On my morning walk to work, I saw a grandmother leisurely pushing a stroller with one hand while holding on to her little grandson with the other. He couldn’t have been more than two years old. As I got closer, the child tripped and fell, hurting himself and began to cry. The grandmother quickly scooped him up and tried to comfort him. Just then, two men were walking by. One of them turned to the child and said, “Boys don’t cry, ara,” and kept walking.
In Armenian society, from a very young age, boys are told to be strong, self-reliant, dominant, emotionless. They’re also taught the value of a good right hook. All societies have norms of gender behavior specific to their cultural precepts. Armenia is no different. It is for all intents and purposes a well-developed patriarchy that is, however, eating itself from the inside out.
In recent years, there has been much discussion in Armenia about the toxicity of this aggressive masculine archetype that is entrenched in our collective worldview. This gender socialization is so deeply ingrained that most men (and women for that matter) probably can’t remember how they learned it. While toxic masculinity has become a buzzword lately, it invariably makes some people defensive, shutting down any meaningful conversation lest their worldview crumble around them. The argument then swerves into “We are in a conflict zone and with the threat of war constantly looming over our heads, we need to rear tough guys, strong, resilient men.” Yes, who will then be sent off to stand guard at one of the most militarized contact lines in the world as soon as they turn 18. But just how resilient and emotionless are these men if the slightest verbal taunt makes them lose all control over their mind and body?
The string of events over the past several weeks should be shocking, but for those familiar with Armenia’s glorification of male toughness and dominance, it sadly is not. Men tend to settle scores through brute force. Either consciously or instinctively, they feel they have no choice but to take the first shot, or respond reluctantly but in equal measure because stepping back from violent entanglement will diminish their manhood, thereby castigating them in the eyes of society. They assert their masculinity through their physicality. Intellect or genuine masculinity be damned.
Armenia had been spared the humiliating spectacle of grown men brawling inside its most important democratic institution, which is supposed to be reserved for debate and discussion. That streak was broken yesterday, when My Step MP and founding member of the Civil Contract Party Sasun Mikayelyan decided that another parliamentarian, leader of the opposition Bright Armenia Party Edmon Marukyan, who left the lectern to stomp toward him, could only be shut down with an open-handed slap in the face on the floor of the National Assembly. It was a mortifying display, especially after several dozen male parliamentarians joined in the melee, some to try and de-escalate the situation and others to take a cheap shot where their fist could land. After “emotions” had simmered down with a time-out called by Speaker Ararat Mirzoyan, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan addressed parliament, condemned all forms of violence and gave those involved in the brawl a tongue-lashing, but stopped short of exacting any kind of discipline against Mikayelyan, his fellow party member.
With this poor example visible at the country’s highest level, previous events start to make more sense. On April 28, a shootout in the town of Gavar, the capital of Gegharkunik region, left two men dead and several others wounded. Although many of the details are still sketchy, it boils down to a feud between two groups of boys and men from Gavar and neighboring Noratus that had been simmering for months. The injured were taken to a hospital in Gavar. Later that night, several hundred men – friends and relatives of the two dead men – stormed the hospital in an attempt to seek revenge and kill the injured with their bare hands. Despite police presence in front of the hospital, the mob was able to get inside by breaking down doors and windows until they reached the room where the injured were being treated. According to Armenia’s Investigative Committee, the attackers stabbed two of the injured (and a third person they believed to be involved), causing further grave injury. I will spare you the details of how they were attacked; it is too gruesome to put into words.
On April 30, Deputy Speaker of Parliament Alen Simonyan head-butted the leader of a far-right radical opposition group on the street, who allegedly had goaded him by swearing at him. The head-butt led to a physical altercation resulting in injuries. This incident came on the heels of Simonyan’s sexist remark to a female opposition parliamentarian the day before, after which he was forced to make a public apology, although the damage had been done.
When boys are socialized to behave like brutes, to believe that using their physical strength to settle scores is an acceptable way to behave in society, when they are told not to ever cry and keep their emotions bottled up, when they are made to feel shame at any sign of weakness, then this pattern of aggressive or violent behavior will keep getting drilled into future generations and manifest itself not only on the streets, but inside some of the most important institutions of our country.
Maybe the saddest part is that they think this behavior exemplifies manliness or helps them maintain their dignity. It doesn’t. It makes them even more of a laughing stock but in a pitiful way that exposes their brittle self-esteem.