The ancient ruins of Tigranakert lay in Nagorno-Karabakh, a region that doesn't officially exist. Photo by Emma Townsin.

A Small Step for a Woman; A Giant Leap for Women

I slip through the aged rusty gate, imagining it forms a barrier to the ongoing protests. “You can’t, you can’t”. His voice filling my personal space. On the outside, I stay composed, but inside I am desperate to break away. I peek over my shoulder to ensure he isn’t following me. I know he couldn’t keep up. “I must come with you” he had exclaimed moments ago while complaining I was walking too fast. “You can’t go”. “It’s too far, it’s too steep”. His arms up forming a big cross in front of me as he attempts to shield me from his envisioned torture of my 3-kilometer walk.

I am in Nagorno-Karabakh. A land that doesn’t officially exist. On a map, it is engulfed as part of Azerbaijan. In reality, it’s home to an Armenian population and a civil war between nations. Long-standing social norms continue to dictate a woman’s place in society. As a strong, independent female traveling in this region, I faced many challenges.

The subtle forms of inequality have encroached on each day. A sneaky comment undermining my abilities. A snigger at my determination. A sympathetic gaze I receive for not being married. Being laughed at, stared at, shouted at and judged based on my gender. I feel my confidence is decreasing, my anxiety is increasing and my preconceived limitations are expanding. It is these subtle forms of discrimination, disguised as social norms, that maintain the imbalance. Subtle does not mean harmless.

My mind is clouded by my overwhelming sense of frustration. Carrying each demoralizing comment in my heart, like a secret I don’t want to keep. The symphony of degradation, belittling and judgment I am marching from builds up inside. It unleashes the memories and emotions from my past few days. They have not had a chance to escape or heal. It taints my feelings towards this man, towards this place and towards this nation. The chorus humiliating me. Crushing my self-esteem.

I have learned to appear trusting so as not to offend but maintain a distrust so as not to be abused. To listen to local advice but to ascertain if the advice is based purely on my ‘limited abilities as a woman’. To interact with locals but not interact too much as to lead a man on. I avoid eye contact unless necessary. I wear baggy clothes to hide my desired figure. I take the route with fewest challenges. I feel myself sinking further into my closing mind as I begin to despise interaction. I begin to think I should give up. To leave this place. To escape this region. To return to a country in which I feel I have respect.

Climbing further from my frustrations I pause to look back at Tigranakert, 2,000-year-old ruins that lay below me. Photo by Emma Townsin.
2,000-year-old ruins of Tigranakert. Photo by Emma Townsin.

Climbing further from my frustrations, I pause to look back. Tigranakert, the ruins of an empire more than 2000 years old, lay below me. I ponder the memories that must remain in the ancient stone. The secrets they are holding. I let the breeze blow over me, bringing back my own forgotten memories from this region. I remember the kind, interesting, generous and inspiring people who were lost from my mind. The lesser moments have had the power to turn my mind to a permeable mess. My reduced self-esteem impacting the memories that have remained present.

I stand at the peak of the hill and look out over the rolling hills that brought the positive memories back. Photo by Emma Townsin.
I stand at the peak of the hill and look out over the rolling hills. Photo by Emma Townsin.

Now, as I let the positive memories back into my mind, I see this country and region for what it is. Alluring yet challenging, ancient yet altered, an area of conflict yet peaceful. A place with many unknowns and adventures waiting to be had by courageous men and women.

As I look out over 2000 years of history, it dawns on me. This isn’t personal. Gender equality did not progress from women running away. From women giving up and sneaking out of sight. Hiding away where they felt safe. Gender equality progresses from strong women, eager to show the world that they are capable.

Near the summit, her voice makes its way through the long grass leading to the monastery. With a strong Armenian accent, she guides the European tourists. My challenge was nothing compared to hers. It takes a truly strong woman to thrive in a male-dominated society. I never before realized the strength of the women I have met here. My past few weeks have brought new perspective and admiration. A few weeks has had the power to suppress my strength and challenge my confidence. Imagine a lifetime.

I stand at the peak of the hill and look out over the rolling hills that brought the positive memories back. I feel proud. I have overcome a challenge. Not a physical challenge. But the challenge of being a woman. From the ancient civilization below me I saw my path up this steep hill, I saw where it was going, but I couldn’t see where it was leading me. I will keep being an adventurous woman. This is why I travel.


The author Emma Townsin.
The author Emma Townsin.

About the writer

With a research and clinical background in healthcare, Emma Townsin took a break from her career to travel “for a year or two”. That was four and a half years ago – she still has not returned. Emma has traveled, volunteered and worked across many different cultures and environments and hopes to share her passion for cultural interaction and environmental protection with readers around the world. You can follow Emma on Instagram and Twitter.

One comment

  1. Jerry Zimmerman

    Great story and read…
    Azerbaijan, Emma Townsin, Nagorno-Karabakh, solo female traveler, Traveling, woman, women


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