Europe is getting a surprise bashing in Armenia over a law on gender equality that many Armenians claim is designed to “promote” homosexuality as a “European value.”
The strength of the backlash has prompted some political observers to believe it is being artificially stoked in order to build popular support for Yerevan’s decision last month to seek membership in the Russia-led Customs Union at the expense of closer ties with the European Union.
The law, titled On Equal Rights and Equal Opportunities for Men and Women, was first mulled in 2009 and went into effect in June with the broad aim of enforcing gender equality in all aspects of daily life and outlawing gender discrimination. That may sound like business-as-usual among EU members, but for Armenian society, where men generally receive pride of place, it quickly sparked pushback.
Opponents have relied on scare tactics. Social media campaigns against the gender equality law used images of young men wearing garish make-up and transgender couples kissing each other to call for a fight against “warped Western values,” and to “maintain family values.” The campaigns also featured videos and articles that claim, incorrectly, legislation in Denmark, Germany, Norway and Sweden allows for incest and pedophilia, and strongly encourages same-sex marriages. Such legislation, the advocates added, could be in store for Armenia.
The fear-mongering efforts hinge on the law’s definition of “gender” in Article 3 as “acquired, socially fixed behavior of different sexes.” To many Armenians, the word “acquired” is seen as code for homosexuality.
Although the backlash against the law began almost as soon as it was adopted, it seemed to intensify after President Serzh Sargsyan announced in early September that Armenia was ready to join the Kremlin-led Customs Union.
At a September 9 press-conference, Archimandrite Komitas Hovnanian, a prominent figure within the Armenian Apostolic Church, warned that “[a] new religious movement is being formed which campaigns for homosexuality, pedophilia, incest and other immoral things.”
“Everybody should be concerned with this,” Hovnanian instructed journalists. “If we are Armenians, we have to take steps to prevent this decadent phenomenon.”
Some MPs have proposed amendments to remove from the law references to the word “gender,” but the suggestion has done nothing to lessen the intensity in the debate. On October 11, one Facebook group planned to march in Yerevan against the gender law and so-called “European values.”
The term has become a catch-all that embraces not only equal rights for women – itself highly controversial for this conservative, patriarchal society – but tolerance toward same-sex marriages and any sexual minorities; anathema for most people living in the South Caucasus.
By contrast, Russia, which recently passed a law banning so-called “homosexual propaganda,” is seen as a more virtuous model for emulation.
“Armenian traditions and European values are very hard to combine. If Europe accepts homosexualism and same-sex marriages, this does not mean that they are acceptable for traditional Armenian families,” commented sociologist Aharon Adibekian. “So, this is the main reason for the approach displayed by society.”
He cautioned that the backlash against Europe has been brewing ever since Armenia, in the 1990s, pledged to sign international agreements to defend the rights of minorities.
While the anti-gender-equality campaign may seem extreme to outsiders, it has had an impact. Leda Hovhannisian, a 38-year-old Yerevan resident with a secondary-school level of education, says that, despite the potential advantages for finding a well-paying job, she now is horrified at the thought of her 16-year-old son ever going to study in Europe or the United States.
“No, by no means! I would never want my child to travel to those places where drug addiction, homosexuality and other forms of abuse are widespread,” she stressed. “We hear about it every day. God forbid! I would never allow him to go there.”
Others assail the campaign as nonsensical. “Unfortunately, many people don’t even realize that this is a result of misinformation,” commented 26-year-old computer programmer Emma Babaian.
Some administration critics believe that Facebook-spread warnings that “the wind of perversion blows from the West” reveal an ulterior motive on the part of authorities. Sargsyan’s administration, they contend, wants to bolster public support for its decision to opt for Russia’s economic embrace, rather than the EU’s. Officials in Brussels have said an association agreement between the EU and Armenia is incompatible with Yerevan’s looming membership in the Customs Union.
“This was a carefully planned campaign, which was followed by the recent heavy criticism over European values, as well as adoption of the gender equality law which evoked fury among society, and all these factors were exploited to discredit Europe,” argued Stepan Safarian, secretary of the opposition, pro-Western Heritage Party.
Galust Sahakian, deputy chair of the governing Republican Party of Armenia and head of its parliamentary faction, dismissed the notion. “This is absurd,” Sahakian responded. “The law on gender equality has nothing to do with diplomacy” and efforts to encourage public support for the Customs Union. “They should not connect it either to Europe, or to diplomacy, Russia or the whole world.”
Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter based in Yerevan and editor of MediaLab.am.