Armenia could be facing a fight with its largest ethnic minority, the Yezidis, over the age-old, thorny question of how old a female must be before she can marry.
In late July, the Armenian government raised the legal age of marriage for women from 17 years old to 18 years old, the same age as for men. The government claims that the new minimum age will help eliminate gender inequality in Armenia – a claim many observers dispute -- and bring the country into compliance with the United Nations’ 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
But senior representatives of the country’s 60,000-member Yezidi community insist that the change is “inhumane” and that young Yezidis will ignore it.
“An 18-year-old girl is already a spinster for us,” elaborated Aziz Tamoian, chairperson of The Yezidi National Union of Armenia and the World, a Yerevan-based non-governmental organization. “Adoption of such a bill will only ruin our families and make Yezidi girls unhappy.”
A largely rural community, mostly engaged in sheep- and cattle-breeding and farming, the Yezidis migrated to Armenia from Turkey in the late 19th century and speak a dialect of Kurdish. Their religious beliefs incorporate elements of Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism.
Yezidis cite their ancestors’ traditions for insisting on a younger marriage age for girls, and “stick firmly to their traditions,” said ethnographer Hranush Kharatian, the former head of the Department of National Minorities and Religious Affairs.
“Yezidi girls get married even as early as at 13-14, after the 7th or 8th grade,” Kharatian said. “They marry older men, have children soon and become housewives.” Older Yezidi women say that families used to have, on average, nine to 12 children, but now, faced by tough economic times, have to settle for fewer.
Outsiders may question such a life path, but, for 27-year-old Meline Amarian, a homemaker in the Yezidi village of Arzni near Yerevan, the choice makes perfect sense. Married at the age of “15 or 16,” Amarian, who has one child, believes early marriages are “quite normal.”
“I quit school. I had no wish to study,” she recounted. “The most important thing for us is to maintain our national traditions and families.”
According to Tamoian, those traditions are straightforward: Yezidi girls “marry at 16, if not at 14-15, and give birth to many healthy children.” Work outside the home is frowned upon.
Being able only to marry at 18 “will ruin our community,” he concluded.
In Soviet times, an exception was made for Yezidis from meeting the then-legal age of marriage of 17 years old. In early August, Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian promised to do the same, reducing the minimum age for Yezidi girls to 16 and for boys to 17.
"If these marriages take place in real life, then it will turn out that we are disrupting those people’s normal course of life," Sarkisian told cabinet members on August 9, Armenian news agencies reported. He proposed a later discussion about how to rectify this apparent discrepancy.
According to official statistics, Armenian women marry, on average, by the time they are 24.5 years old, while men by the age of 28.
But Sarkisian’s overture may only extend so far. On September 19, the government announced the criminal prosecution of a 20-year-old Yezidi man for having had sex with a teenager, his 16-year-old wife, also Yezidi, to whom he has been married for a year and by whom he has one child. He faces two years in prison if found guilty.
But not all Yezidis in Armenia unanimously support the tradition of under-age marriages, or the request that parliament grant the Yezidis an exception from the law.
Boris Tamoian, a younger relative of Aziz Tamoian and chairperson of another Yezidi non-governmental organization, the Sinjar Yezidi National Union, argues that his relative is working against Yezidis’ better interests by demanding a lower marriage age.
“We believe that driving some Yezidi girls out of schools, supporting them getting married without even a school certificate is definitely national discrimination,” the younger Tamoian said. “We stress that the majority of Yezidis no longer follow this archaic tradition, and urge the Armenian government to make no amendments to the law.”
Thirty-year-old Perine Guden, a nurse and Russian -anguage and literature specialist, agrees. “We have many educated girls who married at a later age and formed good families,” said Guden, who married at 20 and is the mother of two children. “We live in the 21st century. We shouldn’t come up with such a retrograde position.”
But Yezidi chief Aziz Tamoian maintains that such “young people” have “no moral right to play with the [Yezidi] nation’s fate and speak on behalf of the entire community.”
“This is not old-fashioned,” he said. “These are our centuries-long customs and traditions that must be further preserved.”
When it comes to a girl’s readiness to marry, 58-year-old Base Hajoian, a father of seven and grandfather of 21, agreed, “it is up to men to decide.”
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter in Yerevan and the editor of MediaLab.am.