Between March and April 2018, Armenia's streets were shaken by peaceful anti-government protests initiated by Nikol Pashinyan, a journalist and leader of the "My Step" coalition. The coalition had been formed to prevent Armenia's president, Serzh Sargsyan, from seeking his third term in power.
The growing protests eventually evolved into a "Velvet Revolution" started first in Gyumri. It quickly spread to the significant city of Venadzor and eventually made its way to the capital, Yerevan, where the centralized government institutions are located. Around 200,000 protesters peacefully assembled in the streets of Yerevan. They blocked the National Assembly building and called for new elections. The protests continued until 23 April 2018, forcing Sargsyan to resign. Nikol Pashinyan was later appointed prime minister with a new round of elections.
Women's "unprecedented" participation marked the intensive two-month protests in Armenia, etching their bravery into the nation’s collective memory. Three female leaders, Maria Karapetyan, Lena Nazaryan, and Zaruhi Batoyan, were particularly influential in talking to the crowds. They played a massive role as supporters in the group and as leading figures for speech. They even pushed further in calling for more people to join the protests. All three of them produced a toolkit, either leveraging on traditional family values and kinship bounds (Karapetyan), making noise with kitchen utensils (Batoyan), or, on the contrary, not leveraging on gender at all (Nazaryan).
This article sheds light on how Velvet Revolution affected gender perspectives. It draws from a critical approach presented by an Armenian feminist scholar, Anna Nikoghosyan. It goes to show that while media reportedly stated that the Revolution finally allowed women to be on the front line of change, in reality the changes was not quite as it seems.
Women political participation in protests and acts of resistance can be considered a key agent of political and social change playing also a cardinal role in gender justice. In Armenia, women's resistance took form of occupying public space and appealing to policy or regime change. While promoting change, these women-led movements still differ from feminist or social justice movements. They may have feminist interests, but, unlike feminist movements, don’t mean to eradicate gendered expectations.
With Armenia in mind, we could talk of women’s social movements rather than feminist ones. Challenging gender roles is not the primary concern.
In contrast, it is to negotiate relations between men and women in society, addressing attitudes towards women. It also challenges women's lack of social and political mobility, from occupying public spaces to utilizing protests, rallies, and fairs. For this reason, it’s a widely used strategy by women to pressure the state or raise awareness on specific issues.
Precisely, in what happened in Armenia, women took to the streets and protested not only for presidential change but for their rights equality beside men. Women’s participation in the Revolution was described by several media exceptional and unseen before.
In 2019, The Republic of Armenia Pavilion presented at La Biennale di Venezia (one the most prestigious contemporary art exhibitions in the world) its art project called “Revolutionary sensorium”, comprised of three parts to visually describe the revolution days occurred one year earlier. The exhibition also included a part of video contributions by the authors, called “Dialogues about revolution and power.”
Among them, the queer and feminist scholar Anna Nikoghosyan presented the regime change taking place in 2018 through gendered shades. In her 9-minute video she addressed the women’s roles in politics and in civic movements, cautiously describing events occurring in April–May 2018 not as a revolution, but as a regime change.
Nikoghosyan dismissed such narratives of unprecedented women’s participation as a “sign of awareness, short-term memory and, thus, a failure to recognize women’s powerful contributions to various political and civil struggles”. Indeed, as the scholar and Yerevan State University lecturer claims, women’s activism was always there but it was camouflaged by men or lacked public recognition.
Women activists were labelled “deviant” from the traditional roles society attributed to them. Affirming that women’s activism in 2018 was “extraordinary” or “exceptional” in Armenian history results from a gradual society transformation of women’s public perception, which turned them into existent and active individuals. So, Armenia in 2018 didn’t assist for the first time to a massive women participation but acknowledged for the first time this gendered agency.
As it was highlighted in studies on 2018 protests in Yerevan, three main female leaders emerged and talked both to the protesting crowd and potential women protesters who hadn’t still gone to the streets.
Maria Karapetyan's feminist approach was evident in her "Sister speech", where she appealed to Armenian women as sisters standing together for change and equal rights. Her emphasis on sisterhood and traditional family values resonated strongly, mobilizing women through shared kinship and familial bonds.
Additionally, Karapetyan urged women not only to reject Serzh Sargsyan but also to participate in a broader movement for equality in society, a cause not explicitly championed by Pashinyan and his coalition, Civil Contract. In her speech, she addressed Armenian women as “sisters who stand together hand in hand and who fought a double fight for the change of power in Armenia and for their equal rights in public.”
She also raised awareness about the double burden Armenian women had to carry on their shoulders – coming from the Soviet Union, where patrimonialism loaded them both with home care and external work.
Lena Nazaryan, on the other hand, took a different approach. As a centrist, liberal, and pro-European politician, she avoided explicit references to gender roles in her speeches. Instead, she emphasized the continuation of peaceful protests, decentralization, and organization.
By un-gendering the protests, Nazaryan encouraged widespread female participation, fostering a sense of empowerment among women. “She had her baseball cap on, and she told people to protest, to continue organising in a decentralised manner … It was a very tense time… but she was the one who conveyed the message that we should continue with peaceful protests.” (female participant interviewed by Ziemer).
Zaruhi Batoyan, a former Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, contributed to the revolution through her initiative, "15 minutes of noise." Recognizing that not all women could physically join the street protests, Batoyan provided an alternative means for them to make their voices heard. This inclusive approach, involving the symbolic use of kitchen utensils, aligned with the broader theme of using traditional gender norms as a protesting tool.
Anna Nikoghosyan warns daydreamers and optimists believing these regime change brought a value change and unveils “sugar-coated” statements on women.
For a regime to care about women, female political participation needs to continue after the revolution, and women’s activism should be encouraged in peaceful times.
Nikoghosyan notes that even the coalition leader Nikol Pashynian’s speeches talk of “women’s activism fully compatible with our (Armenian) national identity and national perceptions of the family”, again binding female recognition with family values, such as marriage and childbearing.
"So as long as women are instrumentalized and used for male power, their activity does not produce dissonance with the traditional beliefs of national identity and family. […] Women’s activism is encouraged, but only within the logical framework predetermined by the patriarchy." (Nikoghosyan, 2019)
Armenian regime change was, in conclusion, patriarchal with some “anti-patriarchal” practices, such as Karapetyan’s, Nazaryan’s and Batoyan’s cases.
The Armenian Velvet Revolution showed that women are entitled to protest beside (not in the shadow of) men. The reasons behind this mass participation – certainly not unseen before, but this time recognized on an international level – is more of a women social movements nature than a feminist one, as scholars note. Not all women participating related themselves to feminism. Some even intentionally appealed to traditional hierarchical family values.
Nevertheless, the Velvet Revolution brought something new to those studying political behaviour and gender perspectives in Armenia. It revealed that women still face enormous stereotypes in how their role is portrayed. It also showed that women are not always peace builders. They can refuse to compromise and block a street where men are more willing to negotiate. Lastly, it showed that their participation has gained an unprecedented visibility. What Armenia will make of all of this is still to be written.