The View from Zabel Yesayan’s The Gardens of Silihdar, Part II
Yesayan was drawn to the freedom that France represented. By living in Paris, she could escape many of the social conventions that she had resisted, especially the restrictions placed on women in the larger social context. According to Anne Paolucci in her afterword to Zabel Assadour’s play “The Bride,” the lives of many Armenian women in the late Ottoman Empire could be summarized in this way:
In Anatolia and Constantinople, as in other parts of the world at that time, women were expected to live within a rigorously limited environment; a house- and family-oriented structure where marriage and children were the only respectable and desirable ends. Women were expected to be modest, retiring, subdued in dress, speech and manners generally. Their voice carried no authority; their accomplishments were the efficient handling of servants, embroidery, sewing and carefully restricted public appearances in which they were expected to follow certain rules of social behavior.
Although in her autobiography Yesayan comments on her father’s open-mindedness and encouragement of her literary aspirations, in her daily interactions she was nevertheless confronted with the prejudices of the larger community to which she belonged, but in which she felt intellectually stifled:
“Never did women, girls or even children allow themselves to act spontaneously. Everything was formal and well measured; there was what was done and there was what wasn’t done.”
Intently determined to lead her life differently, Yesayan was prepared to defend herself against any and all social restrictions that she encountered:
…I was used to struggling against every obstacle as soon as it presented itself, but the liberalism of my father was not enough to divert my path from all the barriers that the backward-minded bourgeoisie imposed. Life taught me that I have to put up a fierce and perpetual fight.
In the excerpt above, she represents her community as an adversary with whom she would always be in conflict. With this outlook, leaving for France allowed Yesayan to avoid a struggle by settling in a country with a long tradition of women writers to hone her craft.
The conditions for women writers in France at the time of Yesayan’s arrival were certainly an improvement over those in the Ottoman Empire. In France, there had been many well-respected women writers throughout the nineteenth century, which made women’s participation in literary life much less of a rarity than in Constantinople.
According to the 1901 French census, 36.5 percent of French women lived an “active” life—in other words, they played a role in the public sphere. Women writers composed a large portion of this percentage since, women began to publish their works in larger numbers. In 1894, writer Octave Uzanne estimated that there were approximately 2,133 women actively writing and publishing in Paris. In 1907, the number of women writers increased to over 5,000—their work representing 20 percent of the total literary production in Paris.
This fertile period for women writers in France suited Yesayan’s ambitions remarkably well, especially coming from a place where the number of published women writers could be counted on two hands. Although there were certainly restrictions placed on women in France—for example, there was a law that forbade women from publishing their work without written consent from their husbands—the crucial difference between the two groups was that French women published despite these restrictions, whereas the majority of Armenian women did not.
There are many socio-cultural reasons for the scarcity of writing by Armenian women, including the absence of widely accessible schools outside urban centers and the sheer novelty of the modern literary tradition; but Yesayan, armed with an education that rivaled many of her male counterparts, was ideally situated to reverse this trend among Armenian women.
Being far from Constantinople in her late adolescence also allowed Yesayan to escape the social convention that would have most directly prevented her from leading the independent life of a writer that she had envisioned: marriage. For young Armenian women, marriage was the path their lives were naturally expected to take. Since Armenian society did not actively encourage women’s participation in the public sphere, marriage was a way for families to ensure that their daughters would be supported financially.
In her autobiography, Yesayan presents her readers with portraits of various women emotionally devastated by miserable marriages. With a grandmother who “constantly pregnant, cursed her husband and her fate” and an aunt who “patiently endured the drunkenness and disdainful tyranny of her husband,” the young writer bore witness early in her life to the plight of these women and began to view the institution of marriage with a critical eye.
In Armenian villages, girls were normally married between the ages of 14 and 18 and boys between 16 and 21; oral histories tell us that the average marriage age for Armenians in urban areas like Constantinople was higher. Among Turks living in the Ottoman capital at the end of the nineteenth century, the average marriage age was relatively high: 20 years old for women and 30 years old for men. More research is needed to determine if this trend also characterizes marriage customs for Armenians in Constantinople.
Despite implicit critiques, Yesayan does not categorically reject marriage, but implies that women should not willingly accept a convention that validates abuse and teaches them to quietly accept mistreatment, if they find themselves in this situation.
In the series of unhappy marriages that she sees as a child, female servility in the face of male disregard is a quality that particularly disturbs her. Spending time with a friend of the family, Yesayan sadly notes the way in which the wife devotes all of her time and energy to please her indifferent husband: “When he was ready to leave, his wife scurried behind him and, with her husband’s umbrella in hand, waited for him to take off his slippers and put on his shoes.”
This denigrating daily ritual symbolizes the voluntary oppression that women of her social milieu unnecessarily endured.
However, a similar fate awaited French women during the same period; as in the Ottoman Empire, marriage in France was understood as a financial arrangement between two families. Love between spouses—an idea that Yesayan defended—was rare in both societies. Yet it is important to note that the average marriage age for French women was much higher than for Armenian women: according to the 1881 census, 60 percent of women were unmarried at the age of 25. The French society that welcomed Yesayan was not free of its own problems regarding marriage, but her years in Paris and her status as a foreigner enabled her to focus exclusively on her studies and on her writing without being bombarded by social pressures.
Throughout her autobiography, it is clear that Yesayan did not hold most women in very high regard, describing them, almost universally, with an extraordinarily scornful tone. She creates an explicit dichotomy between men and women, showing men as noble and enlightened and women as simple-minded and frivolous.
In general, men were liberal minded and loyal to the ideas of the French Revolution. These ideas formed the basis of their moral principles. Women, on the other hand, were conservative and traditional, loyal to aggressive virtues that succeeded, as my father said, in tormenting not only other people but themselves too.
In a curious, but not entirely surprising way, she reveals in this passage that she does not readily identify with her gender, distancing herself from other women and dismissing them as uninformed and benighted. Her description illustrates that she considers herself an exception to the norm—viewing other women critically and condescendingly for incarnating, rather than defying, the very stereotypes used to justify their inferiority. Even as a young girl, Yesayan mocked the concerns of these women, considered them mindless and inconsequential:
For these people, Parisian fashion dominated and they closely followed—or at least they thought they did—the rules that they learned from the special fashion magazines. And once the conversation moved to this topic, all the women, especially the very young girls, spoke about it with passion
During Yesayan’s childhood, the Ottoman Empire and, by extension, the Armenian community were experiencing dramatic social, political and cultural change; yet, despite these transformations, she notes that the women around her were uninterested and unaware. The fact that the women that she knew had no desire to educate themselves on these issues further alienated the burgeoning young writer from women in her own community.
For her, these women were not functioning in reality. Perhaps this artificial reality was deliberately constructed to repress the despair in their marriages or the thought of their thwarted ambitions, but, from a very young age, Yesayan vowed to live in a world that was not always pleasant or painless, but which was, first and foremost, real.
Yesayan developed this consciousness due in part to a jarring experience in her childhood. As a child, she spent time with a family friend named Santoukht. Once day, Santoukht took Yesayan to a room where she kept her dolls: dolls that she treated like real children—speaking to them, scolding them, tending to them. This imaginary world inhabited by this woman profoundly disturbed the young writer and produced an immediate understanding of the consequences of living in an artificially constructed world.
This world was quite possibly the result of intellectual inactivity and social marginalization—a room of her own in a society where women were expected to sacrifice everything for their families to the point of losing their own identities. In her article on “The Gardens of Silihdar,” Seta Kapoïan describes Santoukht’s room as a false escape because while she resists reality, she is still dependent on the environment around her, particularly on her indifferent husband, and therefore must always be conscious of what exists outside it.
The relegation of women to the private sphere where their aspirations was not respected or cultivated undoubtedly contributed to this situation, but Yesayan, who had a chance at an education and had encouragement within her family to pursue her ambitions, recognized the danger of losing herself in the imaginary and was determined not to ensnare herself in this world.
This essay is part of a series written in honor of International Women’s Day and Month. Part I can be found here.
Jennifer Manoukian is a recent graduate of Rutgers University where she received her B.A. in Middle Eastern Studies and French. Her interests lie in Western Armenian literature and issues of identity and cultural production in the Armenian diaspora. She also enjoys translating and has had her translations of writer Zabel Yesayan featured in Ararat Magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org