woman in Hijab
Trump's travel ban and the search for public space. Image by Roubina Margossian

Every time I filled out a form in Iran, I had to checkmark the religious minority box and specify, “Christian.” Being a member of a religious minority group, i.e. Christian Armenians, automatically reduced one’s status and rights compared to privileges enjoyed by the Shiite Muslim majority.

The Trump administration’s travel ban on seven Muslim countries, including Iran, felt like déjà vu to me. Here I was again, singled out based on one aspect of my identity, and was denied rights that citizens of other countries enjoy. Despite also having Armenian citizenship, the initial draft of the ban expanded to dual citizens like me. Therefore, I learned that after finishing my studies in the United States, I would not be able to travel, visit my family in Armenia or Iran, or participate in conferences abroad. If I did choose to leave, I could not return to the U.S. anymore.   

I began weighing my options; I knew I would be happy to return and live in Armenia, which is my long-term goal regardless. In addition, I have the option to apply for jobs in Canada or Europe. Nevertheless, the ban hurt. Once more, I was being reduced to one aspect of my identity, regardless of the saliency of that identity in my life. Is there going to be a day that I would be perceived as a feminist, a scholar, or an atheist, rather than “that Armenian-Iranian” or “that Christian?”  There is more to an individual than their national or religious identity. It seems obvious, but it appears we forget it too often.

Once more, I felt I had to apologize for my existence. I had to rationalize, to myself, why I deserved to travel freely, or to occupy a public space. During that thought process, I realized how I have internalized the identity of being a minority, or being an outsider.

When a person is minoritized all her life, she learns to shrink the space around her. It is not only material capabilities, or lack of thereof, that determine one’s ability to fully enjoy life, but also words and labels that demarcate boundaries of imagination.

After Trump’s travel ban, I realized that I have felt like an outsider all my life, that I have internalized that identity without even realizing it. No matter how loving and accepting my community has been, I have learned to apologize for occupying a space not originally intended for me.

Legal barriers or institutionalized discriminatory practices that marginalize non-Shiites (Muslim or non-Muslim) in Iran, or a travel ban discriminating against citizens of seven Muslim-majority states operate based on a similar exclusionary logic. Armenians, having experienced a genocide, certainly know ramifications of such approaches in defining human collectivities. The issue is not that human communities could not be categorized based on cultural, religious, or other common traits, but that there have been too many historical examples of those traits becoming the sole demarcation criteria; they have been used negatively to demonize a group, and to systematically deny individuals their individual human rights. Collective punishment of Armenians was the basic premise that justified the genocide. Denying non-Shiites equal rights, or banning Muslims of seven countries from entering the U.S., also operate based on a parallel logic. What differs is the severity of punishment; the underlying exclusionary mechanism is similar.

Once more, I felt I had to apologize for my existence. I had to rationalize, to myself, why I deserved to travel freely, or to occupy a public space. During that thought process, I realized how I have internalized the identity of being a minority, or being an outsider.

Loosineh Markarian

Lessons of historical maltreatment, such as slavery and apartheid, have taught us that state-sanctioned discrimination disenfranchises the victims systematically, even in decades following the end of those episodes. State-led human right’s violations against particular groups create structural power disparities, whereby those in the position of power, and their social constellations, systematically benefit and remain privileged politically, economically, and socially.

For instance, the experience of the Armenian Genocide illustrates how Turkey and ethnic Turks benefited from the genocide. Moreover, a state-sanctioned institutionalized racism in Turkey, until today, marginalizes Armenians of Turkey, and disempowers the Republic of Armenia. Even if Turkey recognizes the Armenian Genocide, it has and will continue to benefit from the spoils of it, both economically and politically (at domestic level at least).

In a similar manner, aren’t we terrified of Azerbaijani President Ilham Alyiev’s discourse towards Armenians, his hateful, exclusionary, racist rhetoric? Discussions on self-determination versus territorial integrity are only a part of the question of Artsakh’s independence. A more serious issue is viability of Artsakh’s survival under a regime that denies its independence, while simultaneously considers Armenians the enemy of the Republic of Azerbaijan. If we, as Armenians, stand up against such state-sponsored hateful rhetoric and policies, shouldn’t we loudly condemn similar cases of discrimination within our communities as well?

This ban, and its impact on me, reminded me of my friends who live in Armenia and feel excluded and abandoned. While the Armenian state has provided me with a safe space, I know for many it has been a source of marginalization due to its failure to stand up for their rights.     

There is, indeed, a difference between state-sponsored marginalization and the existence of discriminatory attitudes in society. What becomes problematic in the latter case, however, is when the state fails to adopt legal mechanisms to address problems stemming from those attitudes. Lack of legislation to address domestic violence, equal pay, labor rights, or provisions to assure employment of LGBTs are several examples on how states could fail to improve lives of susceptible groups. Adoption of laws to protect vulnerable groups, and effective implementation of those laws, is a part of the state’s responsibility to alleviate consequences of discrimination. Since Armenia will hold parliamentary elections this spring, it is imperative for our society, our civil society actors, and our politicians to bring the state’s role in supporting the rights of marginalized groups in Armenian society, into the forefront of our national discussion.

It is pretty evident that racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and homophobia exist in our communities both in Armenia and diaspora. How we choose to discuss and address those issues should become an essential item on our agenda.  When we label and marginalize groups within our communities that we don’t perceive as Armenian, or Armenian-enough, we utilize a similar exclusionary logic. Whenever we fail to defend the humanity of women, Yezidis, LGBTQs, Hayastansis or Diasporans, people with disabilities, or Armenia’s Muslim tourist, we become complicit in reproduction of a discourse that is misogynistic, racist, homophobic, and xenophobic, and subsequently exclusionary. It is time to co-create a new discourse defining Armenianness— a more inclusive approach encompassing civil and political rights of individuals living or visiting Armenia.

A significant part of this process is Armenian state’s obligation; we, as citizens or concerned diasporans, however, are responsible to both unlearn and relearn our knowledge on struggles of marginalized groups. Perhaps the most difficult part of creating a more accepting community is the art of listening to those who voice concerns of communities they represent. Our human rights groups have been talking for almost a decade: women’s rights organization, LGBT rights groups, Yezidis, those fighting for rights of persons with disabilities, environmental activists, children’s rights NGOs, etc. The question is: have I, or we, been listening effectively? How could we listen and engage more effectively? While the process of democratization in Armenia has been slow, the dedication of human-rights-focused civil society organizations has been impressive. Maybe, this magazine would provide a new platform for us to begin a more comprehensive and patient national conversation on questions of inclusivity in our societies, both in diaspora and more importantly in Armenia.

Discrimination against groups, whether in the form of state policies or unchallenged predominant attitudes in society, reduce individuals to one aspect of their identities. They oversimplify individuals and limit their possibilities for self-expression in public spaces. Given the importance of human capital in developing societies, everyone loses when a portion of the population stays underrepresented or oppressed. Furthermore, since the experiences of marginalization are not unique or limited to certain people, in an increasingly globalizing world, the fight for liberation of others becomes imperative.

My experience in Iran, or with Trump’s ban, has been unique. The feelings of becoming invisible, unseen, or unimportant, however were not. While every individual’s path is different, everyone, at some point in their life, has experienced feelings of marginalization. Once we realize (or keep reminding ourselves) that experiences of being minoritized are universal, and that they impact everyone in different ways and at different times, then we would become stakeholders is eradicating those practices.

Accordingly, we, as diasporans, or Armenian citizens with varying degrees of privileges, become stakeholders in the fight for liberation of groups in our society who don’t enjoy equal rights. A famous quote by Lilla Watson remarkably captures this sentiment: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

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