A baby girl is nice – but a boy is better

Aygun Rashidova

Celebrating births has become a major industry in Azerbaijan, where event planners say festivities to mark the arrival of a new baby can rival even wedding parties.

Baku-based events planner Sakhavat Kazimov says over the past 14 years, the tradition of welcoming a new baby has gone from bringing “flowers and a small present” to a “celebration equal to wedding parties.”

That is especially the case when families are welcoming a long awaited son. “We often have clients who demand a high-quality event, regardless of the price,” he said. While small birth celebrations cost on average of 200 euro, they easily grow to over 10,000. (The average monthly salary is roughly 420 manat.)

Shahla Ismayil, a gender equality expert, says the preference for boys is a reflection of Azerbaijan’s patriarchal culture.

Ismayil, the head of the Women’s Association for Rational Development (WARD), has been working on gender equality in Azerbaijan for over two decades. She said gender stereotypes are a key part of the problem.

“In Azerbaijan, gender stereotypes exist. A boy is valued as the family’s heir, and they feel secure if there is at least one boy,” she says.

Gender issues expert Khalisa Shahverdi noted that families also view boys as a guarantee they will be cared for in their old age. “People still think that a girl is not in their home forever, she gets married and will take care of another family. But a boy will marry and stay with his parents and his wife will take care of them,” she explains.

The preference for sons is visible in a thousand small and large ways, ranging from the banal – like the size of the celebrations to mark the birth (bigger for boys) – to the serious, like pressure to abort a fetus if it is female. 

Statistically, Azerbaijan has the second highest rate of gender selective abortions in the world after China, according to research by the UN Population Fund.

The situation deteriorated following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the advent of ultrasounds to determine the gender of a fetus. In the 1980s, there were 105 boys born to even 100 girls, according to official statistics. By 1998, there were 120 boys born for every 100 girls. 

2013 study found that Azerbaijan lost an estimated 10 percent of female fetuses were aborted between the years of 2005 to 2009.

Statistics show that, on average, there are 115 boys born in Azerbaijan for every 100 girls, although the numbers are higher in some rural areas. In the country’s northwestern district of Sheki, for instance, on average 149 boys are born for every 100 girls.

New parents Ruslan and Aytekin welcome their first child in a celebration with family and friends. They decided on a small affair, bucking a growing trend in Azerbaijan to hold fancy parties to mark the birth of a son.

Azerbaijanis preference for sons is visible in a thousand small and large ways, ranging from the banal – like the size of the celebrations to mark the birth (bigger for boys) – to the serious, like pressure to abort a fetus if it is female.

Some celebrations to mark the birth of a son can cost as much as 10,000 euro. The festivities include decorations for cars, balloons, streamers and other goodies -- all in the traditional color blue.

The UNFPA report noted that some women have adopted a preference for boys out of fear.

“Young women explained that husbands want sons, and women therefore also have to want sons, since they would otherwise face the negative consequences of bearing girls,” the report stated.

“Females are threatened with divorce, being sent back to their birth family, or having to live with another woman in their home. Sometimes they are subjected to intimate partner violence as well as being ignored by their husband and his family.”

The Azerbaijani Ministry of Education recently started a pilot program in select schools as part of an effort to reduce the number of selective abortions. Statistics show that, on average, there are 115 boys born in Azerbaijan for every 100 girls, although the numbers are higher in some rural areas. In the country’s western district of Sheki, for instance, on average 149 boys are born for every 100 girls.

Previously, the government considered banning prenatal gender sonograms but dropped the idea.

UNFPA study indicated there is a desire in society to overcome the cultural preference for a boy.

“Although this research found that son preference is common, most participants in the qualitative survey expressed a religious belief that God determines the sex of children and that it is not good to prefer one sex to another. Almost all the participants mentioned that Azerbaijani culture values children of both sexes,” the UNFPA report said.

Ruslan, 28, says he has always wanted a daughter. “I even know what I will name my daughter,” he says.

When Ruslan’s wife Aytekin gave birth to the couple’s first child, a son named Raul, the family decided on a small celebration. “One can spend 200 AZN (~100 euro) or even 2000 (~1000 euro) to celebrate. In our case we decided not to waste money, which may not be typical for an Azerbaijani family,” he said.

“My husband told me we would not stop having children until we had a boy,” 45-year-old Ramila recalls. “And if the third one was not a boy, we’d definitely plan to have another child.”

Amin’s parents chose his name as a tribute to the fact their prayers were answered. “God, let our dream come true, amen!”

Big sisters Mehriban and Fidan with their younger brother Amin.

“I instruct my daughters to serve their brother. Because he is a boy. He will carry on the family name. As long as I’m alive, my daughters should take care of my son.”

A recent study by UNFPA in Azerbaijan underscored that both most women and men prefer to have a boy.

“Existing research indicates that the son preference is strong and clear among both men and women from different generations, socio-economic backgrounds, and regions in the country,” the report said.

“Continuation of the family name, old age security, protection of family members, particularly females, as well as protecting the country, were given as primary reasons for son preference. A preference for sons was also mentioned as a tradition in Azerbaijani society.”

That is the case for Ramila, 45. She and her husband have two girls and a boy. She also has an older son from her first marriage.

While Ramila and her husband never considered aborting a female fetus, her husband made it clear that he wanted a boy. “My husband told me we would not stop having children until we had a boy,” Ramila recalls.

“And if the third one was not a boy, we’d definitely plan to have another child,” she adds.

While they try not to discriminate between their daughters and son, Ramila notes that she expects her daughters to “serve” their brother – just as she served her brother when she was growing up. 

“I instruct my daughters to serve their brother. Because he is a boy. He will carry on the family name. As long as I’m alive, my daughters should take care of my son,” she says.

Ramila still remembers the day her mother brought her brother home from the hospital. She was five.

“After she entered the home, the first thing my father did that moment was unwrap the blankets that he was swaddled in to check and make sure that it was a boy,” she says.

The cultural stereotypes run so deep that even doctors assume women will want to abort a female fetus, notes women’s rights specialist Shahla Ismayil.

That assumption can push a woman who is already under pressure from her in-laws or family members to abort a girl.

“When a patient’s second child is a girl, doctors are brainwashing the patient with such a question. In such cases, even if the patient didn’t plan to make an abortion, she would, at the very least, start to think about that.”

When Ruslan’s wife Aytekin gave birth to the couple’s first child, a son named Raul, the family decided on a small celebration to mark the event with family and friends. Ruslan said he also wants a daughter, but for many in Azerbaijan, having a boy is a priority.

Celebrating births has become a major industry in Azerbaijan, where event planners say festivities to mark the arrival of a new baby can rival even wedding parties.

Baku-based events planner Sakhavat Kazimov says over the past 14 years, the tradition of welcoming a new baby has gone from bringing “flowers and a small present” to a “celebration equal to wedding parties.”

“Existing research indicates that the son preference is strong and clear among both men and women from different generations, socio-economic backgrounds, and regions in the country.”

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