Aytaj Aghazade expected her parents to be unhappy with her decision to live by herself in Baku after graduating, but she did not predict they would take away her passport and locked her up in the family’s home in Lenkoran, in southern Azerbaijan. Neither did 22-year-old Fidan Ismayil foresee that her parents would report her as mentally ill and put her in a psychiatric hospital.
Their disturbing stories may be extreme, yet in conservative Azerbaijan, young women who move out to live alone are frowned upon at best, and subjected to violence at worst. In Baku the attitude is more relaxed, but social norms still rule outside the capital: underage marriages remain a reality and, in any case, young women are expected to leave the parental house only to transit into their husband’s residence. The concept of family and home coincide and is paramount for Azerbaijanis. Independence, note sociologists, is not in the cards.
“[Children] can leave their family to study or to marry,” explains Senuber Heydanova, founder of the Baku-based Social Services Center. “Parents cannot accept their children’s independence in any other way and this focus on “the family” results in an unhealthy attachment and psychological dependence, firstly from the side of the parents, who can not let their child go.”
While this norm applies to boys as well, it affects mainly young women whose desire to cut the umbilical cord remains a taboo.
Studying in the capital provides a window of freedom. Some women end up being hosted by relatives, others lodge in students’ dorms, still others join forces and rent apartments. After graduating they face the dilemma of returning home and falling back into the already tracked path of marriage and family or, if they find work, remaining in the capital. For those who choose the latter, life can become a nightmare.
Living alone, dropping the veil
When in May 2014 Aytaj Aghazade, then 18, moved to Baku to study, she lived in her uncle's house. She was an observant Muslim woman wearing a headscarf. By the time she graduated, four years later, her faith had faded, the headscarf had been abandoned and she was adamant not to go back home. She planned to work as a teacher in Baku
Her parents’ reaction surpassed her fears. Her younger brother was sent to control her - he lived with her and off her, she recalls, and, at times, he beat her up. Tension grew as her family allegedly started receiving messages claiming that she had gone “astray,” drinking alcohol and staying out late into the night. In November 2018 she was forcibly brought back to Lenkoran, locked up and her passport was taken. With a friend’s help, she managed to escape and make it back to Baku where a women rights’ organization provided her with a lawyer.
Aghazade also went public, denouncing on social media her family’s threats, including the fact that they bribed the police to detain both her and her friend -- her post was shared in the hundreds and gave her confidence. The police eventually dropped the case. For months her family pressured her -- just as society, including her relatives, put pressure on her family.
“They asked me whether I wanted to come back. When I said no, they started crying and said they did not understand why everything had gone so far. [People] constantly pressured them, asked about me. The situation has brought them shame and now everyone laughs at them,” she laments.
“She is mentally ill”
A transportation engineer driven by a strong need to be independent and pay her own bills, Fidan Ismayil worked in a variety of jobs - as a waitress in bars as well as an engineer at Socar, Azerbaijan’s state oil and gas company. Her dream growing up, however, was to be an artist, a profession her parents did not consider noble enough.
A native of Sumgayit, Azerbaijan’s third largest city, Ismayil fled her family’s home when confronted with her parents’ rage at her first tattoos. She was 21.
“My father grabbed me, my mother heated a knife on a flame and tried to burn them out,” recalls the 24-year-old. “I realized that I could not put up with that violence, I told them I was moving out and they responded by locking me up at home and taking my passport. [Luckily] I managed to escape and run to Baku.”
But it was not over. Once they found where she had found shelter, they alerted the police and claimed that she was mentally ill, she did not understand what she was doing and that she needed assistance. Together with the police, her family brought her to the mental health hospital in Sumgayit where she received shock therapy.
“I remember waking up at my grandmother’s house, I eventually spent about a year there.”
Her plan to fake a marriage with a friend failed but she escaped again and found a lawyer in Baku through an organization that assists women who are victims of domestic violence. After threatening to take them to court, her parents let her go. She remains in loose contact with them, maintaining a relationship with her youngest brother.
Today she lives alone and works mainly as a tattoo artist. She also braids dreadlocks and pigtails and she paints. Her flat is filled with drawings, paintings and books -- no one is trashing her art anymore.
Independent, not yet free
Lala (not her real name) is a 25-year-old, financially independent architect - yet she feels unprepared to leave her home for fear it could affect her parents’ health.
“I am a late child, my parents are quite old and I cannot take the chance that something could happen to them because of [my decision].”
Staying at home comes at a price - she cannot stay out beyond midnight, she always needs to be reachable and she must always tell her parents who is she out with.
"I cannot maintain normal relationships. I have developed a complex due to the fact that I cannot manage my own time."
Even at home, her autonomy is limited as her mother does everything - “I barely know how the washing machine works,” she admits.
Currently in a relationship, Lala says she would consider living with a fiancee in the future, but she knows that is unrealistic because it would hurt her parents -- the only way out she sees is moving abroad to study.
Ironically, she said it would be easier for her parents if she moved to a different country to study, since that is more socially acceptable in Azerbaijan.
“I returned to focus on myself”
El Viento was Saria Ibrahimli’s little dream. A cafe designed by her where she could sell handmade dream catchers, brew teas and cook simple, healthy food. Her parents had other plans and the row that followed her decision to pursue that little dream pushed the then-20 year old her to leave. That was three years ago and today Ibrahimli is back with her parents. Living alone was hard work, she jokes, but it was a necessary step so she could grow up.
But ultimately, the pressure of earning enough to live and pay for a flat pushed her to move back in with her family.
“I needed to understand what I really wanted to do, [possibly] trying something new, giving myself some time without [financial] pressure, in a place I knew, a comfort zone.”
Everyone needs a period of independence maintains Ibrahimli, who now works as a food photographer and stylist. The relationship with her parents has improved but they remain on two different planets, she says.
“Parents are like capricious children who would try to manipulate you to achieve their goal. But if they are not given what they asked for, and are told why [they will not get what they want], they become more restrained. Therefore, we must patiently prove our position many times.”
[Since she was interviewed for this piece Ibrahimli has moved out into a flat on her own.]