What will the neighbors say?

Gulgun Mamedkhanova, Mariam Berodze,

Nineteen-year-old Aysel should have been having the time of her life. She had passed her university entrance exams and was studying mathematics in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. For the first time in her life, she was living away from home, taking steps to create the future of her dreams.

But instead Aysel was living in fear.

The college sophomore spent her days afraid of what people in her village in Georgia’s southern Kvemo Kartli province were saying about her.

Aysel, an ethnic Azerbaijani, was overcome with the fear that someone would see her out, would catch her speaking to a stranger – a boy – and would start rumors at home that she was engaged in sinful behavior. The idea alone was nearly enough to derail her plans to study at all.

“It was my dream to go to the university after graduation from secondary school. When I told them about my dream, no one supported me” she says.

Nineteen-year-old Aysel is trying to break free of her fears that someone will ruin her reputation with rumors. “There are rumors around that ‘this girl was seen getting out of a taxi at night.”

Aysel notes that her parents were nearly convinced not to allow her to study at the university when people warned them that girls “who go to school become shameless.”

“That’s why my parents were hesitating. They were scared because people in our village do not say good things about some girls who go to Tbilisi to study. There are rumors around that ‘this girl was seen getting out of a taxi at night’, or ‘she was talking to a boy at the cafe, etc.’” Aysel recalls.

But she fought for her right to study and eventually wore her parents down. In a compromise, she swore she would not go anywhere except the university for class and the apartment she was sharing with four girls. 

Aysel was true to her word. She focused on studying and diligently avoided any social contact with anyone at the university. But eventually the weight of her fear that someone would say something to her parents started to pull her into a deep depression.

“Since we live in a society where the idea of ‘what people would say’ is important, for the past two years, most of my time has been spent at home and at university. My university mates would hang out after classes and sometimes take a walk. Of course, I wouldn't participate in most of them,” she says.

“As ‘what would people say’ somehow relates to me as well, I often hesitated to talk to my male friends at the university. I felt like someone could see me and rumor about me in the village. I knew it was an unrealistic delusion created by fear. No one could say anything bad about me because I was talking to a guy at the university. But it wasn’t something I could control. Fear was driving me.”

Eventually Aysel started to shake off her fears and has, slowly, begun socializing with her classmates. 

The fears that were driving Aysel were based on years of cultural programming, according to psychologist Konul Alieva.

19-year-old Aysel and 22-year-old Gunash are from conservative, predominantly ethnic Azerbaijani communities in Georgia’s Kvemo Kartli. The communities are largely isolated from the rest of Georgian society because they do not speak Georgian. That isolation has created a closed community that is slow to adopt changes in social mores, like accepting women’s right to lead an independent life.

Gender inequality and stereotypes that limit girls are prevalent across Georgia. But the issue is particularly acute in the ethnic Azerbaijani communities in the southern province of Kvemo Kartli, according to a 2013 study done by UN Women. Part of the issue is the widespread practice of early marriage. The study found that over 30 percent of the women questioned were married before the age of 18. Five percent of them had been married between the ages of 13-14.

It is a culture that views girls through the prism of their future marriages and motherhood, Alieva says. As a result, they are being raised to think in terms of what they cannot do, a life based on fear.

“Because girls are more sensitive, everything that happens in society, especially unwritten rules, have a greater impact on them,” she says, adding that it leads to shyness and inferiority complexes. Girls are raised to “always think about what bans will be imposed on them wherever they go, rather than fulfilling their life goals, their future and their goals,” psychologist Konul Alieva says.

“While boys are allowed to move freely, girls are constantly under control. Although this attitude towards girls is changing over time, it still exists. I think it's a matter of national consciousness.”

Nona Samkharadze, a gender specialist on the Kvemo-Kartli region, notes that there are some barriers in the Azerbaijani community that exacerbate the problems of gender inequality. 

For instance, the community is largely isolated from the rest of Georgia because traditionally people did not learn the Georgian language. While that is slowly changing, young people – especially young girls – are still facing the stereotypes that their parents and grandparents try to enforce, Samkharadze said. 

That was the case for 22-year-old Gunash.

An honors student at high school, Gunash had made it clear to her family that she planned to continue her education in Tbilisi. But her grandmother fought hard to keep her at home.

“When I was still in the eighth grade, I shared my university dreams. At that time, they did not take what I said seriously. But when I finished 12th grade and started preparing for the admission exams, my family was in a panic, mainly my grandmother. She said 'if she wants to study, let her study at a college in Marneuli. Let her study in front of our eyes. Why do you have to go to Tbilisi for study? This is a girl, not a boy!' "

Even in Tbilisi, Gunash felt the pressure to be the obedient, socially isolated girl her family wanted her to be. But she has tried to break free of those fears over the past few years. Despite her efforts to live a normal life, Gunash says the fear still lurks inside her.

Gunash’s mother, Lala, fears for her daughter’s future and her family’s reputation, even though she is happy that her daughter is getting an education. “I hear rumors about educated girls in the village so often, this is what concerns me. I don’t want my family to be the target of these rumors.”

Gunash persevered and convinced her parents to allow her to study in Tbilisi, where she is studying history. She promised her grandmother that she would be a "good girl" during her four years as a student.

"In our village, as everywhere else, there were rumors about student girls. In fact, my family knew that many of these rumors were untrue, but it was still unacceptable for them. I remember my father saying that a man dies when he loses his name."

Gunash's mother, Lala, is happy that her daughter is going to the university but she worries about her future.

“It was also my dream to study. But I was not as courageous as my daughter, and I was forced to marry at 16. After my marriage, in order to be a ‘good bride,’ I did whatever I was told quietly.”

Gunash’s mother, Lala, with her dowry at her home in Kvemo Kartli. “It was also my dream to study. But I was not as courageous as my daughter, and I was forced to marry at 16. After my marriage, in order to be a ‘good bride,’ I did whatever I was told quietly.”

Lala has three daughters. The other two married early. She notes that Gunash was never as obedient as her sisters.

Gunash and Lala have struggled to break free of the expectations and limitations their communities put on them.

"In our village, as everywhere else, there were rumors about student girls. In fact, my family knew that many of these rumors were untrue, but it was still unacceptable for them. I remember my father saying that a man dies when he loses his name."

“I always repeat my mother’s words to Gunash: ‘Spend your four years of university in such a way that you will keep her good name,” Lala says.

Lala, 43, has three daughters. The other two married early. 

“Gunash lives far from us. On one hand I’m happy she is getting an education. On the other hand, I have a feeling of fear inside of me. I hear rumors about educated girls in the village so often, this is what concerns me. I don’t want my family to be the target of these rumors. That’s why I always repeat my mother’s words to Gunash:‘Spend your four years of university in such a way that you will keep her good name,'" Lala says.

She adds, however, that Gunash was never as obedient as her sisters. "She always responds, 'maybe I don't want to be that kind of girl.'"

Even in Tbilisi, Gunash felt the pressure to be the obedient, socially isolated girl her family wanted her to be. But she has tried to break free of those fears over the past few years. 

"I didn't want to spend my student years between university and home. But because I still have a sense of fear, it's hard for me to break out of that image. If my family didn't pay much attention to 'what people would say,' I probably wouldn't be scared," she says.

Today, even as she socializes with her classmates, she still worries. 

"I choose to be a free Gunash who lives with the fear that someone will see, rather than just being trapped in the 'good girl' image. Yes, free Gunash that lives in fear, no matter how weird that sounds.”

Gunash’s grandmother. “When I finished 12th grade and started preparing for the admission exams, my family was in a panic, mainly my grandmother. She said ‘if she wants to study, let her study at a college in Marneuli. Let her study in front of our eyes. Why do you have to go to Tbilisi for study? This is a girl, not a boy!’”

An honors student at high school, Gunash had made it clear to her family that she planned to continue her education in Tbilisi. But her grandmother fought hard to keep her at home.

"Girls are raised to “always think about what bans will be imposed on them wherever they go, rather than fulfilling their life goals, their future and their goals,” psychologist Konul Alieva says.

Gunash and her mother, Lala, carry a bag of food for Gunash to eat in Tbilisi, where she is studying history at Tbilisi State University.

“I choose to be a free Gunash who lives with the fear that someone will see.”

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