In Between Early Marriage and Education | Yazidis living in Armenia

Updated: May 24

Mher and the daughter-in-law

Zhenik, 17, has lived in Shaveshyan's family for around two years, but her father-in-law has never heard her voice. And it is not unusual. The grandfather of the family did not hear the voice of his daughter-in-law during more than 40 years living together. It is one of the accepted social norms among the majority of Yazidi nation living in Armenia.

Zhenik is the wife of Mher Shaveshyan. Before marriage, the boy and his family had been in 87 houses to see and choose a girl. Zhenik, the wife, was the 88th.

Mher Shaveshyan shows a short video of their wedding published on YouTube.

Born in 2003, Zhenik, by the time of their wedding, was 15 years old, and Mher was 22. Now, she is 17, and Mher is 25. Until now, they have not registered their marriage. Mher says that he is waiting until the wife will become an adult and they will register it. By that time, she will also change her surname into her husband's family name.

As most of the Yazidi daughters-in-law, Zhenik, also will not appear in front of the camera. It is also not acceptable to have social media pages for them and share their photos. The only thing that proves her existence in the online space is the video of their wedding, which the husband shows proudly.

From the age 20, Mher was looking for a bride in all the Yazidi populated areas of Armenia. There were days that he, his father, the mother, and his uncle toured in several villages on the same day for that reason.

Mher and his family visited Zhenik's house 13 times "to ask her hand"; all 13 times, they were rejected by the girl's father since she was very young. The 14th time the father said, "Yes".

The first time when the family visited the house of Zhenik in Jamshlu village Mher was in Yerevan and did not go with his parents.

"I told them to go and see if the girl is nice; if yes: call me, and I will come."

After the visit, the parents gave a "green light", and the next day Mher joined them. Tradition says that when a family comes to see a girl, she has to serve a glass of water. Zhenik brought water for the uncle. Whenever she entered the room, Mher was scanning her from the toes up. The uncle was drinking the water very slowly to give a chance to the boy to see and "love" the girl since there will not be a chance for relationships.

Mher liked her and told the family to go and make a proposal for her. They got engaged soon and after several months got married. Around 350 people were invited to their wedding.

In the evenings Mher helps his family to do everyday work, including cattle breeding.

Now, after two years of marriage, conversations about a child are not stopping. The family tries to increase the comfort of the house by renovating it and solving hitting issues, for creating an atmosphere for the young couple to make a baby. 17-years-old Zhenik, in the corner of the room, smiles silently and nods her head.

In daily life, Mher mostly has dinner with his father, while Zhenik with her sister-in-law and mother-in-law. Women solidarity to not leave her alone.

Mher will never allow her wife to wear pants or to sit cross-legged in front of his father. He witnessed it in Armenian families, which he did not like.

Mher works in Alagyaz municipality. The village is also exclusively Yazidi populated.

Even though Mher follows traditions and calls them part of their culture, he finds education to be essential. Not only did he go to university, but he also allowed his wife to go to college.

"Education plays a primary role in a person's life, and nationality does not matter."

Mher finds that if more educational centers were in Aragatsotn province, more girls would study. Since Yerevan is far, the men of the family do not allow the girls to go there.

"The Yazidi nation is very jealous for their women," says Shaveshyan.

For Yazidis, it is culturally forbidden to marry people of other nationalities. It is one of the religious singularities since you can be called a Yazidi if both parents are Yazidis.

Mher came to home to have a lunch during the work.

That is why many families are afraid that their child will fall in love with Armenian, and to prevent that, they find a partner from their community. That is one of the reasons for early marriage. There is also public pressure. Moreover, accepted norms in the community do not allow girls to have a partner before marriage.

Strict rules are not the same for every woman in the community. You are more privileged when you are still a daughter. Whenever you become a daughter-in-law, more restrictions come.

Maya: the daughter

The sister and the brother at their home.

Mher's sister Maya Shaveshyan is 14 years old. She has not been proposed to yet, but there are gossips in their village that she is already at the age of marriage. She, however, laughs and says that she ignores that. The girl dreams not to be restricted to get an education from her father.

They are one of the 62 Yazidi families in Rya Taza village. The village is located in the Aragatsotn region and is entirely inhabited by Yazidi people, where primarily girls are not graduating from the 9th grade of the school. On the contrary, they stay home or are getting engaged and then married.

Maya Shaveshyan loves to watch TV. It is not only one of the few entertainments for the girl, but it also was one of the motives that made up her mind about life.

She was inspired by a movie where the protagonist becomes an IT specialist and earns so much money to overcome the family's poverty. That was why she decided to study it as well, and now she is afraid that her dreams cannot come true.

Maya demonstrates traditional mattresses of their house, which Yazidi families mostly are proud of.

Even though her father promised her that she would graduate the school and not make her marry until that, sometimes opposite thoughts are coming into her mind that maybe her father will change his mind․

"By doing that, he will ruin my life." She would love to fight for her education rights, but who knows if her opinion will ever be considered or not?

"He gave a man's word, he will keep it,” says the girl.

At least she wants to graduate from 9th grade and then go to college. However, she is not sure about going to a higher education institution. She also needs to get married.

"Here, if you do not marry after 18, they (society) say: she stayed unmarried forever."

In the Yazidi community, people are guided by public opinion, which mainly transforms into public pressure. Moreover, people do follow what others think and say. Maya says, if you go against the accepted norms, it becomes hard for you to live. That is why people do whatever is told by others, and it becomes a part of you and your life.

However, the girl speaks against early marriage. She says that it is not acceptable to get married at a very young age.

Armenia's family law defines that the marital age is 18, except when a person is 17, and there is an acceptance of the parents. People aged 16 can also get married in cases where the other party is an adult person, and there is an acceptance of the parents.

The traditions, however, go over the law.

"How can a child know what a wedlock is? You can get married at 16, but also at 18. The gap is only two years, yes? But during those two years you can mature so that even you cannot imagine."

The young girl says: whenever families are coming to see the girl, her opinion is normally asked. However, girls pay attention to what their fathers think about the boys and their families. Girls make decisions depending on them by saying that they trust their parents and her life is in their arms.

Maya does not want to go through it, and she is not sure what her family will do. She says, "That is me who will live with that person, not my parents; that is me who is going to live my life."

Maya started to love literature with her sister-in-law's help because she loves reading and discussing books with her a lot. Moreover, she advises Maya on what to read. "When boys offend me at school, here it is like that, boys have to insult girls, I do answer them by mentioning aphorisms, and they keep silent".

However, her brother, Mher finds that for Yazidis, love is not enough. The preservation of our nation is more important than love and feelings. That is why in many cases, families promise their around 14-years-old daughter to the boy's family, and then they wait until the girl becomes around 17 and they organize a marriage.

Zuzan or "Joan of Arc"

Zuzan Khuboyan

Zuzan Khuboyan, 25, goes against accepted norms. For her, the most important thing is the happiness of the person and love in the family.

She cannot remember how many times families came to see her and left the house without hope since she is an individual with a character. Such families look for young and uneducated girls without a strong personality who will integrate more readily into a family and will obey the family and their laws, says Zuzan.

"In my case, they know, I will not leave my pants and wear only a skirt."

Zuzan's activism started in 2018. During the years she was working with NGOs and was travelling through the villages and cities in Armenia to meet young people from her community: to raise awareness and increase civic consciousness․

Although it was not accepted by her family and the nation, Zuzan fell in love with an Armenian boy and got married to him, finally, her family accepted him.

Even though Zuzan does not encourage intermarriage and always was against that, the most important thing is happiness. She was thinking and now continues to think that intermarriage becomes a reason for the assimilation of many ethnic groups. When love and nationality meet, you have to have the strength or weakness to be faithful to the nationalist ideology, she says.

"If you have found someone with whom you do not need to change your type, then nationality should not be an obstacle."
Zuzan at her previous work place. She was working as a social worker in Aparan city

Although she struggles with the accepted norms in her community, at the same time, she loves, and she is proud of her nationality. She wants to tell the world that even if her nation does not have a country, they exist. They have a culture and a religion. However, for her, there are old stereotypes that are not acceptable to her. The biggest ones are that the girls should not study and should marry early.

She claims that getting married at an early age and staying without education is not a "national tradition", as accepted. For her, it is just a bad habit, which has to change.

She notices that also in Armenian society, there are such issues, and even in Armenian families, women mostly are obedient. However, she believes that a family is cooperation and not the opposite.

Mother of Zuzan says, when in a Yazidi family a girl is born, from the first day she is getting prepared for marriage.

However, in their family, it was not that way. Seyrana Celad, the mother, always supported her children to get education for being a good person for them and the nation.

"I thought that my daughter would become Joan of Arc."
Zuzan with her mother and cousin at their home.

Zuzan's father also did not restrict his daughter's right to study, but he expressed distrust in the idea of the girl becoming a journalist.

"A Yazidi girl, a journalist?"

People from aside also discussed how is it possible, how can the father allow such a thing? Zuzan says that the main reason for her father's suspicions was that he thought that when Zuzan got married, her husband would no longer allow her to work in that profession, so she advised her to become either a doctor or a teacher. When Zuzan refused, the father admitted that the girl should not choose a profession based on society's will.

When different families proposed to Zuzan, they said it is useless to study since she will not manage and will not graduate from the university.

"When I graduated and came home with my diploma, my father said, "We did it, you have graduated, and you are still not married."

Since Kuboyan lived in an Armenian village, she has always been in a dilemma.

"I do not have the culture that the Yazidis live in, and the culture that I have is "modernized Yazidism", but I know that it is not so acceptable by the Yazidis."

As a result, she is a stranger in both places. It is difficult to live as you want in such environments because societies have expectations from you and force you to meet them, she says.

Zuzan is even against the idea of bringing water for families. She says she did it for her parents. As long as they have come to see a girl, the family cannot refuse and not let them home․ The guests will consider it rude. Moreover, since the Yezidi community is small and people know each other, they will also spread rumours.
"Who knows what is love?" says Khuboyan. Her mother adds, "More than 70% of Yazidis are getting married without love: both boys and girls."

Khuboyan jokes that first, these kinds of couples get married, start to know each other, and finally, if they are lucky, they start to love each other.

They knock on the door, without an invitation, when they are not expected․

In the best case, if a relative knows about that in advance, he might call the family and say that they will come to see the girl soon.

When people came to see Zuzan, she mostly entered the room, greeted, smiled, talked, brought water, and did not wait to take it back. Such behavior is not typical.

"In such cases, I feel like shoes that they came to try."

The old generation does not want to change, but they also ban the young generation from changing and moving ahead. Moreover, the new generation continues to live with the same accepted norms as the old one has, thinks Zuzan.

Once when a family came to see Zuzan, and at the moment, they understood that Zuzan is an individual, they left soon. At the door, the boy's mother asked the mother of Zuzan if she knew another unmarried girl.

Zuzan says it is essential to focus on girls' education rights, as it is generally banned. Because from the age of 16 they have to marry. So why study if they have to marry and the family will not allow them to work?

There is a privilege for boys, but even in this case, they do not have the example of an educated person to imitate, and even if they want to learn, in many cases, they give up at some point because "they will be engaged in cattle breeding all the same," says Zuzan.

According to the 2011 census, Yezidis are the biggest ethnic minority in Armenia, numbering 35,308 people.

The law of education emphasizes that the representatives of the national minority must organize their general education in their mother tongue from the 1 to the 4th grades. Nevertheless, due to the lack of specialists, teaching the Yazidi language and literature becomes difficult. Since most children do not get an education, it turns out that they are not trained specialists.

Ferik in Armavir province is one of the villages which Yazidi people entirely inhabit.

Levon Poghosyan, the school director, says that the quality decreased after the changing educational system into 12 years, and children are not motivated to study anymore.

Poghosyan is one of the school directors who accepts this personally: he walks door-to-door to convince young people and their parents not to drop the education.

In Ferik village

However, starting from the nineties, nobody from the village graduated from a university. The issue is even challenging for girls. This year there are four people in the 9th class. Four of them are boys. Last year from the school graduated one girl and two boys, and next year only three boys will graduate the school.

Yura Gamshoyan, 15, is one of them. The programming class, which is his favourite, lasts 15 minutes instead of the planned 45 minutes, as it is divided into three classes: 7th, 8th, and 9th.

Yura Gamshoyan with his brother in their house.

After graduation, Yura wants to study IT in the city of Etchmiadzin, although he has not yet told his family about his wishes. They have not even had a conversation about that topic yet. However, his grandmother supports the idea of education and once urged him to continue to study in the future.

"Learning will be easy for those who want to learn," says Yura.

Even if Yura wants to study and set up high goals, he has to overcome social obligations in everyday life. After school, when he is at home, he goes to work in the fields with his family. He is the oldest son, and there is an immense amount of work on his shoulders, mainly agriculture and cattle breeding.

"There is also a ban for girls to study. They will discuss it and say, "So when will she get married if she goes to study? She will wither," says Poghosyan.

There is no specific law for ethnic minorities in Armenia with different provisions regarding their social life. Ordinary laws govern all their rights. That is why not always rights are regulated, and the issues stay out of the line.

The Helsinki Committee of Armenia published a research report, "The rights of the biggest ethnic minorities in Armenia: Yazidi community", that demonstrates the community's general picture.

The report says, in many villages, children are officially registered in schools, but they do not attend the classes. Moreover, there is no surveillance from any institute.

According to the statistics of the last census done in 2011, from the registered 31,600 Yazidi people, 3229 (around 10%) do not have even elementary education, 9476 (30%) of them have only secondary education, and only 477 people (1.5%) has university degrees.

Compared with the whole population in Armenia, only 5% of people do not have elementary education, 40% have secondary education, and 20% have university degrees.

According to the report, the number of men with higher education is twice as high as the number of women with the same level of education: 310 and 167, respectively. Furthermore, Yazidi women are not getting supported to graduate 12 grades and then continue their studies.

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