My Grandmother: Breaking Barriers in Shaki

By Sheyda Allahverdiyeva

In her earliest memories, Afarda Rasulova is lounging on colorful kilims and cushy pillows in the family’s living room and reading aloud to her mother.

As a working-class girl growing up in the provincial Azerbaijani town of Shaki during the early 20th century, Afarda’s mother had not been sent to school, and did not know how to read or write.  Her daughter became part of her connection – and that of her husband, also illiterate -- to the world of imagination.

“Every evening, we gathered and my two brothers and I read books like ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and The Children of Captain Grant[to my parents]. There was no TV. That was our evening ritual. Only when I went to study in Moscow, my mother learnt the Azerbaijani alphabet and was able to write me letters. She had crooked handwriting.”

Afarda Rasulova is my grandmother. Born in 1931, less than a decade after the Soviet Union’s creation, she was the first member of her family to go to university. She did not stop there. She became a professional textile designer, who, at the peak of her career in the 1970s, was a leading textile engineer at Shaki Silk Combine, reputed as one of the Soviet Union’s largest. She was elected to the town council in Shaki (also known as Sheki) as well as taught textile engineering at the local technical college. And she was a caring mother of three.


Though she is 87 and her eyesight is far from perfect, sewing remains my grandmother’s favorite activity, a pasttime that she picked up in Moscow.

My grandmother is at her yard in Shaki together with one of her cats.

Strong-willed and focused, my grandmother arguably achieved more than many women in Shaki’s relatively conservative community, yet she remains low key when describing her past, speaking as if telling you what is for dinner.

From a poor family, her only way up was through education and hard work. Fortunately, her coming of age coincided with a time of rapid change in the USSR – the 1950s, when post-war Soviet society began to see its opportunities broaden. Her achievements – and those of others of her generation -- are the direct result of this era.

A keen student, she was awarded a gold medal that would allow her to study in any higher-educational institution without an admission exam. She was a talented pianist, but chose instead to study textile engineering, deemed “a prestigious profession.” In 1951, she set off to Moscow, where she enrolled in the State Textile Institute (now the Moscow State Textile University).

Sending photos to friends and family members was a tradition in the USSR, and one which my grandmother followed. Every now and then, she would send photos of herself from Moscow. These two from 1952 (left) and 1953 (right) are copies of those she sent home.

My grandmother, shown here in 1951, was known for her long and pretty hair, which she would put into braids. After getting married, she adopted a beehive-style hair-do to fit in more with the popular hairstyle of the time.

Salihakhatun Hasanova, my great-grandmother. Born in 1909 in Shaki, she learnt to read and write in Azerbaijani in her 40s, when my grandmother went to study in Moscow. My grandmother remembers her as a hardworking woman with a strong sense of music. She died in 1959.

(left) My great-grandfather, Yahya Rasulov, born in 1895, shown here with one of his four brothers.

Aydin (left) and Arif (right) Rasulov, my grandmother’s two younger brothers, pictured in 1959 and 1951, respectively. Aydin, a physicist, died when he was 34. Arif, a metallurgist engineer, passed away in 2001

For a woman from a regional Azerbaijani town, where patriarchal customs ran strong, it was a milestone decision. “Back then, studying abroad was a brave thing [to do]; especially in Shaki,” my grandmother says.

Brave she was, but also lucky. Her parents, a homemaker and cashier, embraced her curiosity. They were eager to see their daughter have a chance that they had not, she says. 

My grandmother graduated in the spring of 1955. On November 7 that year, she married Rauf Allahverdiyev, a former classmate of hers. It was the day marking the anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution, with parades everywhere.

“Before that day, Rauf had come to our house only once, on January 21, my birthday, to give me the perfume Krasnaya Moskva (Red Moscow) as a present.”

My grandfather’s open-mindedness and respect for her education -- he himself was a geography teacher -- helped win her over.  


My grandparents together. Born in 1931, Rauf Allahverdiyev, my grandfather, had a degree in geology, but taught geography at Shaki’s School #10 for most of his life. He was a keen gardener and his rose garden was famous in town. He died in 2004.

My grandparents with my father, Ilqar, and Kamala, one of my two aunts. The couple had four children in total.

Tamilla Afandiyeva (left) and my grandmother (right) were friends from the first grade through university. They studied together in Moscow and were roommates. After getting married, Tamilla moved to Baku. My grandmother and she fell out of touch and never saw each other again.

Asmar Hasanova, my grandmother’s aunt, was an army nurse during World War II and almost until the end of her life in the 1990s. She never married since people thought that a woman in the army may have affairs with soldiers.

My grandmother (first right) celebrating New Year’s Eve for 1952 with fellow State Textile Institute students in Moscow. She remembers these years fondly.

Moscow 1951. My grandmother and her groupmates.

My grandmother plays chess with her best friend, Tamilla Afandiyeva, in Moscow in 1951. My grandmother was a skilled chess player and considered it a genteel game.

“I had a few admirers, but didn’t like them much.” 

One had red hair, not quite to her taste; another did not have a degree and the third, and least likely suitor, was a mullah.

“I knew that [Rauf’s] mother wouldn’t force me to do crazy things like wearing hose in summer and covering my head. And for him, marrying someone who had studied in Moscow was a privilege.”

Their wedding was simple -- a small gathering at home, with about 30 guests. No makeup, no white dress.

But even 62 years later, my grandmother has a textile designer’s exact recall of what she did wear.

“Rauf’s family had given me some blue crepe-satin material for our engagement. It was shiny on one side and matte on the other. Tamilla’s [my grandmother’s best friend] mother was a seamstress. She made me a dress with the matte side, using the shiny parts as decorative elements. I would later wear the same dress to work.”

My late grandfather was a distinctive character -- tall, handsome, egocentric and authoritative. Looking back, I think he was one of the driving forces for my grandmother’s achievements as well as a source of inspiration for her to keep challenging herself.  

Tamilla Afandiyeva was my grandmother’s closest travel companion. They would often visit each other when they were on long trips. In these photos, they are shown together in then Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and Moscow.

My grandmother (center, sitting) discussing textile patterns with a few colleagues in Shaki’s silk factory where she worked as a textile engineer. In 1972, she was elected as a member of the town council, but, after criticizing the council chairman, she was not re-elected to a second term.

My grandfather often accompanied my grandmother on her work trips -- not only as an escort for his wife (a role deemed appropriate at that time), but to learn from those trips and discover new types of roses. My grandparents are shown here in Baku in the late 1950s.

Family aside, for 20 years, color patterns and textiles were her life. At the silk factory, she was in charge of designing the fabrics’ structure. The work was demanding and it required her to travel often for conferences and exhibitions.

Juggling it all with three children was no joke and, as for professional Azerbaijani women today, her extended family played a crucial role in filling the gaps.

But she did not let that hamper her drive for success and respect for her work.

She upheld the principles and the rules of Soviet times, yet she was not afraid to voice her dissent over decisions with which she did not agree. 


As a town council member in the early 1970s, she opposed, for instance, the re-appointment of the council chairman since she claimed he had done nothing to improve the quality of Shaki’s streets or its water infrastructure.But it was the Soviet Union and the man was re-appointed nonetheless. My grandmother lost her own seat on the council.

For her, communism was not a cult to follow.  When Soviet leader Joseph Stalin died in 1953, she was among the thousands in Moscow queuing to see his body until she decided it was not worth the fuss and left.

The USSR was just where she had happened to have been born, and she wanted to make the best of it for herself and her family. Given all she achieved, she appears to have succeeded.

My grandmother still has the gold medal granted to her “For excellent achievement and exemplary morals.” It enabled her to enroll in the Moscow Textile Institute (now the Moscow State Textile University), where she studied between 1950 and 1955.

My grandmother’s membership card from the Knowledge Society, a Communist-Party-run educational organization which aimed to “enlighten the people of the USSR.” As part of her work for this group, my grandmother used to help trade unions organize drama clubs.

My grandmother graduated from the Textile Institute in the spring of 1955, then returned to Azerbaijan and got married in November of the same year.

This Order of the Badge of Honor, awarded to my grandmother, was a Soviet prize for outstanding performance at work.

In 1970, my grandmother received a Jubilee Medal, coined for the centennary of Vladimir Lenin’s birth, as an award for her work performance.

A collection of the Soviet-era awards my grandmother received for outstanding academic and professional performance: the Order of the Badge of Honor (top right), the Lenin Jubilee Medal (top left) and the gold medal she received at the end of high school.