On March 20, joining the nation-wide movement to raise awareness about social distancing and to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, SmartClick, a software provider company in Armenia, released an artwork to encourage employees to work from home. The artwork, which was published on the company’s Social Media platforms with the caption “Stay home, Armenia! It can save lives,” portrays the statue of Mother Armenia sitting in front of the television, with her sword by her side. She is in a pensive mood and waiting to go back to her duty, hold her sword, and guard her nation.
Since the release of this artwork, other cultural texts that appropriate the statue of Mother Armenia have been circulating on social media platforms in response to COVID-19. An online news platform in Armenia, has been posting, mostly on their Facebook page, an image of Mother Armenia with a mask on her face. Through this image, they have been reporting day-to-day COVID-19 related updates in Armenia. Anahit of Erebuni, an Armenian feminist online platform, posted an image on their Instagram page of Mother Armenia wearing a mask who, instead of her sword, is holding a sign with the hashtag #stayhome. This post was targeted towards raising awareness about organizations in Armenia and elsewhere that can help people in abusive households and women who are subjected to domestic violence during the pandemic. Another Armenian online platform, promoted the necessity of staying at home through posting an image on their Instagram account of the Mother Armenia Memorial Complex except that the statue of Mother Armenia is not there. She has left her sword on the pedestal and has gone home.
Several mediums have appropriated the statue of Mother Armenia to promote social distancing and staying at home during this pandemic. However, I want to focus on SmartClick’s Covid-19 artwork as it allows for a concise and in-depth analysis of the relationship between the appropriation of Armenian motherhood and COVID-19. Julie Sanders (2006) defines appropriation as a “decisive journey away from the informing source into a wholly new cultural product and domain” (p. 26). In this article, drawing upon Sanders’ definition, I analyze the appropriation of Armenian motherhood and the statue of Mother Armenia in Covid-19 media texts and discuss this “journey” of appropriating Armenian motherhood into COVID-19 cultural products.
Looking at SmartClick’s Covid-19 artwork, many questions come to mind about the relationship it conjures between health crisis and the media, specifically social media. What and who does the media represent and in what ways? How gender is represented in artistic and cultural texts during pandemic? However, before analyzing such questions, it is necessary to think about how women, as mothers, are often perceived as caretakers and guardians of their families and nations, and how this becomes especially visible in times of pandemic and other collective traumas. During the Covid-19 pandemic, many mothers have become unpaid caregivers at home, with working mothers struggling to create a balance between completing their job assignments and taking care of their children (Zuckerman, 2020). Although this situation is also challenging for men and fathers, “women still undertake the disproportionate share of caregiving responsibilities” (Zuckerman, 2020).
In Armenia, although women have been increasingly entering the labor market, during this pandemic, they are the ones who mostly manage the domestic tasks while also trying to work from home (Titizian, 2020). This pandemic “has ripped the domestic gender gap wide open, laying bare the deep inequity that exists in most families [in Armenia]” (Titizian, 2020). This domestic gender gap in Armenia during the pandemic is reflected in the representation of mothers as caretakers and in the appropriation of the statue of Mother Armenia in Covid-19 related media and cultural texts. This reflection is also directly related to the history of the construction of the statue of Mother Armenia and to the appropriation of Armenian motherhood during different collective traumas in Armenian history.
The Victory Park Memorial Complex was built in 1950 to mark the USSR’s victory in World War II. When the memorial was built, a statue of Joseph Stalin was placed on the pedestal. However, in 1961, Stalin’s statue was removed and the statue of Mother Armenia was erected in 1967. Inside the pedestal, the “Mother Armenia” Military Museum is located. The statue houses the museum that exhibits mementos of wars fought by Armenians – more specifically, mostly by Armenian men.
So what does the statue of Mother Armenia represent as it houses these mementos of wars? She could be a reminder of prominent female fighter figures in Armenian history who, alongside Armenian men, participated in bringing justice and victory to their country. However, she could also be a representation of the traditional, sacred Armenian woman who devotes herself to her home and husband and is expected to cater to her family, her children, and her nation without a vision of her own. However, what does she have to do with COVID-19 and why is she represented and appropriated in an artwork promoting social distancing and working from home? How does this artwork reinforce traditional and contemporary appropriations of Armenian motherhood?
Before the 1915 Armenian genocide, in the late nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, Armenian feminist women writers engaged in redefining the role of Armenian women “through the concept of the Armenian woman as mother of the nation” (Rowe, 2009, p. 24). This concept suggested that “women’s status as mothers could also be viewed as a political act if women raised children to identify as patriotic members of the nation” (Rowe, 2009, p. 24). Therefore, receiving an education was justified for Armenian women, as this education was necessary for them to raise and educate members of the nation (Rowe, 2009). However, Armenian women expanded the concept of the mother-educator “to give themselves the right and the responsibility to participate in political discourse and developments of relevance to the Armenian people” (Rowe, 2009, p. 24).
This redefinition of the role of Armenian women by Armenian feminist women writers appropriated the notion of Armenian motherhood to ensure that women received education and participated in national matters. However, Armenian motherhood witnessed a shift in the immediate aftermath of the 1915 Armenian genocide from empowering Armenian women to challenging Armenian feminism. After the genocide, the key path for the survival of Armenian identity was maintaining traditional gendered roles and “the women of the family, specifically the mother, had the most important role in the restitution of the family, thus of the nation (Ekmekçioǧlu, 2016, p. 159). “As a biological figure,” the Armenian woman was to reproduce “the new generation, those who would make the Armenian future possible [after the genocide]” (Ekmekçioǧlu, 2016, pp. 159-160).
In 1920, Armenia was already under the Soviet rule and the “establishment of Soviet power was followed by Lenin’s decree of equal rights for men and women in work, educational, social, and economic life” (Aslanyan, 2005, p. 194). The emancipation of women was accompanied by certain rights and liberation in family relations and women’s participation in social and political life. And yet, in the early 1920s, Armenian women living in Soviet Armenia were still being brought up in patriarchal Armenian families and their social identity was mostly limited to being “a woman-mother and a woman-protector of the family” (Aslanyan, 2005, p. 194). This so-called freedom for women in the Soviet Union was not free of problems as it mostly served the communist ideological propaganda of the Soviet government that included elements of discrimination against women (Aslanyan, 2005). Armenian women soon found themselves stuck in a double burden as they were working both outside and inside their homes and continued their role as a “woman-mother” and a “woman-protector” of the family (Aslanyan, 2005).
The notion of Armenian motherhood was appropriated before the genocide in relation to raising patriotic children and after the genocide to ensure the restitution of the nation. While in Soviet Armenia, despite women’s involvement in the workforce, the Armenian woman was still perceived as a woman-mother and a woman-protector of the family, similar to the current situation during this pandemic in the Republic of Armenia. SmartClicks’s COVID-19 artwork reinforces how Armenian mothers have always been expected to step up and fulfill their roles as mothers and protectors of their families and nation during times of collective crises. In this piece of art, the appropriation of the statue of Mother Armenia, which is a representation of a mother figure, is in response to the movement of raising awareness about social distancing in Armenia. Therefore, during this pandemic, the notion of Armenian motherhood is once again appropriated to ensure the safety and the recovery of the nation from this trauma and to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, similar to other post-Soviet states, “Armenia underwent a resurgence of neo-traditionalism and patriarchal patterns of behavior… and many nationalists, political conservatives, and members of the clergy described women’s equality as being antithetical to Armenian values” (Cavoukian & Shahnazaryan, 2019, p. 730). In this context, Armenian women have played key roles in maintaining the family and its cultural values, thus “solidifying the image of the ‘sacred mother” in Armenian society’ (Ohanyan, 2009, p. 231).
After more than a hundred years of the genocide and almost 30 years after Armenia’s independence from the Soviet Union, this notion of “traditional” Armenian motherhood is still present. Although being challenged both in Armenia and diasporic communities, it is still “a strong concept in Armenian women’s (self-)identification with their nation, constructing it as a unique Armenian trait that distinguishes Armenian women from ‘others’” (Beukian, 2014, p. 247).
In April 2018, the “Armenian Velvet Revolution” took place, which resulted in the toppling of the long-standing authoritarian regime that was in power since Armenia gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Women’s participation in this revolution was, in part, associated with the notion of “sacred Armenian motherhood.” During the protests, “the societal gender norms and roles influenced the tactics of women during the protests which they used to confront the larger power structures in Armenia” (Ziemer, 2019, p. 88). An example of this was how women used their bodies in the protests to keep the revolution peaceful by embracing the traditional notion of motherhood in Armenian society (Ziemer, 2019). With motherhood being associated with “immunity” in Armenia, mothers were actively protesting in the streets while carrying their children because they were certain that the police were not going to harm them (Ziemer, 2019).
This complex relationship between Armenian women and Armenian motherhood has been appropriated during almost every collective trauma in Armenian history, both in relation to the biological reproductive aspect of motherhood and the socially constructed notion of motherhood. These biological and social appropriations have usually been in line with assigning traditional societal roles to Armenian women and justifying it with discourses of helping the nation and ensuring its survival.
The COVID-19 artwork, which was created in the aftermath of the nation-wide movement to raise awareness about social distancing and preventing the spread of the virus, also reinforces the notion of how Armenian motherhood is always appropriated to serve the safety and the well-being of the Armenian nation. During collective crises or traumas, Armenian women are the ones expected to ensure the survival of the nation by fulfilling their roles as mothers and caretakers. While the circulation of cultural texts on social media platforms during this pandemic is essential to encourage social distancing and staying at home, the figures of the Armenian woman and the Armenian mother stand watch at the front lines of the fight against COVID-19. While their accomplishments have usually been invisible among the public and in the media, during this pandemic, they are asked to take a dual role of being a mother and a worker and serve their nation heroically.
Aslanyan, S. (2005). Women’s Social Identity from an Armenian Perspective: Armenian Woman, Soviet Woman, Post-Soviet Woman. Gendering Transformations, 192.
Beukian, S. (2014). Motherhood as armenianness: Expressions of femininity in the making of Armenian national identity. Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, 14(2), 247-269. doi:10.1111/sena.12092
Cavoukian, K., & Shahnazaryan, N. (2019). Armenia: Persistent Gender Stereotypes. In Franceschet, S., Krook, M. L., & Tan, N. (Eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Women’s Political Rights (pp. 729-743). Palgrave Macmillan, London.
Ekmekçioǧlu, L. (2016). When History Became Destiny: A Conclusion. In Recovering Armenia: the limits of belonging in post-genocide Turkey (pp. 159–163). Stanford University Press.
Rowe, V. (2009). Introduction: The Awakening of Armenian Women. In A history of Armenian women’s writing, 1880-1922 (pp. 11-28). Gomidas Institute.
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Zuckerman, E. (2020, April 17). COVID-19: What Mothers in Your Office Aren't Telling You. Retrieved from https://www.catalyst.org/2020/04/09/covid-19-mothers/