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In the Internet age, discussions of bullying are becoming more global. In Azerbaijan, such discussions shed light on attitudes in the country towards violence, masculinity, and honour. The toughest lessons in these are often forced on children on the school grounds, and can lead to lasting trauma.
In December, the story of American teenager Keaton Jones gained international headlines after his mother posted a video of the boy tearfully recounting his experience of being bullied in school. The reaction in the US was almost uniform — celebrities and online commentators leapt to the boy’s defence.
In Azerbaijani social networks the reaction was somewhat different. While many felt sorry for the boy, others had the opposite reaction. They said ‘there is probably something wrong with him’, or that he needs to toughen up. Some people recounted stories of being manly in school.
‘The boy is not really ugly, but it looks like he doesn’t fit into his group or he is a bit strange. Well, in a word, a wimp’, one woman wrote.
Sociologist and former school psychologist Umay Akhundzade said the reaction to bullying in Azerbaijani society is classic behaviour from a traditional society: victim blaming.
‘People feel powerless to abuse and aggression, but instead of acknowledging that they cannot stop violence and injustice on their own, they start victim blaming’, she told OC Media. ‘It’s a comfortable position that allows people to avoid feeling vulnerable to violence and injustice’.
Depending on the sex of the bullied person, different gender stereotypes are employed. ‘For example if it is a boy, he will be accused of failing to adopt traditional masculinity, according to which a man should be able to defend himself and others, and consequently, to use violence’, Akhundzade says. ‘If it is a girl, then the accusers will probably find something in her behaviour which in their opinion excuses the bullying’.
In any case, Akhundzade said, the roots of bullying are connected to the normalisation of violence and a lack of sympathy in society to injustice in general.
She also notes that children often do not tell their parents about being bullied at school. She connects this to a child being afraid of being victim blamed by their own parents. Sometimes such silence is also indicative of a lack of trust between a child and their parents.
This is what happened to Gunay, who suspected her 12-year-old son Khagani was being bullied at school. She started noticing that her child was tearing apart textbooks and asking odd questions. She found that her child was not sleeping well and was becoming nervous. Gunay says she transferred him to a private school, because she feared that the harassment would seriously affect his mental health.
There have been many studies showing that being bullied as a child seriously affects future life. A study from Warwick University published in the Lancet Psychiatry showed that children who were bullied are five times more likely to suffer from anxiety attacks and twice as likely to suffer from depression in comparison to children maltreated by their parents.
Another group of British researchers analysed the data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, which included 5,000 families. They discovered that in adult life, former victims of bullying suffered from psychological disorders more often than other adults.
Aziz, 33, says he was both bullied at school and mistreated at home, where his father was often drunk and beat him. Aziz says he started to stutter in high school, which lasted until he was 25 years old.
‘On top of that, I was very shy, was afraid to meet girls,’ he says. ‘Then I started playing music, started to sing, and it turned out that when I sang I didn’t stutter. Half a year or a year later the stuttering went away’.
Aziz hates his school, and to escape the bad memories, he tries to avoid it. ‘Bullying broke my life, and it’s good that people are starting to talk about it now’, he adds.
Aziz says that teachers at his school knew about the bullying, but did nothing to prevent it.
What schools do
Vagif, a school teacher, says the roots of bullying originates in society. ‘Many people prefer to join, if not the bullying itself, then to enjoy the collective ridicule’, he says. ‘But there are classes where I did not observe this, or rather, these phenomena ceased in years 6–7’.
According to him, the existence or absence of bullying in many respects depends on the teacher. ‘These classes had teachers who cared about the day to day lives of students. These were teachers who worked with children and did not let a situation escalate’, Vagif says.
He tells of having conversations with children who bully others. According to him, bullying usually affects ‘weaker children’ or those who are transferred to a new class.
But Gulnara, deputy head of a prestigious private school, thinks that talks between a bully and a teacher do little to help the situation. ‘If a child has become a victim of bullying, there is no sense in conversations between teachers and the bullies about moral and ethical norms’, she says.
She believes that private schools modeled on Western ones have a better approach to the problem. Here, the school charters specify how to act in such cases: the parents of the bullied child come to the director and tell them about the problem, as well as the teachers and the class headteacher.
‘The requirement is an immediate end to physical, verbal, and non-verbal violence, regardless of the way the abuser sees these actions’, she says. ‘And if the situation repeats, the abuser is expelled from school with a written note describing the reasons’.
During hearings, a bully is suspended from school. And this method, she said, is working: ‘This is a good life lesson for everyone involved’.
But according to her, parents are not always helpful. Parents on both sides often prefer to quarrel with each other instead of jointly solving the problem. A common solution: ‘sign up for a sports group — he’ll beat up everyone!’
‘They convince their children of this, encourage aggressive behavior’, she says. ‘It’s not the physically strongest but the most treacherous who win: the knife, the brass knuckles, the support of the older boys’.
According to her, the only way out is to strictly implement and adhere to the rules. ‘We need to teach our children how to solve conflicts according to the rules’, she says. ‘If someone yells at you, even if it’s in front of everyone, then you should immediately appeal to the headteacher or headmaster in writing’.
But, she says this often clashes with the local mentality, where ‘snitches’ are ostracised. ‘Our children are told not to be a snitch’, Gulnara says. ‘Moreover, witnesses often do not say what happened for the same reason. And with their outdated notions of honour they don’t care if an innocent person suffers’.
A number of parents with whom OC Media spoke confirmed what Gulnara said. Some of them admitted to having resolved conflicts by starting fights with the bullies and their parents. One woman admitted that she yelled at a child and was ready to hit him for bullying her child.