Without the right to choose: when men in Azerbaijan are forced to marry
“A bachelor is a loafer”
The tradition of forced marriages in Azerbaijan is one against which human rights advocates in the country have long battled. Often, this concerns women being forced into undesired marriages. However, this is not the only case: men can be victims of this phenomenon as well.
It wasn’t easy to find men willing to speak about their forced marriages: they’re ashamed of the situation they’ve been placed in, and prefer to remain silent, often turning to extra-marital affairs for solace.
Jalil [name changed] is one such man who agreed to speak with us.
“I was the oldest son in a family of eight people. After the army, I left to go work in Ukhta, northern Russia, where I worked as a driver and sent money home to my family. I fell in love with a local girl and was getting ready to marry her. In the summer of 1982, I came home to see my family. On the first day my parents started talking to me about getting married. They said I was already 25, and that a bachelor is an ‘avara’ [Az. loafer].
“The next day I went to visit relatives in a nearby village. It turned out that my Aunt Reyva had already prepared my future bride for examination: she was dressed according to local custom – in a shawl and long dress. She ‘coincidentally’ passed by my aunt’s house when I was sitting on the balcony.
“‘How do you like her?’ my aunt asked.
“I responded: ‘She’s a girl like any other’.
“And then a rumour began making its way around that I liked her.
“I was told shortly after: if you don’t marry her, you’ll dishonour her and our family as well.
“The words of one’s parents weigh heavy: I should have refused, but I couldn’t.
“The entire process, beginning from the matchmaking and ending with the wedding, took no more than a week. Not one of my relatives supported me. They all consented to my mother’s desires. I woke up on the day of the wedding thinking that I was making a horrible mistake. I got married in the same clothes in which I had arrived for vacation.”
“Then I took Solmaz, my new wife, to Ukhta, where my girlfriend there still knew nothing of what had happened. When she was told, she moved to another city.
“Solmaz didn’t know Russian, so she spent ten years in almost complete seclusion, raising our daughters. I tried to get her to work, but she didn’t want to.
“Then I took Solmaz and my daughters to Baku. Our divorce took some 20 years: she didn’t give her consent until the very end. I wasn’t in Baku from 2004 through 2014, and when I did come, it was only for a few months because my mother was very ill.
“I tried to speak with her more often, and once we even spoke about my marriage. When I told her about the disdain that I had for my wife, for example, about how her nails disgusted me, my mother finally understood just how unhappy I was.
“After the death of my mother, Solmaz finally agreed to a divorce. At the age of 57, I received the freedom that I had dreamt about for practically 30 years. I found my old girlfriend, and now we live together with our son to whom she gave birth to even before my unfortunate marriage.”
Neither kidnapped nor raped, but subjected to enormous pressure and manipulation
Sociologist Sanubar Heydarova says that there are no statistics concerning such marriages, but that she encounters them often in her practice. At first men think that even though the marriage is happening against their will, they will not lose their freedom because they will have a second life ‘on the side’. However, unions of this type frequently lead to the destruction of the individual and a bad upbringing for children, not to mention potential STDs.
“Now, there are less marriages of this sort. Not because the mentality has changed, but because people have started leaving the country. Many leave not for a European education or for self-realisation, but for the possibility of living without the pressure of one’s family,” she added.
Psychologist Azad Isazade identifies two main scenarios in the context of which these marriages often take place.
The first involves the parents choosing a bride for their son against his will. The second involves pre-marital sex, because of which the parents of both sides come to an agreement to have their children married and avoid a scandal.
The main argument in both cases is that ‘you are a man, you must’. Such cases are not criminally prosecutable, though forcing a woman to marry is. The men are not ‘kidnapped’ or raped, but they are subjected to enormous psychological pressure and manipulated.
“We discover these cases not at the time of marriage, but a few years later when the couple falls apart,” says Isazade, adding that in larger cities such as in Baku and Ganja, such cases are receiving more public attention even if they are happening less frequently.
When the problem of such marriages is discussed on social media, men are rarely met with understanding or compassion. Here are some typical comments:
“We have such acquaintances. For him, she’s an incubator. For her, he’s a god.”
“They’re mamma’s boys. They deserve what they get.”
“If you badger a person from morning till night, he might just get married to get some peace.”
“They are discussed, generally, in the third person, because few are capable of admitting: ‘I was forcibly married’.”
“My name is Rufat, I’m 27 years old. I was born in Baku while my parents are from Karabakh. Earlier, they called me a nerd because I spent most of my time studying and working, and I didn’t think much about my personal life. They stopped calling me that when Leyla appeared in my life – I became more confident and open with her around. We dated for two years and were preparing to get married.
“After I introduced Leyla to my parents, they started looking for another bride for me.
“My girlfriend was modest and respected the elderly, but my parents didn’t like her. Five months after I had introduced them, we had to break up.
“My relatives thought that the ideal bride should be rich and a minor. Leyla did not meet these criteria, but Dilara (I had seen her a few times while visiting family friends) was the ‘ideal candidate’ – 17 years old and her father was rich. The offense began from all sides, and my mother was the main catalyst of the process. I made peace with it.
“Before putting on my wedding tux, I went into the kitchen and drank as much vodka as I could. I avoided everyone’s gaze and I didn’t speak with anyone. My bride was also sad.
“A year later, our daughter was born. I no longer made any plans, I didn’t see any point in developing myself. I had been working as a taxi driver for two years. As for my mother, she continued to interfere in my life, and forced me to take walks with my wife, and always found her way into our house. I speak with Leyla, but we don’t meet: we both understand that nothing can be changed.”
Control weakens independence
Sociologist and gender researcher Humay Akhundzade:
“Marriages organized by families that don’t take into account the desires of the bride and groom are fairly common in societies with patriarchal structures, such as in Azerbaijan.
“The fact that both men and women can be victims of such marriages reminds one that the patriarchy is not only the power of men over women, but the power of the older generation over the younger.
“The more autonomous and independent the bride and groom, the less space there is for the power of the elders to interfere in their lives and control them. This undermines the foundations of patriarchy, because ‘love marriages’ appear dangerous to people with ‘traditional views’ about life.
“In modern Azerbaijan, the issue of arranged marriages is increasingly being discussed as a problem. While other issues, such as education abroad, are seen in an increasingly positive light, marrying the person one wants remains an issue. That is, while we might see modernization in terms of education, people remain conservative in their thoughts about marriage and family.
“The root of the problem can be found in the clash between traditional and modern views about life, in the dichotomy of the individual as a free and independent being but also as the successor of the family.”
Ethnologist and art critic Sabina Movlamova:
“The root of the problem is in the old-fashioned traditions of our predecessors. In the beginning of the last century, a person’s relatives were responsible for his or her status. In many villages, contact between women and men was almost forbidden if they weren’t relatives. Moreover, it was almost impossible to even see a woman’s figure through her traditional clothing.
“As a result, the choice of a groom was a woman’s affair: they looked at candidates at weddings and in bath houses. Only women went to look for grooms, and a groom received knowledge of the upcoming wedding only after everything was set and ready.
“The centuries-long tradition of forcing people to marry will not disappear anytime soon: children are still not given freedom, they are broken to the will of their parents. These people, who have no freedom or rights, are the future victims of forced marriages.”