Azerbaijan: Abuse Doesn’t Mean Love
As elsewhere in the Caucasus, Azerbaijani women often keep to themselves memories of past domestic violence or abuse as if they have something of which to be ashamed.
The three women below, all self-described victims of domestic violence or psychological abuse, decided to break with that practice. They were found in a group for Azerbaijani women on social media. They declined to provide their names.
Azerbaijanis often do not consider family abuse, whether physical or psychological, an appropriate topic for discussion outside the family. As in other patriarchal societies, it is frequently the female victim, not the perpetrator, who is blamed for any ill treatment.
That can lead to silence – a silence that skews figures about domestic violence and perpetuates the problem.
These women shared their stories out of a desire to be heard without being blamed. Their accounts cannot be independently verified, yet appear to reflect previously reported patterns of behavior toward females.
Both the government and NGOs have attempted to change such behavior, but, ultimately, experts say, real change begins when women are willing to speak out.
The 25-year-old copywriter from Baku grew up in a family where arguments and physical violence were constant. Her first childhood memory is of her father hitting her mother, sending her bouncing off a wall. The copywriter was just two years old.
When she was 14, she started to defend her mother. Eventually, she became a victim herself. Her father’s anger over work problems or her request for a tutor led to beatings, she claims.
Humiliation accompanied the violence. “He never slapped my face, but he would put his fist into my mouth in order to keep me silent or to take me downstairs” out of the apartment building, she recalls.
She was afraid to hit her father back. Instead, out of despair, she used to scratch her own face and neck, she says. There was no hope of seeking outside help.
“It is considered that if a father beats his daughter, it means she’s a woman who’s behaved badly and she deserved it,” the copywriter says.
She tried to leave her parents’ home and live alone, but did not. Instead, she married at 22.
She now lives apart from her parents and describes her new life as happy. Her husband, she says, is never violent toward her. “We might have some quarrels, but I can express my opinion without fear of being hit.”
She still has nightmares about what she remembers enduring as a child, but tries to focus on the future.
“It’s just a part of my life story,” she says of her past difficulties. “Despite that, everyone should have a goal [in life] and go for it.”
Half-Russian, half-Kabardian, the 38-year-old economist, a resident of Baku, married her husband, an oil-company professional, when she was 21 -- “the fashionable age for starting a family in Azerbaijan,” she says.
When she married, she agreed to live with her husband’s parents and to follow their rules. “I was taught from childhood never to oppose people older than me,” she adds.
But that led to difficulties. Her mother-in-law, she claims, cited an Azerbaijani saying that “a bride is the broom of a home.” Her daughter-in-law’s desires were secondary.
“As she is the mother-in-law, she has the right to give or not to give permission” for anything that occurs in her house, the economist explains.
That apparently included childbirth.
When this woman was pregnant with her second child, she claims that her mother-in-law pushed her to have an abortion, a common form of birth control throughout the Caucasus. The elder woman allegedly did not want a newborn to distract her daughter-in-law from assisting with her own recovery from upcoming surgery.
Uncertain of her husband’s support if she opposed his mother, the economist says she complied. She regrets it to this day.
Troubled by depression and panic attacks, “I started to visit a psychotherapist and asked all my friends to pray for the soul of my unborn baby.”
Two years later, she gave birth to a baby girl. Nonetheless, she says “I will never forgive myself” for having had an abortion at her mother-in-law’s insistence.
The economist and her husband travel frequently and no longer live with his parents. Yet those feelings about the past still cannot be expressed.
The 38-year-old architect has a hard time working. She suffers from headaches, pain from beatings and thoughts of suicide. But as the family’s sole breadwinner, work she must.
For five years, she lived alone with her now eight-year-old son. Then, in 2016, her husband, a restaurant employee in Russia, came home. “He could not find a job and started to drink. When I was angry, he would beat me. I learnt that he had another woman in Moscow.”
Her life changed. “I was always afraid. I was afraid to see him drunk. My son became very nervous. He can start crying for any small reason.”
It used to be different. Growing up, she says, she dreamed of a career, her own house and a car. Her husband, a childhood friend, reportedly convinced her to marry through sheer persistence.
The architect, a resident of a town near Baku, now wants a divorce, but alleges that her husband beats her when she raises the topic. One time, her terrified son brought her the phone to call the police, she says.
She does not believe, though, that the police can help her. When she tried to file a second complaint about her husband’s beatings, they just laughed, she claims.
But her memories are no laughing matter. She remembers her husband threatening to kill her or pour acid on her face if she did not retract her first police complaint. (Police records in Azerbaijan could not be checked.)
She also remembers him threatening to take their son -- the one source of her will to live -- and convince the court that she is “a whore” who does not deserve custody or visitation rights.
These memories replay constantly in her mind. With no money for therapy, she simply struggles on her own with low self-esteem, depression and fear of the future.