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Why we should read...

'Srpouhi Dussap - her life and work'
by A S Sharourian
252pp, Armenian State University, Yerevan, 1963

Armenian News Network / Groong
May 19, 2003

By Eddie Arnavoudian


Novelist, democrat and feminist

Soviet era critical biographies of 19th and early 20th century
Armenian writers whilst generally of great value are rarely
inspiring. A S Sharourian's volume on Srpouhi Dussap is an exception.
One cannot but delight in this story of an intellectual and writer who
born in 1841 to a well-to-do Istanbul Armenian family and married to a
local Frenchman, went on to become the foremost modern Armenian
feminist and the first Armenian woman novelist as well as a prominent
figure of the Armenian national revival.

Sharourian reveals the shocking extent to which the wealthy Armenian
elite in Istanbul had assimilated or integrated into official Turkish
society or into the then local European colonies. The young Dussap
with her initial disdain for the Armenian language was typical, though
moderate compared with many of her peers who, in the words of a
contemporary, 'had a hatred of all things Armenian'. But tutored by
the famous poet Mkrtich Beshigtashlian, Srpouhi not only learnt to
love the language she even made her first creative ventures in
classical Armenian.

Taking up the cause of the Armenian nation, its language and its
culture the progressive wing of the 19th century Armenian
intelligentsia, among them Srpouhi Dussap, committed itself to
enlightening and advancing the common people. Shocked by the elite's
indifference to the elementary needs of the people it established
schools, educational societies, theatres, charitable organizations and
patriotic clubs.  These were heady days of enthusiasm and hope despite
the increasingly repressive regime of Abdul Hamid II.

During Hamid's reign (1876-1909) previous limited political and
constitutional reforms were nullified and possibilities for democratic
discussion terminated.  Harsher restrictions on the press were coupled
with prohibitions on all forms of protests against national oppression
or manifestations of national pride. The term 'Armenia' to describe
the historic homelands of the Armenian people was also prohibited.
Neither could Armenians refer to the names of ancient Armenian kings
and queens. Posters of venerated figures such as Vartan the Brave were
regularly ripped from public spaces.  While the Turkish press infected
its readership with a flood of poisonous ropaganda designed to whip up
popular anti-Armenian hysteria the Armenian press was forbidden to
respond.

Nevertheless, sometimes through tactical accommodations, sometimes
through direct or indirect resistance, but always in the face of
enormous obstacles men and women like Dussap, Krikor Chilinghirian,
Yeghia Demirjibashian, Krikor Odian, Hrant Assadour, Haroutyoun
Svajian, Aram Antonian, Arpiar Arpiarian and many others persevered.
Much of their effort centered on popular education. It was here that
Dussap first stood out as a brilliant organizer and fundraiser for the
Armenian Women's School Society. She secured funding from local banks,
from theatrical performances and by organizing the first Armenian
painters exhibition in Istanbul in 1882. It was she who first proposed
an internal levy on members of Armenian communities to finance popular
education; an initiative that was to be widely copied.

But Dussap was first and foremost an intellectual and a writer.
Quoting dozens of contemporaries Sharourian recreates some of the
excitement, passion and energy of the intellectual and artistic life
of the day. Dussap's first novel Mayda, in the words of contemporary
writer and philosopher Yeghia Demirjibashian 'sold like hot cakes
despite its high price'. Another contemporary novelist Matteos
Mamourian exclaimed excitedly that 'within a few weeks hundreds of
copies were sold'.  As scores of novelists, poets, publicists and
educationalists vigorously debated the artistic merits of the novel
and its espousal of women's rights Demirjibashian remarked that 'no
other book had ever generated the same interest as Mayda' (p128)

With a confident grasp of aesthetic theory critics readily pointed to
some of the glaring flaws in Dussap's first novel that focused on
women's rights to work. Arpiar Arpiarian criticized it for being
ignorant of the real condition of 'Armenian women, of Armenian society
and of Armenian life' (p102).  Mamourian echoed this noting the
absence of 'authentic national context ' and a 'lack of concrete
knowledge' of Armenian social life. Hagop Baronian remarked on 'the
forced and unbelievable twists' of a plot that disregarded the
artistic truth that a work of fiction will 'only move people if it is
credible.' Yet most critics, though not Baronian, concurred with
Krikor Chilinghirian's affirmation that the novel's 'audacious
advocacy' of women's rights marked a 'turning point in Armenian
literature.' (p137)

All Dussap's three novels center on women's social and political
rights within which she underlined their right to work, to education
and to equality in marriage. She believed rightly that woman's
subordinate position was not a result of a single cause but a product
of a whole network of social law and religion that 'transform women
into a form of property owned by her husband, a slave.' (p70-71)
Nature endows women with talent that 'is corrupted by law and
repression.' Women are 'victims of a society' in which 'religion has
become an instrument of torture' reducing them to the status of a
'domestic dog'. Law 'has become a noose round women's necks loosened
and tightened as necessary.' (p120-121)

Dussap's portrayal of unfulfilled lives, lives full of drudgery, lives
defined by eternal subordination and unrealized humanity is often
powerful and moving. In society women are forced to 'feel ashamed of
loving. In other words they have to proclaim that they have no
heart. Women cannot utter the word justice. In other words she cannot
proclaim her own rights. She is denied the right to point out the
excesses of law and religion, in other words the right to prove she
has reason and conscience. She passes through the world in silence -
unnoticed.' (p103). Dussap's ambition was to bring women out of this
drudgery and onto 'the world's stage' as a 'free person' with her own
'ideas and career.' (p119). The right to work, to education and to
equality in marriage were necessary stages to this end.

Insisting on women's rights to work and participate in social life
Dussap opposed conservatives such as Puzant Ketchyan who argued that
women 'rather than acquiring knowledge and linguistic skills' should
be taught 'good morals to make them good housewives' (p65) Dussap was
supported by the best of her generation. In a passionate riposte
Krikor Chilinghirian wrote that for Armenian women 'to be born is to
be damned'. Women are condemned 'to become a reproductive machine.
They are condemned never to drop the thread and needle from their
hand, and to spend their lives gripping a broom handle and smelling of
kitchens.' (p60) A virtue of Sharourian's biography is the picture he
offers of the ferment among Armenian intellectuals on the question of
women's rights, both within the Ottoman and Tsarist Empires. Besides
Dussap, Chilinghirian and Mamourian others such as Ardzrouni and
Nalpantian in eastern Armenia devoted thought and argument to women's
rights and their role in society. This formed a healthy terrain for
future development.

Dussap's second and third novels 'Siranoush' (1884) and 'Araxi' (1888)
did not generate the same controversy as Mayda. But they mark further
developments in her thought.  In her preface to 'Siranoush' she writes
that she has 'undertaken to study and criticize social injustices that
oppress women within married life' especially as 'today marriage has
become a question of ambition and trade rather than of loving
relations. (p153) These novels are also sharply critical of the
Istanbul Armenian elite 'who resort to all manner of injustice,
repression and fraud to exercise influence or accumulate wealth.' They
only 'act in the national interest if this does jeopardize their
personal interest and does not bring them into conflict with the
government (p155).

Conservative critics were naturally enraged by what they regarded
Dussap's effrontery. But even among the progressives there were those
like satirist Hagop Baronian whose democratic vision faltered at the
notion of women's rights.  Krikor Zohrab's contemptuous dismissal of
the issue as 'undeserving of urgent consideration' was particularly
outrageous backed up as it was by his claim that though 'law and
religion may be based on superstition they are necessary
superstitions.' (p141-2). Zohrab's prejudice did not of course go
unchallenged!

Contrary to malicious claims Dussap never equated women's liberation
with the aping of decadent European manners and morals. Neither did
she separate off the question of women's rights from the fortunes of
the Armenian people. She campaigned consistently against the trivial
frippery that passed for women's emancipation among the elite and at
every opportunity attacked the national self-hatred of the assimilated
elite drawing a close link between women's emancipation and national
revival. She spoke of herself as 'an ordinary Armenian woman working
like many others for the benefit of the nation.' (p48) For her
education must serve to bring up 'patriots' who treat 'the nation's
tears, its woes, its joys and its rights with respect.' (p 65)

Dogged by ill health Dussap abandoned fiction after her third novel
though she continued charitable and educational labour. But in 1892
she was struck by personal tragedy that cut her off from all further
literary and public life.  On her return to Bolis after a two year
absence in France her young daughter died of TB. She sought solace
retreating to religious mysticism hoping to communicate with her dead
daughter's spirit. She also burnt most of her archive.  Her work
however continued to influence a new generation of Armenian
intellectuals. As she approached death in 1901 writers such as Sibil
and Zabelle Yessaian wrote enthusiastically about her work and visited
her to pay homage.

Srpouhi Dussap's standing and reputation deservedly endures beyond her
death.  For whatever the aesthetic evaluation of her work her novels
and other writings are of immense social, intellectual and historical
value being a record of a critical moment in the origin and formation
of the modern Armenian women's movement and the modern Armenian sense
of national identity.


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Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from
Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on
Armenian literature.  His works on literary and political issues
have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open
Letter in Los Angeles.

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