The Armenian National Delegation to the Paris Peace Conference had to formulate a persuasive argument to convince the Great Powers that the Armenians deserved to rule over what they viewed as their historical Armenian homeland, a piece of territory that had been under Ottoman rule for the past half millennium. The delegation had to operate within a certain international framework; pay attention to the reigning norms; employ the language that the winners of World War I were using; and build on an already-established rhetoric that defined what the defeated Ottoman Turks and the Armenians, a Christian minority, represented.
The formulation of the territorial demands was especially important because of three factors: First, having survived an annihilation campaign, Armenians lacked the necessary demographics to claim majority status in the lands they hoped to rule, a crucial disadvantage in a Wilsonian world fixated on the principle of self-determination. Second, Armenians lacked military power to back up any potential Great Power occupation of the Ottoman six provinces (Cilicia being already under French occupation). Third, no Great Power had an immediate material interest in having a mandate over the territory claimed by Armenians.
Given these issues, the delegation turned to the recent past to carve out an argument based squarely on morality and justice. Lobbyists at the Paris conference stressed the ways in which their civilized, Oriental Christian nation had suffered under the yoke of Muslim barbarism for many centuries. According to this logic, on the one hand Turks did not deserve the land because of what Armenians considered “savage crimes.” On the other hand, Armenains deserved this land because of they were indigenous and because they had suffered for far too long.
Aware of the emotional and intellectual worldview of the people who were going to decide their fate, Armenians as well as Armeniophiles framed the memory of the recent massacres as part of the previously established personification of the two nations: “the Turk” was the cruel rapist, and “the Armenian” was the innocent dishonored female. A talk given in early 1919 by the most prominent Armenian female writer of the time exemplifies the tropes used by the delegation in its efforts to turn the recent violence (and the very real sexual violence Christian women and children had suffered) into propaganda.
In January 1919, in one of the large rooms in the Salle des Ingénieurs Civils in Paris, Zabel Yesayan, an appointed inspector of the Armenian National Delegation to the Paris Peace Conference, delivered a talk titled “The Role of the Armenian Woman during the War” (Հայ Կնոջ Դերը Պատերազմի Միջոցին).[i] She showed her audience several pictures of deportations that had been taken by missionaries, diplomats, and journalists. While the slides—of starving women and children and of the cruel Turkish gendarmerie humiliating Armenian men—remained on the projector, Yesayan spoke, in French, about the “sublime suffering that the Christian women in the Near East endured [. . .] in the hell that is Turkey.”
Yesayan described Armenian women and girls choosing death over rape and kidnapping; older women, despite the whipping of the gendarmes, not being able to follow the fast pace of the caravan; pregnant women bleeding to death because they had been forced to walk; an Armenian mother, on the verge of insanity, trying to save her other children by handing one of her virgin daughters to the Turks in return for access to the water fountain; and an Armenian boy, watched by his terrified mother, killing his thankful sister just before their deportation.
Having spent long years in Europe where she mastered the French language and learned contemporary European political ideologies, Yesayan was certainly aware that during the war, European public opinion had become hypersensitized to the plight of civilians (that is, women, children, and families). Starting in the early months of the war, what was called “the rape of Belgium” became the cause célèbre, and the idea of France as a raped woman and Germany as a barbaric “Hun” violator was a central feature of wartime public discourse in France.
Yesayan wanted to replace “the German” with “the Turk,” but she was far from portraying women as passive victims. She devoted long passages to the many women and girls who took up arms in the few resistance movements that Armenians were able to organize. In her multiple examples, Yesayan returned again and again to the theme of the Armenian woman’s high moral standards, her heroism, and her courage. She proudly singled out Armenian women as the real source of Armenians’ uncompromising will to remain Christian, Armenian, and civilized for centuries. Yesayan explained why she mentioned “the progress of the Armenian woman from the standpoint of civilization”: she wanted “to demonstrate that [the Armenian woman] has been always able to walk in lockstep with her sisters of the West, whenever brutal and tyrannical impediments have not perturbed her natural aspirations.” On the deportation route, explained Yesayan, “like the time of the Crusades, each woman had a Bible as her most precious item.” Yet “the heaviest part of these disgraces fell upon the Armenian woman.”
Yesayan’s presentation found its natural end when, in mentioning the “thousands who are still in the harems” (referring to abducted Armenian women in Muslim households), she explained that “their superhuman sacrifices will be consecrated by the rebirth of an independent Armenia.” Careful to warn that these women’s suffering should not turn into a “bargaining chip of any kind,” Yesayan concluded what the delegation emphasized most: that Armenians demand justice, “only justice.”
The subsequent political developments hindered Armenians from achieving this goal. No Greater Armenia was ever established. The land that Armenians claimed remained within the borders of modern Turkey, internationally recognized by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.
[i] Essayan (Yesayan), “Le rôle de la femme Arménienne pendant la guerre,” Revue des Études Arméniennes 2 (1922): 121–38