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Divorce in Azerbaijan: women’s empowerment or stigma?

22 December 2017
The Statue of a Liberated Woman in Baku (Runle031 /Pinterest)

Increased rates of divorce have become a topic of a public debate in Azerbaijan. Many see the reason in a changing place of women in society.

Shafiga, 25, got acquainted with her future husband through her relatives. A year after the wedding, they had a son, and for several years she was sure that she had an absolutely happy family.

But at some point her husband openly declared that he had another woman, with whom he had a religious marriage, and he would share his time between the two families from then on. Shafiga had a choice to either live with that, or to divorce. She chose the latter.

‘Poor girl! What will happen to her now!’ people were saying about her. But six years after the divorce, Shafiga says that she has no regrets for leaving.

‘Would I have been happy simply keeping the label of a married woman, but sharing my husband with another woman? This is, to say the least, humiliating’, the woman says.

Shafiga is from a conservative family. Her mother was strict and considered divorce to be a tragedy. But when her daughter found herself in such a situation, she changed her views.

Divorce is no longer a tragedy

According to divorce lawyers, it is mostly women who file for divorce. Even though not so long ago many of them would have not made that step.

There is still a saying in the country that ‘a woman who enters her husband’s house in a white veil can leave it only in a white burial shroud’. Until recently, a divorced woman was facing universal condemnation, loneliness, and a difficult economic situation.

Many psychologists and family specialists in Azerbaijan say that the increasing number of divorces is directly related to the increasing independence of women. Elgun Safarov, head of the Information and Analytics Department at the Committee for Family, Women, and Children subscribes to this view.

‘For example, today a woman often earns more than her husband, can feed herself and her children. If she feels unhappy in marriage, she prefers to divorce and not to endure the marriage’, Safarov told OC Media.

Lawyer Farrukh Guseynov says that divorces constitute approximately 25% of all court cases. He confirms that the overwhelming majority of initiators are women.

According to him, the reason is usually economic: the husband earns little and cannot buy a flat or to provide vacation somewhere. Previously, a woman did not dare to leave her husband, even if he could not cope with the role of the ‘breadwinner’.

‘But cheating is rarely the cause of divorce. Almost all wives turn a blind eye to their husband’s infidelity’, the lawyer says.

‘Demographic threat’

The number of divorces has been rising in the recent years. The government statistics are showing the following: 2010 — 9,061 divorces; 2012 — 11,182; 2015 — 12,764; 2016 — 13,000.

In the first four months of 2017, there were 18,229 marriages and 4,896 divorces registered. As of now, there is one divorce for every 4–5 marriages.

It is mainly young families that existed for 3–4 years which disintegrate. Demographers and other experts dealing with family and marriage issues OC Media spoke to see this as a direct threat to both the Azerbaijani demography and to the foundations of society.

According to law, the court must try reconciling the spouses before they divorce, but in practice it almost never happens. If both sides agree, the judge will make a decision within a month. If one of the parties is against, three months are given for meditation. The lawyer is needed mainly to resolve financial issues, for example, alimony and property division.

Choosing sides

Jeyran Ahmadova is 58 years old. For 35 years she lived with her husband, who for a long time did not work and did not bring money, was constantly drunk, and mistreated the family.

‘At times it was very bad, but I endured everything, and did not even think about divorce, because I considered it to be an unacceptable step for a woman. I was afraid that my family would not accept me, that others would condemn me’, she said.

Now she thinks she was ‘stupid’ and ‘should have left’. She advises her daughters not to tolerate mistreatment of husbands.

But some of Jeyran Ahmadova’s neighbours do not share her approach. 60-year-old Zohra Samadova half-jokingly says that in her family, no one ever divorced: ‘Men of our family would rather kill their wife than divorce from her’.

Another neighbour, 63-year-old Narmina Aliyeva, said that she ‘did not allow her son to marry a divorced woman’.

But Tarana Mamedova, whose beloved granddaughter recently married, finds it difficult to choose a side: ‘On the one hand, even if your husband beats you sometimes, it’s not a reason to destroy the family. But, on the other hand, when I think of some rascal raising his hand on my granddaughter, I shudder!’

Sometimes a divorce is the only solution

Psychologist Azad Isazada has worked for more than ten years in Women’s Crisis Centre, Baku-based organisation working on eliminating all types of violence against women. One of their main tasks is to help women going through divorce. He believes that the increase in the number of divorces has both positive and negative sides to it.

‘Because previously divorces were considered a taboo in our society, sometimes people who hated each other lived together for years. In essence it was a fictitious marriage. And it’s good that those times are gradually disappearing into the past’, he says.

However, he also says that the modern youth are too superficial about marriage: they often create a family hastily, and run away, facing the slightest difficulties. He also says that when marrying, most young people do not realise that family life is not an idyll and has many practical aspects.

‘My experience working at the Crisis Centre showed that if the spouses turn to specialists for help, the family can be saved. If, of course, it makes sense to do that’, he says.

One of the possible solutions, he believes, is financial support to young families. So, for example, if a young family lives with her husband’s parents, conflicts often arise not between the spouses themselves, but between the daughter-in-law and the mother-in-law. This can be avoided if the state helps young families to acquire their own housing.

Social stigma

Right now Shafiga lives in an apartment that she inherited from her grandmother. Her son already goes to school, and periodically sees his father. The relations between the former spouses are amicable.

For four years she has been meeting a single man of her age. They love each other, and the child of Shafiga has already become attached to his potential stepfather. But the couple still cannot get married. The man’s parents are categorically against him marrying a divorced woman with a child.

Even though some things in Azerbaijan are changing, for many, divorce is still a stigma on a woman’s reputation.

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