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.