YEREVAN, Armenia — Little Armenian girls grow up treated like princesses by their fathers and mothers, but after their weddings their lives change dramatically. Abusive husbands and in-laws turn young women into house servants, force them to do all the dirty work, and often forbid them to go outside without permission. That such was considered the norm in Armenia for centuries is not surprising. That it is still considered the norm among many Armenians in their own country and in Russia is appalling.
Women rarely told anyone about the beatings, the humiliation and sometimes even the torture that they suffered at home—until recently. But two court cases appear to be changing public attitudes toward domestic violence.
The road to justice was rough and took years. The subject was taboo for local media. If not for Armenian civil groups defending women, nobody in Armenia would have heard the victims' voices.
The first Armenian woman eager to press charges and go public was Mariam Gevorkyan, 23, who had suffered through 10 months of beatings and torture in the house of her Armenian husband and mother-in-law in St. Petersburg, Russia. The latter broke Gevorkyan's nose, stuck a fork into her body and burned her skin with an iron.
"They always found new reasons to beat me — “You slammed the door!' 'You did the housework too slowly,'" she told local human rights defenders upon her return to Armenia in 2012.
"Her family could not recognize Mariam when she came back to Yerevan,” the head of the Women's Support Center, Maro Matosian, told The Daily Beast in a recent interview. “Her teeth were missing, the abusers pulled her hair, her body was covered in burns. Mariam said that her mother-in-law was not satisfied unless she saw blood."
Gevorkyan pressed charges and Armenian investigators in cooperation with Russian police detained both her husband and mother-in-law. But an Armenian investigator on Gevorkyan's case decided to free her husband Ziroyan from detention even before his trial. The mother-in-law, Aikanush Mikayelian, was sentenced to four years in jail for causing physical harm suffered by the victim.
Human rights defenders complain that Armenian law enforcement is often reluctant to prosecute husbands, as suggested by another infamous case.
Sargis Akopian beat his wife Asmik Khachatrian for several years of their marriage. The woman suffered without telling anyone about her troubles, as she was afraid of her husband taking her two children away from her, if they divorced.
Two years ago Khachatrian escaped Akopian, obtained the medical expertise certifying her wounds and pressed charges against her husband. But Khachatrian's mother-in-law happened to be a famous fortune teller, predicting the future for Armenian officials.
According to Women's Recsource Center of Armenia, the fortune teller used her contacts in the government to put pressure on the investigation. An Armenian court found Akopian guilty of torture, sentenced him to one year and a half in jail then granted him an immediate amnesty, freeing the abusive husband from the court room.
Experts of NGOs defending women's rights in Armenia noted that in some of domestic violence cases mothers-in-law, who once upon a time also were little princesses beloved by their parents, turn into monsters and support their sons' violent actions.
Last year, seven women were killed in Armenia by their husbands. This year the Women's Resource Center (WRCA) in Yerevan monitored five murders.
"Now victims know we exist,” WRCA founder Lara Aharonian told The Daily Beast. “Yesterday four women victims of violence and sexual assault came to our center, some with children, a record number."
At least now women knew where to call and where to run. The first shelter opened by the WRCA for wives escaping their abusive husbands never stayed empty. Activists struggling to change social opinion united efforts: seven human rights groups founded The Coalition to Stop Violence against Women.
"Our goal is to empower Armenian women, teach them their rights. It is frustrating that there is still no law against domestic violence—90 percent of parliament members are men," Matosian said. "But we have made big progress, if before nobody spoke of the issue, now we have up to 50 publications about domestic violence every month.”
An average wife in Armenia traditionally accepted the rules: husbands decided her lifestyle and behavior. If she escaped, he chased her and beat her—and the punishment could be merciless.
Mikhail Vardanian stabbed his wife Nelli Agayan 18 times. He must have been very drunk, when he was killing "my poor girl," Agayan's mother told The Daily Beast.
Women were vulnerable, Laura Khachaturian, 52, clenched her fists when she remembered her drunk husband beating her, taking her last money and sometimes even meals she cooked for their nine children. "My husband is a drunk, as soon as he hears that I have bread or some cash, he often comes here and simply takes away everything I have," Khachaturian told The Daily Beast in an interview last week
With all their love for Kim Kardashian, a majority of Armenian men would not accept their own turning into selfie queens and showing their most intimate curves to the world
"My husband would not want me to take such selfie," a local reporter, SaraKhojoyan, told The Daily Beast. "I am lucky I am free to decide when I go to work and who I meet. Some of my girlfriends cannot put on clothes they like or leave the house when they want without their husbands' approval," Khojoyan added.
The legal phe picture may change, once the parliament votes for a new law against domestic violence. "We are very close to passing it, maybe even this year," parliament member Alexander Arzumanian told The Daily Beast.
If Armenia adopts the law this year, it would be ahead of Russia, where one out of four families experience domestic violence, and about 14,000 women die from torture at the hands of their husbands or other family members every year.
In the meantime, Armenia's wives continue to scream in pain. A documentary photographer, Anahit Hayrapetyan, traveled around Armenia for three years taking photographs of beaten and killed women. She called her project “Princess to Slave” It was the first time Armenia was presented with visual evidence of violence against women, who always would stay little princesses in their parents’ hearts.