A Dreamer and a Doer
This human rights activist turned Supreme Court spokeswoman shares why she believes a personal example is the best mechanism for change.
The Press secretary of the Constitutional Court of Armenia, Eva Tovmasyan, is a master communicator. With extensive experience in the civic sector and well-versed in politics, she reveals how she was inspired to become a civic activist and why she believes it is her duty to inspire others.
The voice of the court
Today, Eva speaks on behalf of Armenia’s highest judicial institution, managing communications with journalists and establishing the strategy of the Court’s communication. She also somehow finds time to participate in trainings and is active in many initiatives concerning civic education.
But when she was young, Eva wanted to be a surgeon. However, her mother decided on a different path for her because she believed being a doctor was not a suitable profession for a woman: doctors have to work nights and Eva would not be able to have a family, since she would always be busy. Eva does not ascribe this opinion to conservative beliefs, but rather to her own mother’s experience of her own mother – Eva’s grandmother – being a busy medical professional. So, Eva decided to pursue foreign languages.
Then in 2008, Armenia was rattled by a series of anti-government protests after the presidential elections. Eva, who was a young adult at the time, was deeply influenced by the violations of human rights which happened in the country during that time – 10 protesters were killed after a clash between the army and civilians. A state of emergency was declared in the country, effectively barring demonstrations and instituting heavy media censorship. Eva joined the pro-democratic movement and gradually became interested in the protection of human rights, with politics occupying a central place in her life. Her mother was dissatisfied with this development and asked her if she planned to become the next Margaret Thatcher. “This comment really stopped me in my tracks and I had a lot of doubts, but eventually my mother also changed her mind, we have had plenty of conversations since”, Eva says. Her calling proved stronger than anything else and this, Eva believes, is how it often happens in life: no matter how hard you try to be something – or someone – else, sooner or later you end up on the right path.
Women behind the scenes
“In bookshops in Armenia, there are blue and pink books with professions for young boys and for young girls. When you open one, it’s a nightmare inside. Women are supposed to become hairdressers, nurses, and teachers. I find it equally unacceptable putting specific professions for boys”, Eva shares. She believes we must question these attitudes daily and try to push one another to move beyond these stereotypes.
These attitudes are to some extent reflected in the composition of the Constitutional Court: it has nine judges, eight of whom are men. But, Eva says, the staff of the Court itself, the heads of the departments and divisions, are majority female. As a woman, she says, you always need to push and make your presence known.
Eva shares an example: an upcoming public hearing needed more security inside the building. To arrange the logistics, a group of police officers arrived to speak with the heads of staff and Eva was the only woman in the group. No one would shake her hand. “Men shake each other’s hands and say their names, this is how they get to know one another, this is the corporate culture. And when in a meeting there is a female in a male-dominated environment, no one knows how to greet her. So, none of the police officers knew the right protocol, and chose to ignore me altogether. I was obliged to let them know that they could shake my hand and acknowledge me.”
Eva refuses to remain behind the scenes or to be ignored. She says she is always very vocal in situations like this one. “I find it funny when at a table, for example, men start to talk politics and only initiate contact with other men. So if you want to chime in, you have to fight for your place in the discussion and debate. I always try to take it lightly and not to be aggressive about it, because changing attitudes is much easier this way.”
Armenia does rely on certain quota criteria for female representation, but Eva believes in an even better approach: encouraging grassroots female participation. If society does this, women will no longer be behind the scenes or just instruments for filling nominal quotas. If people are engaged, Eva says, society will be proportionally represented in all its variety. Once the necessary steps are done at a party level, the “big fight” for equality will no longer exist, because a natural transition from civic engagement to party structures will end with different people entering the parliament.
Refusing to see the world in dichotomies
“I refuse to see the world as male and female”, Eva says. When it comes to her own role as a representative, she alludes that someday she may consider representing her society, trying to find better solutions and decisions on its behalf. But for now, she is focused on her current position and also shares information about several projects she is proud of.
One such initiative is the Ed-Camp, or Education Camp. One day, as she was taking a break from work, she ran into an acquaintance of hers who had a major project in mind and was looking for partners. His idea was to gather 500 Armenian school teachers from across the country and engage them in a conversation about the modernization of the educational system, a liberalization of the curriculum, and to help teachers and children use modern technologies and methodologies. Eva saw this as a sign and joined the initiative. Then the pandemic broke out, but they still managed to pull it off, attracting over 45,000 participants. The feedback they received was extremely positive: teachers said that it had helped them to meet other professionals and to learn from colleagues, thus improving school education as a whole.
Eva is also proud of the trainings she provides in rural areas, where she helps people organize and improve life in their own communities. She gives the example of the “Europe in a Suitcase” project, in which young Armenian experts living abroad return to Armenia to share their knowledge and experience, tour the regions, and meet young, local Armenians to discuss specific topics like grassroots activism and education. Many people have participated and now have initiatives of their own, actively making change in their own surroundings.
She is also grateful for the learning opportunities in her new position, which can be challenging. She has to know what and what not to say, and how and when to say it. Balancing all this is a sensitive issue when representing a state institution. It is sometimes tricky and a lot of knowledge is required of her. She is not a lawyer, but she represents a legal institution, so there is an immense amount of learning, discussions, and translation from the legal perspective to the common language of citizens and journalists.
When asked if the media uses any of the infamous clichés which women in prominent positions have to face, Eva denies it with a smile and says that, despite seeing many brilliant young Armenian females being labelled in a sexist way, it has never happened to her. But she underlines how important it is to speak up when it happens. “The person before you is not always trying to offend you. Sometimes they are sincerely trying to compliment you, so maybe you can kindly hint that if they want to say something nice, they should comment from a professional point of view.”
Armenia is changing
There is already some understanding in Armenian society about these issues. But changes are both positive and negative. Due to the development of social media and international travel, more and more young female professionals are visible in leading positions. But not every woman should take a leading position, Eva says. “Every woman needs to decide what is best for her and what opportunities she has. Maybe someone wants to become a housewife and a mother, and they should be free to do so. There’s nothing shameful in being a young wife and mother if this is your dream. But there is also nothing shameful in a woman being happy in her thirties, without dreaming about finding a husband or having children. My dream is to ensure that everyone has a choice, whatever that choice may be. Women should be equipped with all the tools and opportunities to dream and to fight to make their dream come true.”
But there are also challenges. Eva brings up a little-known phenomenon: gender-selective abortions. Having at least one boy is a “must” for many Armenians, and what Eva describes as a “horrible phenomenon” is a reflection of these beliefs. If Armenian families do not want to have a female child, they ask that the pregnancy is terminated. Thanks to the efforts of multiple NGOs, as well as dedicated individuals and politicians, awareness has been raised enough to ensure that the necessary legal amendments are already in place to prevent not only inhuman acts, but also a looming demographic crisis.
Eva says there is no easy answer to why this phenomenon is widespread in Armenia. “In my opinion, it is a cultural stereotype of patriarchal societies. Men inherit in the family and continue the “family line”. A family which does not have male children can be frustrated and end up choosing to remove a female foetus. It is a bitter topic in Armenia.”
During the past year, she was mostly involved in trainings during which she explained the principles of feminism and the anti-discrimination movement, with a focus on political activism. “I help people around me learn what other activists helped me learn. It is an obligation to transmit this knowledge. I also believe in living your life the way you should as an example; this is activism in and of itself. Always be present in a conversation, speak up when facing injustice, offer an alternative point of view, come to help when you see someone is intimidating a young woman. And stand next to her and help her understand that she has enough power to speak up for herself and that there are always people who will support her.”
“I do not enjoy some of the ways the feminist debate is led in some societies, groups, and communities. If one takes a step back and looks around, all we can see are some justifiably angry women who are trying to raise their voices against injustice yet end up just screaming in a void. And sometimes our inability to convince people of what is right comes from this negative language. My position on this has always been to live your life as an example – not because you’re special and should be a role model, but because you can be a precedent for others. Being a woman is not a secondary role, it does not mean that someone has to solve anything for you, as humans we also just reach out for support. Emancipation does not equal isolation. Life has nuances: sometimes we are happy, sometimes – angry. But there should be no hesitation when we are dreaming and fighting for our goals.”
And what are her goals for the future? She laughs and says: “Becoming the Prime Minister of Armenia. I always say this as a joke when someone asks me this question. And then I stop for a second and ask myself, why not? But for now, I believe in spreading ideas because once upon a time I was influenced by those who decided to talk about their idea of civic education and responsibility. I was brought to this stage of my life by people who came to my school and decided to have a conversation about our responsibilities as citizens. Today, I want to be a person who inspires others, who motivates, and who delivers enthusiasm. I love my country and I am convinced that if we could gather together and work towards making our lives better, we would be able to ascend to a higher level as a society.”
The first future project which comes to Eva’s mind is establishing a career centre for politicians. “This is the first thought that came to mind. Maybe I should listen to my intuition and put this on my to-do list?” she says.
Maybe. And I was happy to be of help.