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The Armenian Family (a brief snapshot)

By Shogher Markarian

Some parts of the article below may sound a bit outdated. They may not reflect the natural characteristics of today's Armenian family living in the diaspora, but they can be true. As in any given group of people you will find many Armenian families to whom the results of these findings do not apply.

Introduction

rmenians of the diaspora have enjoyed long term contact with Middle Eastern cultures; the family life is greatly influenced by regional traditions. Armenians that have migrated outside of the area over the past 2-3 decades have also integrated Western culture features into their family life. Here is a brief description illustrating some common traits.

The Family Core

The average Armenian home is composed of a man and a woman. Although we cannot provide exact numbers, the estimated age of a newly wed couple is 25 for the woman, 28-30 for the man. This age increases among individuals who pursue higher education. Armenian families like to have children; each home has an average of 2-3 children. Divorce & separation are new phenomenon and still taboo. Most marriages last very long.

Task Distribution

The father of a family is expected to fulfil the material needs of the household. Major economic decisions (ie. buying a car), banking, household repairs & taking out the garbage are his domain. The mother of the family has the responsibility of daily cooking & cleaning, and raising the children. These tasks are strictly reserved to females, even if the woman is actively pursuing a career or running a business. No man should adventure in changing diapers or cleaning the toilet bowl, since he won't perform as good as the woman; women are genetically designed to excel in such tasks; plus, such chores are considered useless, do not provide any material benefit, and are degrading to a man's honour. Groceries can be a shared task, or they can be planned by the mother and executed by the father. Driving the kids to their extra-curricular activities can also be shared, depending on the parent's work schedule. Shopping for kids' clothing, inscriptions to activities, presence at parent-teacher meetings, maintaining the children's health are also a woman's domain. Verifying the child's report card and disciplining are provided by the father. 

In The Kitchen

The kitchen is the Armenian woman's kingdom (and prison). When the man comes home from work, the meal is expected to be ready, even if the wife was also working and then had to pick up the kids from school. The Armenian man is an excellent food critic; he will know which dish his mother made better than his wife, and will not be shy in comments. Oh yes, let us not forget, the man can invite guests for supper and inform his wife last minute; she must always have something ready for unexpected situations. An Armenian woman is judged by her cooking. The greatest honor for her is being asked for a recipe, by a more experienced woman. The recipes are named after the neighbour or the sister in law that gave them. Of course, she has added her own little touch. No Armenian woman will allow any other woman to cook in her kitchen. Even if she has 30 guests for supper, she's the only one that knows how to work her stove… 

Family Health

The wife takes all the doctors' appointments for the husband; the man doesn't need to see a doctor until very sick. The woman gets health-related information from friends & siblings. She tries to treat herself or tough it out. A woman's prestige is increased when she is obviously sick but doesn't consult a doctor and continues to take care of the others. If some health conditions are easily discussed among friends, many topics remain taboo. Hypertension, diabetes or minor surgeries are talked about. Great efforts are deployed in order to hide any case of epilepsy, cancer, AIDS or psychiatric disorders (including depression) in the family. Such words are never pronounced out loud.

Childhood

Children are the center of the attention. They are raised mainly by their mother, but also by their grandmother and aunts. At birth, children receive gifts, mainly jewellery (holly crosses, gold medallions, etc). The first male child often is named after his grandfather; the same may go for the first female child. The Armenian mothers closely watch and constantly provide care/food to their children. Feeding a boy with his favourite dish is important; he needs strength to grow. At his birthday, he will receive cars, trucks and construction blocks. His entire attention is focused on male-restricted tasks. A little girl will of course receive dolls. She will be taught to sew or knit dresses for the doll. She will play house, a role she is destined to take in the future. Sexual education is absolutely out of the question. Children are taught to behave, otherwise they will be taken to the doctor or the dentist and will get an injection!

Teens

The most important thing teenage girls learn, is their boundaries. Can't go to someone's house without getting permission from parent. No sleepovers. Girls should not become friendly with guys. Did you say dating? Are you nuts? Parents will be furious! Going to a party? After investigating and weeks of negotiations, we may allow you to go; but we drop you off, we stick around, we pick you up. A lot of families keep a very tight control on their teenage daughters, while the boys can do as they please, go where they want & even take the car… Teenage girls are invited to participate in household chores, taking care of younger siblings, and get praised for doing so, specially if they've cleaned their brother's room! Teenage boys come in hungry from school and expect food to be ready (sounds familiar?). They are taught to be entirely dependent on females for everyday activities: they will never learn to cook, do the dishes, do the laundry, buy their own underwear or go for groceries. Sexual education is provided by the television shows; no need to discuss any such forbidden subjects.

Young Adults

Finding work is an important issue, especially for men. When choosing their study fields, young men will tend to go towards professions; there are more women than men in PhD programs requiring long term devotion. Young adults live at their parents' home until marriage. Dating is permitted and encouraged by parents if the date fills the criteria: Armenian origin, "good family", "serious", thinking about marriage. Short-term relationships are discouraged. The "no sleepovers" law is still in effect. However, young adults can get away thanks to weekend trips organized by student/youth associations. At this stage, the mother can become more permissive than the father and can act as a negotiator in order to obtain permission from him. A young woman cannot confide in her father for her personal problems.

Marriage

The goal of every Armenian young adult must be to get married and procreate. Pressure becomes noticeable around young couples who have been dating for a while. In many families, the ancient tradition of looking for a wife still prevails. The mother/aunt of a single young man may see a young woman (at a barahantess?) that fits her criteria (beautiful and respectful, not too modern); she then manages to invite herself and the man to the girl's house. Of course, the girl's family knows the goal of the visit; the girl will serve coffee; she will be judged on her grace; the guy will talk about his future projects for work; he will be judged on his potential as a breadwinner; then the visitors leave. If the guy liked the girl, he will call her father and ask for a permission to see her; the girl has the right to refuse, but is not encouraged to do so unless she has a valid reason (I still haven't figured out what a valid reason could be).

The Elderly

A man's elderly parents can live in the household. It is rare to see the woman's relatives moving into the home, especially if she has brothers who should normally take care of them. When living with elderly in-laws, the woman is expected to take care of their health. In-laws have "the duty" of criticizing their bride's services & abilities. The woman has "the duty" to shut up. An Armenian family will try to avoid placing elderly family members in public care.

Guests

Guests can be invited for an evening, or can call to invite themselves for coffee/drinks. Depending of their familiarity or the occasion, they don't come empty handed; they often bring a homemade desert, a box of chocolate or a specialty drink. Everyone is greeted with a handshake, or 3 kisses on the cheeks (if close friends/relatives). Then they are welcomed to the living room and offered the most comfortable seats. The first service is already on the coffee tables: appetizers (mixed nuts, salty cookies, etc). The hosts have to invite their guests to serve themselves, otherwise no one touches the food. After a few minutes, the woman disappears in the kitchen where she prepares the next services, while the man serves alcoholic beverages (often whisky or raki). If a barbecued meal is on the menu, he will prepare the coal and monitor the cooking. The men sit next to each other and discuss international politics, business news and sports. The women occupy another corner, where the conversation starts with inquiring about each others' children, then goes on to decorating, cooking, news from relatives, etc. Only if the guests are very familiar to the home, the women will help out with in the kitchen. Meanwhile, the men can be playing backgammon or poker. If teenagers are around, they are expected to take care of the younger children, often playing in a separate room.

In The Community Organizations

The same task distribution as at home finds itself in the Armenian community organizations. Associations with predominantly female membership have a benefactory vocation; there are a few influent male members, always absent when the time comes to actually execute an activity (bakesale, bazaar, etc.), but consulted when major decisions are taken. The predominantly male associations are the political parties & community administration boards. When a female is an active member of an influent committee, she will be automatically handed all the clerical tasks. It is very rare to see a woman head a predominantly male organization. A man can easily excuse his absence from home with an important meeting at the community center; a woman's absence for the same reason is not tolerated – she's expected to balance her social life and priorities family. For the diaspora Armenian man, the community center is the political arena, the only place where power can be exerted. Few Armenians actively participate in their adopted country's political scene if not to promote Armenian issues.

The Barahantess

The barahantess is the dinner/dance/fundraising event of the community. Each association has a barahantess committee, working hard to have the best barahantess with the best turnout. Ads are posted months in advance. A famous singer/DJ is invited. Families reserve entire tables at high price. Dresses are bought in advance. Heavy make-up is a must. The event occurs in the community center hall or the school gym. People arrive at the time they please, often around 9pm. The tables are already set with some dishes; others are served warm. The singer appears in a flashy outfit and sings some popular tunes. Some dancing may happen. He takes a break. More food is served. Everybody drinks alcohol. All no smoking regulations are violated. Lottery tickets are sold (more fundraising) or influent members make voluntary donations that are publicly announced. Then the singer comes back. The dancing is now more enthusiastic. If the evening theme is the Armenian Cause/Genocide/Revolution, no dancing is allowed. As the evening approaches to its end, some contemporary pop/DJ/slow music is heard. Guests start to leave around 1 am. Hard core barahantess goers may stay until 3 am, and young people may go for breakfast afterwards (no, there wasn't enough food with the 4 services…). Drunk driving is another taboo subject among Armenians; a real man never gives up his car keys… The party is over but the memories stay; the gossips emerged by one such evening may go on for months.
 

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. Your say

We welcome your thoughts on this topic. If anyone wishes to comment or add to the above article, you may do so by writing to 'Hye Etch'. Please use the "Contact us" form to get in touch with us. All correspondence to be in language that is civilised and mature.

Copyright © 'Hye Etch' 2003. All rights reserved. - A written permission must be obtained from the author before republishing this article or part there of in any form (print, digitally or otherwise).

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Updated 22 April, 2003 ..
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