“If a girl says no, that means maybe. If she says maybe, that means yes. And if she says yes —well, a girl is not supposed to say yes, because she is a girl, and shouldn’t be so direct.”
The topic is consent, and behind the microphone in the small sound studio is an educated Armenian writer. He is a friend of the two women sitting opposite him — 30-year-old Anahit Ghazaryan, and Gohar Khachatryan, 40 — the hosts of Armenia’s only feminist podcast.
His words are not a novelty in Armenia, where issues such as consent are still largely taboo. Breaking them is exactly one of the podcast’s main goals. The show is simply called Akanjogh; a play on the Armenian words for “earring” and “take heed”. For Ghazaryan and Khachatryan, it is a platform where they can finally discuss what matters to them. “It feels like finally I can talk about all the things that were inside me, when before I couldn’t find a way to say them and ask all these questions,’’ says Khachatryan.
“In Armenia, we often feel discrimination and experience harassment. It is something that we live with every day”
Khachatryan and Ghazaryan met five years ago at Yerevan’s Institute of Contemporary Art during an evening Master’s art programme. “At the time, Anahit was trying to improve her English, and we would meet and read books. We started reading books about feminism,” Khachatryan says.
For Ghazaryan, being a feminist was never a question. Growing up in a progressive family, her mother had always made clear that there should be no differences between her and her older brother. Having grown up in a home where her opinion was highly considered and her space always respected, the outside world struck her as different from what she was taught.
“Every time I would leave my home and enter the real world, it was very confusing for me. I always felt that my opinion was important, but later in the society, I couldn’t understand why people did not ask for my views,” she says.
Bonding over the lines of Roxane Gay, the pair would spend hours discussing feminist literature, as well as the real cases of daily discrimination that affected their everyday lives: street harassment, being constantly reproached for a sitting in an “unladylike manner”, or engaging in activities considered unsuitable for women, such as hitchhiking.
“In Armenia, we often feel discrimination and experience harassment. It is something that we live with every day, and it is something that we both care about,” says Khachatryan.
But it was the Media Initiatives Centre in Yerevan that pushed the pair to do something more. Working alongside Armenia’s US Embassy, the centre launched its first project to promote podcasting culture, providing technical training and some small grants.
Despite their heavy schedule and frequent travelling, Ghazaryan and Khachatryan saw the platform as the perfect opportunity to raise awareness of feminist issues. “We wanted to talk about complicated ideas in a simple language, so that people can listen to them and relate to it,” says Khachatryan.
Every episode of the podcast has one overarching theme, from toxic masculinity and sexual consent, to female objectification. Most important is bringing these themes and ideas into the Armenian context. According to Khachatryan, one of the team’s recurring issues is Armenia’s association of feminism with Western culture, or with misconceptions about the meaning of the word itself. Many Armenian women are reluctant to use the word “feminist” to describe themselves, even if they agree with all of the principles discussed in the podcast. Instead, they see the word as Western caprice depriving women of their femininity. “So far, I think that the worst thing that people told us is: ‘I agree with what you said but I am not a feminist,’” Khachatryan says. “People think that feminists are angry people who hate men and have moustaches, and people don’t want to be associated with that.”
But despite some reluctance, the pair feel that feminist ideas are naturally taking root in Armenia, particularly following the country’s Velvet Revolution in 2018.
“Our society is changing so fast. Nowadays, young women are moving away from their families to live on their own, to travel, and to learn foreign languages, more so than men,” says Ghazaryan. “A lot of my female friends live on their own, but most of my male friends live with their parents. Women want more; they are braver.”
But Ghazaryan and Khachatryan soon found that it was not only women suffering under Armenia’s strict gender roles. Starting from a well-known phrase, “men don’t cry”, the two embarked on a series of interviews with men on the challenges and pressures that they faced, asking them in particular about the last time they cried. Among the interviewees, one mutual friend opened up on the abuse he faced as a teenager for having long hair.
“I always knew it was hard to be a woman in Armenia, but after the interviews, we realised how hard it is to be a guy. There is a lot of pressure if you don’t conform to masculine standards,” says Khachatryan. “When I leave Armenia, I see how guys abroad can wear something pink or they walk in a different way, but Armenia is a very masculine society and there is more pressure to conform.”
But resistance remains — even in the most surprising of places. For Ghazaryan, this episode was an occasion to have an open conversation with her own father, discovering a side of him that she had not expected. As the two of them were busy working in the garden, Ghazaryan took the chance to record their conversation and ask about his perception of a man’s role in the society. “I know my father and he is not patriarchal at all, but when we started talking about this stuff, the ideas that he shared with me were very patriarchal. I knew he was just repeating things that he had heard before,” she says.
“I always knew it was hard to be a woman in Armenia, but after the interviews, we realised how hard it is to be a guy. There is a lot of pressure if you don’t conform”
“That is the problem: you can never understand what people really think. There is a hard surface that you cannot penetrate,” she says.
With more episodes already in the pipeline, Khachatryan and Ghazaryan hope to keep widening their focus, whether that’s laying the foundation for broader discussion of Armenian issues, or bringing in new guests, listeners, and interviewees. “Usually it isn’t strangers who we talk to, but our friends, because it’s easier for them to tell their personal stories,” says Khachatryan.
But at least for now, that goal is destined to be an uphill struggle. “I want to have the ability to talk with people just to explain the idea of feminism without even mentioning the word,” says Khachatryan. “The word is not the goal. The goal is to have a normal, happy society.”