The Armenian Family
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article below may sound a bit outdated.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.
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
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
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…
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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 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
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
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.