A century ago there were Armenian women who were raising their voices and speaking boldly about issues ranging from marriage to public service. A century ago, there were strong, fearless Armenian women, who were establishing their own magazines and journals and providing a space for young women. A century ago, there were Armenian women fighting for their rights and women’s education.
But a century later, they are mostly forgotten...
Mari Beylerian, a writer, feminist and public figure, is one of the least known intellectuals from Western Armenia. A victim of the 1915 Armenian Genocide, she was a role model and an educator for thousands of Armenian women from different parts of the world. She was mainly known for her women’s magazine Ardemis. Considered to be the first women’s periodical in the Armenian world, Ardemis covered topics on Armenian women’s liberation and more.
Who Was She?
There is scarce information about Mari Beylerian’s life. Although she was well known during her lifetime thanks to her journal, her name and activities were mostly forgotten after the Armenian Genocide. It is said that Mari was one of the two women (along with Zabel Yesayan) who was arrested with over 200 hundred Armenian intellectuals on April 24, 1915. Her fate remains unknown still today.
Beylerian was born in 1877 in Constantinople (Ottoman Empire) and received her education at the Esayan School. She later returned to her school as a teacher. Some sources state that she continued her education in the Pera Studio (Pera was a district in Constantinople). As a young student, she started writing for a newspaper called Arevelk (East) under the pseudonym Calipso. Beylerian was full of enthusiasm, and keen to be a part of the Armenian liberation movement. Soon she decided to join the Hnchakian Party. The leaders of the party decided the she was very young to be a member and assigned her to be the media correspondent of the party. In 1890, she participated and covered the Kum Kapu demonstration organized by the Hnchakian Party against the Armenian patriarchate . In 1895 she became one of the organizers of the peaceful Bab Ali demonstrations in Constantinople against the Turkish government, which called for the implementation of the May Reforms . The Turkish Government sentenced her to death in absentia as Mari escaped to Egypt.
Soon, she started teaching at Alexandria’s Armenian School and in 1902 founded the monthly periodical Ardemis. In her article about Ardemis, Lerna Ekmekcioglu mentions that Beylerian married revolutionary Avo Nakashian shortly after arriving in Cairo. 
In 1908, after the Young Turk revolt that restored the Ottoman Constitution , Mari returned to the Ottoman Empire and started teaching at the Armenian school in Smyrna (later Izmir) and later at Yevdokia Armenian School. She also published a literary collection of her own work called “Depi Ver” (Upward) until her death in 1915.
Founded in Alexandria, Egypt Ardemis, a monthly literary periodical was published until 1904 and was popular among Armenian women not only from Armenia, but from the Diaspora as well. Before publishing the periodical, Mari sent her husband to Etchmiadzin to see Catholicos Mkrtich Khrimyan and ask for support. Khrimyan Hayrik liked the idea of a women’s periodical and helped Beylerian with new fonts. Moreover, he gave some of his writings and asked to donate all the profit from the publication for the newspaper.
The main purpose of the publication was to raise awareness about women’s rights and promote women’s education. Ardemis was also fostering philanthropic activities. Beylerian, the chief editor of the magazine, with her feminist editorials, progressive thought and wit have the ability to amaze readers even today.
The magazine was an open platform for any woman who wanted to express herself and was a powerful way to reach different social classes and allow everyone to debate and openly talk about women’s issues. The various articles published in the magazine by ordinary Armenian women came from cities like Tbilisi, Moscow, Kars, Nor Jugha, New York and Paris. Famous writers and public figures such as Vahan Tekeyan, Yeghia Demirjibashian, Zaruhi Kalemkaryan and American journalist Alice Stone Blackwell wrote articles for Ardemis.
In her book “A History of Armenian Women’s Writing 1880-1992,” Victoria Rowe (2009) identifies four main topics the periodical covered: women’s rights, education, motherhood and employment. These were the most essential issues Armenian women had been facing for centuries. Some of these issues, such as women’s right to education and employment or woman’s right to make decisions in her family are still relevant in 21st century Armenia.
Beylerian touched upon the issue of women’s rights in several editorials, calling for justice and empowerment of the Armenian woman. She believed that western feminism was not compatible with the Armenian reality. She argued that Armenian women first needed to demand “natural rights,” (their right to have their own opinion, to make decisions and control their fate) and then raise questions about their role in the country’s socio-political discourse. In her editorial titled “A Glance Into the Past of the Armenian Woman,” Beylerian openly spoke about the harsh realities of the Armenian woman’s daily life, criticizing husband-wife relationships and a women's status within the family.
“Family life was hell for the Armenian in the past. She was forced to be a shadow, nothing more. It was considered shameful for a young man to speak openly, friendly and lovingly to his wife. If he dared to, those around him would call him effeminate. He would be reproached and insulted by them. If he had something important to say to his wife, he did so without looking at her face.”
Beylerian’s language is very easy to understand as she took everyday realities and “compelled’ Armenian women to finally see, analyze and demand justice. In her editorial “Zavagy”(The Child) she even wrote a short manifesto dedicated to Armenian women’s rights.
“We, Armenian women, see more hardship and tyranny than others. Civilization has barely weakened our chains of slavery. And the provincial Armenian woman still sobs under the same load of hardship…
We are moderate in our demands, although recognizing that we have equal rights, we agree to moderate them. We struggle fiercely against these prejudices which have plagued us for centuries and today threaten our well-being.
We demand to have the right to love completely and freely; we have the right to choose without coercion and with a free will our life’s partner, whose heart is tied to our own.
We have the right to speak freely and reveal our bold opinions about all issues having a bearing on communal life and we demand that our opinions be taken seriously and our ideas respected.
We are free in our family life, free and independent in our activities and thoughts, free to pursue whatever idea or goal that is beautiful to us. In short, we are free in everything that is pure and free from prejudice, and we allow that which is ethical and does not damage the work of raising the next generation.
Beyond this limit we will not pass. We voluntarily and with love remain in our sacred role and remember that the greatest satisfaction and the greatest joy consist of perfect fulfillment of responsibility.”
In one of her editorials, Beylerian first discussed how the concept of an educated woman was perceived by society.
“Heart, mind, education, not a thought was spared to these. It was considered shameful for a woman to say an educated or progressive word. A woman who could read and write was considered a new type, outside of her place and sex, an unnatural mannish creature who other woman looked upon with bitterness and as scandalous.”
At the end of 19th century, this stereotype started to break down as Armenians understood that the nation needed educated girls in order to have educated mothers. The concept of mother- educator became more popular and many girls started to attend school. However, Beylerian was not happy with the educational system and continued criticizing it through her editorials. She believed that instead of giving knowledge, schools taught girls how to play piano or speak French. In other words, education made them selfish women who were not capable of thinking.
One of the writers of the publication, Avo also wrote for Ardemis. In a three-part article published in the magazine entitled “Activities of Young Armenian Women Since Graduation,” he severely criticized Armenian girls, calling them lazy and not willing to commit to their nation. In her memoirs, Countess Mariam Tumanyan, a member of Tbilisi’s elite at the end of the 19th and turn of the 20th centuries expressed the same criticism and disappointment in young girls who were not interested in studying.
Avo writes: “We have opened up schools, even in the remote corners of villages, but we forgot to implant the kind of soul that was necessary to manage those schools. We did not care about the needs and practical obligations of Armenian girls to their social class, to their nation, and to their motherland.”
Mari also thought that the educational system was not capable of producing strong and fearless girls. Interestingly, several years before the genocide she writes in one of her editorials:
“It is time for education to strengthen our girl’s minds and hearts. They need practical classes to prepare them, using real life examples, to go along life’s path, so that the wind does not carry them here and there and evil events and massacres don’t take advantage of their weakness and throw them to the ground.”
Mari foresaw the future of many orphaned girls for whom an education could provide the best tools to take care of themselves. Instead of teaching girls how to be pretty “ladies,” Beylerian would suggest teaching them their responsibilities to their parents, homeland, and nation. However, she recognized that Armenian schools lacked skilled teachers. A great teacher, according to Mari, should know how to engage young girls and inspire their young hearts and natures. Avo agrees with her, writing: “We don’t have idealist girls because in the schools we did not give them any target to follow, and in the house, the only thing a girl hears is that ‘she will become a bride.’”
As an established journalist and teacher, Beylerian was keen on motivating her readers to not just be housewives, but to also study, start their own careers and stand equally next to Armenian men. Almost all the issues of Ardemis discussed the importance of a woman’s career, especially in early-20th century Armenian society. In one of her editorials she argued that one of the reasons for a woman’s low status within the family is because she simply does not earn money. Beylerian believed that throughout time, economic factors highly affected the way women were being perceived within society. She writes:“Until now women’s employment was seen as something alienating, weakening. This is a rooted prejudice. People are hungry, but do not allow their women to work. They still perceive it as an insult to their manhood.”
At the age of 12, boys were able to work and help their fathers, thus becoming a helping hand for the family. According to Beylerian, it was one of the reasons they were always welcomed in the family. As for having a girl, parents were always worried since they knew that to prepare her for marriage, they had to give her a decent dowry. Moreover, a birth of a girl was shameful for a bride. Mari mentioned that this was not typical only to Armenians: “hatred towards girls was common in Asian nations.”
According to Beylerian, one of the solutions to this problem was employment for women. Women would be treated equally and valued like men if they earned money and shared the burden of the family. “Employment is our salvation,” Mari writes in one of her editorials.
Mari stressed that Armenian women already worked very hard in their households; they prepared meals, cleaned, dried fruits, took care of the children, sewed beddings, did laundry and even helped their husbands in the fields when there was a lack of workers. However, because they were not being paid, their labor was not valued as work.
Beylerian connected the need for employment with the political situation in the Armenian provinces. Being in exile herself, she talked about the importance of women’s employment as a way to earn a living wherever fate would take them.
“A great thinker once said: Give me your mothers and I will give you a nation. Ardemis’ goal must be to prepare girls, wives, and mothers for the day when it can be said with pride - here are your mothers, give us the nation.”
Motherhood, the sacred role of the Armenian woman had its special place in Mari’s Ardemis. Armenian women had an important role in raising patriotic and educated children who would serve for the good of their country. Mari criticized the traditional family structure, “gerdastan,” noting that poor Armenian girls were often pressured by their mothers-in-law without any right to raise their children the way they wanted.
“She is a woman but she waits for instruction. She waits for them to acquaint her with her responsibility. She is a mother, but she waits to be taught how to care for her child. She has a family but she waits to be shown how to manage her household.”
Beylerian believed that families should have a nuclear structure and mothers should have their special role without any interference from their relatives. Motherhood gave women greater status than men. Beylerian was confident that women were protectors and guardians of “reason and sense,” while men were prisoners of “passion and sense.”
Woman had to be prepared for marriage. They have to be adults to understand their responsibilities and the life they were entering. Mari believed that ill-timed marriages for young girls were great misfortunes and she spared no effort in the pages of her magazine to educate and awaken young Armenian women.
“By an unforeseen and cruel fate, the inexperienced and naive Armenian woman is thrust out of her country and her beloved home and is forced to inhospitable shores, where everything looks harsh to her - the air, the earth, the water, manners, customs and language. In mind and spirit, she is completely unprepared and unable to digest outside ideas, unable to correctly ponder, to see clearly, to judge rightly, and is susceptible to deception by a pretty speech or a tender glance. It is understandable that she cannot, without moral injury to herself, take on indiscriminately any sort of work. We believe that above all else she should work in a career with definite regulations and rules...”
One of Beylerian’s strengths was that she combined all the important roles of a woman and thoroughly explained each one. While discussing motherhood, she did not reject the idea of women’s employment, or when talking about education, she did not state that a woman’s main goal is to get an education and become a scholar. Beylerian’s ideal woman was one who was educated, had a family, knew how to express herself, knew her rights and had her input in the development of her nation.
Women about Women
In the pages of Ardemis, one can find an article devoted to Countess Mariam Tumanyan, who is introduced as a great example of an active Armenian woman who changed perceptions, and was a role model for younger generations. The author notes that Armenian women started to break stereotypes, and from humble and modest housewives they transformed into socially active women. The article lists Tumanyan’s activities and praises her as a young entrepreneur. The author is amazed by her initiatives to help the immigrants from Western Armenia who had fled the slaughter, her input in the theatrical and cultural life of Tbilisi, as well as her charity salon evenings for the Armenian elite.
Besides Mari’s progressive and liberal editorials, Ardemis was also a great source for inspiration and education for women from various classes. In Ardemis one could find letters from readers across the world, articles about the western world and feminism, reports about new book publications or various events. It was also a platform for sharing educational short stories and poems. Ardemis was a small world of a great thinker.
A century later, no one remembers Mari Beylerian and Ardemis. We have to honestly ask ourselves - how can we change society and make women’s voices heard, if we do not know women like Mari? She was a role model for thousands of Armenian women a century ago, but she still is an inspiration and from now on, she will not be forgotten.
* In an earlier version of this article, it was wrtitien that Beylerian was born in 1880, we have since corrected the date of her birth. She was born in 1877.