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Imprisoned in their own homes: the Armenian women escaping psychological abuse

19 October 2022
Illustration: Armine Avetisyan

Locked in their own homes and under constant surveillance, for some women in Armenia, marriage can turn out to be a nightmare. But isolated from their friends and family, escaping their abuser is not always an easy task.

Ani was just 18 years old when she got married. ‘I imagined family life very beautifully: romantic evenings with a glass of wine, going on trips’, Ani says.

At first, her dreams seemed to have come true. She had moved from her small village in Ararat Province to a larger town in the region, and seemed to be living the life she had hoped for. 

‘My husband was financially secure and we could afford a lot. I felt like I was in paradise’, Ani says.

But Ani’s fairytale life did not last very long. Just two years later, when she became pregnant, things began to change. 

Her husband, who was ten years older than her, announced that he wanted a healthy child, and that Ani should consequently remain at home at all times to ensure that she was ‘relaxed’ throughout her pregnancy. 

‘He bought fresh and delicious food, and gave me gifts every day’, Ani says. But while others thought she was living a life of luxury, Ani was trapped. 

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‘I was actually living the life of a prisoner who had the right to leave the house only accompanied by my husband’. 

This was not entirely new to Ani. From the first day of her marriage, her husband had been controlling, forbidding her to go anywhere unless she was accompanied by him or his mother. 

While her parents had initially been upset that their daughter now visited them less often, they later made their peace with it, deciding that it was most important that their daughter was loved and happy.

Nonetheless, Ani had imagined and hoped that her time in a gilded prison would only last as long as her pregnancy. 

‘I thought this was temporary — once my baby was born, I would see something other than the four walls of the house. But when my baby was born, a new phase of my imprisonment began: I was expected to be responsible for my child’s care and upbringing without ever leaving the house.’

Her husband was not alone in his perspective — Ani’s parents-in-law also told her that a woman should dedicate herself to raising a child, while a man’s job was to earn money. 

After the birth of her child, the restrictions on Ani became tighter still — she was forbidden to even go out to the balcony without asking for permission. That balcony proved to be the beginning of the end for Ani’s marriage.

‘My baby was one month old. My husband was unavailable — I couldn’t call him and ask if I could go out on the balcony. I thought I was probably not doing anything wrong, because we lived on the top floor of the building and no one would see me.’

‘As I was bringing out the baby’s pram, I forgot my phone in the room. It was at that moment that my husband called.’

Ani called him back a minute later and explained why she had not answered, but it was too late. 

‘He started shouting indescribably. He accused me of cheating and immorality. He got home within half an hour and started beating me. He beat me a lot and I lost consciousness.’

‘When I regained consciousness, I felt like a new person, I had a supernatural power in me. I understood that I was just a doll for him, who had no right to leave my box.’

During a visit to her parents a month later, Ani asked her mother for help.

She had worried her parents would be unsympathetic and encourage her to continue living in her domestic prison. 

‘I was wrong, and still feel guilty for those thoughts. My parents came to visit us the next day and we had a long talk with my husband. I got divorced. Now he is trying to get us back together again, but I hate him.’

A pattern of abuse

Ani’s is not an isolated story. According to a recent national survey on domestic violence against women in Armenia, 32% of women surveyed had experienced psychological violence — higher than the percentage who had experienced both sexual (6.6%) and physical (14.8%) abuse. 

Of the 2,872 women surveyed, 50% did not have their own source of income, making them particularly vulnerable. 

While domestic violence as a whole was more common in rural areas, psychological violence had a higher prevalence in urban areas. Rates of psychological violence were highest amongst women aged 15–24.

Image: Armine Avetisyan

Marine Yeghiazaryan is a psychologist at the Women’s Support Centre, a local organisation supporting women experiencing domestic violence. According to her, psychological abuse can lead to other forms of abuse, ‘because it exists in all types of violence’. 

According to Yeghiazaryan, in cases of psychological violence, the main aim of the abuser is to exert ownership and dominance over the victim.

‘It is often the case that women were more self-sufficient and free before marriage. They are subjected to violence by men who have insecurities and issues, and, on meeting a self-sufficient woman, attempt to “neutralise” her.’

She describes the typical trajectory of psychological abuse: 

‘First, the family members convince the woman that she is worthless, ugly, that the man is her only supporter. Step by step they lower the woman’s self-esteem until it reaches the point where, locked in the house, she thinks that what they say is true, that if she leaves the man, she will be completely alone’.

Yeghiazaryan adds that the man will typically cut his wife’s contact with her friends and family, making it even more challenging for her to consider other perspectives on her situation or challenge her abuser.  

‘Women who find themselves in such a situation do not dare to divorce for a long time because they think that they have nowhere to go.’

She concludes that eventually, this way of life becomes familiar and ‘their prison becomes a comfort zone’.

Life under constant watch

This was certainly the case for 30-year-old Gayane (not her real name) from Shirak Province, who spent five years under lock and key, and left only when her and her children’s lives were at risk. 

She has three children, now aged one, three, and four. A teacher by training, she never even made it into a classroom.  

‘I studied at a pedagogical college. During my student years, I worked in a bookstore — I worked a few hours a day. I didn’t like that job at all, but worked to pay for my education. I always told myself that I would graduate soon and could stop working in a job I didn’t like.’

In the years that followed, Gayane thought back on that job with envy for her past self. 

‘I got married right after I graduated from college. When our honeymoon was over and I had received my diploma, I told my husband that I was going to send my resume to a few preschools to find a job. His reaction was terrible.’

Gayane’s husband was furious; he threatened to kill her if she even thought about working. Gayane’s mother-in-law also chimed in with a smile that the argument was pointless — no one would hire Gayane anyway. 

‘My mother-in-law disliked me from the first day. She never missed an opportunity to suggest that I was not educated enough to find a job’, says Gayane. 

The restrictions did not end there. Gayane was also forbidden to leave the house without being accompanied by her husband or mother-in-law. Even opening the door of her house was out of bounds. 

‘I was mostly alone at home. My mother-in-law had more rights and went to work, and my husband was also at work. In order to control me, he made constant video calls.’

According to Armenian tradition, after the birth of a child, a new mother goes to her father’s house for several days. 

‘When my first child was born, my parents asked me to pay them a visit for a few days — we are from a village and keep up these traditions. My mother-in-law reluctantly agreed. I was on a video call all the way from town to the village. I stayed at my parents’ house for two days. He called me constantly, he even had to know when I went to the toilet’. 

This level of surveillance continued throughout Gayane’s marriage. 

‘We lived together for five years. If he was not at home, we were on the phone. He had a second phone which he would keep switched on on his table at work. He was high-ranking, he could afford to do that.’

‘The funny thing was that I couldn’t physically leave the house. Even if I really wanted to, I wouldn’t have been able to because I didn’t have a key: if my husband or mother-in-law left the house, they locked the door from the outside.’

‘I later understood that the constant video calls meant that he also knew who was calling me’. 

After five years, Gayane had grown accustomed to her confinement and a life under constant surveillance. It was only after the birth of her third child, when her and her children’s lives were put at risk, that she realised she could not live like this any longer. 

‘I was bathing my newborn when one of my older children woke up silently, took a match, and set fire to a curtain. You can’t imagine the scene. The room was on fire, smoke was pouring into the house, and I couldn’t run outside because I didn’t have a key.’

‘If my neighbours and the firefighters hadn’t arrived quickly, we wouldn’t be here today.’

Following the incident, Gayane demanded a divorce. The court ruled that the children should stay with their mother. 

What lies ahead

Yeghiazaryan suggests that in order to prevent such abuse, women need to become more aware of the issue and their rights. 

‘One woman did not leave her husband because he threatened that if she divorced him, he would keep the child’, she recalls. ‘This was despite the fact that their marriage was not legally registered, and the man had not actually acknowledged paternity.’ 

‘According to the paperwork, the woman was a single mother and so the child would stay with her. However, being locked in the house, she could not understand all this.’

But there is reason for hope. Alongside the stories of individuals like Ani and Gayane who have escaped their domestic prisons, Yeghiazaryan has noticed a broader positive trend. While older women rarely spoke about psychological violence, women aged 20–35 are more willing to speak up and speak out.

For those like Gayane, who do make it out, the relief can be palpable. 

‘When I left the house on the first day of my freedom, it felt strange at first that there was no video call’, says Gayane. ‘It was sunny. I bought an ice cream and started walking. Just outside, without telling anyone. I felt like a girl in a movie.’