Patriarchy in the Absence of Men

This paper focuses on the possibilities of transforming the gender distribution of labor and power dynamics within families under the conditions of seasonal labor migration of men in Armenia. Throughout this text, the author’s goal is to recount, on the one hand, research-based knowledge that exists on the interconnection between migration and traditonal gender relations, including vis-à-vis the example of Armenia, and on the other hand, to outline the general theoretical framework from the perspective of which this knowledge can be analyzed.

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Village of Women (Kanants Gyughe) by Tamara STEPANYAN, scene from the film

My personal experiences connected me with Armenia a few years ago. I have built a family there. Living there has awakened my professional interests, as I discovered that it is possible to have a qualitatively different patriarchal culture, which is similar yet different to the one in which I grew up with in Georgia and which I try to critically assess as a gender researcher.  

In general, my research interest is related to the gender-based division of roles and labor within the family. My doctoral research also concerns this issue - I am interested in studying the changes that take place in the family during the seasonal migration of men from Armenia.

Tamta Tatarashvili holds a scholarship from the Heinrich Boell Foundation (hbs) Tbilisi Office in the framework of our cooperation with the Ph.D. program in Social and Cultural Anthropology at Ilia State University.

There is a growing trend of feminization of migration in the world, which means an increase in the share of women among migrants. One of the main causes of the feminization of migration is the crisis of care and domestic work, which is considered a woman’s job and leads to the outflow of the women's labor force from less to more developed economies (Oishi, 2005).

Armenia does not fit into this global trend of feminization of migration. Here, despite the existence of the practice of women's labor migration.[1] Statistically, men predominate among labor migrants. According to data from 2015-2020, the share of men among labor migrants from Armenia is 86.7 percent (IOM, Armstat, 2022). The abundance of men among labor migrants from Armenia is due to the convergence of various factors. Mainly, this is due to the Khopan tradition already historically established in Armenian culture, which means that men leave for seasonal work in Russia.[2] The majority of these jobs (84%) are related to the construction sector and heavy physical work (Bellack, 2014) and therefore require mostly male laborers. The organization of seasonal migration to Russia depends on existing networks of friends and relatives and requires social capital (Zelinka, 2017). It is already a tradition for fathers to take their sons with them as soon as they reach the appropriate age and complete their mandatory military service in Armenia (Zelinka, 2017).

There are regions in Armenia (Gegharkunik, Shirak, Kotayk and others) and villages in these regions, where only women, children and elderly live during most of the year - about 8-10 months. Able-bodied young men in Russia are on seasonal jobs, returning home only in December-February. It is during this period that the largest number of weddings are held in the community. Unmarried men rush to marry their wives to ensure the continuation of their bloodline and soon (February-March) return to their work away from the family, while the young woman gets used to living with her husband's parents, engages in the hard work of domestic and household chores, gives birth to a child and raises them in the absence of her husband.[3]

Migration, Family and Patriarchy

The gender dimension of labor migration is contradictory. On the one hand, women's migration may carry empowering potential, while on the other hand, it may limit their opportunities by reproducing patriarchal norms and structures (Fleury, 2016; Hofmann, 2014; Oishi, 2005).

The interrelations between labor migration and traditonal gender relations works both ways: along with the fact that migration causes ideological changes in gender relations, traditonal gender relations, in turn, shapes migration patterns. This is especially the case when it comes to women's decision to migrate – a decision shaped by socially accepted gender norms regarding the social roles of women and men (Hofmann, 2014). In cultures where patriarchal ideologies are strong, the percentage of women among labor migrants is lower than in more egalitarian societies, where the percentage is higher and sometimes even exceeds that of men (Hofmann, 2014; Menjivar, Agadjanian, 2007; Massey, Fischer, and Capoferro 2006).

One of the research questions that exists in the academic debate on the gender dimensions of migration is what happens when a woman is not a migrant and she stays at home while her husband/partner is in labor migration (Mejivar, Agadjanian, 2007; Pribilsky, 2004; Bever, 2002). There are studies that investigate this direction of the gender dimension of labor migration in different regional/cultural contexts by observing different criteria, studying the children of families divided by migration, and analyzing the patterns of managing the remittances, etc. (Mejivar, Agadjanian, 2007; Parren˜as, 2005; Pribilsky, 2004; Bever, 2002). 

The results of these studies are, at first glance, contradictory. On the one hand, women staying at home take on more responsibility and become decision-makers in the absence of their partners/husbands, as they gain new roles and status, and more bargaining power in internal family dealings (Parren as, 2005; Aysa and Massey, 2004; Pribilsky, 2004).

On the other hand, other studies show that these new roles create tension and anxiety among women, and despite the apparent transformation of gender roles, traditonal gender relationsremains unchanged in the behavior of men and women (Bever, 2002; Menjivar, Agadjanian, 2007). Women, in the absence of their husbands and against their wishes, may start small businesses out of necessity, but remain in constant conflict with themselves for stepping beyond the culturally defined boundaries of housewifery for women (Bever, 2002). It so happens that women who embody the roles of men and women in the family, are twice burdened with work and responsibilities, but also remain completely financially dependent on the remittances from their migrant husbands and operate under the restrictive gender stereotypes in the community (Menjivar, Agadjanian, 2007).

These conflicting results discussed in different studies confirm that we cannot consider the experience of women in transnational migration patterns as a uniform trend, and we cannot give one generalized answer to the question of whether women are strengthened and emancipated in migration experiences. These experiences must always be contextualized according to the socio-cultural environment in which the changes caused by migration are taking place.

As part of my doctoral research, I am interested in the context of Armenia specifically the context of post-Soviet political-economic transformations, the dynamics of the institution of the family in a patriarchal culture, and the distribution of gender-related power dynamics within it. Does the continued absence of men in the family change this dynamic? By what practices do stay-at-home women maintain (or not maintain and change) this dynamic?

This last question should be the starting point from which to develop a research perspective. In order to expose and describe patriarchy, its system of values ​​and oppression, we need to look at the strategies by which women cope with, adapt to, or resist the restrictive patriarchal system. In this way, a picture of patriarchy, its system of values ​​and oppression in the context of a specific culture, will be drawn. Such an approach is offered by Deniz Kandiyoti's "patriarchal bargain" and Laila Abu-Lughod's theoretical frameworks of uncovering and contextualizing power structures through the analysis of everyday resistance (Abu-Lughod, 1990; Kandiyoti, 1988).

A theoretical framework patriarchal bargain” criticizes feminist theory for failing to adequately theorize patriarchy and presenting it as an abstract, monolithic system. For a contextualized understanding of patriarchy, it is more practical to observe and describe the strategies and coping practices of women in a particular culture by which they adapt to or bargain with the constraints of patriarchy. This will allow us to uncover specific manifestations of patriarchy within specific cultural and temporal boundaries. It is also important that this theoretical framework does not consider patriarchal transactions as frozen-in-time, static phenomena but rather transactions that can be subject to various transformations, such as social, economic crisis, etc. In such transitional periods, women's strategies, according to Kandiyoti, can, on the one hand, turn into radical protest (for example, feminist resistance), and, on the other hand, lead to deeper conservatism among women, who do not want to lose the security and other guarantees obtained under patriarchy (Kandiyoti, 1988).

By studying and analyzing everyday practices directed against dominant, restrictive power structures, Laila Abu-Lughod (1990) also talks about revealing and uncovering the complex nature of this power. However, she goes beyond the dichotomous view of women's resistance to patriarchal restrictions, because she sees patriarchy as intersecting with other components of power, such as political or economic dominance, or value conflicts between generations. There are two significant details in this theoretical framework: First, the forms of resistance are not considered as standing outside of the dominant power and independent from it. On the contrary, the forms of resistance and dominance determine and condition each other. Second, the advantage of diagnosing power through the study of resistance is that it helps us identify changes in power configurations and methods during the periods of transition and crisis (Abu-Lughod, 1990).

In the case of Armenia, transnational seasonal migration, which is a strategy for economic self-preservation and escape from poverty for families, can be considered as a kind of crisis and transformational context (to which at this moment the economic crisis in Russia caused by the war against Ukraine is added), in which the traditional family structure is actually broken, while symbolically, the traditional gender divisions and relations remain unchanged. This contradiction can create interesting dynamics within families in relationships between people, between genders and generations, or in the community's rethinking of traditional roles. My aim is to uncover and describe these dynamics by observing women's daily lives, their dealings with patriarchy, as well as their strategies of adaptation and/or resistance.  

Family and Gender Dimensions of Seasonal Labor Migration in Armenia

Migration is an important component defining the Armenian socio-cultural identity. The presence of the Armenian diaspora largely determines and normalizes emigration and labor migration practices in Armenia (Ishkhanian, 2002).   

Khopan, the practice of labor migration between Armenia and Russia, dates back to Soviet times (Aleksanyan, 2015; Ishkhanian, 2002). Due to a visa-free regime and a lack of a language barrier with Russia, this flow of migration is still active. The presence of a large and powerful network of Armenian migrants in Russia, which is based on the family and clan ties of Armenians, contributes to maintaining the wave of seasonal migration and determines the scale of labor migration from Armenia to Russia (Fleischer, 2016; Aleksanyan, 2015). The free functioning of these networks is facilitated by the policy of non-interference in migration issues on the part of both states and the high level of corruption in Russia (Aleksanyan, 2015). The vast majority of Armenian migrants are employed in the construction sector (84% of labor migrants in Russia) (Bellak, 2014), which is due to the fact that construction firms in Russia are specifically looking for migrant laborers because it is easier to get them to accept hard labor and inadequate pay (Bellak, 2014).

In the presence of this network, and against the background that families have limited opportunities to diversify their income, engaging in seasonal labor migration provides a quick and practical response to cope with the financial and social difficulties families face, while also offering an interim solution between the two alternatives of permanent (or long-term) migration to another country and/or staying in the home country with limited income (Bellak, 2014).  

The effects of seasonal migration on the families remaining in Armenia and gender relations within them are studied from different perspectives. These include analyzing the connection between the phenomenon of family alienation and migration, studying public opinion about the migration of women and men, observing the daily life of the wives of migrants who remain at home, and analyzing the connections between sexually transmitted diseases and the seasonal migration of men, etc. (Atoyan, 2017; Zelinka, 2017; Navoyan, 2017; Menjivar, Agadjanian, 2007; Sevoyan, Agadjanian, 2015). The findings of these studies paint a general context on the dominant patriarchal concepts in Armenian culture, the importance of the family institution within it, and the peculiarities of gender relations. However, the main perspective from which the authors attempt to analyze the situation of women in this context is the gender and development paradigm, where women's empowerment and/or agency are preconceived notions and may not be understood or matched by local experiences.  

For example, such an experience is the connection of women living in the same conditions in rural areas, a kind of network of mutual support or mutual control. The study I cited in the article (Menjivar, Agadjanian, 2007) briefly mentions this aspect of women's daily life gatherings, practices of helping with domestic work and ways of sharing information but does not address the role women's relationships can actually play in their daily lives or when looking for solutions to everyday problems. Also, it is important to observe what kind of cultural discourse the regular exchange of information between women about "good womanhood/wifery/motherhood/homemaking" may be shaping.  

Women's agency, or their resistance to the dominant patriarchal system, may not necessarily resemble the activism, loud and revolutionary protests, we are familiar with, but may be everyday, lifestyle-ingrained, trivial and therefore hard-to-pinpoint practices that grow out of and are conditioned by the patriarchal culture itself. The focus of my research is the everyday lives of women, as well as the forms of their connections and interactions, because I think that I will find examples of women's agency and resistance right here, in the everyday life of single women who have to take on all functions in the family and often cope with difficulties with each other's help. Or it could be that they themselves create these difficulties for each other by reproducing patriarchal relations. I think that the complex picture of the functioning and oppression of the patriarchy and other structures of domination intertwined with it, which I called "different patriarchy" at the beginning of this text, will be drawn in this, at first glance, the routine and banality of women's lives.

The content of the publication is the sole responsibility of  the author and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the Heinrich Boell Foundation Tbilisi Office – South Caucasus Region.


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[1] On women migration from Armenia, see Ishkanian, Armine. 2002. "Mobile Motherhood: Armenian Women's Labor Migration in the Post-Soviet Period." Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies 11, no. 3: 383–416

[2](Menjivar, Agadjanian, 2007; Ishkhanian, 2002). At the end of the 1950s, the Soviet authorities began to recruit young people from other Soviet republics to work on the barren lands of Central Asia. From this period, the word Khopan (խոպան) became established in the Armenian colloquial language, which now refers to traveling to another country for seasonal work for additional income. This word, in its primary meaning, means “barren land (Menjivar, Agadjanian, 2007; Ishkhanian, 2002). The practice of Khopan is still strong in Armenia, with 59% of migrants from Armenia leaving for Russia in 2015-2020, and 65% of remittances coming into the country from Russia (IOM, Armstat. 2022). A similar picture is painted in Georgia, in the Javakheti region inhabited by ethnically Armenian citizens, according to the information of local activist, Tigran Tarzyan,see (last accessed 23.06.22).

[3] The overview is based on reports by South Caucasus media platforms (Avetisyan Armine, Armenia's Seasonal Children. OC Media. (last accessed 23.06.22) Avetyan Anushik, The Overbaurdened Young Wifes of Migrants. Chai-Khana Media (last accessed 23.06.22), Tamar Stepanian's documentary film "Women's Village" (2019) and my expert interview with Armenian anthropologist Ruzanna Tsaturyan.