Women there have more opportunities to support themselves and take control of their lives, like not putting up with cheating husbands. Normally, if your husband is having an affair you can’t afford to move, so you just stay in these oppressive situations. But when women get more financial independence, of course things are going to change. Also in Yerevan, shelters have opened for battered women and women who are trafficked.
CSQ: How do you see the Armenian experience in relation to those of other indigenous peoples?
Last summer an Apache friend and I gave a workshop on First Nation women’s spirituality at a conference called Sisterspace. We talked about the similarities between our cultures and what had happened to us as indigenous peoples. I feel sad that when Armenians come to the United States, they do not understand that they are occupying the land of America’s indigenous peoples. They see the Statue of Liberty, but if a statue was built in Armenia saying “Welcome oppressed peoples of the world”—how would we feel? Why should indigenous peoples from around the world feel good when they see that statue? It’s a symbol of oppression. April 24 is Armenian Genocide Day, and I’m always saying to the Armenian committees, “Please invite Native American speakers because we are on their land; they have been through genocide also. We need to be in solidarity with them.” As a result of isolation, the pain of being one of the most conquered nations, and extreme economic hardship, Armenians have not done much to reach out to others facing freedom struggles.
I am an indigenous woman. I am upset when Armenia is called a European country, because Armenia was a Near Eastern culture that existed for thousands of years before European civilization existed. The Near East is not even shown on maps today, so Armenians have had to join with Middle Easterners to promote our rights. I am tired of racism by omission, where non-Arab Middle Eastern women are left out. And in today’s world, Middle Eastern women need to be included on an equal basis with other indigenous people in all of the conferences and movements for people of color.
CSQ: How do you feel about the younger Armenian generation growing up in the United States?
For a lot of Armenian youth, the force of assimilation is so great that many of the Armenians in the United States have lost touch with their culture. But even though my Armenian culture is repressive toward women, I would rather work within that culture and educate people to liberate women than have American culture take over.
To invite Anoush Ter Taulian to speak about Armenian women, to learn more about her art, or to order a video, contact her at email@example.com.