Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The 2011 Census registered 35,308 Yezidis, a culturally distinct community which practises their own religion. The Yezidi faith contains traces of Islamic, Christian and Zoroastrian religions, and focuses on the worship of the ‘Peacock God’ Melek Taus. The majority of Yezidis live nomadic lives, tending livestock and moving their animals through alpine pasture. A small number have settled in urban areas such as Yerevan.
There were 2,162 Kurds in Armenia at the time of the 2011 Census. Many Sunni Muslim Kurds fell victim to mass expulsion along with the Azeris at the time of the Armenia–Azerbaijan war.
Kurds started arriving in Armenia in 1828, fleeing the Russo-Turkish wars, while many other Kurds settled around 1918. Yezidis were not classified separately from Kurds in Soviet censuses, but since the late 1980s there has been debate in Armenia as to whether Yezidis constitute a separate ethnic group. Many Yezidis within Armenia state that they are. They also believe that the Kurmanji dialect is a separate language from Kurdish. However, all Yezidi religious texts are written in Kurdish and most Yezidi communities in other countries do consider themselves to be Kurdish. The debate has split the Yezidi community in Armenia, with some Yezidis rejecting the disassociation with Kurdish identity proposed by some of their number.
Concern has been expressed that there is inadequate representation of the Kurdish minority at national and local levels. In 1998, Kurdish representatives protested that the electoral system makes no special provision for minority representation, with seats in parliament being awarded strictly according to the territorial principle. They proposed amendments to the electoral law allowing for a Kurdish representative to be elected the Armenian National Assembly. However, the proposals faced the problem that Kurds do not form local majorities in any administrative or electoral district and they were not adopted. Nevertheless, 2017 proved to be a significant year for the political participation of Armenia’s minorities. Following the April elections, there were four minority MP’s in the country’s parliament, including one Yezidi and one Kurd. However, the election process was criticised as the four were required to join established party lists in order to stand for election – raising questions as to how independent they can be.
According to a report prepared for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2004, Yezidis were more likely to suffer lower levels of education than other communities. This was partly because of the poor economic climate, and partly because of the remoteness of many Yezidi villages. Preferential treatment of minorities under the Soviet system has withered away, exacerbating the Yezidis’ marginalization. The situation was reportedly exacerbated by internal disputes over whether Yezidis should be classified separately or as Kurds: the Armenian government faced strong criticism from one part of the community when it considered ratifying Kurmanji as the name of the language spoken by Yezidis in Armenia. However, it ratified both ‘Yezidi’ and ‘Kurdish’ as separate languages under the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages.
Yezidis have expressed concern that they suffer disproportionate hazing during military service compared to other ethnic groups in Armenia. There have also been reports of bullying of Yezidi children in school and discrimination at the hands of local government and law enforcement officials. Yezidis have also reportedly been disadvantaged in the allocation of privatized land and in the enjoyment of water and grazing rights. Since the early 1990s, Yezidis have migrated to Russia and Germany in search of better lives.
According to Yezidi tradition, girls marry in their early teens. In 2012, there was an attempt by the government to increase the age at which women get could married from 17 to 18 – which is already the age at which men are allowed to marry. Many Yezidi groups protested the move as an attack on their customs. This continues to be an issue of contention as many families ignore the law regardless and have their daughters marry when they are as young as 14. There are some women within the Yezidi community who oppose girls marrying at such a young age, however as it forces them to discontinue their education and enter into lives they may not yet be ready for.