The Power of Knowing – How Knowledge Reproduces Inequality: A Glance from Armenia to Europe

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Anna Muradyan work

Eventually, the day will come when you realize that cooking dinner and cleaning the house are not all that the future has to offer you. Sure, you’d thought about it before, but you’d been told since childhood that your future is in the home. You’ve been told this by your family members, and by the textbooks, you read at school, with their pictures of mothers in the kitchen and fathers in the living room reading the newspaper. Your older female friends would have given you the same message, as would the movies you watched growing up. Before reaching adulthood, you would have internalized that knowledge. To such an extent, that when problems arise in the home, and they do always arise – everything from dinner not being ready on time or the 1mm of dust on the furniture which threatens to become 1cm of dust, while your husband rests with his feet on the coffee table, you’ll look for the source of these problems everywhere except in the nature of this knowledge itself.

You’ll never doubt that this isn’t the natural order of things. Time and custom have given this way of life the feeling of being natural, and even the definition of “natural” is pre-determined by this same experience, accrued over time.  Time is infinite, but knowledge is not predefined, and what’s more, it’s certainly not neutral. The knowledge that is disseminated in schools and universities. This knowledge that represents the opinions and interests of a particular group of humans is itself structured hierarchically. But you don’t know this yet. You don’t know that the concept of nature itself is also constructed. Over time, it is being meticulously thought out, edited, defined and redefined through different subjects, of which you are one. The women of your neighborhood, sat around the coffee table talking about the content of your dowry, are active subjects of this process too. So too are the men idly hanging around your yard whose only business is staring at, and calling out to, girls passing by. 

You’re still only 25 years old. A 25-year-old Armenian girl with a Soviet past. Grown-up in a provincial N town of Armenia, far from the capital. Although you received higher education in Yerevan, after graduating and holding the diploma in your hands you realize that it was a mere formality. In order to conquer your place under the Armenian sun, you have to marry a man, by all means from a well-off family. This is the pillar around which the prevailing discourse amongst your friends, relatives, neighbors - in other words, the world surrounding you – is constructed. The more well-off the family is, the better your status will be. The status of the family is measured by several criteria, for example where the potential candidate or his parents work or worked, what kind of property they own, how wide their network of contacts is, who is included and other such things. In other words, the measurement unit is material, grounded in the degree of financial well-being and class belonging.

But you don’t agree with this state of affairs, because you were born in Soviet Armenia, where everyone was equal. It was just a matter of time for you to understand that some people are far more equal than others.[1] But before this happens you’ll be trying to fit this into the frame of the public discourse you know and you’ll be looking for the reasons for this inner conflict only inside yourself.

So, you still don’t know that housekeeping is not naturally the preserve of women. At all. This was just a matter of convenience and for the purposes of capital accumulation. When the industry started to develop and people started to move in masse from rural areas to cities, the capitalists suddenly realized those male workers who eat home-cooked meals and who are taken care of at homework more productively.[2] Not only did this lead to the process of women’s exclusion from the job market, with subsequent corollaries such as economic and financial dependency, but it also made women auxiliaries to men. Women’s labor was unpaid, of course, given that keeping the domestic order is considered a woman’s sacred duty. Not only is the labor this involves undervalued, it is also subsumed within the overall self-identity of women.

And yet, whenever there are war and a lack of men in the labor force, women are pushed into the job market, including industry and heavy metal production – areas of work which are traditionally considered the exclusive preserve of men. And they are involved, aren’t they? But once the wars are over, women are once again forced to leave their places of work. In fact, capital accumulation is grounded in women’s exploitation. And they’re happy to be exploited because this is how their existence makes sense. The existence that has been conceived and brought to life by men. By a wide range of means including media or public policy, framing a prevailing discourse that is maintained and widely propagated by the mainstream.

These are, of course, examples from the history of Western feminism, which, for some unknown reason, is considered canonical, and thus defines normativity in other disciplines within the contour of developments. It, therefore, frames the history of your country as inferior, or less important, in relation to those norms and in the context of different relationships arising there. That is the location of norms and valid knowledge is the West. [3] The rest are merely derivatives. These are the examples to learn when you turn your eye to the West. The West that in your country – and, mostly, all over the world - is promoted as heralding justice, equality, and the truth only.  

Then something will suddenly change. When you feel something is wrong. When life experiences and personal observations based on an exploration of different layers of the public discourse will entail the understanding that there is no need to look for the cause of internal disagreements inside you. Or rather, not only inside, to be more exact. For, this “inside” doesn’t exist in a vacuum but rather is constantly being formed under direct and immediate influence from outside, as a result of having a wide range of power relationships with the latter. One of these factors is class. This is the class about which you have been told and taught at school and which is directly related to capitalism, as well as Marxism. It’s also something which everybody has forgotten about for some unknown reason.

Youll remember the issue of social class when, as a consequence of your attempts to become independent from your family, you understand that in fact, you lack the financial means to find this independence in wider society and conquer your place under the Armenian sun. Moreover. You find that you’re not competitive in the modern job market. You don’t know English. One of the most important things. And this means plenty of doors are closed in your face. And, regrettably or maybe, fortunately, you’re not 25 years old at all and have lost your place to stand. Even though initially you had no intention to move mountains. 

You’ll start to ask some questions regarding life, people, the world and the complex relations between these three. Moreover, you will start to question the nature of the knowledge that defines these relationships and the naturalness of each and everything in the world. During the quest to learn the answers to these questions you’ll learn many terms such as ‘narrative’ and ‘discourse’, for instance.

‘What are narratives there for?’ you may ask. Someone could answer that, without them, life doesn’t make sense. You’ll think that one may agree with this or not. The quest concerning the meaning within the small space between agreement and non-agreement led to the point to which it led. That is, to the formation of an enormous body of science consisting of hundreds of multi-branched –isms. That has strongly restricted the ways of obtaining or ascribing meanings. The way of meaning-making, and hence the subject formation passes through gendered and other constrained paths.

Several events take place over the time between birth and death, and yet these two events are of paramount importance. Birth and death. As a woman, though, your birth was less important than other people’s. There were - and are - much more important births, much more important lives, and much more important deaths. You happen to have been born a girl – a girl in a poor family - that is, a family of less importance. Years before, you didn’t think in terms of these categories, since in Soviet Armenia all were equal, including women and men. There were no rich people and no poor people. A girl from a less important family. The narrative about Caldarella is only a fairy tale, and life had something else prepared for you. Life was going to whisper in your ears that the Cinderella story was gendered and grounded on a hierarchical value-system that constructs subjects with differing levels of importance.

You’ll try to find out how it happens. And for that purpose, you’ll decide that it’s high time to start studying again and you’ll set your sights on the West, just as all - or almost all - the people standing at the origins of your country's history were educated in the West. This is because the West is exemplary, and valid knowledge is created only in the West. And so you’ll study in a Western university and after boning up on a few lessons you’ll realize that the narrative about important and unimportance is constructed. Via discourse. A poor girl. This is not a mere collocation of a noun and an adjective. “Poor” and “girl” are first of all signifiers indicating belonging to two different categories such as class and gender at the intersection of which your identity was formed. You should add to this your soviet past when your identity was shaped based on the principle of constructing a subject with a declining level of importance from the center to the periphery.

For sure, unconsciously, you were always aware of it, but it never occurred to you that this knowledge didn’t just fall from the heaven, but rather was carefully thought out and was deeply embedded within different layers of society by several means of discourse creation. You’ll learn about it while researching a magazine dedicated to women’s issues when collecting information for your thesis and reading the following lines: “It was French professor Boudain who noticed it first. After that fights against child mortality commenced first by European then [emphasis added] by Russian doctors.”[4] In fact, the Soviet Union which upon creation made a claim to be a priority state within the international community, was nevertheless perceived by its subjects as secondary to the West. There was a theory about the importance, or to be more exact, about the importance of the West, one of the founders of which indicated exactly this issue: “First in Europe, then elsewhere.”[5] He said that this narrative was borrowed by different non-Western societies who produced local versions of the same narrative, replacing ‘Europe’ with some locally constructed center, say, Russia, Moscow and thus making the rest secondary to that center.[6]

Of course, you understand that a theory based on the example of British colonialism in India can’t be simply taken and applied to the case of the Soviet Union, but there are still some correlations, and what is more important, you notice that location is a category used to construct subjects with different levels of importance.

‘Why do they need all these categories?’ you may wonder. Categories are needed in order to have meanings assigned to them. For example, the white man is more important than a black man. Or that man is more important than a woman. Who are the ones to decide meanings and assign them to relevant categories? And it is here that you’ll realize that knowledge is gendered and classed. Why is it that, while many question Marxism from various vantage points, nobody contests Marx’s well-known statement that “They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented.”[7] Who gave one group of people the right to represent another? On this or similar grounds, men have decided that women need to be protected due to their physical fragility. The rest is well-known. Or, that the sacred duty of the West is to educate, or more precisely, to civilize the East, defining the latter as an element having an inherently barbarous nature.

It was necessary, then, to change the signified of “importance” or simply to make up a new signifier. You’ve already realized that knowledge about importance is gendered, haven’t you? As well as bodies. Even, the gastrointestinal tract.[8] It has recently been discovered, that bones are also gendered.[9] But we make up new terms every day or every year, or, maybe, from time to time, to make sense of our existence and to oppose diverse discourses of non-existence. The “gender” signifier was created or rather its signified was changed, to be precise, and this opened up room for new discourse, didn’t it? But did anything else change empirically? Capitalism, which now presents itself with a neoliberal face, is like a multi-headed dragon, and when you cut off one head, several new ones grow in its place. It has privatized the gains of feminism and the exploitation of women has been transformed from one form to another one.[10] Yes, now a lot of doors are open to women that weren’t open before, but does this really mean that they are free of housekeeping “duties”?  As in the past, they are still reckoned to be subjects secondary to men. It’s still the case that political agendas are defined by masculine dominance. As they say, the content hasn’t changed, it has simply been packaged differently.

On the other hand, a few decades after putting the gender signifier in circulation, women started to become more visible in some public circles. They created a new discourse which, while facing powerful resistance, nonetheless, gradually started to pave the way for acceptance. ‘But who were, and are those women?’ You might ask. Mainly women from a middle or upper-class background, whose starting points were and are much different from yours. 

It won’t seem to you that terrible since you are used to relying on yourself since childhood. The bad news though is that you will realize - not all the “non-important girls” have the same unshakable and invincible will as you have. To develop their skills and advance their knowledge, the overwhelming majority of them need an equal starting point with the middle class. But the worst news is that, namely, due to these conditions of inequality, it is precisely those more important women are able to reach the best universities in the world, and then academia, and thus start creating knowledge that reflects these unequal conditions.

Not only is knowledge gendered, but it is also classed. It will dawn on you. Not only that knowledge expresses the interests, opinions, attitudes, and lifestyles of a particular narrow group of people, but it is also created by and for them. A new type of knowledge is needed. It will dawn on you. Radically different from the existing one.



[1] Reference to George Orwell’s famous quote from Animal Farm: "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” (Secker & Warburg, 1945).

[2] Heidi Hartmann, “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism. Towards a More Progressive Union.” [1981], in: The Second Wave. A Reader in Feminist Theory, Linda Nicholson (ed.), (New York, London: Routledge 1996), 97–122.

[3] I would like to make it clear that I am aware of its homogeneous meaning.

[4] Hayastani Ashkatavoruhi [Armenian Female Worker], the women’s magazine, 1925, no. 2-3, 26.

[5] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 23.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” in Die Revolution, (New York: 1852), 62.

[8] Elizabeth Wilson, “The Brain in the Gut” in Psychosomatic: Feminism and the NeurologicalBody. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004). 31-47.

[9]Anne Fausto-Sterling, “The Bare Bones of Sex,” Part 1—Sex and Gender, Signs 30(2), 2005, 1491-1527.

[10] Nancy Fraser, “Feminism, Capitalism, and the Cunning of History,” New Left Review, 56, (March-April), 97-117.